When All of Saigon is Your Playground

The jump didn’t go off quite as planned but “sometimes pain can be a good teacher,” admits Nguyen Van Nghia, one of Saigon’s early traceurs and an original member of the FreeFly Crew. The infamous jump in question happened years ago on the streets of Saigon at the age of 17. Nghia miscalculated a flip when his foot got caught on a table and he landed badly into a potted plant. At first, he felt winded and thought he had broken a bone, but he quickly realized that the sleeve of his t-shirt was wet. Soaked in blood, he carefully rolled up the sleeve to inspect the damage. The gash in his bicep was deep and blood literally squirted out to the rhythm of his heartbeat.

Most of us would pass out at this point, but not Nghia. A quick call to his dad had him on the way to the hospital, stitched up and back to practicing tricks in no time.

Parkour, also known as freerunning, is the art of movement and using your body to run up and leap over ledges, railings, staircases, walls and other everyday structures in the urban environment and it’s hardly new. It was popularized in the 90s and made its way to Vietnam around 2007 thanks to YouTube clips and a bunch of teenage kids with nothing to do and lots of time and energy. These gangs of traceurs, as they are referred to, would meet in local parks, usually Le Thi Rieng park in D10, and were all about figuring out creative and athletic ways of engaging with their physical environment to move over, around and through ‘obstacles’ in their path.

“Did you ever play with dominoes as a kid? Do you remember lining them all up in a standing position and then gently flicking the first one only to watch them all collapse into one another and topple?” asks Nghia. That’s how he describes the mental high he gets from parkour and physically negotiating the “obstacles” in his path as he runs, leaps and literally sails through the urban jungle of Saigon. According to him, “parkour is for your mind; it makes your stronger.” In densely populated cities like Saigon, where outdoor green areas are in short supply and several family members often live together in small spaces, you can easily see why parkour quickly became an attraction for the city’s youth. It doesn’t require equipment so it’s essentially free and can be practiced alone or in groups. All it takes is massive amounts of willpower, nerves of steel and some free time, all of which most teenage kids have in spades.

 After practicing parkour on his own for more than a year, Nghia and a buddy formed the FreeFly Crew back in 2010. At its height, the crew consisted of about 10 members and they regularly practiced on the streets of Saigon and the dusty parks and construction zones of Phan Thiet. They competed in several informal street competitions and, of course, loved to film their daring feats and upload them to YouTube, a very organic, unfiltered way of showing Saigon to the world back then.

Sometimes they would wake up as early as 5am to get together and train before work or school. They did parkour everywhere: abandoned buildings, parks, you name it. According to the FreeFly Crew, it was a way for young people to have fun and claim space in the city. “When you wake up so early and have all that energy to just run and leap and flip, you feel like the whole city is your playground. You’re constantly challenging yourself and trying new things in different places. It’s the ultimate feeling and we loved training together.”

Today, most of the members of the crew have moved on. Some have families, steady jobs, more responsibilities and less time to spend hitting the streets. They no longer officially train as a crew but rather they get together and “play” as often as they can.

In the last decade since parkour became known in Vietnam, the biggest change is that the once “rogue discipline” practiced by loosely tied gangs of teens like the Freefly Crew has become a more formalized sport. When once traceurs met by chance in parks and competed in casual street competitions, today freerunning academies have sprung up all over Asia and there are even popular parkour camps for children in places like Singapore. Moreover, in 2017, the United Kingdom became the first nation to recognize parkour as an official sport, giving it a solid platform for further growth. Parkour UK says the sport “encourages self-improvement on all levels, revealing one’s physical and mental limits while simultaneously offering ways to overcome them.”

Despite the slow disbandment of the FreeFly Crew, Nghia still regularly trains on his own every weekend as he says it helps him relax. “It gives me a sense of freedom, adrenaline mixes with fear and my mind and body just start to flow. My body simply goes where my mind tells it to and it makes me feel clear and at peace.”

 Parkour is filled with contradictions and that’s what makes it most exciting. It combines the physical discipline of martial arts and the carefree play of childhood alongside a wildcard element because you’re never sure what the traceur’s next move will be. It’s about physical challenges just as much as mental fortitude, yet at its core it’s about you versus your environment. It can be as easy or as dangerous as you decide to make it.

For guys like Nghia, it began as a youthful obsession with no rules and a healthy dose of danger. Today, it serves as a mind clearing exercise that taps into our most primal nature; to run free while putting all one’s strength and energy into something while holding nothing back.

Images by Johnny Guatto

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