Size is no measure of significance, and Saigon’s smallest district is a dynamic and culturally rich area that’s well worth exploring. District 4 lies in limbo between its chequered history and promising future; traces of old Saigon’s slums are still visible at ground level, yet cast your eyes to the sky and you’ll see a handful of high-rise apartments beginning to appear. Wedged between Districts 1 and 7, District 4 is decidedly different from its heavily Westernised neighbours and offers a slice of Saigon like no other.
District 4 is technically an island, separated from the rest of the city by the Saigon and Ben Nghe Rivers and the Te Canal. The Rainbow Bridge – so-named due to its arched underbelly – connects District 4 to the city centre. The bridge serves as a reminder of Vietnam’s colonial past, since it’s the work of French architect Gustave Eiffel (no prizes for guessing what else he’s known for). Once across the bridge, much of the modernity of District 1 disappears with the upscale skyscrapers giving way to narrow houses and interweaving alleyways. Things are patently less touristy – yet equally vibrant and interesting – this side of the river.
Historically, District 4 is one of the poorest areas of Saigon. It was a slum area that became a crime hotspot under the reign of infamous gangster Nam Cam, also known as the ‘Godfather of Saigon’. Cam’s mafia dominated the area during the ’80s and ’90s, lining the streets with brothels and gambling dens. Restaurants even refused to deliver food to the district for fear that their vehicles would be stolen. However, his reign came to an end with his arrest in 2003 and today there is very little mafia legacy visible in District 4.
Even so, District 4’s history has lighter spots. It is home to the Dragon Wharf where Ho Chi Minh himself – then known as Nguyen Tat – boarded a steamer to France in 1911, beginning the first leg of his world travels.
If you only do one thing in District 4, it’s eat. Some of the city’s best seafood can be found here, especially on Vinh Khanh Road, which is now an official food street (though not one that most tourists take the time to explore). This lively street is teeming with no-frills sidewalk restaurants replete with metal tables and Vietnam’s iconic plastic stools. It’s the ideal place to try mouth-watering local dishes such as frogs’ legs, snails and seafood soup. Cries of ‘mot! Hai! Ba! Dzo!’ (‘One! Two! Three! Cheers!’) can be heard all around as young Vietnamese diners wash down their delicious food with ice cold beer. Meanwhile, street entertainers sing, dance and even breathe fire for patrons, intensifying the buzzing atmosphere. It’s not the place to enjoy a quiet meal, but it is incredible fun.
Despite its small size, District 4 is home to two of the best markets in the city. The New District market is a stylish fashion fair, where trendy boutique stalls set up shop every other weekend. There are photography sets dotted around here, where fashionable young Saigonese can snap away inside a futuristic subway carriage or a neon-lit diner. In stark contrast to this, Xom Chieu market lies just five minutes away. It’s certainly not the most picturesque, but it’s a great opportunity to see how Vietnamese people really shop – and a friendlier, more authentic alternative to Ben Thanh market.
Tipped to be ‘the new District 1’, District 4 is slowly embracing modernisation but not Westernisation. Fashion-forward boutiques such as Buzz Boutique are beginning to emerge in this increasingly young and trendy part of the city. The area’s close proximity to the central business district makes it popular with small business owners and young professionals, who can quickly zip over the Rainbow bridge on their motorbikes. Consequently, modern co-working spaces and cafes have started to appear. Yet this district has its roots firmly in tradition; there are just as many women in ao ba ba as there are teenagers sporting the latest Korean fashion. A few luxury apartment blocks have cropped up, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. Despite its youthful energy, this is a place where an older Saigon remains very much visible. In a city where Western influence grows ever stronger, Vietnamese culture is alive and well in District 4.