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Saigon, Saigon: The music of my new home

Saigon, Saigon: The music of my new home

Sunday, March 05, 2023, 16:23 GMT+7
Saigon, Saigon: The music of my new home
An aerial view of the Saigon River’s section running through District 2 and Binh Thanh District in Ho Chi Minh City at night. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre

Editor’s note: English/Japanese Liam Langan recalls how his music taste has been shaped after living in Ho Chi Minh City: from the moment he stepped out of the Tan Son Nhat airport to when he began to come to terms with the city’s noise.

I’ve been in Saigon for six months now. This city, which upon my arrival danced to its own quick, choppy beat, now seems to have slowed down so I can catch my breath, looking around once in a while when I’m cruising its jumbled streets on my motorbike to think:

I’m here now. I’m here. 

I’ve settled into my new life. One with new opportunities, new people, a new routine, and more recently, a new genre of music. Ever since high school, this was how it happened. Anytime I’d travel I found myself listening to a different kind of music, as if the genre were a direct channel into the new land and my state of mind there. And like a snake shedding its old and worn out skin, I was growing into one more befitting of the unfamiliar environment I was in. 

This thought first came to me during a particularly bleak winter when I was a teenager in Tokyo. All of a sudden, I couldn’t stop listening to ‘Kind of Blue’ by Miles Davis. The album encompassed everything I felt at the time, a sense of hopelessness dwelling in every corner of the city as the neon faded and there was only a suffocating collection of concrete buildings. They were stacked one atop the other, towering and towering. 

From there, the record on the vinyl turned to House and Techno, owing to my first real taste of independence in an English university where sleepless nights with friends became the norm. Despite the ecstasy, the move also came with bouts of homesickness where I scoured YouTube for anything Japanese. This led to my discovery of City-pop, a genre of 80’s Japanese music that transported me thousands of miles back home into a time I’d never known. For the duration of those songs the promise of Tokyo was alive and well, and I was all the better for it. 

Since then, my music tastes have fluctuated. Like some failed runaway I always return to Rock and Jazz—my favorites and the two ‘parent’ genres that first really got me into music—but I also let my ear wander. It’s picked up a number of tunes along the way to either latch onto or simply, let go, but now, after six months in Saigon, I can safely say I’ve developed a love for two genres in particular.

A photo show Ho Chi Minh City from above taken from a skyscraper in Binh Thanh Distict. Photo: DOng Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

A photo shows Ho Chi Minh City from above taken from a skyscraper in Binh Thanh Distict. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News

There’s no use for a drum roll so I’ll come out and say it: Ambient and Classical music are the two genres I can’t stop listening to. It’s ironic that these are the ones that have taken over, but it also makes a lot of sense. However, for you to get an idea of why they are, I’ll have to give you an outline of my time here so far. 

The moment I stepped out the door at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, I was met with a barrage of noise. Family members wailed happy greetings, children running off into the arms of giggly grandmothers while friends and lovers reunited with hugs and kisses. Photos were taken, snap—snap—snapping and the flashes made them feel as loud as flash bangs.

I’d taken my earphones off and heard everything all at once. Saigon, I was here now, facing a wall of what looked like a thousand Vietnamese faces when I was struck with the fact that I knew no one. And wasn’t that as exciting as it was scary? Rolling my bag along, taxi drivers waved and called me over, asking where I was going and promising to take me there for cheap. I nodded, somewhat embarrassed as I bowed my head, the noise swarming all around. 

From then on, the noise never stopped.

I quickly realized that in Saigon, no matter where you are, you’re always close enough to hear something. Whether it’s the incessant howl of an ambulance stuck in traffic, the bubble and pop of a boiling pot of broth, or a cat’s yawn as she stretches out in a sunlit alley, the notion of a complete silence escaped me—There was no such thing and had there ever been? 

Weeks passed. I started work as an English teacher where the noise was even more rampant—Classrooms stuffed with twenty-three nine-year-olds letting off steam to smaller groups of five-year-olds where we sang, danced, and clapped our hands. Though I then believed a class of quiet, obedient students would be a godsend, my first lesson with a group of clammed up teenagers proved otherwise. I spent a whole two hours attempting to make up for their silence, feeling like some weekday clown as I cajoled and joked while they stared back blankly; one should never have to endure such humiliation.

After a while of this, I began to come to terms with Saigon’s noise. I found my spot in the hubbub and the pitch on the speakers lowered, the never-ending honks and cheery local chatter fading out until it was all in the back, all behind me. It was like being underwater and looking up. You see the sunlight shift across the water’s surface but it never touches you. You only float in deep blue space. I was no longer affected, sort of ambling on at my own pace and call it fate or call it whatever but it was around then the transition into listening to more Ambient and Classical music was made. 

Nowadays, Ambient artists like Brian Eno, Hiroshi Yoshimura, and Kenichiro Isoda, or Classical pianists like Chopin, Debussy, and John Fields have taken over so my flat is at all times filled with the music of their gentle peace. But is it a peace from Saigon or a peace within it? Am I running from the city-wide madness or have I adapted to it? That’s a question I still haven’t figured out the answer to. A greater part of me believes it’s the former because that one’s easier to stomach, but then again, it is true that I feel more at home here now than I ever have. It’s a funny thought then to imagine that maybe all the locals have some silent Ambient track or pretty Classical piece playing through their head, as if for anyone to really be able to function in this city, one needs to tune into the order amongst the chaos, be in a perpetual calm in spite of the storm. Who knows.

At this point it’s all speculation and at the end of the day, does it even matter? All I know is that I’m here now, I’m here, and this is the music of my new home. 

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