Claudia Davaar Lambie gets creative at a workshop at FabLab Saigon where she learns about making 3D objects using the latest technologies.

“Today, we are going to learn about prototyping with cardboard,” says Mai Nguyen, one of the key organisers of FabLab Saigon. Nguyen informs the group of seven that the workshop will entail making 3D space rockets using advanced computer software and a laser cutter. I’m confused. She holds up a rocket that she made earlier which spans the size of her two hands. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a technophobe and can’t really envisage how this is going to work but she encourages us that it is simple to make. With Nguyen’s detailed step by step guidance everyone gets to work, successfully designing and producing their own 2D plans to make 3D rockets using cardboard. Who knew?

FabLab Saigon is a small workshop space which provides tools and equipment that are necessary for digital fabrication including access to the latest cutting edge technology. It has been coined as a ‘makerspace’ and anyone can go along to make something for a bit of fun or to work on their own innovative projects. Globally, there are 125 FabLabs in 34 countries.

Hoang Anh Phan, the founder of FabLab Saigon, moved back to Vietnam after growing up in France. Her background is in engineering and she quickly realised upon her return that there was a need for FabLabs here. “I wanted to contribute something to Vietnam. I want the country to leapfrog so that [it] can develop,” she says. FabLab Saigon was established in March 2014 with Hanoi and Danang following soon after. Workshops and events are organised throughout the month and are given in both Vietnamese and English.

At first glance, FabLab Saigon appears to be nothing more than a narrowly built house, tucked away on a side street in the bustling Binh Thanh District. However, first impressions can be deceiving. The three-story apartment contains impressive sized rooms and terraces and each floor is dedicated to different aspects of FabLab. Interestingly, the house belongs to Phan’s grandparents who now let her use it to host this grassroots enterprise.

The ground floor is where the laser cutter, 3D printers and other tech machinery are stored. Posters adorn the walls with statements like ‘to invent, you need imagination and a pile of junk’. A long work bench dominates the room and shelving units with all sorts of tools and apparatus hang on hooks. Drawers, with intimidating labels like ‘LED matrix’ and ‘SMD components’ are full to the brim. As there is no funding, all of the equipment available has been generously contributed or made in-house.

‘Makers’ pay for the use of the equipment and the prices start from a very reasonable VND 40,000 per hour. I begin to understand the real value of having a space like this in Vietnam as Nguyen explains, “If someone wants to create something, why would they spend a lot of money buying a 3D printer when they can hire it here for an hour?”  The Fabmasters who manage the space also give tutorials on how to use the machinery safely and effectively which costs VND 100,000 per hour.

On the first and second floor you can find the café and the co-working space respectively. The café is a cozy area which sells an assortment of beverages. To rent a desk in the light and airy co-working space costs VND 1,300,000 per month which covers the WiFi connection, access to the makerspace and some other benefits.

Whilst taking a quick break from making 3D rockets, Nguyen and I went to the café. She thrust a small packaged box of crickets into my hand. At first I mistook it for cereal. She gestured over to a table in the corner of the café where Cường and his team were busily working. He is the brains behind this product and he breeds the crickets himself and designs the food packaging.

As the team brainstormed, there were numerous fluorescent sticky notes with doodles and ideas stuck on the walls. Casually they told me that they are investigating which fast food and fresh food items will be appetising with an addition of some crickets, silk worms and other bugs. They want to bring a modern twist to the Vietnamese delicacy. Cường informs me, “Insects are a great source of protein so we want to market this product to the masses.”

There is a hive of activity in the makerspace when I return. A few of the guys in the group who are dentists by trade are now creating models of teeth on the computer software. Ray, a teacher from the US, had never been to FabLab before now and speaks highly of the organic and informal nature of it. He likens it to a ‘homebrew club’ in the US where people come along out of love for their hobby and are eager to innovate.

It is clear to see that inventions and ideas are in abundance at FabLab Saigon. The FabLab concept is the first of its kind in Vietnam and what makes it unique is the emphasis on sharing ideas among ‘makers’ by plugging into the global network that they are part of. For Phan, it is about building synergies among people with different skills. It is important for new projects to be open source so that everyone can utilise them and help one another with their projects.

In the last two years particularly, momentum has been gaining in Vietnam as technology start-ups flourish. Vietnam is set to become the next Silicone Valley in South East Asia and both Phan and Nguyen want FabLabs in Vietnam to champion this movement. “The space to create is here, so come and use it,” says Phan.

To find out more about FabLab Saigon please visit http://fablabsaigon.org/