Posted by: passedportsnyc | February 22, 2010

Public Living in Saigon

Public living.  People Ho Chi Minh City do everything on the street, everything.  They breeze in and out of each others’ homes, eating bowls of soup along the way.  They drag lawn chairs onto the sidewalk and nap alongside a steady stream of motorbike traffic.  The play cards and mahjong.  They paint their toenails and trim their moustaches. Their doors are always open.  This probably originates from the lack of air conditioning and the heat.  But even those with air con frequently choose not to use it and leave the doors open instead.  Some even leave it on and air condition the sidewalk.  Many houses have large sliding doors the entire width of the house; the line between inside and outside is blurred as people and things spill over into the street.  You can’t help but peek inside.  Occasionally you get the sense that it is deliberately exhibitionist, but most of the time it seems like privacy is just something that never occurred to most people.

Americans tend to place high value on personal space and privacy (though oversharing on the internet may be changing this).  A Japanese person living here described a similar cultural affinity for privacy in his country, and expressed absolute wonder at the degree of public life here in Vietnam.  I’ve noticed there less privacy in developing countries generally, precisely because privacy is a privilege that comes with a certain amount of financial wherewithal.  However, Vietnam is an economy on steroids; the publicity of life is no longer a financial imperative for many people, just a cultural norm.  But that doesn’t mean anyone is closing the doors.

As one Vietnamese told me when I asked about this, people like attention, they want everyone to know what they’re about to do, all the time.  And they always want to know what everyone else is doing, at all times.  Who needs Facebook (which the government routinely blocks) when life is one big status update?



  1. hey sarah! I always read your blog (it’s a tab on my internet explorer page haha) and I just wanted to say that I love everything you post. It’s always fun to read and interesting… I hope you’re having an amazing time and I hope we can catch up if you visit Lab someday!

    Best Wishes,
    Caroline M.

    • Aw thanks Caroline, great to hear from you! Hope your year is going well, and we will for sure catch up when I’m back in NYC! xoxo

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