A brand new book street brings an added touch of culture to downtown Saigon. By Simon Stanley. Photo by Vinh Dao.
In 2014, a series of photographs taken in a Bangkok airport passenger lounge and published on Chinese news website Zhejiang Daily, apparently revealed a growing difference between Southeast Asian and Western cultures. While most of the ‘local’ faces are all glued to smartphones and other electronic devices, the ‘foreigners’ among them are all buried in books.
While the images represent only one photographer’s speculation (which of course did not take into account the presence of ebooks and the fact that ‘foreigners’ like smartphones too), it is a question that has been repeated several times in the media over the past few years, particularly in China: why have people stopped reading?
Despite boasting a literacy rate of 94.5 percent (official 2015 estimate) Vietnam would appear to be experiencing the same downturn. In a country of over 90 million people, a book selling just 15,000 copies is deemed a major success according to Thanh Nien News.
It’s something that Nguyen Khanh Hoa Binh has seen first-hand. As the PR and marketing manager for Nha Nam, a national publishing house specialising in modern literature and children’s books, Hoa Binh admits that reading a novel is just not something Vietnamese people do. “People think books are boring,” she says. “They are more interested in taking photos.” Despite now being an avid fan of world literature, it was not something she picked up at school. “We had a library, she says, “but it was a place we’d never go to.” Even the city’s main public library, she admits, is not a place to visit for pleasure: “We go there to study, not to read.”
Unveiled in January 2016, a project taking place beside Ho Chi Minh City’s central post office aims to change all of that, encouraging Saigon’s residents to engage with books in an entirely new way. Costing VND 9.4billion (US$427,000), the 144-metre stretch of tarmac known as Nguyen Van Binh Street in District 1, previously home to nothing but parked cars and fallen leaves, has become a colourful array of bookshops, book stalls and two book-themed cafes. With regular chat shows, Q&A sessions, book signings and live events also taking place, Saigon’s premier book street has arrived.
“It’s not only a place to buy a book,” says Hoa Binh, “it’s a place to meet people, to hang out and to take photos.” With the bustle of bodies and the colourful displays of foreign and Vietnamese fiction and non-fiction titles on show, it’s hard to not want to buy a book, grab a coffee and escape the craziness of Saigon for an hour or so.
The reaction has been nothing but positive. In a city where buying a book can often mean a journey to one of just a handful of shops, having everything ‘under one roof’ in such an accessible and already popular spot has proven to be an overnight success for the publishing houses and for the promotion of reading in general. With its only other HCMC shop tucked away in Phu Nhuan District, Nha Nam has already seen a rise in sales.
“I think it’s very creative,” says 23-year-old Nguyen Thi Hoang Yen, a Saigon resident who regularly visits the street both as a social hangout and as a location to buy books. “It’s much more beautiful than a normal bookstore. It’s very open.” Yen presents the book she has just purchased as a gift, a translation of Mary Lu’s Legend, a 2011 dystopian novel apparently inspired by Les Miserables. As a regular buyer of ebooks, Yen admits that the arrival of the book street has encouraged her to engage with the paper and glue variety a lot more. “There are good discounts too,” adds her friend Nguyen Son Ha, 23, pointing to the various 20, 30 and 50 percent labels dotted throughout the store.
Nha Nam’s biggest selling title of 2015 was British illustrator Millie Marotta’s Animal Kingdom, an adult colouring book which has sold millions all over the globe. Colouring books, of course, have a far wider appeal than literature, requring minimum translation to export to overseas markets, yet Nha Nam’s second bestseller was a Vietnamese translation of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. This 1988 novel has so far sold over 65 million copies worldwide.
Although the book street is dotted with other translations of foreign titles (the Twilight and Harry Potter series, and the works of John Green seem to be the most popular at present), Hoa Binh suggests that the original English versions are becoming increasingly popular. “Many young people these days prefer to read English books instead of Vietnamese books,” she says, “because when you translate a book into another language, it’s not always the same.” The huddle of locals inside Nha Nam’s second shop on the strip, dedicated to English-word titles, would suggest that she is right. “Can you recommend a good book?” asks one Vietnamese customer as he scrolls through the bargain crate of second-hand novels perched in the store’s doorway.
Despite the popularity of foreign works, many of the overall bestsellers of 2015 were 100 percent Vietnamese. At number one, Tony Buoi Sang’s Tren Duong Bang, or On the Runway, is described by Hoa Binh as a self-help book. Judging by the presence of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books in every branch of Family Mart, it’s clearly a genre people enjoy. “I think everyone in Vietnam has that book,” says Hoa Binh of the motivational series.
Bookshops have undergone a turbulent few decades elsewhere in the world as the rise (and domination) of Amazon took sales into the virtual world and away from the high street. The arrival of their Kindle device and the rise of ebooks hasn’t helped. But as rumours begin to circulate of an impending roll-out of 299 real-life ‘physical’ Amazon bookstores across the US (it already has one store in Seattle), things appear to be going back the way they came.
“Browsing (for books) on Amazon isn’t great as a casual experience: fatigue sets in,” writes author Lee Child in a recent article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “Nothing sells physical books better than physical displays in bricks-and-mortar locations.” Judging by the crowds currently descending on Nguyen Van Binh Street each day and night, it seems to be working. Even if some visitors are only here for the new 24-hour McDonald’s, it’s a step in the right direction.
Published March 2016 – AsiaLIFE Magazine