There’s a certain irony to this; those who’ve come to find Saigon often miss it altogether. To explore the heart and soul of the city, it’s best to get lost in the alleys. Hẻm Hào Sĩ Phường in District 5 is the perfect place to start.
Saigon’s alleys provide the opportunity to witness life unfold. There’s a definite authenticity that permeates through these narrow, dimly lit, passageways that’s unlike anything beyond the concrete walls. Mr. Hoạt has spent the majority of his life living on Hẻm Hào Sĩ Phường. It’s a place where he’s able to live a quiet, tranquil life away from the buzz of motorbikes and the frenetic pace of the city’s main streets.
If you take the time to explore this side of Saigon, you’ll come across children running freely, roosters fighting, or elderly men clipping their nails. Any and all parts of life exist here.
The area around Hẻm Hào Sĩ Phường is Saigon’s Chinatown. The community is a mix of Vietnamese, Chinese and Chinese-Vietnamese. Everywhere you look, there’s influence from Vietnam’s neighbors to the north. In the alleyways, Chinese characters hang over restaurants serving dumplings, soup and pork. Buddhist prayer houses are visible through the open fronts of many of the homes.
There’s little privacy down many of Saigon’s narrow alleyways. Hẻm Hào Sĩ Phường is no different. Neighbors hang clothes between each others homes. During the day, most doors remain open. Tiny coffee shops sit below and between apartments. It’s a place where everyone knows everyone else, and most families go back generations.
Saigon as a whole is changing more rapidly than most cities on earth. Every day, new glass structures break through the asphalt and shoot skyward. Almost everywhere you walk, the feeling of change hangs thickly in the air. However, down Hẻm Hào Sĩ Phường and many of the city’s alleyways, time seems to stand still. 100-year-old buildings stand proudly, tin roofs still roll through the Saigon heat, and signs of change are hard to find.