10. Hem Sweet Hem

The author finds a place to live in central Ho Chi Minh City. It may not be charming, but it’s definitely quaint. …

A gateway marks the street entrance to Hem 100, Đường Nguyễn Công Trứ

The word “hem,” in English, describes a seam created by a tailor. In Vietnamese, the definition is a bit seamier, though not entirely unseemly.

My first semi-permanent home in Ho Chi Minh City was in a “hem” — a narrow urban alley, if you will.

Hem 100 extends off Đường Nguyễn Công Trứ in District 1, in the center of the old Saigon banking district, surrounded by financial office towers and the central stock exchange building. It’s only four blocks from the Calmette Bridge over the Ben Nghé canal, a similar distance from the quaint shops of “Antique Street,” and a few staggering steps from the hostess bars of Pasteur Street.

The neighborhood is a curious meeting place of starched suits and sodden souls, of karaoke clubs and soup kitchens, of high heels and low morals. Motorbikes naively block the entrances to some of the city’s finest restaurants. Off-leash family dogs slurp offerings left on sidewalks for deceased ancestors.

Hem 100 is a microcosm of the larger neighborhood. No more than 6 meters (20 feet) wide at its entrance, it’s anything but a freeway. The front section of the lane is dominated by food carts from the break of dawn until about half past noon. Diners — bankers and business people — squeeze into plastic stools, allowing barely enough room for a motorbike to skirt past. Noodle soup, chicken rice, fish, snails and other meals cost no more than US$2.

Bo kho (beef stew) served in the hem

Further back, street food transitions into a handful of retail establishments and a few sit-down restaurants. Office girls look dreamily through the window of a bridal wear shop, a small steakhouse features ostrich on its menu, an upstairs tea room is rumored to have once been an opium den. Indeed, the history of this discreet block might be considered “sketchy.”

The hem melts into a passageway barely wide enough for two pedestrians to walk side-by-side. The corridor twists and turns for a couple of hundred meters, past tiny apartments and discreet businesses. I was told it was best not to wander alone into this lane, home to hem chim (“alley trash”) and other unsavory elements.

For nearly six months, my home was in the middle section of the hem. Built in the 1950s, the relative elegance of this five-story house could not be understated. There is speculation that, at various times before and after the fall of Saigon (in 1975), it served as a private home and a hotel, a casino and a brothel.

Today thoroughly remodeled, the entry is through a parlor shared by motorbikes and rattan chairs. A billiards table dominates what might otherwise be a living room; a beer tap serving Tiger Draught stands between here and the spacious kitchen. One floor directly above is the TV and music lounge, where more than a few dates were primed to succumb to Western charms. The stairs then zigzag up to five bedrooms, ending at a rooftop garden.

Motorbikes obstruct the front entrance to the author’s erstwhile home

I lived here from mid-January through June, at which point my girlfriend (at the time) helped me find a more private option in the nearby Binh Thanh district.

But oftentimes, I find myself missing Hem 100.

I miss sitting in the front parlor on a balmy day, shouting to a food purveyor who might deliver bo kho (beef stew) or com tám gà (chicken rice) without my ever having to change position.

I miss stepping around those same food-cart owners as they dump their waste water into drains that wash directly into the nearby canals.

I miss the heavy seasonal rains that back up those drains, leaving lakes of standing water where children love to play.

I miss the sounds of morning and evening, the caged songbirds and chirping geckos, the yowling of tomcats on the prowl, the impromptu karaoke singing sessions, the cadent chants of Taoist funerals when a neighbor has died.

I even miss the cockroaches. I had nearly settled on names for the mating couple who maintained residence in a wall behind my shower stall.

The central location of Hem 100 made it a great place to begin my life as an expatriate. There were both pros and cons — but the experience definitely made my transition to life in Ho Chi Minh City a lot easier.

A Taoist funeral salutes the passing of an esteemed Chinese-Vietnamese neighbor.

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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