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Year in Review: Saigoneer's Picks for Favorite Features (and More) of 2021

In 2021, it seems impossible to browse the news anywhere without coming across a COVID-19 update. While pandemic news is crucial to get people informed, we can all concur that reading grim information day after day has taken a toll on our mental health. For much of the latter half of the year, Saigoneer hunkered down at home as our city locked down, so we did not have much chance to write about street food or photograph Saigon sights as we would have liked.

Still, the time spent at home presented an opportunity to look inwards and dedicate more time to reading and researching, and we’re extremely proud to be able to launch a number of new article series this year delving into lesser-known subject matters. This includes Natural Selection, our series on Vietnam’s native flora, fauna, and their cultural and environmental significance; and Ănthology, an editorial exploration on Vietnamese food made around the world.

The writers and editors of Saigoneer sat down to look back at the past 12 months and pick out our favorite features of the year.

1. Favorite Old Photo

A ceremony to bless the ground. By an unknown artist (1684–1685), courtesy of The Royal Society.

Khôi Phạm: Even though the category name says “photo,” I will skirt the rules and select these delightful paintings of Vietnam from the 17th and 18th centuries as the most memorable old visuals we have published this year. To be fair, photography wouldn’t be invented for at least another century, so this was the closest thing our ancestors could muster to record what their eyes could see.

The artworks are understandably blemished, but I’m astonished that their linework and subject matter are still sharp after all these years. The archivists deserve kudos for a fantastic preservation job.

Photo via Flickr manhhai.

Paul Christiansen: One of my favorite aspects of old photos is how they juxtapose past landscapes, architecture, fashion, etc. with behavior that continues unchanged today. This album of people napping exemplifies that theme. The subjects may be snoozing atop older models of motorbikes, on streets that have since been paved or in the shade of glossy magazines that are long-since out of print, but the nature of their sleep remains exactly the same today. Saigon is still just as hot, the days just as long and some midday slumber while the city buzzes around you feels just as good. Looking at these photos makes me want to go find a cool park bench along the canal and catch a few Z’s.

A view of Nguyễn Huệ. Photo by Raymond Cauchetier via Flickr user manhhai.

Mike Tatarski: This set of aerial photos by Raymond Cauchetier from 1950 was one of my favorites from the year, and I have to choose this particular image. I know lamenting the dearth of green space in modern Saigon is cliche at this point, but this picture is an incredible depiction of the city’s tree coverage decades ago. Not that I'm wishing for a return to the socio-economic conditions of mid-century Vietnam, but it’s amazing to see how there were basically rivers of trees lining seemingly every street in the city. Saigon has come a long way in terms of development since 1950, but the current baren eyesores like Tôn Đức Thắng and Lê Lợi do make one wonder what exactly the city has lost along the way.

2. Favorite Food Story

Paul: I ate more instant noodles in 2021 than I have in any other year due to the hassles of getting food during the lockdown and my culinary ineptitude. I found myself developing preferences and impassioned opinions — there is nothing “premium” about Hảo Hảo Premium; it’s not worth the extra dong, and might be worse than the original. But this article exploring Vietnam’s long-lasting love affair with the cheap, convenient food helped me gain a greater appreciation that I found myself thinking about when waiting for water to boil or noodles to soften in that sluice of chemicals and dehydrated vegetable shavings.

Some of Asia's most favorite noodle brands. Graphic by Phan Nhi and Jessie Tran.

Growing up in America, my go-to easy, affordable meal was often a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or Hot Pocket, not instant noodles, but the many fond memories articulated in this article make me think maybe I was missing out. I’m happy to have spent the lockdown in the world’s 3rd-largest consumer of instant noodles. I cannot say that I have eaten any since the city opened up again, but next time I do, I think I will savor them a bit more, in part because of this piece.

Mike: I love the Ănthology series overall, and our contributor Tâm Lê has unearthed some wonderful stories, but the story of tofu is my pick. In many ways, it's a tale we’ve heard countless times: an entrepreneurial immigrant to the US bootstraps their way to eventual success through years of hard work, but I found it fascinating how Minh Tsai was driven to help popularize a type of food that is so common in Vietnam. I also wasn’t aware of how anti-tofu many in the US were in the past — anyone who changes silly notions of food gets a big thumbs-up from me.

Paul: I loved this one, and almost picked it as my favorite of the year. I appreciate how it includes a description of how in America, tofu is somehow a gendered food not appropriate for “manly men.” I love tofu and when I first arrived here in Vietnam and saw old men sitting around drinking bia hơi, eating tofu, I knew I was in the right place. I am so happy people like Minh Tsai are helping change the perception of tofu around the world.

Some snippets of the tofu-making process at Minh's factory. Photos via Hodofood.com.

Khôi: I’ve always enjoyed tofu since I was a kid and I’m happy to find that it’s now fashionable, or at least normal, to enjoy tofu. In previous decades, Vietnam’s general opinion of tofu was that it’s only for Buddhist monks and the financially strapped, but ever since bún đậu mắm tôm and veganism entered the food scene, tofu was vindicated.

I’ve enjoyed our first installment in the Ănthology series the most, because I have a soft spot for Christine Hà. Her presence on MasterChef US was the show’s pinnacle because I knew that her story is genuine, and I believe her culinary ability humbled the professional judges as well, especially Gordon Ramsay. And she was a creative writing major too, we writers must look out for one another.

3. Favorite Natural Selection Creature

Nguyễn Diệu Anh: One of the goals we set out for this new series is to honor Vietnam’s lesser-known animals and raise the public’s awareness about their role in wildlife. I think Paul’s writing on sao la is the finest example of this purpose. I first knew about sao la when it was considered for Vietnam’s official mascot for SEA Games 31. However, the bland depiction and inadequate information about this creature provided by mass media did not intrigue me to learn more about them. My knowledge about sao la back then did not go beyond some commonly mentioned phrases such as “critically endangered,” “listed on the IUCN Red List,” etc. 

Sao la is critically endangered.

The surprising story about the recent discovery of sao la, coupled with the vibrant illustrations and collages by our design team have definitely made it easier to visualize, understand and appreciate the “Asian Unicorn.” Wildlife X factors as such should definitely be in the focus of 2022. 

Mike: This was a tough one. I had to suppress the urge to pick one of my own Natural Selection pieces, since I picked animals I have a deep affinity for, and overall this has been an extremely strong series so far. But I’m going with bồ kết, since I had no idea what it was prior to reading this and learning a lot from it, which is one of the primary goals of Natural Selection. It had some wonderful personal context, plenty of historical background, and was simply a fascinating read.

Khôi: The single Natural Selection that surprised me the most was the piece on thằn lằn. For most of the other featured creatures, I more or less understand their role in our culture and environment, but thằn lằn has always seemed like just another house dweller to me. Paul’s original poem as well as other literary works have really made me appreciate them more. From now on, I will gaze lovingly at the geckos in my home instead of scream in terror.

Geckos are common in households across Vietnam.

Paul: This year Saigoneer has focused on introducing several new series covering music, fashion and recreation and my favorite has been our Natural Selection series exploring Vietnam’s flora and fauna. Rather than provide an encyclopedia-esque report, the articles touch on the myths, literature, music and our personal relationships associated with the plants and animals. The goal is exemplified by this piece on lêkima.

The rather inconspicuous flower became famous thanks to its likely-apocryphal association with the heroine Võ Thị Sáu via the work of a downtrodden poet and a hit song. She probably did not actually wear it in her hair before being executed, but in a rare instance of a poet changing public perception, the middling lêkima was thrust into the pantheon of emblematic plants. This confluence of history, art and botany is precisely why I enjoy slowing down to contemplate and research even the most humble and unassuming aspects of nature surrounding us.

4. Favorite Feature

Khôi: In September, Saigoneer published a personal essay dissecting the existence of tiếng rao (link is in Vietnamese) in our urban landscape. It’s a topic I — like anyone who grew up in Saigon — hold dear to my heart, and it was especially poignant to read the essay during the month of lockdown when even setting foot onto one’s alley was a luxury and street calls were non-existent. I’m also one of those urban rats that are not fazed at all by street noises, perhaps because I was born into it, so I could sleep through anything, from street calls to funeral procession to next-door marital altercations. The author did the topic justice, especially in highlighting how tiếng rao is a dying breed in the age of online shopping, an inevitable but nonetheless heart-breaking reality.

Mike: It was hard to avoid recency bias here, as I barely have any recollection of anything prior to May or June, and I probably missed a ton of contenders for this category. But I’m going with the feature on Tô Đậm, the non-profit art collective working to spruce up schools in rural Vietnam with bright, vibrant murals and other paintings. Sometimes there’s nothing better than good people doing good things, and this certainly fits that mold — I hope to be able to see some of their work in person someday!

Tô Đậm's young artists hard at work painting a primary school. Photos by Mắt Bét.

Paul: I’m not going too far back for this article detailing the astounding story of Phương Tâm. A prominent singer in Saigon’s flourishing music scene in the late 1960s, by the time she moved to America her career was such a distant memory that her daughter had never even heard about it. That is, until a request to use her song for a major motion picture landed in her email.

The process of finding, restoring and releasing the music is fascinating as well as the realization of how much incredible music from the time period remains out there, waiting to be “discovered,” but what really makes it a special story is how it brought them closer. It’s also remarkable to realize how a single life can contain such disparate chapters to the point where they make you question if some people exemplify the Ship of Theseus debate. 

And even if the article doesn’t have you pondering existential concepts of what makes a singular person, it offers some really awesome rock tunes perfect for listening to while cruising around Saigon. 

Mike: This was easily my favorite feature to work on this year, as everyone involved was great to speak with, and you don’t often come across such a collaborative, multinational project.

Khôi: I have to admit that I’m a bit jealous of Hannah to have such a fantastic episode of family history lying right there. If my mom was a rock and roll star in the 1960s I would never shut up about it.

PLASTICPeople turns plastic into furniture and useful items like coasters. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

Diệu Anh: We have covered a few stories of new startups providing innovative solutions to the urgent problem of plastic waste throughout the year. Personally, I am most impressed with PLASTICPeople’s approach. They manufacture a wide range of products recycled from “dead plastic,” which means it will not be accepted by normal recycling plants and end up being buried in landfills or drifting into the environment. The fact they partner up with creative studios in Vietnam to add an aesthetic touch to their collection has really changed the game and our perspectives on the quality standard of recycled products. 

Besides, we had a blast at their factory, toying around with their materials, products and machines, while learning so much about plastic and recycling. The team is a collective of very friendly people. If you don’t mind having dust all over your hair and clothes, ring them up, I’m sure they are more than happy to give you a tour.

5. Favorite Whimsical Antic

Mike: Obviously it’s the corgi that was photographed shaking its loaf butt while getting "disinfected" by a health worker back in June, before the COVID-19 dark times truly began. Now, there is certainly a question of whether the dog needed to be sprayed — I’ve never used disinfectant on my dogs — but this was a fantastically light-hearted bit of tomfoolery at a time when we all needed more of that. And who doesn’t love a corgi? Actually, Paul, don’t answer that.

It's fashion honey, look it up.

Paul: There is no such thing as dumb crimes, only dumb criminals. I think that adage applies to this story of a woman in Sóc Trăng who faked her own funeral

I can think of all sorts of good reasons to fake one’s funeral: escape untraced to a tropical island to begin a new life as far away as possible from everyone who annoys you; watch with satisfaction as loved ones sob over your demise; or to suddenly spring back “to life” and thus convince people you have paranormal powers that you can build a cult around. Trần Thị Tuyến tried to pass herself as deceased to avoid paying debts, which is a fine reason, but her execution of the canard was poor.

She instructed family members to offer conflicting causes of death, failed to fill her casket with anything heavy so pallbearers lifted it with noticeable ease and her accomplices didn’t show any sorrow at the funeral. I don’t disparage her for the idea, but I lose all respect over the sloppy planning and piss-poor follow-through. On the flip-side, the news story provides helpful advice on what to avoid should you find the need to fabricate your funeral. 

Khôi: Who doesn’t love a kitschy statue? Growing up in Vietnam gets one exposed to unintentionally haunting sculptures in every amusement park and family resort, such as the Tim Burton-esque ones in the Saigon Zoo. I have a soft spot for bizarre statues and the Ansapa tourist attraction in Sapa takes the cake for most memorable antics of the year. They first came up with a Statue of Liberty replica and the internet bullied them into removing it, and then they unveiled their own interpretation of Frozen’s Elsa just to be chastised by local authority again. I have to laud the owner’s indefatigable dedication to campy replicas and can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

This Elsa looks a bit tired.

Paul: Oh yeah! If you were the owner’s advisor, what homage abomination would you suggest?

Khôi: I would highly recommend that he attempts to recreate Hải Phòng’s chesty zodiac statues. They are already lewd and ill-conceived, what’s another layer of bad rendition?

Mike: This was hilarious, and I do feel a bit bad for the owner; if this had been placed in a prominent location, then I’d be upset, but if this is in a private location that you won’t see otherwise, who cares? I’d take an out-of-the-way collection of oddities over the fully approved eyesores of developments like the Fansipan cable car or Bà Nà Hills.

We hope you enjoyed our work from 2021, and we look forward to exploring Vietnamese cuisine, history and culture even further in 2022. Happy New Year!

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