When we talk about Thao Dien, immediately, our minds turn to the large apartment blocks, shopping malls, and range of international-style businesses that line the streets from the Saigon River all the way to its border with Thu Duc.
However, inside the majestic sprawl of development is a traditional and local piece of Vietnam that has hardly changed for years.
The original Thao Dien, according to some of my Vietnamese friends, remains alive and well.
Thao Dien Market has been a centerpiece of the ward for decades. Whilst it has changed over the years, it still stands on the corner of Xuan Thuy and Nguyen Van Huong and maintains the air of a traditional local market.
|A woman buys groceries at a shop on a street in Thao Dien Ward, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News
Amazing homes dot the riverbank along Thao Dien’s Nguyen Van Huong Street. Considered some of the most expensive domestic real estate in Ho Chi Minh City, the area offers amazing views of land that was once filled with farms and swamps. Though they look luxurious, these homes are just the facade of something few visitors to the area have the opportunity to experience.
Recently, I took the time to go for a ride around the streets of Thao Dien and discovered several alleys (hẻm) off Nguyen Van Huong and Quoc Huong Streets that represented a simpler time in Vietnam, brimming with aged houses and local families.
In one of these hẻm, an elderly Vietnamese lady wearing a nón lá (a traditional Vietnamese hat) came out of a small one-bedroom home to tell me that the street was a dead end. I stopped for a moment to explain that I just wanted to take some photos.
It was at this time I realized that the homes in this hẻm were very old and the residents were mainly people over 60 years of age. It looked like an area that was locked in a time warp with the sprawling development of Thao Dien towering around it.
I later took a ride out to the main road. Past the flashing lights and big businesses selling international food and drinks, I came across a number of smaller shops.
Immediately, I was reminded of the local stores in the back streets of cities such as Nha Trang or Vung Tau run by everyday people that have developed small family businesses to sell essentials to local residents. These businesses continue to support the local community, whilst making the most of the opportunities to service the more affluent and foreigners who also live in the area.
Street food is alive, too
My most pleasing discovery in Thao Dien was the street food. Street food is a sign of hope and survival for any community in Vietnam.
My travels have taken me far and wide across the country and the street food in every town and city has been my window into the local culture of the region, and Thao Dien was no different.
Local cafés and street juice sellers were everywhere, but it was the more traditional food that I found most exciting. Bún bò, phở, and hủ tiếu were among the most popular foods being sold on Thao Dien’s Quoc Huong Street.
I was also very pleased to see chim cút (quail), ốc (shellfish), and hột vịt lộn (fertilized duck eggs) also being sold on the street. Add to this a few cơm tấm (broken rice) sellers and even a bia hơi (Vietnamese-style fresh beer) restaurant, and it was clear that Thao Dien is not only a symbol of international culture but one of traditional Vietnam.
|Boiled baluts are seen at Kim Thao Stall in Thao Dien Ward, Thu Duc City, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Ngoc Phuong / Tuoi Tre News
Every time I visit Thao Dien, I am motivated to find good quality international food like steak, kebabs, tacos, or Indian curry. I typically end up at a bar watching sports or playing pool or using the many services that are set up to service expats living in Ho Chi Minh City.
But I had never considered the absolute pleasure of being able to experience a real part of traditional Vietnam, a part of Vietnam that has roots that go back beyond the development and modern era of Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City, and Thao Dien in particular, is becoming a region that is embracing international culture, but it is also a region that is so proud of its traditions and simple lifestyle.
Do yourself a favor and take a moment to head down close to the Saigon River and experience a little bit of traditional Thao Dien. Eat some street food, shop at a local market, have coffee at a traditional café, and appreciate a window into the past where hard-working Vietnamese locals started a small community that has become the Thao Dien that we know today.