Rae recently took me out for my birthday and we had a fantastic time. I visited a section of the city that I’ve never been to before and was wanting to know more about, because it’s substantially different than the rest of the city: District 7. (Pardon the lack of photos for this post – because it was after dark, my camera wasn’t taking anything worth posting – mostly just blurry light splotches on a sheet of pitch black.)
We went to Scott & Binh’s, the number 2 rated restaurant in HCMC, where I was in an almost all-English environment for the first time since coming to Vietnam. It was weird! To celebrate, I got myself a fish and pasta pesto dish, which was fantastic. We toasted to the Fourth of July with Tiger beer and mango margaritas, and our dinner on the patio, surrounded by bamboo and christmas lights, resulted in a very relaxing meal. Afterward we went walking and she pointed out her international school and her yoga studio. We picked up a final late night coffee on our way back to the beginning.
District 7 is mostly inhabited by foreigners, primarily Koreans and Westerners. The streets are wide and lined with trees – much different than the relatively cramped (but awesome) urban jungle that comprises the rest of the city that I know. Rae and I discovered a shady, windy path through manicured gardens and between businesses and homes, stretching for city blocks and virtually invisible (her co-worker had alerted us it was in the area) unless you knew what to look for.
The alleyways and tucked-away recesses were relatively empty as we walked after dinner, exploring side streets that led us past hotels, coffee shops, massage parlors, and large apartment complexes. Several corners had a number of taxi drivers out on the sidewalk, playing cards and dice games. The district is relatively far from the city center (D1, D3, and D10 comprise the bulk of what is considered the center of town) and it’s kind of a fun place to visit. It feels much more open and relaxed, which I can imagine is appealing to many Westerners. The ever-present sound of motorbike horns fades into the background, and the air is breezy and cool.
It turns out that there’s a fascinating reason that District 7 looks so different. My landlord shared the story with me over coffee one morening. He told me it’s because it was developed by a foreigner who came to the region several decades ago, and saw mostly an underdeveloped wetlands area where District 7 is now. He asked permission from the government to own and develop it for 15 years, after which he would grant control of the property back to the VN government. They agreed and massive construction projects were initiated.
After a successful 5-7 years of development, with many large boulevards and infrastructure projects completed, bringing businesses, homes, and services to the neighborhood, the district’s land was seized by the government years early, and the developer ended up hanging himself. The result, years later, is a modern, organized, and largely expat neighborhood that is firmly a part of the larger city, and yet starkly different. Cars can fit down alleyways, for instance! I literally couldn’t believe this one.
Eventually Rae and I came to a parting of the ways, which was ok for both of us. It was 10:30 and she had to work in the morning. Clearly, if I’m interested in infrastructure, D7 is a fascinating and complex case study, and one that I hope to find out more about. Many of these types of tales are only told person to person, in coffee shops and over beers in dark bars. In a game where the rules can change at any time, the only winners are the Vietnamese themselves, and most of those at the very top – ultimately a good thing for this country (maybe), but risky for outside investors, to be sure.