A roundabout with public art that I pass every morning
on my way to District 6. Chunky, blocky… everything
you would expect from socialist art. It’s still nice.

In Chicago, you tell others a little about yourselves by saying what neighborhood you live in. This is due in part to the extreme hyper-localization that happens in Chicago – ethnic groups tend to clump together, and if you’re lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with a solid identity, it will tell other Chicagoans what restaurants you prefer, what kind of neighbors you like, where you hang out, what your social concerns are, and more. It’s an interesting and unique way of communicating more about yourself, while granting a more or less permanent aspect to your identity. If you want to live with like minded people, you find them, and then you interact with them in those spaces. It’s very simple. While it’s true the entire city is your playground, you can still count on knowing that where you live is just as important as how and why you live. It is a very easy way of building community in a relatively small town of 2.8 million.

I live close to a shoe-and-dress hub. Lex, pay attention.

You can also tell more about yourself from where you live, from the average rent of an apartment, to how far it is from public transport, to what kinds of amenities your neighborhood prefers, like libraries, universities, farmers markets, and social groups, to what kinds of people frequent and talk up your ‘hood – some are home to blue collar mixed immigrant groups, some are home to hippies and expats, some are home to transfers from the suburbs – there’s something for everyone in Chicago and finding a ‘hood you like and want to be in is as important as deciding that a midwestern metropolis is right for you in the first place.

In Saigon, this is not so easily discernible… at least, not to this expat. Most of Saigon seems interchangeable to me, with many city-wide features that seem to bind the city together in a way that Chicago often lacks. While Chicago features many, many different ethnic eateries, they tend to bundle together in ‘hoods. And while there is certainly a large expat community here in HCMC, the city is overwhelmingly Vietnamese, with cultural trends and predilections that cross Wards and Districts.

One of the nicest green spaces a couple
blocks away from my house.

My new home (new, I say, after having moved in over 2.5 months ago!) is in District 3, Ward 2. It’s a fantastic place to live, virtually adjacent to Districts 1, 5, 3, and 10, some of the most important and vital Districts in the city. Commuting options to all these are easy and varied – many destinations are within walking distance and most are achievable on a bike in less than 15 minutes. Even one of my schools, located in District 6, takes me only 15 minutes to get to, and it’s a bit of a hike.

There are a number of small parks and gardened areas around my neighborhood – green spaces where civic life can flourish (or occasionally drop trou and squat one out) are not on every corner, but the ones that exist act as mini-oases of manicured calm in an ocean of bike horns and cries of “motorbike, sir?!” and they’re much appreciated. I’m also at the nexus of a number of bus lines that seemingly run in every direction (disclaimer – I have not tried any of the buses, despite my professed desire for public transport. Bit of a hypocrite, I suppose).

Neighbor decor. WANT IT.
Trees everywhere.

Immediately surrounding me I have a street filled with wedding flower shops and a street virtually dedicated to producing guitars and stringed instruments. I’ve never understood why these businesses tend to clump together like this (it’s even more intense in Hanoi) but it’s true – when you find one business, you’ll find many others like it. Just yesterday I needed to find a new microphone cord and after walking into what turned out to be a piano store, the clerk took me out of the store, down three storefronts, and introduced me to the owners of another business that were able to help me in less than 15 minutes.

Crime, to my knowledge, is very low in my new ‘hood. I sometimes get home late and, while the streets may be empty and the shop fronts closed, there’s no obvious criminal element going on (excepting that time that a madame on a bike tried to sell me a prostitute/girlfriend while I was waiting for a 11:30pm bus).

No idea what this shop sells.

My neighbors are amazing, especially the ones right across the way. They routinely invite us to have beers with them in the alley, offer to help us newbies get our bikes up the ramp into the garage, help new roommates unlock the door (it can be an acrobatic feat), and one time they helped me after I dropped my keys in-between my doors (it took a de-headed golf club, a back scratcher, three Vietnamese neighbors and myself only 30 minutes to solve my problem! With no English!). It was pretty impressive. It was almost as awesome as the time I locked the keys to my bike in my seat and had to wheel it to a keysmith and basically sign “HELP ME I’M AN IDIOT” until they understood that I didn’t steal the bike, and was, in fact, just an idiot.

Mannequin store!! For real!!

I’ve been meaning to make them some of Grandma’s banana bread as a thank you, but I’m still not sure if my oven works – there’s no dial. I hope to make it up to them eventually. They’re valuable allies in a world so far removed from my previous everyday life. And to be friendly, as well? Divine. What luck that I stumbled across this property.

Personally speaking, it’s also almost exactly in the middle of my two primary schools that I teach at. One is in District 6 and one is in Phu Nhuan. I’m only a 5 minute drive from my VN lessons, 10 minutes from my doctor, 10 minutes from the post office, 15 minutes from the office, and 15 minutes from each school. It’s a pretty good deal. I’m pretty sure I want to live here for the entire two years that I’m in Vietnam, and am already starting to turn this house into a home – a necessary enterprise for those of you that know what I do to place that I move into. It’s not my home until it’s MINE.

The closest entrance to my alley – blink and you’ll miss it!

Businesses around me, as I mentioned, seem to clump in groups of like interests. There are several open-air markets within walking distance and at least three gas stations easily reachable, if I count correctly. Restaurants and bars are everywhere. Cafes are even more everywhere. Clothes are seemingly sold wherever there’s an open storefront, and every other storefront is a convenience store, although they never seem to be in stock with whatever particular item I’m looking for. I don’t know if that’s like a cruel joke that the universe is playing on me or just Saigon business as usual, but it drives me insane. You have no idea how hard it is to find common items here unless you’re in the KNOW. You’ve got to know someone who knows someone who knows the correct street to go to in order to find the particular thing you need. It took me and my old roommate almost a month to find a charger for my beard trimmer – so nuts.

So, in conclusion, welcome to my new ‘hood – as ‘hood-y as it gets here in Saigon. As far as I can tell it has no specific identity, but I’m most likely missing quite a bit of cultural subtext. Hopefully in the next couple years I can pick it up and expand upon this most vital of community aspects.

Thanks for coming with me on my tour!