"Famous for all the wrong reasons, Ho Chi Minh City's District 4 was once a mafia hotspot in the '80s and '90s – ruled by notorious crime boss Nam Cam. Today, however, the area is a lively and exciting part of the city that should definitely not be overlooked." culture trip
After almost three weeks in Saigon, it was time to move on, but first, some more thoughts:
I'm glad I got to live out my plan, which was to spend a week each in a few different neighborhoods so I could get a feel of what daily life is like for local people. While I first wanted to spend most of my time exploring and then slowly blending in, I quickly realized I had picked the largest and busiest city in the country to start my journey. Everything was awe-inspiring. The apparent reason is the 47 years gap from when I was here. Another is Saigon has been through some rapid growth and incredible transformation. Lastly, our family had lived in District 7 (now 8), only a 30-minute drive from the city center, but life was so much different there. We lived in an alley where people stayed in the same house for generations. Everyone knew everyone. Even with the war going on and sometimes fighting happening all around us, it felt like we lived a mundane life in a rural area.
I met and talked to a few people who expressed similar sentiments about Saigon. It is comparable to Los Angeles or New York, meaning people come here to try to make it. "Making it" means different things for different people. Back in the day, my oldest sister Chanh wanted a future, so she enthusiastically said, "Yes!" when asked if she wanted to come to live with our aunt and go to school. Our neighbor came to Saigon to work as a bargirl (a profession with different understandings of job responsibility, even for her then, I'm sure), so she could help her single mom. I remember when she gave birth to her American-mixed son. He was such a novelty because of his blonde hair and blue eyes. And then there were folks with some money who came to the city to make even more, providing services to Americans and other nationalities in Vietnam for the war.
Today, many things have changed, but the same belief is still there: Saigon is where one comes to make a better life for themselves. Many laborers and service people are from rural areas. Without much education but with dreams, they decide to make the sacrifice to leave home for the city. They're willing to do the hard work to pursue their other ambitions. Some want to help their families; others want to go to school, work in an office, take dance lessons, anything, rather than work in the rice fields. During Independence Day (September 2) weekend, which I witnessed, and especially the Tết (Lunar New Year) holiday, many take a long holiday to go home to spend time with their families.
In District 4 (D4), just across the Saigon River, facing D1's financial district, I saw a mix of young and old. Many young professionals live in D4 while working in D1 because rent is cheaper. Many older folks have their storefronts or food carts, selling their unique dishes: rice, noodles, or desserts, drinks: coffee and juices, and little knickknacks. With Vietnam becoming more and more desirable for travelers in Southeast Asia and more ex-pats living on longer terms, more younger entrepreneurs open modern eateries serving traditional Vietnamese and western-style foods and coffee shops catering to foreigners. Everyone is an entrepreneur; everyone can make and sell something; if not in front or the back of their house, it'd be on their motorcycle, bicycle, or basket. I saw women with baskets of goods on their shoulders, pushing carts with piping hot stuff inside, and men selling Bánh Mì from a basket hanging from the handlebars of their bicycles. In them, I see pride, commitment, determination, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to be self-sufficient and to achieve whatever they set out to do. In them, I see my mother and hear her stories from so many years ago.
After talking to a few people about safety and checking out the pedestrian bridge, I decided to set my daily routine by taking a walk in the morning. Both sides of the bridge have walking paths that go through a park. I saw many more people walking on the D1 side, so I followed suit. That path goes through an eye-pleasing part of the riverbank with beautiful and colorful flower pots hanging off the railings and continues to the Waterbus Depot.
This routine was helpful since I had now started to discover more food stalls serving yummy food:) Two of the meals I had in D4 exceeded my expectations: Phở at Phở Trang and Hủ Tiếu Mì Hoành Thánh 44 (Wonton Noodles 44). At the latter restaurant, I sat on a small stool at a child-size corner table across from an elementary school. I saw parents picking up their children in their cars, motorbikes, bicycles, and on foot. Some crossed the street to the noodle shop to pick up lunch for their students.
Picture the chaos during a school pick-up; add in the morning rush hour traffic with constant blaring horns from every form of transportation, all taking place on a narrow two-way street, and you'll have a pretty good idea of all the senses I was experiencing:)
And that, my friends, was a little peek into some local life in District 4 of Saigon. More to come, so stay tuned.