The DNA of Community Building: Secrets From Ho Chi Minh City

Jan 31, 2020

Before getting started, Vietnam's largest city has two names: "Saigon", and "Ho Chi Minh City". Neither are "correct". Generally speaking, Saigon refers to the city centre, while Ho Chi Minh City includes the surrounding areas. For that reason, I’ll use Ho Chi Minh City throughout.

I recently saw how a city could alleviate loneliness. How? With a connected community.

No-one is an island. Through team members, friends or family, we're all part of groups far bigger than us. A recent study found that loneliness has the same effect on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This makes strong in-person relationships a real lifeline. Building community is critical.

I'd never seen this sensation achieved on a city-wide scale before travelling to Ho Chi Minh City. "The Pearl of the Far East" has  a thriving, city-wide community, where many Western cities have millions of lonely disconnected residents.

What exactly has Ho Chi Minh City done differently that we can learn from?

A Community of Stories

In “A Dragon Apparent” (published 1951), British Journalist Norman Lewis travels through Indochina, visiting French occupied Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon). He writes:

"Saigon is a French town in a hot country. It is as sensible to call it – as is usually done – the Paris of the Far East... Saigon is a pleasant, colourless and characterless French provincial city, squeezed on to a strip of delta-land in the South China Seas.

The Paris of the Far East? Colourless and characterless?

If Lewis could see the city today, he might die from culture shock.

Ho Chi Minh Motorbikes
Ho Chi Minh City motorbikes: A sea of metal

Ho Chi Minh City hums with energy. How did I first see this? Not through its’ people, but the motorbikes. Ho Chi Minh City has more motorbikes than London has people.

Our airport taxi lurches forward from the green traffic light into a sea of metal. I watch in amazement as endless drivers weave round our crawling car, seemingly synchronised like a flock of birds. I soon discovered I wasn't far from the truth.

The energy doesn’t end there. My most vivid memory from Ho Chi Minh City was spotting a tucked away alley. I followed my curiosity and ventured inside. What appeared quiet from outside quickly revealed a market humming with activity.

This tiny alley was no more than a metre wide, yet I didn't know where to look. Chickens cawed in the street. Vendors tended fried foods, shoving plates in my face. A motorbike whizzed past me, inches away. My senses were assaulted from all sides.

The city has vivid stories like this everywhere. Walking through the park, I saw locals playing shuttle kick. Imagine playing badminton with your feet. Now try making it look easy. I couldn’t quite believe what I was watching.

In Ho Chi Minh City, the lines between work and family blur. Houses and shops live under one roof. Shopkeepers out front tend to their goods, while above them their children play.

Ho Chi Minh houses
Typical Ho Chi Minh City housing, with shops below

Sailing across the Mekong Delta, I noticed many boats had eyes painted on. Why? For the boat's sailors. The eyes allow them to see from the boat, and remain part of it even from the afterlife. While hard-working Westerners certainly tie work to their identity too, this was the first time I’d seen a glaring physical symbol of how much the worker’s trade meant to them.

Mekong river boats with eyes
Mekong river boats with eyes painted on

The Mekong is home to the floating fishing villages. Locals farm, catch and trade fish all from their homes. An entire ecosystem plays out daily on these artificial islands. All centred on a local, connected community, where sailors wear their identities proudly.

Even where there's competition, the sense of community runs deep. Ben Thanh Market is a bustling hive of commerce. Any aspiring salesperson should spend half a day here. I've never experienced such relentless hard selling. Loud vendors wave and poke me, vying for precious attention. They're selling kilos of cashews, knock-off Nikes, snails, smoothies and just about any counterfeit item you can imagine. But even here, the sellers are united. They have a single goal: convince you to part with your money.

Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market: A thriving hub of commerce

Eating alone in Ho Chi Minh City is rare. On my first day, I see locals gathering around a boiling broth, with fresh meat and vegetables placed all around. This is the famous hot pot. After seeing this scene on countless street corners, we decided to try for ourselves.

In the north of the city, we ordered a crab paste hot pot. As the waiters bring out the rich bubbling broth, the ingredients start stacking up on the table. My friend (and tour guide) Owen turns to me and says: "We're the chefs now!"

Vietnamese hot pot
Vietnamese hot pot. We didn't quite finish it all!

Having a hot pot wasn't so much a meal as it was an experience. It would have been difficult to eat alone. Part of the ritual was not just eating, but the serving, portioning and passing of plates to each other. Even over the dinner table, Ho Chi Minh City's sacred sense of community grows stronger.

The thing that linked all my encounters in the city? No-one was ever alone. Everyone seemed to move in groups. This city-wide community was connected like nothing I'd ever seen. 

The Dark Side Of Community Building

It’s time to make an important distinction. My experiences, stories and takeaways apply to Ho Chi Minh City exclusively. Not Vietnam itself.

Many people living in the city are among the privileged ethnic majority: the Viet (or Kinh) that make up more than 85% of the population. To that extent (and from the little I saw), the city projected an image of cultural harmony. But the community I saw in Ho Chi Minh City is a far cry from the policies of Vietnam.

Unfortunately, Vietnam has historically used force over tolerance with different ethnic groups. From the 11th century to the mid-18th century, Vietnam undertook the “march to the south”, tripling their territory size. Those gains did not come without several losers.

In the 10th century, Vietnam (then Đại Việt), was bordered by the Kingdom of Champa. The Chams inhabited what is today the coast of central Vietnam. In 1471, Đại Việt’s aggressive expansion effort inflicted a heavy defeat on the Chams, reducing their kingdom to a small enclave. Over the next few centuries, thousands of Chams fled to Cambodia following continued Đại Việt pressure. Eventually, Emperor Minh Mạng put the nail in Champa’s coffin, by absorbing and annexing it in 1832.

The territory of Champa circa 1000–1100
The territory of Champa circa 1000–1100, depicted in green. Today their territory has been absorbed by Vietnam

The same pattern of suppression played out with the Degar people. During the “march to the south,'' the Vietnamese conquered the Central Highlands, displacing the native Degars.

The Degars do not share the dominant language and culture of the Vietnamese. This has been the source of tensions that are still alive today. The two groups have conflicted over education, land ownership, and political representation to name a few.

Today, Vietnam has more than 50 ethnic groups. The smallest groups, the Rom Mama, Brau and O Du are less than 500 people each. But the lessons are clear: to paint the entire ethnic mix of Vietnam with a brush of collaboration would be false. 

The Cultural Catalyst

Despite their history of indigenous suppression, Vietnam’s origins began more brightly. As I walked through the Museum of Vietnamese History, I got a glimpse into the lives of their ancestors. This was the first example of the Vietnamese building community.

In 1000BC, Vietnam was originally made up of three powerful cultures: Dong Son, Sa Huynh and Dong Nai. Instead of internally fighting, the ancient Vietnamese chose to work together. These three cultures accelerated progress by trading with each other.‌ Southeast Asia was rich in rare and precious products: woods, spices, metals, textiles, honey and wax. The Vietnamese were all too happy to share their resources, and it wasn't too long before they opened their doors to their Indochina neighbours too. By putting aside differences, these primitive cultures thrived through trade.

The first cultures in Vietnam were a thriving mix of races. Perhaps they lacked the strength needed to dominate their neighbours, existing two millennia before the Đại Việt. Whatever the reason for their collaboration, the fact remains: The Dong Son, Sa Huynh and Dong Nai were diverse yet unified, and prospered because of it. 

Ho Chi Minh city motorbike driver
Ho Chi Minh City still thrives with trade today

The close bonds these cultures formed reflects a core principle I found in Ho Chi Minh City: unification in diversity. Their success shows that when it comes to community building, different is better than better. Blending backgrounds, skillsets and perspectives make us collectively stronger than being the same.

The Kingdom of Crisis

There’s another sobering reason behind instances of Vietnamese cooperation. When I say "Vietnam War", what comes to mind? You're thinking of the 20th century US occupation. The invasion was a historic first for the US. But for the Vietnamese it was simply the freshest wound from a bloody pattern: constant invasion by a foreign power. If the Dong Son, Sa Huynh and Dong Nai came together out of choice to thrive, and the country would forever afterwards unite out of necessity to survive.

Vietnam's struggle began as far back as 179BC, when the feudal Northern Chinese dynasty swept through Eastern Asia. They began a period of domination in Vietnam that lasted over a thousand years. Against a backdrop of oppression and exploitation, the Vietnamese continuously rebelled for their freedom, country-wide independence and retention of their culture.

It’s worth nothing that when Vietnam finally gained independence from the Chinese, they were quick to try and expand their own empire. Once they stopped being oppressed, they became the oppressors. Perhaps the “march to the south” that spelled disaster for the Chams and Degars was a violent reaction to finally finding freedom. With great power..

The same pattern of foreign invasion played out with the Mongols (13th century), the Qing Dynasty (18th) and Siamese (18th/19th). The French first attacked Vietnam in 1858. Their colonial power was only formally dissolved in 1954, 96 years later. 11 years after that, fresh United States troops landed on Vietnamese soil, preparing for battle against recovering natives.

In the north of Ho Chi Minh City I explored the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the locals fought off US soldiers. The tunnels were a maze of kitchens, sleeping quarters, leisure rooms, devious traps and much more. The people of Cu Chi lived in this network for 21 years. A physical symbol of their connected community.

A devious Cu Chi Tunnels trap

The Vietnamese have perpetually struggled to protect their sovereignty and national identity. Perhaps then their cultures didn't co-operate out of kindness, but out of necessity. After all, there's nothing like a national crisis to turn fragmented people into a united community.

This highlights an important truth about community building: Communities need a common goal. The Vietnamese goal was freedom and retaining their cultural character. They put aside personal differences to achieve something bigger than themselves, such as merging North and South Vietnam into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam following victory over the US.

There's no doubt in my mind this legacy survives in Ho Chi Minh City today. After reading the above information in the Vietnam history museum, I saw these words proudly displayed over an archway:

“We are what we are, after a thousand years...”

Ho Chi Minh City's citizens sticking together

Ho Chi Minh City's Future

Ho Chi Minh City has a delicate past, but today only looks in one direction: the future.

Ho Chi Minh City is pushing hard to integrate into the developed world. My friend Owen teaches English to students applying to US Colleges. All their rigorous studying happens on weekends.

“Wall Street English” - A clear display of their intentions.

Ho Chi Minh City's thirst for knowledge is best represented by the aptly named "Book Street." Walking down it, both sides of the road were covered with stores selling practical courses, ancient tomes and even the latest self-help best seller (in Vietnamese). The people of Ho Chi Minh City are clearly hungry to learn.

On the final evening, I visited the Saigon Skydeck. 49 floors up, it offers a commanding view of the city. The experience itself is a window into Vietnam's ambitions: The Bitexco Financial Tower (home to the skydeck) proudly displays its status as a top 20 skyscraper in the world.

Saigon Skydeck: The jewel in Ho Chi Minh City’s skyline

Ho Chi Minh City’s bid to join the global economy is with good reason. Vietnam boasts a 98.5% literacy rate. Median Chinese wages are rising, so lots of higher-end manufacturing is moving to Ho Chi Minh City. They have the talent, and a government eager to capitalise.

While the Financial Tower is the jewel in Ho Chi Minh City's skyline today, I hope it symbolises a wave of progress tomorrow. The Vietnamese are capable and resourceful. Their government knows it too: They're aiming to produce 10 unicorns by 2030.

The Community Connection

The people of Ho Chi Minh City have stood together for centuries. Their country's history is bombarded with bloodshed. They've fought off invaders, colonists, and even annoying tourists. Whatever history has thrown at them, they've answered with building community.

The West can learn from the bonds that are woven through their work and family. These deep connections have allowed the people of Ho Chi Minh City to punch way above their weight. They fought off the world's greatest military 45 years ago with a sense of community, resourcefulness, and a goal greater than any one of them alone.

As for my big takeaway? I’ll leave you with the two questions I’ve asked myself since. Do the communities you're part of have a goal? Are you working towards something bigger than yourself? If you're struggling to answer yes, it might be time to re-evaluate which groups take up your time.

As I take my final 6am chaotic airport taxi, Ho Chi Minh City is already in motion. Countless breakfast stands cater to the working masses. People dine together, trading food, laughs and stories. 

Together, not alone.

Bui Vien Street
Bui Vien Street coming alive by night.

Thanks for reading. What did you learn? I’d love to hear your feedback. Let me know what you think directly, or on Twitter: @benbradbury_