It’s 9am in Melbourne and 11pm in Paris when I chat with French theatre director Caroline Guiela Nguyen on the phone. We’re discussing her critically acclaimed play Saigon, which is appearing in Melbourne as part of Asia TOPA.

Also on the line is an interpreter, who swings between my English and Nguyen’s French as easily as the play switches between places and time periods: Saigon in 1956, when Vietnam was freshly granted independence and many of its people migrated to France; and Paris 50 years later, when the Việt Kiều (Vietnamese living abroad) were finally allowed to return to their homeland.

An epic family saga (run time is three hours), Saigon chronicles a history of displacement and exile that’s heartfelt and evocative, taking on universal themes now more relevant than ever. “It’s a complex story,” says Nguyen. “It doesn’t combine two cultures, French and Vietnamese, but is rather about this group of people that belong to both and neither. They exist in a space of exile and forever-travel, at the same time full and empty, neither fully Vietnamese nor fully French.”

The story involves 11 characters, each with a story to tell about the diaspora, what they’ve left behind and the sacrifices and triumphs along the way. Set predominantly in a suburban Vietnamese restaurant in Paris, framed as the last bastion of native culture in a foreign country (“I imagine there are also many of those in Australia”), it’s a place where migrants can speak their native tongue and keep the traditions of their homeland alive, despite being miles and borders away.

The story is both personal and global. Nguyen was born in France to a Vietnamese mother who fled Saigon decades before. She spent two years interviewing Vietnamese migrants in Paris’s 13th arrondissement (a district known for its diaspora communities from all over the world) as well as those they left behind in Ho Chi Minh City (once Saigon).

“This project is about trying to regroup all these people and spaces and different times into one story,” she says. “It’s all about this encounter and intersection. It also resonates with the current issues in France and Europe – and, from what I understand, in Australia. What we’re trying to do is move away from words such as ‘immigrant’, ‘refugee’, and ‘national identity’. Those words lack humanity. The work of Saigon is to bring back the human dimension behind those words, and from there we can start accepting the humanity in these stories.”

The play is performed in French and Vietnamese with English surtitles which Nguyen says is intentional and designed to illustrate the difficulties of living in a foreign place, hindered by language barriers.

She tells me one of the actresses, Anh Tran Nghia, has a unique accent that’s a mix of the two. She left Vietnam too early to develop the native accent, but arrived in France with her tongue already developed and unable to grasp the full French accent.

“She’s kind of stuck between those two languages, like the characters are stuck between worlds,” says Nguyen. “They’re the people we want to talk about. So that’s why it was important for us to get more Vietnamese actors in the show.”

Ho Chi Minh City today is not the Saigon of 64 years ago. For the people who left Saigon before it changed, there is a sense of longing – a shadow of what once was – that they’ll never truly get closure from.

“Saigon itself is already a fiction – it no longer exists,” says Nguyen. “We’re talking about something that’s no longer in the present … there will always be a hole or a gap left there.”

Saigon is running from March 12 to 15, 2020 at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse as part of this year’s Asia TOPA. Tickets now available.

Broadsheet is a proud media partner of Arts Centre Melbourne.