Published December 27, 2018.
In the early 2000’s, skateboards began to appear on the streets of Việt Nam. Today, it has grown in popularity, forming its own subculture. But youth are finding it difficult to skate due to a lack of space and public acceptance. Our reporter, Tứ Tiểu Tâm, a passionate skater of over 11 years, hit the streets of Việt Nam to learn more.
One summer day, in the heart of Sài Gòn at Rubik Park, skateboarders from all over Việt Nam have come to the “Rip your Kick” contest.
Dozens of skateboarders have gathered and everyone goes wild after one of the skaters boardslides up, across, and then down a 15-foot handrail -- the most impressive trick of the contest. It’s cramped, it’s hot, but there is no shortage of energy. Just 15 years ago, this contest, the skate shops, and most of the skaters wouldn’t have been here. But it’s 2018, and the skate scene in Việt Nam is growing every day.
“Saigon Skateshop” banners hang over the railings at the contest. The skateshop (IG @saigonskateshop) is sponsoring the contest and several of their team members are competing as well. One of their team riders, Cu Tí, who everyone calls Cu Tí, is widely regarded by the others as one of the best in this contest. He says, “Since I started skating, I’ve just had this feeling that I really like it. It’s like, I like it, and I can’t stop doing it. When I do stop, I start feeling uncomfortable, it’s like I’m addicted.”
Cu Tí is a skateboarder from Sài Gòn. I sit with him in the attic of Saigon Skateshop. His baggy shirt is wrung out from sweat and on his interlaced fingers, a metal ring and a single black painted fingernail stick out. He's squatting on a low seat with boxes and boxes of skate shoes towering over him as he describes his “addiction” to skateboarding. “That’s why I’m always just skating skating skating, I can’t give up,” he insists. “If I ever gave up skateboarding, I don’t think I could live.”
Cu Tí is a sponsored skater. In Việt Nam, skateboarding sponsors range from local brands made by the Vietnamese people themselves, to international ones such as New Balance. Getting a sponsorship means companies believe a skater’s skills can help develop their brand. And for Cu Tí, this means opportunities he feels would be nearly impossible otherwise.
He says, “With the support I get from them and my other sponsors I am able to keep skating. I am able to go on tour and skate trips with a lot of talented skaters. I’ve travelled from here all the way to the north of Việt Nam and to foreign places, and it’s because of skateboarding. I am so grateful for it.”
After talking with Cu Tí, I travel north to Hà Nội where I meet Danh Trường, another skateboarder who has also greatly benefited from sponsorship. She is one of the most prominent female skateboarders in Việt Nam and the owner of a skateshop called 9013oardshop right in the Old Quarter of Hà Nội.
“Skateboarding has taught me so much,” she tells me. “...like...how to be patient. It also taught me what a passion is, what it’s like to have a dream. When I was in school, I didn’t even know what the whole point of it was. I still ask that but when I skate, I know what it is I want. At first, I wanted to be sponsored, and I got that. Then, I opened a skateshop, and now I want it to grow.”
But Cu Tí and Danh have to fight for their successes. Skateboarding in Việt Nam is difficult and one problem all skateboarders face is simply finding a space to skate.
Thông Nguyễn, a Sài Gòn local who is deeply involved with the skate scene and is the co-owner and manager at Saigon Skateshop, says the lack of understanding of the art plays a key role in the issues that skaters face.
“Because skateboarding is new, security guards still see us as little kids just messing around and they’re afraid we’re gonna cause trouble.”
As someone who is trying to help develop the skateboarding community, Thông constantly battles with this issue of space and accessibility. He describes the problem: “Even when we skate on the sidewalks or the park, community spaces, where we should be allowed to skate, we still get kicked out. We seek out places away from everyone to skate. In Sài Gòn, you may get at the longest a year or two to skate somewhere but eventually we get kicked out again and we have to find another spot.”
In a widely viewed video posted on YouTube, Cu Tí can be seen arguing with a security guard who is kicking him out of Chi Lăng Park, a public park. Despite not saying anything to the drivers on the sidewalk who are breaking the law, the security guard targets Cu Tí.
The security guard says he has the right to arrest Cu Tí, but Cu Tí replies that he’s at an open public park, a place where sports are allowed. The frustrated security guard raises his voice at Cu Tí, exclaiming that there are plenty of other spots to play sports. Why does he need to do it here? Cu Tí repeats that this is also a place to play sports. Ignoring this, the security guard flexes his authority and yells at Cuti to get out.
It isn’t just security guards who have a problem; it’s society too. Another skater, Trịnh Định Thời says he finds himself at odds with the common prejudice toward skating.
He says, “There’s people who just see us as little punks messing around, they don’t realize that this is something we’re passionate about. That it’s art.”
Trịnh Định Thời has been skating long before there were any shops or local brands. And he sees that if skateboarding wants to be accepted by society, well…
“Then we have to get government approval but the government has not reached a level where they can create a model. The government is a society that is rigid, stubborn. Just because you want it doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen.”
Cu Tí says this disapproval doesn’t just make life for skateboarders inconvenient; it affects the entire business. He describes the difference, “Skating in Việt Nam isn’t like skating in the US. The community there is huge, they have all these brands with enough money to pay entire teams of skaters. In Việt Nam who knows how many boards you’ll sell each month.”
Yet the day may not be too far where society will become more open-minded to skateboarding, and the booming youth population do have control over their own lives.
At one of the skate sessions outside of Đức Bà Church, one of the most popular hangout spots for young people in Sài Gòn, I meet a 60 year old woman going for a stroll around the church.
She tells me, “I really like seeing everyone skate like this. First, you all are using up the street to practice but it’s beautiful, it’s culture, and it’s a sport that not every skillful person can do. Secondly, you all are prepared to deal with the pain. Like if you hurt your arm or your leg slips, but y’all are still ready and you’re not shy. And you guys practice for what? So that you guys can have a foundation, so you guys can have something good that not all people your age can do. That is a culture that is very admirable.”
But skaters like Thông aren’t seeking everyone's approval. He recognizes how difficult it is to skate in Việt Nam, and believes in the power of skaters to develop their own community.
“I want to say to every skateboarder to follow your passions despite our road being difficult and not having the right conditions. It’s the responsibility of every skater in the community to develop it,” he says.
“There’s no other person or group of people who can do it. Hold onto your passion and follow your dreams. There will be a day where we will have great skateparks like the rest of the world, like the places we see in skate videos. I think that if it can happen anywhere, then for sure it can happen in Việt Nam.”