Life in the alleys of District 4 has largely remained the same since it rose up as a cramped slum settlement, bordered by rivers in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Once notorious as a cradle of mafia and criminal activity, the district has lost some of its tough reputation in recent years.
But the years of isolation as a no-go zone have enabled the area to hold onto its historic buildings and narrow alleys.
It’s this distinctive character that drew a group of RMIT Vietnam researchers and creative practitioners to start exploring the district in late 2016 and begin working on a creative archive to capture urban life in its narrow alleys (hẻm in Vietnamese).
Lecturer and doctoral researcher Andrew Stiff says the area has seen relatively little external influence in terms of urban development, compared with the sweeping change across Ho Chi Minh City.
“It is still a unique urban space as it is, which offers an insight into not just urban living conditions but also an insight into a cultural environment that is resilient and resourceful,” Stiff said.
The team wanted to record different aspects of a group of hẻms located in a small section of the district, Ward 14.
The impressive amount of data they gathered has now been used to create the online collection, An Urban Archive of District 4.
A collaborative research project between RMIT Vietnam’s School of Communication and Design and the RMIT Vietnam Library, the archive is open for anyone in the world to view, search, download and interact with.
The archive – which also invites contributions from the public – includes raw audio visual material and digitally processed data, creating both factual and creative understandings of the unique spaces.
“We started exploring the hẻms of District 4 out of personal interests in urban spaces. We were fascinated by them, the inhabitants and their environment,” says Stiff, who is working on a PhD titled Intimate of Spaces: An archive of creative observation.
A call for public engagement
The team has been presenting the project at conferences, forums and public talks in an effort to raise awareness of the archive and enhance its impact.
“As the city rapidly undergoes redevelopment, the archive works as a unique record of the hẻms, something that keeps them not just as old and nostalgic memories but as a living entity of the city,” Stiff says.
“That way it encourages people to continue to archive, to keep it alive, appreciate the present state of these hẻms.”
Most of the works in the archive are licensed under Creative Commons, which allows them to be copied and redistributed in any format, for non-commercial use.
“With this archive, we aim to generate social engagement to add more value to existing data and to expand the archive. Visitors can curate their own collection from the archive and submit their own works,” Stiff says.
“We hope this can bring new ideas, fresh approaches and engaging resources to other creative practitioners, including our students.
“As lecturers, we want to encourage them to engage back to their own environment, their own communities, and use these as the materials to produce creative works.”
Along with Stiff, the group includes RMIT Vietnam staff members Desiree Calvo Grunewald, Thierry Bernard, Loic Bertrand Chichester, Ondris Pui Hsiao Hui, Truong Thanh Hung, and Tran Thi Thao Nguyen.
RMIT is developing its research strengths in areas including Urban Futures and Design and Creative Practices through the newly established Enabling Capability Platforms.
Story: Thanh Phuong/Gosia Kaszubska