Saigon is a capricious city, seducing visitors with a freewheeling spirit, then maddening them with traffic, noise and heat. Transformation is all around and the sound of construction reverberates through the city as forests of shiny sky-scrapers continue to shoot up. The choked streets roar with an evergrowing sea of traffic, while the footpaths are crowded with food vendors, pedestrians and hawkers with makeshift stalls, selling everything from brooms to motorcycle helmets.
This is a city that knows how to have a good time. The bar scene is flourishing with the young and the beautiful rubbing shoulders in venues as hip and unique as anything you’d find in New York or London. If you are searching for something grittier, the wild-lands of Bui Vien St serve up the kind of full-throttle mix of music, booze and special balloons that’ll leave you feeling pretty sure you had a good time only you can’t remember how exactly.
The heat and the crowds and the noise can at times overwhelm and it can all leave some visitors feeling like Saigon isn’t really for them. Too crowded, too busy, too loud, increasingly too commercialised and too bloody hot.
Hiding behind the city’s brash and bold exterior though, lies an eclectic maze of alleyways, weaving their way behind and between the traffic-choked main roads. Here, just footsteps away from modern high-rises and flashy malls, is a whole other side to Saigon where the hustle of city life slows to a saunter and it is in this tangled web of narrow lanes that the real soul of this city can be found.
If you want to experience Saigon as the locals see it, these alleyways or ‘hems’, are a wonderful place to get lost for a little while. Life is lived out in the open here – children play, while old men spend hours sipping coffee on plastic chairs. The doors of homes are wide open and you’ll see families sitting together on the floor, sharing meals and each others company. Around every corner is another food vendor and there are countless small cafes, quirky bars and other delights that won’t be found in any guidebook.
Just outside my front door. My favourite place for breakfast.
It is down one of these hems that I have found a place to call home. Even though we are living in one of the most densely populated cities on earth, with a population estimated to be approaching 10 million, life in Saigon’s hems offers a local, small-town vibe, that you don’t often get in a big city.
Recently, my Vietnamese housemate, Tram, asked me –
‘Hey Carly, were you buying a coffee today down near the canal?’
‘Yeah, how’d you know?’
‘I was talking to one of the neighbors, he said he saw you’.
Our rooftop. The perfect place to chill.
Apart from the people I live with, it’s not often I see another foreigner in the hems near my place. Most westerners tend to gravitate towards District Two, “The Bubble”, or District Seven, so when do I see another foreigner walking around near my house, my first thought is to wonder if they are lost.
I love where I live for it’s sense of community. My neighbors are friendly and warm, quick with a smile and even though we can’t say much to each other, there is a sense that we are all looking out for one another.
One evening, I arrived home and realised I had lost my house keys. I couldn’t understand how. I’d only been to a market and then to dinner so it wasn’t like I’d been drunk, wildly swinging my bag around a dance floor somewhere, but where ever they were and however they had been lost, they were certainly gone.
A couple of days later, after I’d already had new keys cut, Tram said to me,
“Carly, I have your keys.”
“What? Oh my gosh, where were they?”
“Someone found them in the street”.
“I don’t know where, but he brought them over for you.”.
I couldn’t believe it.
“But how did the person that found them know they were mine? How did they know to bring them to our house?”
“He thought they looked like a foreigner’s keys so he asked some neighbors if anyone knew any foreigners. Someone told him that this house has foreigners living in it, so he came around”.
My very “foreign-looking”, keys.
There is a neighbourly kindness here that I think is becoming increasingly lost in our modern world. One morning, my bike conked out right near home. I turned the key and pressed the start button multiple times, but she was going no-where. An old lady neighbour saw my troubles, grabbed my arm and indicated to me to follow her. We wound our way through the narrow alleys, me pushing my bike until we stopped at a house. The old lady rapped on the door and a young-ish man came out. They chatted in Vietnamese, then he mucked around with my bike for a bit, got it going again. I thanked them both in my smattering of Vietnamese and took off to work.
Saigon’s hems are a people-watchers dream and a constant source of new discovery and delights. If you are visiting this city you’ll find more to nourish your soul along here than at any of the better-known tourist sites. The brilliant website, Vietnam Coracle has an excellent guide to the best hem’s to wander and get a little lost in. Check is out and let me know how you go.