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[Illustrations] An Art Book of Watercolor Saigon Sketches 3 Years in the Making

How envious we are of those who can render in great detail paper scenes that otherwise could only be accessed through one’s memory.

Everybody who loves Saigon probably has their own reasons why the southern city is endearingly missed whenever they’re away. It could be certain corners where the street signs light up at night, creating myriad colors. It could be moments, sounds, trees, murmurs, faces, buildings, and more. For artist and Saigon resident Pham Cong Tam, his vision of Saigon takes a little bit of all of the above, presented in his latest art book titled Canh Sac Pho Thi Sai Gon – Cho Lon (loosely translated to Cityscapes of Saigon – Cho Lon).

Gaggles of school students gather on Nguyen Hue to rest and shoot the breeze.

The book, published by Phuong Nam Books, is a collection of watercolor sketches Tam created over the course of three years. Now in his 60s and living in Phu Nhuan, the sketching enthusiast grew up in Saigon and went to school in the city. Tam said in an interview with Tuoi Tre that he “wants to paint where he’s living, especially when inspirations are surfacing more and more these days.”

Most of Tam’s sketches in the book are not full-fledged panoramic views, but rather vignettes drawn in pencil, then later filled with casual watercolor. Tam’s visual love letters to Saigon undulate between hyperrealism, with a more subdued palette, and luminously colored visions.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first documents some of the city’s most recognizable corners and buildings, like the St. Francis Xavier Church in District 5 or Nguyen Hue Walking Street.

The second half leans into a more anthropological direction by depicting the lives of those making a living on local streets. Here, Tam’s human subjects vary — from a xe ôm driver to ve chai collectors to market porters — but they all come from the working class, perhaps the most populous demographic in the multi-million-resident metropolis.

The interior of Minh Huong Gia Thanh Pagoda in Cho Lon.

As the sketches were done across a period of three years, their style and quality also differ slightly at times: some are colored more freely, as if done in a hurry, while others are treated like hyper-realistic studies. Have a look at some of Pham Cong Tam’s works below. The book can be found online here or at bookstores.

The book cover.

Ben Thanh Market and the Quach Thi Trang Square before the latter was sectioned off for subway construction.

Binh Tay Market.

Nguyen Van Binh Book Street.

St. Francis Xavier Church in District 5.

City Hall.

xích lô driver waiting for customers.

Different characters on Saigon streets.

A corner of Bui Vien backpackers' quarter.

Women who collect scrap materials rest behind Kim Bien Market in District 6.

A mobile cart selling fresh coconuts.

Need a ride?

[Illustrations by Pham Cong Tam via Tuoi Tre]

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