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No Nón Lá, No Problem: A New Saigon Tour Takes the Road Less Traveled

Sitting down for a bowl of phở, sipping a glass of cà phê sữa đá, visiting the Saigon Post Office: these activities are all too common to the tourist experience in Saigon. So much so that it's often easy to reduce the image of the city into a monotonous picture in the mind of foreign imaginations. 

Consuming the other, whether by gazing, taking photographs, eating or engaging in other activities, is central to the tourist leisure. Dean MacCannell, in Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings, theorizes that tourist spaces are often constructed around a staged authenticity, where certain signs, places, objects are made to appear authentic to tourists to keep their gazes at arm's length from the everyday practices of local residents.

While the question of what makes something authentic is up for debate, MacCannell maintains that in industrial tourism, there is still a process of "sacralisation that renders a particular natural or cultural artifact a sacred object of the tourist ritual." This process, however, can end up impacting locals livelihoods, causing displacement as hospitality giants jump at the chance to capitalize on every last bit of Vietnam's natural resources.  

It is no doubt that the everyday rhythm of Saigon and its people goes beyond tourist pamphlets and postcards. With her new project, Hidden Saigon, Linh Phan wants to shed light on the lives and practices of locals who are living and breathing the city's atmosphere, avoiding tourist cliches that often take the main stage in representing the city. 

Established in September this year, Hidden Saigon provides independently organized tours that explore the city beyond phở, bánh mì, and conical hats. 

"My background leads into how this all started. I'm a Viet Kieu Canadian. [I was] born in Saigon; and in 1977, [when] my family left, I was six months old. We took a fishing boat and we [were] on the water for two months. Then we went to a camp in Indonesia; and from Indonesia, we went to Canada. So I grew up in Canada for about 30 years and I came back to Vietnam in 2007," Phan tells Saigoneer, switching back and forth between Vietnamese and English.

Even the logo she designed for Hidden Saigon includes a personal touch. "My inspiration is [from] the old buildings' color in Cho Lon," Phan says, adding that it connects with her family's origin in District 6.

She ended up staying and working in media and creative production in Vietnam afterward. Most of her works involve collaborating with communities. Some Saigoneers might recognize Phan through Here and There, a project delving into the lives of Vietnamese immigrants and refugees. "We always do stuff that we always try to show different sides of Vietnam — the modern, cultural side," she shares.

Linh Phan was raised in Canada, but moved back to Saigon more than a decade ago. Photo courtesy of Anna Nguyen.

The idea for Hidden Saigon came up while she was doing location scouting for a film of which her friend is the director. Being a complete stranger to the process of location scouting, Phan's choice venues ended up being very unconventional. She found herself enjoying the reactions from the UK production team to the places she found.

"I got inspired from just go looking for a cafe location and sitting down and the will be like 'Lại đây, ngồi xuống, mình nói chuyện chút xíu đi!' (Translation: Come here, sit down, let's chat!). And then you sit down, and then you talk. I really make an effort to work with people that I enjoy working with, who enjoy doing this. Tourism is a big industry so it's not just about making money or whatever. You know what I mean. It's about wanting to share the stories," she later adds.

"I want to show people who don't live here all the incredibly interesting creative things that people are doing here. And also showing that sometimes people may have a perception about people who live here just want to leave here but it's not the case. There's a lot of the especially young generation who are trained overseas or schooled overseas but they make a decision to come back, to come back to their motherland because they love living here or they love working here or they see potential opportunities for things here. So the idea is basically trying to explore on a deeper level, the modern Saigon, the stories of the people who are living, working, and creating here."

Hidden Saigon offers three different types of tours: Saigon Street Stories, Culture Makers and Modern Saigon Food Scene. The three differ in approach and components, but storytelling seems to be the central element in every tour, be it listening to an artist's story in their studio, stepping inside someone's personal home for a conversation, or chatting with a chef in a restaurant. The tour is facilitated by Phan and a translator.

Photos by Dave Lemke.

"I have two categories of people that we are going to meet. One is called 'culture makers.' So I visited 'culture makers' that are Vietnamese or Viet Kieu, no expats or foreigners because I wanted to make sure the community is represented in that way. So I may say 'culture makers' are making and creating and then I have what I called People and Places which are the everyday people who are kind of doing." 

Phan's friends and social connections also make it easier to get access to artists and creative studios. As for local residents with a side of interesting history, it comes down to her traveling around the city.

"I drive around!" exclaims Phan. "I drive around on my bike. I drive around and go up and down alleys," she adds, brimming with enthusiasm.

Photo by Jalaikon.

While fostering conversations between tourists and locals is an important component of Hidden Saigon tours, eating is another important aspect.

"I try to get people to try different things that they don't normally think that they'll try. For example, bánh ống lá dứa, or kho quẹt. Or, you know, things that people don't [order] — instead of having bánh xèo, have bánh khọt."

She also makes an effort to have her tours be non-intrusive as well as socially and environmentally responsible by regulating the group number, rotating between multiple locations, and reducing plastic usage where possible.

Find more information about the Hidden Saigon here.


Related Articles:

Here and There: Exploring Vietnamese Immigrant and Refugee Experiences

New Food Tour Retraces Anthony Bourdain's Culinary Journeys in Vietnam

Sophie Hughes: Drawing Links Between Vietnamese History and Contemporary Art