A year ago, an American expat messaged me on Instagram: “Is Phường 19 in Bình Thạnh your ’hood, too?”
I had to check Google Maps. It wasn’t. Technically my ’hood is Phường (ward) 22 — a newly developed urban realm composed primarily of generic high-rise towers and a hectare’s worth of Truman Show-style villas.
For a “corner shop”, as a resident, I can choose from a triumvirate of convenience stores: 7/11, FamilyMart and CircleK. That’s why, especially of an evening, I’m keener to be associated with Phường 19, a much older, more “Saigonese” part of Ho Chi Minh City.
Not that all of it is all that old.
Some of the most eye-catching buildings in the ward are Chung Cư Phạm Viết Chánh, a bunch of apartment blocks named after a mid-nineteenth century mandarin and scholar. Built in the mid-1990s, but already looking much older, they’re not really much to look at. But architecture isn’t the draw, not for me anyway. When the day is done, I walk over here just to drink in the giddy feel of the place: the street-side banter, the clinking of glasses, the laughter, the sense of community — compared to the sobering, sanitised surroundings of my own apartment block, Phường 19 knows how to take the edge off.
If only someone had told me sooner. I’d been barrelling past the narrow access road that led into the Phạm Viết Chánh block for years, convinced an understanding and appreciation of Ho Chi Minh City would more likely be established in its historic heart of Saïgon - Chợ Lớn.
But as fate would have it, halfway through 2017, my long-suffering Vespa stopped working (this time permanently), which encouraged me to explore the locality with the rarest mode of transport of all: my own two feet.
Not having my own wheels in this overly motorised city would have been unthinkable for me once. When I first moved from Hanoi, I’d have sputtered across multiple districts just to eat one specific banh mi or bowl of noodles.
Why did I feel that I had to pay my respects to the city’s most-blogged-about “hidden gems”? In Hanoi I’d known plenty of expats who supported their adopted home town with a loyalty you’d expect from diehard followers of football clubs. Migrating south to Saigon, in their eyes, was the ultimate betrayal.
Whether saddened or sickened by news of my involuntary defection, one friend simply emailed an excerpt from a novel by a Vietnamese-American writer with this scathing take-down of my new home: “A hodgepodge of incoherence, Saigon thrives on pastiche. Sly, crass, infatuated with all things foreign, it caricatures everyone yet proclaims itself an original …”
This withering line had always rankled, but to be honest, I had no riposte upon moving south. Initially, the gaudier side of the city (the kitsch, the glitz, the rooftop bars and B-list stars) had both caught my eye and baffled me. My food-oriented explorations were, in hindsight, an antidote of sorts, as if I could eat my way into liking the southern hub.
But traipsing around Phường 19 felt different, even if food was still central to my excursions — because? This time, I was chowing down with the locals as a local. I would soon become a regular at places like Lương Ký Mì Gia, an ethnic Chinese family-run restaurant, which serves mouthwatering mì vịt tiềm (a braised duck leg on egg noodles) and various Vietnamese descendants of dim sum. Another favourite spot became an eatery called Kaki-Noki, where a couple from Osaka make not-very-Italian pasta dishes, say, spaghetti with sea urchin or salmon roe.
To get to either restaurant from my apartment, I often walk down Ngô Tất Tố Street, where there’s a small Catholic church with a modernist design right opposite a pagoda with a statue of Quan Âm (the bodhisattva of compassion) that faces the adventitious roots of a well-aged banyan tree. All along the roadside, the less religiously inclined also congregate — down from the apartment blocks, and out from the stuffy back alleys, locals of all ages gather in clusters in search of cooler air and communion. Some hang out at outdoor cafes, others might be seen feasting on ốc (snails, cockles, periwinkle scallops, anything in a shell, grilled or steamed, and washed down with beer). Some will come carrying their own plastic pews and plonk themselves down on the pavement and chitchat with whoever is passing.
Everyone, wherever they choose to sit in Phường 19, tends to face the street. Even though the neighbourhood can be described as low key, the nights here still hum with a palpable energy. In the Vietnamese language, there’s a prefix for all living things (con) and the word for roads is con đường — they’re living, breathing things, and near impossible to ignore.
Later in the evening, I have my own people-watching, street-side spot on the two-table terrace of Birdy, a small cocktail bar run by a guy from Tokyo
and a woman from Turin. Right opposite, there’s a local temple with the words Miếu Ngũ Hành Sơn (the Five Elements Temple), which was built up by local residents, who come to worship local heroes as tutelary spirits.
It seemed like an appropriate building to be facing one evening last December as Vietnam’s national football team bested Malaysia in the final of the Suzuki Cup, sparking mass euphoria throughout the country. Right after the final whistle, crowds of Vietnamese came pouring down the road on motorbikes, waving flags, blaring vuvuzelas, screaming for joy. They were soon followed by foreigners — many clad in Vietnam’s colours, headbands, face paint — who emerged, somewhat tipsily, from various bars and cafes, eager to get into the mix. And why not. It’s their ’hood, too.
A version of this essay was first published by Mekong Review in February, 2019.