I have an afternoon meeting in Starbucks. Starbucks. Not the American coffee brand redesigned for Vietnam in Central Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. No. The outlet on Phan Xich Long Street in Ho Chi Minh City’s Phu Nhuan.
The choice of meeting place is a compromise. I work in District 1, my client is in Tan Binh. Phu Nhuan is somewhere in between. But the cafe choice also works — I’m trying to front a positive image. In Vietnam Starbucks wins brownie points.
My memories of Phan Xich Long are of a shortcut. Named after a 20th-century mystic and geomancer who claimed to be the emperor of Vietnam — he said he was descended from Ham Nghi — the road is blessed with space. Four lanes are separated by a grassy central reservation that acts as a quick route between Go Vap, Tan Binh and District 1. It was a way of avoiding the main arteries as I headed in and out of town. That was six years ago where at least twice a month I had to head out to Go Vap. I had learnt the back routes, I had navigated the alleyways and I discovered this road. It was incongruous. While elsewhere the streets of Phu Nhuan were maze-like and airless, here was the type of boulevard that you would be more likely to find in a new city. And that’s what it was. A new city. A new dust-filled suburb under construction.
My next set of visits were four years ago when I had a number of meetings with a client out there.
“Why is your office out here,” I remember asking the client.
“The rent’s cheap,” she replied, “and you only need to go over a small bridge to get to District 1 and Tan Dinh Market.”
She was right. This area is deceptively close to downtown Saigon. Located just on the other side of Nhieu Loc Canal, in just 15 minutes or even 10 you find yourself in the heart of the city. District 1 is just on the other side of the canal.
If ever an area in this country has benefited from urban regeneration it’s Phu Nhuan, and in particular the streets in the vicinity of Phan Xich Long. Located on the edge of Nhieu Loc Canal, rewind ten years and the place was a mess. The canal smelt, emitting a constant odour of sulphur that got stronger with the rain. The houses here were rundown, many without proper water systems. And even though this was the place to go for Ho Chi Minh City street food — it was the first area in town where you could buy almost every dish around Vietnam — the place was unwholesome.
The change started with the regeneration of the Nhieu Loc Canal Basin. A project sponsored by The World Bank, not only was the canal dredged and cleaned up, the main sewerage system around the canal area was dug up and replaced. The disruption, particularly around Le Van Sy and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia on the other end of Phu Nhuan, lasted for just under a decade. Traffic was diverted, roads were dug up, and oddly, no-one quite understood what work was actually being done. “They’re putting the electric cables underground,” was the main prognosis.
As the end of the project neared conclusion in 2012, so the lipstick arrived — the surface development that has made the whole area surrounding the canal what it is today. First came the high-rises, then the walkways, greenery and the purchasing of old houses that were knocked down and rebuilt. While the whole of the canal all the way to the edge of Tan Binh has benefitted from the regeneration, it’s the area around Phan Xich Long that has seen the largest explosion of wealth and change.
Location is key. Phan Xich Long is so close to District 1 that moving just slightly out of town or that much nearer is a no-brainer. This once dusty building site is now a middle class area. You just need to look at the villas on the side streets to see the wealth. Named after flowers — Hoa Mai, Hoa Cuc, Hoa Hong, Hoa Lan, Hoa Phuong and Hoa Dao — the terraced houses on these roads are built three or four storeys high. Some resemble French-era constructions, but most mix architectural styles, demonstrating the whims of their owners.
With the local population have come the restaurants, cafes and other businesses to fulfill their needs. Lotteria, Givral, Starbucks, Tokyo Deli, Baskin Robbins, Sumo BBQ, Pizza Hut, Nice Karaoke, Thai Express and Popeye’s are all here. There are also English language training schools, Hoan My Hospital, a granite pagoda, Rach Mieu Sports Centre, the ASEAN Dental Center, Uma and an international school. It’s probably the largest concentration of ‘modern’ businesses outside the purpose-built suburbs and shopping malls in the whole of Vietnam. There are even guesthouses advertising hour-long hotel stays for VND50,000. Two hours cost 70.
Its 7am and just opposite the front gates of Rach Mieu Sports Centre, the exercise afficionados are in full throttle. From inside the sports centre the background music of an aerobics or step class blasts out of the speakers. Members here have a choice of sports and exercise options — yoga, ballroom dancing, billiards, gym work, swimming, aikido, kick boxing, taekwondo. Outside on the park by the canal, the exercise facilities are free.
Three women take it in turn on one of the mini park’s, non-electronic walking machines. Next to her a man is in full sweat mode on the cross trainer while a woman in between dressed in beige brown pyjamas is rolling her wrist and performing what looks like an inane series of neck, stomach and hip stretches. After a few minutes, though, she starts to sweat.
Elsewhere walkers and runners of all ages amble by, some along the river promenade, others on the sidewalk opposite. Cyclists pedal down the road, many on expensive bikes.
It's the kind of scene you can watch for hours. The flora and walkways created along the canal have in their turn created a rare green setting in the heart of urban, concrete suburbia, a perfect hub for people to get some respite from the life of the city.
And on the other side of the canal, observing it all is the towering Chua Van Tho, a recently spruced up pagoda with its towers, gold-painted dragons and statues of the various Buddhist deities looking out across the water.
This is Phan Xich Long, an inner city model of regeneration and middle-class aspiration. I decide to avoid Starbucks this time for my early morning dose of caffeine and head to Café Moc on Hoa Mai with its rustic wooden paneling, quality sound system and walls decorated by old hi-fi equipment.