What makes a place urban? The density of large buildings? The density of people?
A Web of Relationships
Ms. Thao had a café in the alley behind our building. Every morning when I arrived at our small office, I would walk to the back window and call down to her. She made my morning coffee in her own kitchen (exactly as I liked it with extra condensed milk) and brought it up to my desk in one of her own cups with a saucer and a tiny tin spoon.
Her brother, Mr. Hieu, was a xe om driver who worked in front of our building. A consummate professional, he drove his Honda Cub motorcycle with economy and precision, just aggressively enough to balance safety with speed. He rode old school — straight backed in a neatly pressed blue shirt, quickly delivering whatever needed delivering (sometimes myself) wherever it needed to go, near or far, rain or shine, desk to desk. In free moments, he played chess under the tree, sometimes at the centre of 10 or 12 onlookers, slapping the pieces down with cheerful authority, though I suspect he wasn't a grand master.
When I got my own motorbike I rode less with Mr. Hieu, though he remained essential for lunch and deliveries. Eventually I needed a bike mechanic.
Mr. Thiep worked outside of a café I frequented. The café is now gone, but Thiep still patches my flat tyres, checking them in a pan of water collected from nearby air-conditioner runoff pipes, then slipping off his sandals to expertly work the tyre back onto the rim with his feet. Sometimes he disassembles my bike in front of my eyes to clean obscure engine parts I have immersed in floodwaters. A man with a seemingly instinctive knowledge of bikes, he is restless unless he is working.
Down the street, Mr. Cuong sells reclaimed newspapers and magazines. He knows my favourites, finding and saving them for me, occasionally presenting me the rare prize of a New Yorker magazine. He is relentlessly energetic, with a high-pitched cry that cuts through the traffic sounds to catch my attention.
Nearby, an older couple sells com tam bi on the sidewalk in the morning. They recognize me, the lady prepares my food and the old man speaks a few words to me in English as he brings me my breakfast. I sit and contemplate the Art Deco buildings across the street as people quickly pass through, eat and go off to work.
A Landscape of Humanity
Maybe a city is an urban landscape that promotes personal relationships between human beings.
Perhaps a city is a product of its urban design and architecture, but the buildings themselves are not the actual city. The true city is a landscape of humanity where you can live your daily life among people — you can know them and be known by them.
Here, small-scale shophouses enable family-owned businesses. The loose definition of public space promotes mobile micro-businesses. The tiny winding hems naturally slow down traffic, enabling them to become social spaces rather than simply thoroughfares. The sheer number of people relaxing, socializing and doing business on the streets makes life a cooperative process. It’s more convenient, less isolated and much safer.
Unfortunately, cities like these are becoming more and more rare in the world, but happily, Ho Chi Minh city remains rich in its humanity. So, take a walk. Have coffee on the street and enjoy your city.