L

ong known as the poorer, more dangerous sibling of district 1, district 4 in recent years has been shedding its reputation as repository for thieves, pickpockets, and gangsters of the city, or as a thoroughfare between its more prosperous neighbours, D1 and D7. Now, it has picked up noted prestige as a place to go for the best street foods, to shop in busy markets, a location to find every imaginable necessity sold cheaply and in bulk. District 4 is more true to Saigon’s old pace of living than D1, and its profusion of pastel painted, closely packed low rises reminds visitors of a different city and time, even as high rise behemoths and razed plots of tufted grass and gravel demarcating future apartment complexes appear ever more frequently.

D4’s varied, dense urban environment contains a bit of the old time hustle it used to be known for. My new district’s personality comes from its narrow streets and these four to five story homes packed close together, narrow houses linking to form alleyways, “hem” in Vietnamese. The domestic life of such buildings extends to its business and street life, its mercantile leanings spill directly onto the alleyway. Stores or street food eateries abound on the ground floors of such homes, customers chat and bargains are made and bartered over, life blends inextricably with trade in such alleyways.

IMG_9971.JPGThis distinct energy, coalescing from the mixture of shops and homes, is particularly unique to Ho Chi Minh city. If driving one’s motorbike through the wide lanes of Ben Van Don gives expansive views of the Saigon skyline on one side and the multitudes of construction cranes on the other, veering off into smaller alleyways reveals sights and sounds that I claim as unique to my new city.

A curious traveller who takes a seat on a plastic stool, orders a sugarcane drink, and chats with a local, can begin to crack the layers of history within this district and of the city as a whole. Many of the folks that sell food and drinks here are people who have lived here the majority of their lives. Right above the ground floors where they make a living, they’ve raised families, daughters and grandsons, whose presences often busy the shops and restaurants below. They have seen all the iterations of their district throughout the years, so urban change and development are nothing new to their experience.

My first day of moving to my flat, my roommate and I took a break from carrying luggage and furniture to cross the street and find some shade in the hot December day. We spotted a sugarcane seller and her aluminum framed stand, set up below a makeshift canopy and under the shelter of a tree on the street. Her conviviality and warmth attracted us; we sat down, relaxed, and chatted with her as she made our drinks. While she shoved pulpy cylindrical canes through metallic rollers, taking them out, and pushing them through again and again until they exited as pulpy pancakes of their original selves, she told us about her daughter, who does nails, and her son, who drives a taxi for a living and makes roughly 350 usd a month. “A good living for himself”, in her opinion.  “I’ve been selling sugarcane juice here”, she told us proudly, “for the past thirty years”. It was a pleasant introduction to the neighborhood, welcome respite from the moving. Eventually, we returned to our labor and she to hers after we finished. I frequently see her around the neighbourhood now and then, and wave hello. 

Like such inhabitants, the streets of district 4 are also varied and rich with history. You can find streets dedicated to particular Vietnamese dishes, markets. Some narrow arteries are so packed with pedestrians, hawkers, aluminum stands, and even the occasional bus rolling through, that it’s a miracle if anything can move through it. Yet somehow, it does. I’m astounded at the patience of watching Vietnamese people on motorbikes waiting behind such buses, as the molasses slow traffic squeezes through such alleyways.

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Snail Street

One particular street, named Vinh Khanh, is noted for selling snails and seafood, made for eating with cheap beer chilled in plastic cups of ice. Vinh Khanh winds its way through the heart of district 4, a curving tree lined street full of street eateries that are fully alive only at night. Its entire stretch hums with young people eating and chatting. The Vietnamese term for this experience is “di nhau”, or going out to drink and relax with friends. One is usually casually attired, drinking light beers, eating grilled meats and perched on stools on the streets, or getting amiably plastered in the newer beer clubs, rather than sipping on cocktails and curated nibbles on mahogany bar tables. “Di nhau” is an assertively blue collar experience.

Under barber striped vinyl awnings, red stools and plastic tables are brought out at night for seating. Rumbling motorbikes whir through its lanes, their sounds mixed in with raucous banter, the clanking of dishes and plates, snail shells dropping into buckets, ice cubes rattling around metal pans. Most of the customers are young and chatty, coming there after hours for the snails and other shellfish equivalent, grilled, steamed, dipped in an array of sauces. All the activity cohere to form a maelstrom of aural and visual experience.

On one particular summer night on Vinh Khanh, a posh limo rolled up to the curb and released its well dressed passengers onto the curb next to where my friends and I were sitting. The last passenger to emerge was a pet pig, massive in size, gracing us with a snort and grunt. While the pig’s owners joined the throng and took a table, it wandered the grounds, sniffed the scene, and picked at some discarded foods, acting as if it were just a regular coming to visit its favorite eatery. I was delighted at the sight, but around me, no one batted an eye. An upper class hog cavorting in working class streets is just part of the daily scene here. Unlike me, it was a regular patron of snail street.

Xom Chieu Market and Ton That Thuyet:

When I first moved to the district and needed household furnishings, I looked at the housewares stores in D1’s Saigon Centre. Seeing an ironing board on sale for nearly a hundred USD, I asked the woman there why it was so pricy. “These are made in Korea, older brother”, came the response. For that price I assumed the board would iron my clothes for me. I stormed out, and made my way outside the mall searching around for a ride home, and was relieved to find a motorbike driver who eventually brought me back Xom Chieu, my neighborhood’s main market, to do some more affordable shopping.

Xom Chieu’s various wares are much cheaper than even the markets in district 1 across the water – Ben Thanh and Cho Cu. Outside of its lengthy awning, Xom Chieu market also has great street food stalls where you can take a break from shopping to eat, or order something to take home. I spent time haggling half heartedly for all the things I needed to buy, and half an hour, and half the price of an ironing board in Saigon Center later, I came away with a looter’s trove: plates and silverware for my kitchen, an ironing board, twenty hangers, mugs, two towel sets, and a small garbage bin.

Ton That Thuyet is another market street that has everything a shopper would need. From shirts, clothes, phone accessories, bras, grandmother’s favourite lounge wear, to kids’ toys and vegetable stands, it’s hard to believe this is also a main thoroughfare that runs the full southern border of the district. The shopper comes here to literally grab anything he could need, but he should be prepared to share his shopping space with buses and hordes of roving motorcycles during rush hour.

These narrow lanes, filled with the bustling energy of trades being made, of Vietnamese mercantile ingenuity, Vietnamese hustle, and Vietnamese banter, come closest to my picture of what Saigon is about. Perhaps we all define a city our own way, and we come to call such neighbourhoods ours and ignore the other sections of such a city. If this is so, I am unapologetic about enjoying district 4’s busyness, and unabashedly unimpressed with district 2’s and Phu My Hung’s approximation of Western suburban living, the Desperate Housewives sections of the city.

Construction and other pleasant noises

For my first month of living here, every morning, I would wake up to the clanging of construction nearby. This didn’t come from large machines, but from workers hammering or ladling cement mixture to build a new five story home right across from my apartment complex. In about three weeks, I observed the house grow from two to five stories, get painted, have its rooftop planted with potted trees, and get a metallic water tank fitted to the side of its roof. The latter is done because there’s not enough water pressure to run to these high floors, and also, according to my aunt, to give hot water, as the tanks are heated by the sun.

In the late afternoon, a small school across my street carries sounds of children being released from their day. During the day, I can hear performances, songs, sounds of collective exercises, teacher’s or administrators’ speeches, all coming from the same location; a humming and buzzing of children’s voices. The little bit of forced communal merriment that one finds is present in all schools, from western to eastern educational places.

The Property Boom and its Effects

One question that I ask is whether the construction of so many new high rises will change the district’s essential identity. In the past two years, district 4 has already seen two luxurious complexes, and numerous more will come online in the next two years, some with shopping centers attached to their bases, significantly transforming traffic flow in the area.

I’m not convinced these developments will noticeably alter district 4’s identity. As long as there is common space amongst the district’s inhabitants to interact daily and foster this urban dialogue, the essence of the district won’t change. In years to come, the buzz of motorbikes will continue to coexist with sounds of workers eating, chatting, drinking merrily on its periphery. The only way such a dense, buzzing district and historical area of Saigon can be erased, is if the streets begin to cater towards automobiles, if D4’s small roads suddenly get widened from two small lanes to four wide ones, or if the narrow homes that line these lanes get replaced by cavernous lobbies of new high rises, parking lots for millionaires’ cars. Then, something would be lost, irrevocably so. Luckily, we have district 2 and Phu My Hung as models of this other type of urban/suburban complex. D4 for now remains blessedly its thriving, bustling self.

Weekend mornings, I like to drink coffee at a street food stall on Ben Van Don. I share the space with workers on their morning off, each of us settle onto wood or plastic stools, and all of us patiently watch the traffic pass by. In the diffuse early morning light, the moving figures on motorbikes and the placid city skyline behind them form a captivating panorama: blurred movement of colors in foreground, high rises taking shape in the background, the young and old in repose, browsing newspapers, sipping iced coffee, waiting for the day to begin.