Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Unknown movie theater - Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

There's more to come from the Thai hinterlands, but I'm itching to show off my rather limited batch of images from Vietnam first. Lets cut to the chase then, while the memories are still warm and vivid. It's time for something fresh in an oh-so stale kind of way.

Sad to say, but nearly a full week in HCMC made for sparse finds in the realm of old movie theaters, or "rap" as they're known in the indigenous tongue. Word has it, however, that in spite of my unsuccess, Saigon (as I'll refer to Ho Chi Minh City from here on) is home to dozens of such cinematic relics in one guise or another. The one featured below was in a busy market in Cholon - Saigon's version of Chinatown. Traffic in this area of town, be it pedestrian or motorized, is dense. Go figure, it's Chinatown. Home to the continuous hustle of new comer migrants in search of some bread. Using hand gestures and my non-existent Vietnamese I asked a young market worker if this was a theater. Negative. But how could she know? It's likely been closed since before she was born. At closer inspection, the word "rap" is painted on an old sign above what was once probably a poster case. I can spot a rap from a mile away.

The day before I'd found a similar old rap in another part of town. Out-dated, hand-painted movie posters tacked to the wall around the building's entrance indicated as much. When I saw the door was ajar, with middle-aged men drinking black iced-coffee in the little vestibule of a lobby, my excitement grew. It's open, I thought. What luck.

Now, at this sophomoric juncture in my career as "The Projectionist," I am well aware of what out-dated movie posters on the grounds of a functioning movie theater mean. It's code, generally, that deviant activities can be found inside. Deviance is fine with me. A natural part of human society, even. Not part of my own social repertoire, of course, but well documented and serving an important role in maintaining organic balance. I've been a casual observer on prior occasions, so it's no longer new to me. In short, there's really no need to go into these types of places any more.

Curiosity killed the cat.

It's one thing to put myself in bizarre situations, but better judgment is in order when accompanied by others. The other, in this case, agreed before hand to come along on some Saigon theater hunts. Good fun. "Hey look! There's a crusty looking old theater across the street, lets check it out."

One of the men seated in the vestibule lobby stood up. "Cinema?" I inquired.

"Ugh, cinema, cinema" he replied. He put up two fingers, indicating the entrance fee of twenty-thousand Dong.

"Don't be surprised if this isn't what it seems," I warned my friend before being ushered through the doors into pitch blackness. Only the rectangular glow of yonder screen breached the dark. We felt blindly around for seats until someone pointed a flashlight at two that were free. We sat, separated by an aisle. The screen ahead was showing something. What, I do not know. The auditorium was triangulated and we were at the far tip. The screen was in the distance. Creaking seats and the shuffle of flip-flops caused my ears to twitch, while the smell of pissed-in water made my esophagus contract. Bodies were closing in. I could not see them, but they were there in the blackness surrounding. Focus on the movie, admire the peculiar shape of the auditorium. Collect your stupid data, numb nuts. But be on guard. You're not in Thailand any more. You're in 'Nam, and you can't hold a conversation in this language.

Somebody was sitting on the armrest of my seat. I could not see the person, but it was there. Hands fell on me. On my leg, on my back, on my shoulders. Multiple hands. Time to end the research. "No, no, nooooooooooo," I exclaimed, in incrementally rising tones. I stood up and pushed through the blackness, past the sex zombies. "Lets get out of here, man," I said to my friend, who - as he later told me - sat tense, but unmolested. A vertical line of light announced the door. Frantically, I pushed, but it would not open. We were trapped. Open, you piece of shit! Open the hell up! Maybe try pulling. Genius. I tugged and the door swung in. Golden sunlight swaddled us. The stern-faced ticket seller sitting in the vestibule lobby grabbed our ticket stubs and shredded them as we ran past him. The busy streets never looked so good before in my life.

A few days later I set out again in search of this vile old theater, hoping to take some pictures of its exterior. The exterior! But I could not find it. The route we took to get there had slipped my memory. I'm sure it was just off Nguyen Trai Street, but it was nowhere to be found. It's as if it were a portal, now vanished, sent by the minions of hell to seize nosey movie theater interlopers; a demonic mirage which left no trace of its existence after its failed mission.

To be sure, the photos of the unknown rap pictured above were as close as I came to that one.


  1. Okay, Phil, okay. Now tell us what REALLY happened. Don't be shy. You're a researcher after all, and a gonzo type to boot. That kind of thing is your JOB. Go ahead and document it, (herpes) warts and all. WE wouldn't do it, but we're not truly committed. We all understand that for you, it's just work. Tell it, bro! No fear.

  2. I tell it like it happens, like I see it and hear it (and feel it, too). And should it ever go above and beyond the call of duty, in the name of research and cinema conservation, it will be posted here for all to see.

  3. "but better judgment is in order when accompanied by others."

    you ought of thought of this prior. you almost singlehandedly spoiled south east asia for me.-vmm

  4. You have a quite bad experience going to that cinema house. Hmmm I think, the second touch of the hands felt by yours,you should have ran out of that cinema in the first place. Whew! Kinda scary, but I think you have learn something out of this. Be careful on places you don't know,and try to get where there are lots of people specially on strange places.