An old TEFL colleague of mine, Thomas Hutchings, recently recommended me to take over his column in the weekly magazine Doanh Nhan Saigon Cuoi Tuan (Saigon Business Weekly). The column is called 'Another View' and focuses on expat lives. I can write about anything* I want, socially or culturally speaking. My first attempt is called 'Nowhere to go'and focuses on the lack of public space in the city, especially for children. I feel honored to have the chance to share some thoughts with the Vietnamese readers as the articles are translated - and very well I am told. Perhaps if you see the column, you can tell me if that is true...
Here it is...
Recently I read a discussion in an expats forum - a new arrival to Ho Chi Minh City was asking for a list of suitable activities for their young children. Thinking of my own experiences with my 20 month old daughter the thought of replying ‘sorry, there’s nothing’ sarcastically flashed through my mind. Thankfully someone more helpful stepped in and pointed out the places that you can take toddlers in the city.The list was a recital of big shopping malls and their play areas - loud, busy places where older children run riot. It doesn’t exactly fill a parents heart with joy to consider these places for a fun filled day trip. Two stressful hours making sure no accidents happen followed by a sugary drink - might as well stay at home and play with toys on the floor. So where else is there to go?
My wife and I often joke about the options - it’s either the zoo or the swimming pool. Yes, making light of a tragically bad situation is a way of coping. To my knowledge there are very few swimming pools catering to toddlers. One close to our house in District Seven is especially good because it has large, safe, shallow areas to play in and has often been our saviour. The zoo is good not so much for its animals but for its oxygenated city hide away, one of the few places one can escape the hectic streets and dirty air. I heard the zoo is moving to Cu Chi and will be replaced by high rise apartments.
Parks and open spaces are what our children need, not neon lit windowless rooms with ball pits and 17 other children fighting over toys. We live in Phu My Hung and intentionally chose an apartment within walking distance of a park so our daughter can play and run and get some fresh air. I fully understand most people do not have this kind of access, having also lived in the city for many years. Yes, there are some parks but they are hardly designed for our children to frolic. An emphasis on ‘look but don’t touch’ springs to mind. When signs of ‘keep off the grass’ sprang up across Phu My Hung parks recently they were dutifully ignored by, well, everybody. Are we supposed to stay on the concrete path and observe the nice soft green grass from a distance? No, parks are for people and children to enjoy, as long as they treat them respectfully and clean up after they leave.
Listen here city planners - what about the kids? Wouldn’t it be a nice surprise to see some city block demolished and given over to the public rather than more apartments that no-one can afford to live in and more shops that no-one can afford to shop in. How about a planetarium? A modern museum of science and nature for kids to enjoy? Or of course, a space like a park or an open air venue for plays and shows. My heart sinks to see the city expanding in the south and the west and still no space being incorporated for public enjoyment. The potential on the outskirts of the city is larger where there is countryside and lots of room but this is ‘prime real estate’ and profits are too high to turn down.
Do not despair however residents of Ho Chi Minh City. One last hope remains and I am talking about the frontage of the Saigon River in Districts One and Four. Nguyen Tat Thanh currently houses the Saigon Port which I hear will be moving to Nha Be District at some point in the future leaving a wonderful stretch of riverfront available from the Tan Thuan bridge all the way to the Museum of Ho Chi Minh. And why stop there - once heavy traffic is diverted from Ton Duc Thang with the completion of the tunnel and the East-West highway, the river front here could also be developed. Picture it - kilometers of walking, restaurants, cafes and family attractions. With the District 1 skyline in one direction and the Phu My bridge in the other, the esplanade would be the envy of South East Asia, thousands of new visitors would flood the city, and long suffering residents and their children would finally have somewhere to enjoy.
Sadly the likelihood is that this prime location will be given over to real estate and shopping, and our kids and the families of Ho Chi Minh City will just have to keep on looking for places to go.