Dana Filek-Gibson urges expats to honour the foreign figures who have had the greatest influence on contemporary Vietnam.
Between the traffic congestion, the noise, the coming workday and the as-yet insufficient caffeination, I would guess that there are few among us who appreciate a morning commute. At best, it’s a time-filler: you inch your way through a sea of motorbikes and four-wheeled vehicles overzealous with the horn. But mostly it’s time spent at a stand still, listening to loud cell phone conversations or struggling to read the lewd English phrase on a fellow motorist’s sweater.
That said, hang onto your hats because one day soon — you won’t know when, you won’t know where — while rousing yourself from a nap at a red light, you may look up to find that the old, beloved Nguyen Thi Minh Khai is now Che Guevara Street. Or Marie Curie Boulevard. Or Colonel Sanders Avenue. That’s right, some time in the foreseeable future half of Saigon will suddenly change its name and Google Maps, regular maps and any other direction-finding technology will become completely obsolete. Why, you ask? Don’t. You’ve lived here long enough to know that you shouldn’t be posing those kinds of questions.
As a Saigon resident, you need only understand that, in an effort to give some of Vietnam’s more contemporary national heroes their due recognition, the city is renaming and adding a slew of new roads, roughly a thousand in total. Most of these streets will, of course, bear the names of exceptional Vietnamese citizens: wartime doctors, military generals, poets, composers and other revered figures whose efforts have helped shape the nation and its culture. There are, however, a few notable foreigners — eight, to be exact — who will also grace Saigon street signs, and for these nominations I believe that the city’s expat community should have a chance to weigh in. After all, nothing you or I can do will stop the sweeping, much-needed replacement of street names you can’t pronounce with more street names you can’t pronounce. But we would appreciate some input on those we’ll actually be able to say.
And so, as with any other issue, I have taken it upon myself to offer an opinion that nobody requested. In paying homage to the greatest foreign influences in modern-day Vietnamese culture, let us take into account an artist, thinker and intellectual whose work has affected this country over the last three decades. Let us not forget the saxophone hook that tugs at our heartstrings, pounds in our eardrums and instantly induces a headache. Yes, let us put the name of dear, coiffed George Michael on a street sign and play ‘Careless Whisper’ from the speakers up above. For it is masterpieces like these whose profound effects continue to resonate in cafes and from karaoke machines across Saigon.
And while we’re at it, throw in David Beckham. Or the Eagles. Or Doraemon. Perhaps we should hold a referendum in order to select the most influential foreign footballers, K-Pop stars, cartoon characters and celebrities for street name consideration. The naysayers will point out that most cities require a public figure to be long deceased before the name may be used for such purposes. But with so many of Vietnam’s most influential foreigners still alive, I believe that at least those who fall into the “Where Are They Now?” category should be considered fair game.
In short, I encourage you to reflect upon the obscure collection of international pop culture icons that have made Vietnam what it is today and advocate for those names that you believe are deserving of a local street sign. There’s almost a 100 percent chance that no one will listen to what you have to say, but in the end, even if the signs change and we all get lost and never see our mail again I, for one, would be honoured to live on George Michael Boulevard.
Dana Filek-Gibson is a Canadian expat living in Ho Chi Minh City.