That extravagant shift of lifestyle that I experienced while celebrating Tết with Việt wasn’t over. In fact, it was far from over. Việt hadn’t told me that back in Saigon he lived with a housekeeper, Linh, until after we had arrived. While it sounded crazy at first, I then remembered it was common to have domestic help in many parts of Asia including where I had traveled to in India, Thailand, and Myanmar. Linh had lived at Việt’s home for many years helping to cook, clean, do laundry, change bed sheets, and anything else to keep the place tidy. While he studied and worked in the U.S., she took care of the house for his family. With all the tasks sorted in the house, it didn’t take long before I felt like we were living like kings again.
The first week that we were back, we would wake up early and sit on the floor to eat breakfast while brainstorming the day’s adventure. Việt had six days free until starting work and we weren’t about to waste them. We met up with friends for coffee, researched, scouted, and explored interesting locations, browsed local markets, danced at electronic shows, spent time with his mom’s side of the family, foodhopped around each district, watched movies, and ran everyday errands. I was really getting another local’s experience of the city much different than I had while living on the outskirts a month prior in District 8.
Fully aware of my passion for exploring abandoned spaces, Việt reached out to some friends and researched online to uncover two spots we easily spent half days shooting at. The first was an unassuming apartment complex with an art gallery on the street level, a cafe on the second, and many local artist’s work spaces on the floors above. The hidden hallways and outer steps of the complex is what captivated us. Brilliant hues of decaying yellows, golds, and blues led us up six stories to the roof where several families lived.
After exploring the whole building, we walked a few blocks over to a popular hotel. Only minutes later we gained access to the roof and were presented with an incredible panoramic view of the city from one of the highest rooftops it had to offer.
Craving more rooftops like the day before, the next morning we set out to find a specific abandoned building. It seemed to be an enormous apartment complex but what interested us the most was the rooftop pool we had seen photos of online. In the back of one particular photo we had found, several buildings could be made out in the skyline. We spent the morning asking locals their guesses for the location based on the visible surrounding buildings. Without much luck, we tried the next step: gaining access to additional rooftops to scope out the pool from a higher level.
Exhausted from 40°C (104°F) heat and insane humidity, after only hours of this searching process, our energy was drained. We retired home to escape the rising temperatures and instead continue researching online. The next morning, we were certain we had finally found the location. One of Việt’s initial guesses had been nearly confirmed when he was tipped off by a friend.
Once Saigon’s most modern building, this famous complex had seen much brighter days. During its prime, the building’s thirteen stories consisting of over five hundred rooms and the luxurious rooftop pool were home to U.S. military personnel, but as the years rolled on and the war came to an end, the building’s inhabitants (of which were no longer Americans) began to leave as more and more horror stories from its past arose. Recently the property had continued its fall into disrepair and currently awaited its demolition in its state of decay.
Ten families still occupied the top floors during our visit while those below remained empty. As soon as I stepped inside, a woman stopped us. She explained to Việt how taking photos/entering was illegal however her son, the guard wasn’t working so after some talking, we gained access, but only for an “hour.” This hour turned into far longer as we found ourselves amidst a labyrinth of narrow corridors, empty rooms, and many decaying colors. When we reached the highest floor, we had to bribe a resident the equivalent of $5 USD to unlock the gates to the rooftop.
To avoid conflict and fines in case of a spontaneous building inspection, the resident who we had unlock the gate behind us needed to re-unlock it on our way down. Safely off the roof, we explored the remaining sections of the building as night began to fall.
Overjoyed to have seen the building before its supposed demolition, we returned home with some uneasiness in our stomachs. Whereas we were drawn to the documentation of decay for our own enjoyment and had a nice place to call home to return to, the inhabitants of this building had no place to return home to because this was their home and we were photographing it. This internal struggle crossed my mind anytime I’d explore an inhabited decaying space. I wanted to document these spaces in the short amount of time they had left, however were we overstepping our boundaries along the way? As we questioned ourselves in the warmth and comfort of our home, we drifted off to sleep.
The foodhopping spree only continued in Saigon. I was blown away that during my two months in the country, Việt went out of his way to take me out to try a different dish nearly every meal. I had come so far from the days I only knew of bánh mì when first arriving in Saigon a month before.
On several nights during my month in Saigon, Việt and I went to The Observatory, an up and coming music venue in town always bringing in international talent. We caught several shows there including Berlin techno legend Oliver Deutschmann, the Bangkok club duo, Soi Dogs, and some of the venue’s resident DJs which always got us dancing. The best part about the venue was that all shows were free so long as you arrived prior to 11pm. This was enough to bring us out even on Việt’s work nights.
Interestingly enough, Việt was always one of few actual Vietnamese people in attendance as mostly expats dominated the dance floor. Regardless, we always had fun and music was a big part of our time together, especially the below mixtape that was played at least three times a week at home.
When Việt began work, our day-to-day plans changed. While he would be in the office from 9-5, I’d stay inside to write or venture outside to explore the neighborhood.
One afternoon I got a call from my parents. It was very late their time, since they were twelve hours behind, but they had received a letter from Pratt Institute, the school I was attending up until that point, with a breakdown of the rising tuition costs over the next four years. It was higher than we had anticipated and they urged me to take a look into alternative options. Initially I was upset that I’d be missing out on attending one of the world’s best ranked design schools however a few hours later, I saw it as a new opportunity. Maybe Pratt wasn’t the right place for me after all.
Just like I was forced to quickly adapt to change when traveling, this essential skill carried over to other aspects of my life. The more I researched into American design schools, I realized that no matter where I applied to, it would cost at least $30,000+ USD a year, enough money to do this world trip of mine at least 4x over again. How could that be?
These insane tuition rates didn’t even factor in the cost of living for the year and as soon as I began to figure that out, it only looked worse, especially when considering moving to Brooklyn for Pratt. When Việt returned home from work, I explained to him what had happened and he immediately began helping me brainstorm exactly what I was looking for in continuing my education. But what did this include?
- An affordable design oriented education
- An international student body (I wanted to be surrounded by people from differing backgrounds especially after taking the year off)
- To study in a place where design mattered
- A program which didn’t limit me to a narrow field like Graphic Design or Industrial Design (I was interested in a variety of design using many mediums but most programs in the U.S. were more restrictive)
As I uncovered my interests and desired environment, more and more indicators pointed to the Netherlands. Not only was this European country the first to allow international students to study there, meaning there were already many well-established programs taught in English, but it was also world renowned for the country’s iconic Dutch Design. It seemed like my perfect fit and we discovered two promising looking schools in different parts of the country each with programs specifically catering towards international students. The more research I did on the schools, programs, and cities, the more I felt convinced that the Netherlands was the place for me. I immediately began working on my applications. The next step was talking to my parents.
Initially they weren’t so thrilled to hear that I had ruled out America, but as I started to explain all the above reasoning they soon understood. Once I began to send them information about both the schools I picked as well, they essentially did a 180° flip of their opinion and a few weeks later couldn’t have been more supportive. As Việt continued working throughout the weeks, I devoted all of my time to throwing together a portfolio from projects that were never intended to be anything more than just for fun.
Luckily, I had made quite a lot of projects in the past however the application processes of both programs were far more intensive than when I had applied to Pratt. I found this interesting since Pratt only required 15-20 images of projects and limited you to around 300 characters max to describe them. Both of these other programs needed me to submit 8-10 individual projects detailing how and why I made them, not just final product images. They also required an additional project each where I needed to design an object that triggered interaction or an object which changed user’s behaviors. The brainstorming began and I was soon as busy as Việt.
By evening, when we’d both finish our work we’d go out to eat. The usual deciding factor of what we were going to have for dinner came to play when he asked if I was feeling more “soupy or rice-y” and depending on my answer, he’d take me to another new place that never disappointed. Life was great. We were busy during the week and always doing something fun during the weekends. But this utopian lifestyle soon had to come to an end and it was only getting tougher to ignore as the date for my flight to London quickly approached.
Before I had even arrived in Vietnam, I had booked the flight because for months previous it was decided that my whole family would be meeting in London for ten days. I hadn’t seen my sister, Natalie, or her husband, Ben, in ten months since beginning the journey, my parents for eight months since seeing them in Greece, and Jonas for six months since venturing into Asia.
On our final weekend together, Việt threw a party including all his closest friends who I had come to know well. Not only had it been his birthday in the past month, but also two other friends. For their joint birthday party, Việt proposed that everyone prepared a dish to eat. The only rule was that it couldn’t be sweet or a dessert. Việt’s floor quickly ran out of space as we listened to music, played games, and talked over food throughout the night.
Wanting to thank Linh for cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the house on one of my last days, I picked up flowers for her from the market outside. When I gave them to her, she couldn’t stop smiling and all of a sudden broke into a laughing fit. I was beyond confused but thought she was just being extremely friendly. I only later learned that I had accidentally gifted her flowers used solely as a memorial for those who were deceased in Vietnam. Obviously she wasn’t offended and neither was Việt who had difficulties holding back his laughter as he explained to me my mistake.
On two of my final nights in Saigon, Việt insisted on cooking me some Western dishes that he had learned to cook when living in the U.S. I couldn’t refuse, especially since I didn’t know when we’d be seeing each other next.
With my bags fully packed, and goodbyes taken care of for all those who I had met along during my two months stay in the country, reality really started to set in. The future was extremely unknown, not only with Việt but now with continuing my education. I had never intended on traveling to Asia in the first place or meeting someone like Việt along the way, but now everything had completely changed. The school that I had thought I wanted to attend had fallen through and I was banking on being accepted to another school in Europe.
Regardless of the uncertainties ahead, Việt and I kept our heads high, hoping for the best in the future and promising to video chat when we could to keep each other updated on what life brought us next.
On my very last night in Saigon, Việt drove me on a joyride of the city so I could leave it with a proper goodbye. After his work the next morning, we grabbed all my stuff, loaded it up on his motorbike, grabbed coconut fried banana (a favorite dessert), and departed for the airport. Việt hoped to travel into Europe around June for his first time so we planned on meeting then… but without a visa and just getting situated at his new job, these plans were as uncertain as the road that lay ahead of me. I was face to face with the great unknown and I had no choice but to dive straight in.
Every Vietnamese post header image features a shot on film by Việt during our time together.