Lauren Cameron meets one of Saigon’s biggest fans, a British artist who has captured the soul of the city in her new book, Sensational Saigon. Photos by Romain Garrigue.
“I just love Saigon. No one expects to, but the city just gets wonderfully under your skin,” Bridget March, author of Sensational Saigon told me as she vigorously flipped open the book’s cover to write a personal message. “It’s so honest – it has no airs and graces. It simply says, `come with me, let me show you everything’!”
Her latest book is an intricate journey through Saigon, with all its loveable idiosyncrasies and public spectacles. Through a combination of sketches, illustrations, maps, small handwritten anecdotes and snippets of history, Bridget paints a vivid picture of a city that has stood the test of time – but one that is also changing rapidly before our very eyes.
The illustrations depict perfectly the street scenes that are familiar sights in Saigon – ladies sleeping on their produce baskets at the wet markets, beautiful mosaics engraved on the walls of cafes citywide, cyclos laden with exhausted tourists, laundry hung from urban balconies and lone fishermen whiling away their afternoons on highway bridges with homemade reels. Moto drivers balanced precariously on their bikes, asleep; lottery ticket ladies and banh xeo stalls in Thao Dien; barbers giving haircuts on non-discrete street corners; tangles of electrical wire so heavy the poles they dangle off bend dangerously low.
Bridget is a discerning expat and artist, one with an extraordinary skill for capturing the simple joys of daily life in the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City. Born in Harrogate in the United Kingdom, the artist spent most of her life in Leeds before a whirlwind visit to Vietnam in 2012 saw her life completely change in an instant. While visiting a friend who was living in Saigon, the notion was put to Bridget that she work on her art there instead.
“It took me two days to realise it was a brilliant idea,” Bridget admitted.
Since, Bridget has spent time living in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Sapa and Hoi An, where she published an illustrated book on the charms of the seaside heritage town, opened her own art gallery, and still lives today.
“When I published A Week in Hoi An I knew immediately it couldn’t be a stand-alone book. Documenting the culture, the mythology, the true essence of the town was something I definitely wanted to repeat,” Bridget explained.
And so, she did. A kind offer from a friend living in Sapa soon after inspired the production of yet another illustrated book, A Summer in Sapa, which colourfully portrayed the mountain town and its daily life. But none of her published works to date have excited Bridget quite so much as her latest: Sensational Saigon.
The city’s eccentricities and foibles had enchanted Bridget since her arrival, meaning she already had ample material for an illustrated homage to Saigon when the idea for the book was born. But the journey had only just begun.
“I couldn’t wait to get back to Saigon – I wanted to learn even more of its secrets and truly discover what the city was about. But it wasn’t easy. It’s one of the fastest changing cities in the world,” she admitted. But it was the pace of the place that ended up guiding the direction of Sensational Saigon.
“What was changing in Saigon wasn’t just the building and construction industry and the physical layout of the city – it was the acceleration of change that was truly breath-taking,” Bridget said. “It happened so quickly and so intensely that we almost lost our appetite for talking about change, much like the British tire of talking about the weather.”
In an effort to truly “get under the city’s skin” and get a real sense of the place Bridget endlessly dragged her friends into Saigon’s hidden alleyways, strangers’ homes and inside old, abandoned buildings, speaking to whoever would engage with her. She wanted desperately to document the city that was changing so rapidly that half the buildings she had sketched in her first year living there had already disappeared from the skyline.
“I felt compelled to do something to help show people the history and beauty of the city before it was too late,” Bridget explained. “Often it is the job of strangers to do so – to come to a place and point out to locals how beautiful it is, to treasure the rich layers of history laid down upon its earth.”
“Young people are nostalgic for the old Saigon, but very few actually know what that Saigon looked like or of its history… I want to help preserve an authentic picture of it,” Bridget said.
For tourists who are either enraptured by the city or who don’t have enough time to explore it in all its glory, Sensational Saigon provides a vibrant snapshot of the place.
“But it’s not a guidebook – it’s an expression of my passion for this place,” Bridget said.
The book is stocked by Kokoïs, Saigon Artisan and Saigon Artbook. It can also be delivered free to anywhere in Vietnam via purchase at www.bridgetmarch.co.uk (US$17).