A sport with no competition, no rules and no specific field of play, parkour is taking over the urban landscapes of the southern hub. Dana Filek-Gibson leaps into the world of Saigon’s traceurs. Photo by Jonny Edbrooke.
In a quiet, near-empty Coffee Bean, Nguyen Nhu Dang tells me he can do a backflip. It’s around 8pm, on the brink of Tet when most Saigon residents are fleeing the city for their annual trip home, and so the place is markedly quiet. Outside, motorbikes roll by in casual fashion, the din of horns missing. Inside, a handful of teenagers keep company on the other side of the room, chatting in low voices, while the last work-worn employees clean up behind the counter.
Clad in a black t-shirt and loose, long-legged sweatpants, Dang stands up and moves a chair aside. In a square no bigger than four feet across, the lean, muscular 20-year-old pitches his feet over his head and lands in the same place with barely a sound. The teenagers don’t notice; the baristas go about cleaning their workspace. For a minute, I’m not sure if I’ve actually seen this or just imagined it.
Along with a growing number of young Vietnamese, Dang is an avid practitioner of parkour. If you haven’t witnessed it, the sport is tricky to explain: traceurs, as parkour participants are known, must move along a course in the most efficient way possible, using only their bodies and as much momentum as possible. When obstacles get in the way, this can mean jumping, climbing and leaping over or around barriers to maintain the most direct route.
Since the late 1980s, parkour has gained international recognition thanks to a handful of films, TV shows and documentaries. The opening scene of Casino Royale, for instance, features James Bond chasing after a bomb maker who makes death-defying jumps from floor to floor of an unfinished building and races all the way up a construction crane.
While no one is in a hurry to race around Saigon’s construction sites, ask a Vietnamese traceur about the sport and you’ll get a full retelling of its history. This is in large part thanks to the way parkour has grown in Vietnam: most of Saigon’s traceurs are self-taught and so a great deal of time is spent online, watching YouTube videos and taking in whatever information is available.
For Dang, who has been hurdling benches and freerunning around Saigon since he was 15, parkour started as a curiosity and fast grew into an obsession.
“I saw other people practicing in the park and I joined in just for fun,” he explains. “But after I started practicing I really liked it. Now it’s kind of a passion.”
The Saigon native, who learned the ropes from other traceurs in District 1’s Le Van Tam Park, now hones his skills near a small footbridge just south of Pasteur Street. Along with two other traceurs, Dang spends most of his free evenings here, hopping over obstacles and doing backflips.
Across town, however, Le Thi Rieng Park in District 10 is by far the most popular spot for Saigonese traceurs. In the late afternoon, Tran Trong Dat, leader of parkour group Creates Ways, and his friends hang around in the shadow of a temple, warming up. At about eight in total, they’re all in their teens, either fresh out of high school or about to graduate, and spend whatever free time they have in the park, practicing parkour or recording their friends mid-flip.
Dat, 18, has been practicing parkour for three years and watched the number of traceurs in Saigon grow; by his count, there are now four or five groups at Le Thi Rieng Park alone. When he considers what drew him to parkour in the first place, Dat can’t really place it. Picking at his shoelaces, he explains: “It’s adventurous. It makes my life more exciting.”
Adventurous is certainly the word for some of the group’s stunts, which include sailing into a horizontal flip across a stone barrier. Like the rest of Saigon’s traceurs, Dat is not without injury.
“Once, I did a backflip and hit my face,” says Dat, pointing to a spot above his lip where the stitches went. “There was blood everywhere.”
Still, he insists, you get over your fears. “Everyone is scared when they start but after a while you learn how not to be scared,” he says.
Dang, who has suffered a few broken bones himself thanks to parkour, agrees. He recalls the shock his parents had the first time he came home with a broken wrist; now, he says, they barely give it a second thought. “Once you get used to it then it’s not scary,” he explains.
While all of this is well and good, there are still some growing pains to work out in the world of Saigon parkour. Much of the sport’s organisation is loose, with impromptu groups forming around the city. This certainly sticks to the original spirit of parkour but it can also make meeting new traceurs difficult; the same goes for introducing new people to the sport. According to Dat, newcomers are always welcome to join but few have stuck with it. Still, he says, parkour is definitely gaining ground in Vietnam.
For more seasoned participants, a different problem emerges: as these young men get older and face responsibilities like university and full-time jobs, the amount of time leftover for parkour is minimal.
“When I was still in [high] school, I would come every Saturday and Sunday,” says Nguyen Quoc Dat, another traceur at Le Thi Rieng Park. “But now I have less time so only in the afternoons when I’m free.”
Despite these setbacks, a handful of committed traceurs aim to keep the sport alive. Occasional parkour events help to bring together some of the parkour community but, for the parkour purists, competitions are strictly forbidden.
“I think that when you start competing then it’s not parkour anymore, it’s a different sport,” says Quoc Dat. “I don’t compete, I only watch and practice with my friends.”
This is not an uncommon refrain. Around the world, hardcore traceurs prefer to keep the sport low-key, shunning any kind of competition or promotional events. Though Quoc Dat sides more with this crowd, he admits that it would be nice to have a closer-knit parkour community, or at the very least a place for traceurs to get together.
“If there was someone to open a centre for parkour, that would be good,” he says.
While there is no doubt that parkour will continue to grow across Vietnam, in the meantime Quoc Dat and the rest of Saigon’s traceurs are content to keep vaulting over park benches and leaping up walls.