When you think about Ho Chi Minh City, you may think of a booming metropolis showered with staggering skyscrapers. Functioning as the economic and entrepreneurial hub of Vietnam while simultaneously boasting of a low cost of living, the emerging megacity is an expat and digital nomad haven. Startups are in abundance. Chic rooftop bars are aplenty, as are luxury apartments with swimming pools. Cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City is the driving force of modernity and economic growth in Vietnam.
However, travelling and teaching in Ho Chi Minh City is not all about sipping cocktails atop skyscrapers, visiting Michelin star restaurants or shopping at the glittering shopping centres that it has to offer. Despite the city being at the forefront of Vietnam’s modernisation, elements of a rooted cultural past are ubiquitous.
Whether you navigate the labyrinth of narrow alleyways, barter with the selection of market vendors, chug roadside beers or cheap addictive coffee on low and modest plastic stools, Vietnamese culture persists in booming Ho Chi Minh City.
Inside the Hems of Ho Chi Minh City’s Urban Fabric
Of course, one of the most immediate things you’ll see from a distance are the skyscrapers. With structures such as Vincom Landmark 81 (1,513 ft. in height) or the Bitexco Financial Tower (860 ft in height), it’s only natural that these are the things your eyes are naturally drawn to. High and unmistakable, these corporate buildings dominate the skyline.
However, many of Ho Chi Minh City’s traditions and culture are firmly rooted and woven into its identity. Juxtaposed to its modern skyscrapers are its alleyways, also known as hems. In these tangled networks are true representations of life among the local population on a quieter scale. Domineering skyscrapers are now out of sight. And although the city’s main roads are connected via these hems, their noises are muffled once you are woven into its concrete seams.
Despite being only a few feet wide, this intricate web of passages act as a traveller’s gateway into the microcosm of authentic Vietnamese culture. What you find in these alleyways are almost always a welcoming surprise. Wandering these narrow paths will have you stumbling upon delicious street food, hidden cafes, children playing, and locals interacting among completing other day to day activities.
These hems exemplify a shared space in which the Vietnamese who spend most of their lives here have created their own intimate community. Neighbours often share everything that they have, and even sleep in each other’s houses. To these people who often live and grow and die in the same hem, their community, albeit a small and contiguous one, is everything.
Commercial Flurries Beneath the Skyscrapers
Despite the rapid boom in startup companies and digital businesses within the city populated by almost 10 million, 1 million people still make their living by selling on the bustling streets.
Fragrant food markets and communal dining areas spill onto traffic. Motorbikes turn into outlets on wheels. Tropical flowers and greenery are transported from markets to vendors. Goods and services, whether it be laundry, textiles or ceramics, are offered from the front porch of people’s own homes. Vietnam’s thriving commercial culture is palpable from every corner of the city.
Ho Chi Minh City is a destination which is awake throughout the night - in more ways than one. Streets such as Bui Vien Walking Street and Pham Ngu Lao Street offer a lively nightlife scene for backpackers and tourists who want to consume their Bia Saigon endlessly until the early morning hours.
However, the merchants and cooks who propel commerce on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City wake up often as early as midnight in order to prepare for the next working day. Women who sell street food gather ingredients during the twilight hours while coffee houses begin their roasting process as early as 2 am. While most of the population sleeps or parties, many of those who make a living on the street are already making their trade.
Foreign Influence on an Emerging Megacity
While the Bitexco Financial Tower’s glass is from Belgium, manufactured in China, and its structure designed by American and French architects, foreign influence isn’t confined to the rapid influx of international businesses and trade or digital nomads in Ho Chi Minh City.
It’s hard to deny that a city such as this one carries such historical significance in modern history, especially with its name emerging after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. With such a significant event not only in Vietnamese history but on the international stage, facets of the Vietnamese-American war still persist.
Not only can travellers visit the Reunification Palace or the War Remnants Museum to be reminded of the conflicts that Vietnam endured. The Cu Chi Tunnels - a network of tunnels used to engage in guerilla warfare, which travellers can still visit today, is embedded into the earth beneath the ground. These tunnels deeply rooted in the city serve as a harrowing reminder (literally and spiritually) of the stark conditions which the Vietnamese had to endure during a divisive and tempestuous period.
Digging deeper into a troubled past, Ho Chi Minh City, a place named after the revolutionary symbol who essentially ousted French colonists, is shrouded with French characteristics. Dong Khoi Street (formerly Rue Catinat), for example, is plastered with flamboyant French Indochina architecture. The Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral and the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House bear strong resemblance to their French counterparts, further entrenching French influence into the city’s architectural composition.
Furthermore, the bánh mì, a Vietnamese sandwich born out of Saigon and ubiquitous on the streets of Vietnam, was an adaptation of a food introduced by the French. When the French imposed their imperialistic conquest onto Vietnam, they also brought their beloved baguettes with them.
Once the French left the country, the Vietnamese began experimenting with the baguette by using rice flour and adding their fresh herbs and spices into what once was simply a baguette filled with cheese and butter. Now recognised as a signature Vietnamese dish which offers both affordability and convenience, bánh mì stalls occupy each and every corner of Vietnamese streets. While it was initially a foreign concept, the Vietnamese adopted, and ultimately altered it, and made it inherently theirs.
A Culture Firmly Rooted
While it is a modern metropolis, there is much more to Ho Chi Minh City than its imposing skyscrapers. Rather than looking up and glimpsing at the peak which transcends the chaotic whirlwind down below, one can see much more simply by looking beneath the high rise buildings. Whether you see entire families packed onto a single motorbike, labourers putting in endless hours of work or huge gatherings flooding onto the streets, beneath the skyscrapers are where you’ll witness the true representations of rooted Vietnamese culture.