Recently I captured a few photos of 'empty Saigon,' showing the quiet emptiness that has taken over the city following the most recent wave of COVID-19. The images give me the same feeling as when my two kids are unwell.
As the father of two boisterous boys, I am continuously looking for ways of keeping them calm and quiet while I desperately try to work from home.
Once in a while, they catch a fever and lie quietly on the sofa. In those moments, I long for them to be up and about again, make as much noise as they want, bounce off the walls, and drive me crazy.
It is the same story for me now when it comes to Saigon. Often in the past, I have sat in very heavy traffic and stressed about it being noisy, busy, and unpredictable. The recent COVID-19 outbreak has now made a calmness and emptiness descent upon the city; very few motorbikes, no crazy traffic delays, no noise, just an eerie quiet. Yes, the city is finally calm, but now I am longing for the traffic to pick up, the noise to take over, and the hustle and bustle of economic activity to resume.
The photo on the left in particular pulls on my heart, but at the same time it also gives me hope. I took this photo, looking out of my office window on a day when the guidance from the authorities had made the city calm, but for every 'quiet' photo I have taken, I have at least a dozen of that exact same view where the streets are packed, the energy is tangible, and the noise reverberates around my office.
That busy view is what I miss, not just because it’s beautiful but also because it is what energizes me. It is the same view that I look at between my work meetings; the same one that reminds me of why I do what I do and why I am where I am, in Saigon. This is the heart of where so much happens. This is a city full of potential, a people full of drive, and a community full of energy. That is what I see in its traffic, what I hear through its cacophony of noise, and what I envision beyond its chaos. It is those same characteristics that drive the city to thrive, to survive, and to surprise. It is these attributes that also point to better times in the future for this wonderful city.
There are not that many cities in the world where their noise, their traffic, and their chaos give me such hope, but Saigon has always been very different. Running deep in all these sounds, movements, and everyday life is a rich history, a will to survive, and a willingness to work hard and fight hard. It is that foundation which makes this city strong and resilient. You can take away the traffic, reduce the noise to a soft murmur, and shut down the outdoors, but you can never take away the strength, the resilience, the resolve, and the beating heart that runs deep below the surface of this city.
Now as I sit at my dining room table in front of my work laptop and I can hear my kids playing on their drum set in an adjacent room, the pulsating sound reminds me of the heartbeat of Saigon that I used to feel every time I visited the city in my previous regional role based in Hong Kong. I was often asked what the city could do more to ensure it takes its rightful place next to other financial centers in the region.
Some potential ideas are as follows:
1/ Establishment of an advisory board – Just like that of Vietnam’s prime minister. I think Ho Chi Minh City authorities could consider one including scientists, economists, and business leaders from the private sector. These people will provide invaluable advice for the future economic development of Ho Chi Minh City based on their collective experience;
2/ Digital transformation – Just like managing a corporation in this fast-changing world, the city also needs to adapt to the fast pace of digitalization and embrace it. Digital transformation can and will provide fast, secure, efficient, and convenient administration processes and procedures for future foreign investment and local business registration;
3/ Added incentives for the private sector – Ho Chi Minh City is the economic center of the country and the base for much of the future economic development of Vietnam;
4/ Investment in infrastructure development especially around transport and port connectivity;
5/ Sustainable development – This should be the ultimate goal of the city authorities as unfettered growth without an eye on the consequences on the environment will not ensure sustained growth into the future. We all need to play our part in balancing economic development together with the broader well-being of society.
So just like my children’s ‘quiet’ times brought about by a fever, the calm of Saigon triggered by COVID-19 will be short-lived. Kids have a passion for life; they have an energy inside that cannot easily be contained and they have strong minds that direct them toward a brighter and more hopeful future. That is exactly what the people of Saigon will do.
The fever passes and my boys bounce around the room and drive their dad crazy because that is who they are and that is what I love. Saigon will, too, overcome this COVID-19 wave, it will be filled with life, with noise, with traffic, and with hope because that’s what this city is all about and that is what we all love about. Good times will return and the future will be bright.
The story was written by Tim Evans, CEO of HSBC Vietnam, in response to the 'Ho Chi Minh City Goes Global' contest, an open forum for readers to contribute their ideas and solutions to raise the position of Saigon - Ho Chi Minh City in the international arena.
The contest is co-organized by Tuoi Tre(Youth) newspaper and the Ho Chi Minh City Department of External Relations to prepare for the celebration of National Day on September 2.
For further information and how to take part, please click here.