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Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

By Thanh Tung   September 29, 2022 | 06:48 am PT
In contrast to the bustling nightlife to their front, alleys off Bui Vien's backpacker streets in HCMC are home to incredibly cramped shacks.
Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

People in Alley 84, Bui Vien Street, District 1, begin setting up shops to begin trading at 5 p.m.

The 500-m alley is home to hundreds of families who have migrated from various places.

The vast majority of the people are seniors who must work to support themselves, while some get government support or have children or grandchildren taking care of them.

Bui Vien, De Tham, Do Quang Dau, and Pham Ngu Lao streets have for long been dubbed backpacker streets because they attract a large number of foreigners, especially in the evenings when bars and clubs remain open until late at night. In contrast, the alleys behind them are lined with tiny houses built before 1975.

Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

In one corner of Alley 217, De Tham Street, are homes that measure about two square meters and not wide enough for a person to stretch out. To free up some space, people have to leave their motorcycles outside.

Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

Children play in Alley 184, Bui Vien Street, which is only wide enough for two people at a time.

Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

Tran Thi Kim Hien, 52, has to squeeze through into her four-square-meter home, which is crammed with all kinds of stuff. She claims to have lived here since she was a child and now lives with her husband and brother.

She says: "Three people share an attic for sleeping. This house has always be this cramped, and so I am used to living like this."

Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

She has to use the alley as a kitchen because there is simply no place for it inside. She cooks shumai every day and sells it on the streets, earning a few hundred thousand dong (VND100,000 = $4.22) a day.

Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

Dang Thi Em, 68, who is cleaning her eight-square-meter house in Alley 104, says: "There are many people who don't have a place to live and have to pay rent. So having a house is a blessing for me. I’m old and don't have any money, and so I don’t plan on relocating.”

She lives with her five sisters in the house. She works as a driver and also sells vegetables in front of her house to make a living.

Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

A short distance away a woman named Phung uses the small space outside her house to cook for her family of six. She says her family is too poor to afford a stove and so cooks with firewood.

Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

The alley leading to Luong Phat's house is less than half a meter wide.

Phat has been living in his two-square-meter house with five other family members for over 50 years. He has to park his motorcycle at a nearby apartment building every day before sidling down the alley to reach home.

"When my children grow up and have money, they can buy their own houses and move out. As for me, this old man is just glad to have a shelter to protect from the sun and rain."

Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

A foreign tourist strolls through Alley 104, Bui Vien. Most of the houses in the alley are so small that their occupants have to leave their possessions outside.

Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

Nguyen Quoc Tuan, 43, his mother, wife, and four children have dinner inside their home in Alley 104. His father gave him the house when he married, and he has live there since 1980.

He works as a mechanic, earning a few hundred thousand dong a day. "All four of my kids are in school, and so in addition to repairing vehicles, I try to do other jobs to make ends meet.”

Life in the tiny alleys off Saigon's backpacker area

A man drives out of a small alley on Bui Vien Street, which comes to life at night.

 
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