You don't need an "expert" to understand Vietnam.
Alberto Prieto (L) and Brian Letwin, founders of website Saigoneer.com, pose on a street in Ho Chi Minh City. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAN LETWIN
Sometimes, an expat is much better.
At least that's what Brian Letwin and Alberto Prieto were banking on six months ago when they launched Saigoneer.com, an English website featuring articles, photos and video clips about Vietnam and especially Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
The duo, from New York and Madrid respectively, don't have degrees in Vietnamese studies, nor are they veteran journalists. But they've lived in the heart of Saigon for three years, enough time to get lost in enough alleys and stumble their way through enough cultural/linguistic misunderstandings to have street doctorates in Vietnamology.
New bards of Saigon?
New Yorker Letwin, 29, and Madrid-native Prieto, 28, say it was their "love" and "passion" for Saigon that led to the founding of the Saigoneer website.
Letwin, a photographer and digital marketer hailing from New York, compiles most of the articles but the website also publishes contributions from local Vietnamese and other expats.
Prieto, a web designer and programmer, says he loves Saigon "with every fiber" of his body. Inspired by that, Saigoneer is a labor of love.
According to Letwin, as of August, the website has had 20,000 unique visitors and its traffic was nearly doubling each month.
He said they want to make the site "bigger and better," meaning that they need to hire staff to work on it full time, so they are now trying to "monetize" it.
However, at the same time, they are also calling on anyone who feels the same way they do about Saigon to contribute (for free, for now).
"We want as many voices as possible on the site to create a unique and interesting lens with which to view Saigon," Letwin said.
Prieto said that part of what he loves about Saigon is the frenetic big-city feel of Saigon, a kind of urban madness that reminds himself of his hometown.
"The bigger, the more interesting it is, then the harder it is to get bored. There is always something new and exciting around the corner," he said.
Letwin said he came to Saigon seeking respite from a life in New York that had him working insane 70-hour weeks. Here, he found "a perpetual sense of optimism" and "a sense of opportunity" that he couldn't find in his home city.
The gritty details of life are more visible here, too, good news for a photographer.
"How hard people work just to survive day-to-day is often below the surface in New York, but Saigon, you're reminded to cherish what you have on a daily basis," Letwin said.
Letwin also loves the city's "addictive energy" which he finds in both the new and old here.
His favorite place is an old, half-abandoned apartment building on Tran Hung Dao Street, District 5, where, according to him, "the decaying steel and concrete structure creates a great aesthetic and one can still observe the life of people living there."
Calling himself "a history nerd who wants to know the history around me," Letwin initiated and now runs the "Old Saigon" section on the website.
"So much has changed in the city over the past 30 years and continues to change each day that I feel a need to preserve and communicate some of the history," he said.
Letwin said he loves almost everything about Saigon, but it's his penchant for the food that's given him his Vietnamese nickname: Bún (Nguyen Van Bun), a kind of Vietnamese rice noodle.
Prieto also has a food-related Vietnamese nickname: Ba Khía, which is what Vietnamese call the tasty three-striped crabs that are most popular in the Mekong Delta provinces of Bac Lieu and Ca Mau. The nickname was inspired by his love for the Vietnamese song Anh Ba Khia (Brother Ba Khia), which he often astounds locals by singing.
He said the site aims to give people convenient access to historical information about Saigon, after finding that many Vietnamese and expats were completely unaware of Saigon's history.
While in other cities like New York, there are hundreds of books on every detail of the city's history, historical documents available in Ho Chi Minh City are "fragmented and not easily accessed," he added.
At its worst, the website it is yet another "what's on" community for expatriates with daily updates on things like traffic and tourism problems, and fancy places to eat and drink.
At its best, Saigoneer takes to the streets, or more appropriately to the hems in search of the colors, scents, sounds and history that give Saigon its famous pheromones that have smitten many a foreign heart.
Though most of the material is sourced from other publications (leaving one wanting for more original stuff from Letwin and his camera), the website has a small focus on street foods, as well as Vietnamese culture, society and history.
Historical context features most prominently in the Old Saigon section, brimming with wonderful sepia images of the streets we know so well before we knew them. The section offers descriptions and explanations of what you're seeing and how/why it's changed.
Here, you'll see historic images of colonial Vietnam including naked child water deliverers, old cyclo drivers that hauled with their feet before the vehicles had pedals and old-time sugarcane juice pushcarts. The section also includes histories of street names, local markets and sandwich stands.
It is articles like one on the history of the Xo Viet Nghe Tinh (the uprising in the central provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh in 1930-1931 for which the eponymous street was named), in which hundreds of Vietnamese ended up massacred, that are best. All too often do Saigon's overwhelming number of expat guide-like magazines, newspapers and websites ignore such histories in favor of boilerplate blurbs about France's more palatable legacy, which boils down to little more than architecture, coffee and baguettes.
Another story details the contemporary fight for justice waged by the victims of American chemical warfare (Agent Orange). News from the arts, gallery openings, screenings and other cultural events are also helpful.
'Difficult to explain'
For Prieto, his affair with Vietnam was love at first sight.
He knew the moment he stepped off the plane for a year of studies at the HCMC University of Technology that "Vietnam was made" for him.
Though he was shocked by "the terrible heat" and "chaos and traffic," something burrowed deep into his soul almost immediately.
"It's difficult to explain, but I won't forget that first moment."
The best thing about living in the city, according to Prieto, is learning the language.
"Vietnamese people open themselves and make you feel like part of their family when you try hard to speak their language, and show them smiles and respect," he said.
Asked what his favorite place in Saigon is, Prieto said it was "difficult" to choose, because he could take his bike anywhere in the city and there was no limit to what he could do or experience.
"For me, the best is to get lost by foot in a hem (alley). You never know what or who you will find, but the experience is worth a try."
Is it difficult to live in Saigon as a foreigner?
Letwin said that besides cultural gaps - which he can often fill with help of his Vietnamese friends - he is troubled by local traffic, especially during rush hour, because he is used to "passive" forms of public transportation like subways.
Prieto agreed, saying that he missed sitting on a bus or train, reading a book and listening to music.
"I love how humble and de thuong [lovely] Vietnamese people can be," he said, but added that like anywhere, Saigon has its share of the "mischievous" and "opportunistic."
"I'm sometimes disappointed with people who try to take advantage of you because you are a foreigner, but I can live with it. Not everything can be perfect."
Perhaps it's the imperfect Saigon that gives people that feeling that's so difficult for foreigners to explain to those back home. And perhaps Saigoneer could be a step towards putting words and images to that emotion.