It’s not Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, but the author reflects on the personality of his home turf in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Binh district.
Today’s blog is a simple one: My purpose is to introduce my immediate Ho Chi Minh City neighborhood. Although there’s nothing really special about it, It is typical of hundreds, and probably thousands, of other blocks in the city.
I have a humble apartment is in the Tan Binh district, about a 10-minute walk from the domestic terminal at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport, a 20- to 30-minute drive from the center of the metropolis.
Because of the proximity, many residents of my neighborhood are affiliated with airlines or the aircraft industry. A fair number of pilots, recruited especially from European countries, live in the Blue Sky residential towers, just down the road. Several of the 10 flats in my building are rented to VietAir flight attendants, who like me cannot afford more lofty lodging.
My street is an offshoot of busy Bach Dang street, named to honor a famous naval battle of ancient Vietnamese history. But there’s no river here, except after an occasional torrential rain. Instead, there are business offices, a university branch where I have taught, government buildings, a few retail shops, a holistic spa, a barber shop and a pair of boutique hotels
My friend Tom lives in the latter, in a tidy little inn called the Hotel Mi Linh. Tom is what the Vietnamese call a Viet Kieu, born in this country but for decades a resident of California. He wears the “Cali” flag proudly in an endless wardrobe of T-shirts. Presently, he’s back in Saigon for a long visit; in another month or two, he told me, he’ll be joined by a North American friend, and together they will fly off to explore Iceland. There can’t be many places in the world further from Vietnam, or more culturally and geographically different, than Iceland.
A 300-meter (about a quarter-mile) stretch of road is what I consider my home turf. As a coffee lover, I’m grateful for the numerous choices it offers me for caffeination.
My usual stop is Coffee 47, my next-door neighbor. It was recently purchased by a delightful 22-year-old woman named Van Anh, assisted by her equally lovely sisters and several friends. Iced coffee and tea, fruit juices and fresh coconut (served in the shell) are the primary fare. My only regret is that, with the change of ownership, the cafe no longer serves hot, traditional Vietnamese coffee, strained through a metal sieve, or phin.
For a hot cappuccino, though, I don’t have far to walk — about two minutes, in fact, to Câ Phé May. The friendly and progressive team here can even spin out a large caramel macchiato for 34,000 Viet Nam Dong (a buck and a half U.S.).
Down the way is Milano Coffee, a favorite of working-class men. I see them crowded around their motorbikes every morning, cigarettes in hand, getting their caffeine and nicotine fixes before they begin their days.
And there are plenty of other coffee shops, as well. Westerners are often surprised to find that they rarely serve food, although a few of them offer beer. An exception is Coté de la Rue Café, perhaps because its space in the luxury Blue Sky complex is so popular with pilots and airline execs.
But finding food in my block is never a problem, so long as I ignore rats and cockroaches — which, if not ubiquitous, are always hiding somewhere. And I’ve come to create casual friendships with several of the owners.
At Giao Hang Tan Noi, I can get phở tai nam or bún bò Huế from sunrise to sunset, and at midday the com tam options always number 15 to 20 meats, fishes and vegetables with a mountain of rice. A typical meal costs 40 VND (US $1.75).
At Quán Chun Béo, the specialty is bún riêu. A thick rice-noodle soup made with a tomato broth, minced freshwater crab, fried tofu and tamarind pâté, it is considered rich in calcium and iron, and at a price of 55 VND (US $2.40) it is something I enjoy at least once a week.
Tràm, the woman who owns this shop, has recently married a Viet Kieu and moved to Los Angeles, but her sister and other family continue to run it successfully.
A tasty breakfast at Bep Nha Huong Bac is bánh cuô’n, steamed rice batter filled with minced pork, mushrooms and shallots. The proprietress speaks little or no English, but encouraged by her 20-something daughter — whose English is very good — she tries to flirt with me and sometimes offers gifts of fresh fruit.
Also on this block is Kodomo Sushi, for casual Japanese; The Kitchen, for pizza and pasta; and a kebab shop, open intermittently. Opposite Swinburne University are a couple of open-air restaurants that specialize in in ôc, or marine snails. Although I love clams and oysters, I’m not a fan of these mollusks, the larger of which are far too chewy for my taste.
Thankfully, for those wee hours when I find myself craving a snack, there are three separate 24-hour convenience stores within my 300 meters.
My usual late-night destination is the Mini Stop, where my favorite clerk is a thoroughly bilingual Vietnamese-American man. Like me, he’s a writer who is supplementing his income as he pursues his passion. We often have a lot to talk about.
Down the block, in both directions, are bánh mì stands. Vietnam’s favorite sandwich is most typically prepared at mobile kitchens such as these. A crisp-crusted baguette roll is sliced lengthwise to reveal its soft interior.
In the morning, I order it with a couple of fried eggs; later, I might choose a pâté or sliced roasted pork. Spicy and savory spreads and a selection of vegetables from carrots and radishes to cilantro and chile peppers, fill it out.
On Bach Dang, it seems, I often must wait for my order behind taxi drivers. This urban lane is a gathering place for cabs queueing to pick up passengers at the nearby airport. Some mornings and evenings (but rarely midday), they line up for nearly a full kilometer, blocking the entire right-hand side of the street.
With no electronic signal to monitor their movement, a controller with a headphone sits at a small table at the end of Bach Dang nearest the airport, raising cards to alert the first in line when to move ahead.
Nearby, a Vietnam Post substation serves the neighborhood, although I use the word “serves” loosely. More than once, I have had mail from the United States remain undelivered, even though the address was written properly and I live just steps away.
The unwieldly mail-carry bins on the backs of official motorbikes can’t make them easy to control. I guess that could be an excuse … or not.