The expat zone: A day in Thao Dien, Saigon’s riverside enclave

The once sleepy backwater is the epitome of change, where you can now find Western restaurants, luxury homes, and ‘Little Vietnam.’

“I don’t believe it,” says Nhung, my translator for the day, as we liaise on Thao Dien’s main strip of specialty coffee shops, organic supermarkets, and trendy international eateries, “I just got stuck in a traffic jam… in District 2!”

“That’s life in Thao Dien these days,” I reply.

But it’s not just cars that regularly clog up the streets of this once sleepy Saigon suburb.

“The flood waters recently came up to here,” says Hue Lac as she holds out her hand level with the tabletop. She’s sitting on the ground floor of her temple on Quoc Huong Street, right in the heart of Thao Dien, telling us how a nearby road-raising project has impacted the temple and its grounds. Things are so bad that they’ve now had to move the majority of the temple’s contents upstairs.

Donated to the area’s Buddhist monks shortly after 1975, the building is one of the oldest in the neighborhood. Hue has been living and worshipping here as a monk for 30 years.

A temple in Thao Dien.

As an already flood-prone ward in Saigon’s District 2, wrapped on three sides by the tight curve of the Saigon River, and once home to little more than a blanket of rice paddies and a handful of small hamlets, the rapid urban development of Thao Dien in recent years has seen swampland replaced with concrete, and dirt roads replaced with tarmac.

Nowadays, as with many other parts of Ho Chi Minh City, and particularly during a high-tide, the rain water simply has nowhere else to go. For Hue and the other long-standing residents and business owners of Quoc Huong Street, while the flooding is occurring less often, when it does happen, it’s deeper than ever.

“Everybody around here has tried to raise their properties somehow,” explains Hue, “so the temple is now much lower than the other buildings around it.”

A new house is coming to town.

Since the first overseas corporations began building residential compounds to house foreign workers and their families in the 1990s (compounds that sprang out of the original government-owned plots approved to house foreigners), the number of expats in Thao Dien has grown ever since.

With the peninsula now filled with Western restaurants, luxury villas, sprawling apartment complexes, and countless international schools, Quoc Huong Street, having retained many of its old-school shops and eateries, has become known as “Little Vietnam” to many.

While the past two decades have brought much wealth and prosperity to Thao Dien, there are downsides to the boom. As construction of a nearby high-rise apartment block ends, another begins (right across the street, in fact), and the clatter of construction fills Mrs. Yen’s neighborhood grocery store once again. She winces as a pneumatic hammer pounds steel stilts into the ground — an essential part of modern foundation construction in District 2’s former swampland.

Aerial timelapse of Thao Dien from 1984 to 2016

“I don’t like the development happening,” she shouts over the hammering. “It brings noise and polluted air. I remember when there were no floods, not so many cars or motorbikes, and not so much smog.” 

Eggs, noodles, fresh coconuts, Da Lat milk, and endless ribbons of tiny shampoo packets; Mrs. Yen has it all.

She has also seen it all, having been born in the area back when it was still part of Thu Duc District. In fact, the communities living here were very much cut off from the rest of the city until the Saigon bridge was constructed in the 1960s.

“It was so different back then,” she explains. “All we could see were rice fields and small red dirt roads which would get slippery in the rain. Now houses and buildings have taken over the land, and the noise has too.” 

“It’s going to be a hotel."

A crane swings overhead from the building site.

“It’s going to be a hotel,” adds Mrs. Yen pointing to the glitzy computer-generated images plastered on the hoardings. As the foreign-owned convenience stores and high-end businesses continue their creep along Quoc Huong’s one-kilometer stretch from the Hanoi Highway to the British International School, it seems even “Little Vietnam” won’t be around forever.

“We used to have more customers coming in, but now there are just so many other shops,” says Mrs. Yen. “But I’m not too concerned about Family Mart and the other convenience stores. I am going to retire and close the shop. My kids are moving out of the area and soon there will be nobody to take care of the business.”

Local shops in Thao Dien.

Mrs. Lien, banh mi seller.

For Mrs. Lien, a 48-year-old banh mi and sticky rice street vendor, it’s all just another chapter in the life of Ho Chi Minh City.

“I don't want to turn back time and live like the old days,” she says as she wraps up our breakfast sandwiches. “Things change and we just have to adapt to them. Let people enjoy the changes, I say. If there's anyone that has become richer or had a better life because of them, I have no issue with that.”

However, as with any other district in Saigon, things are moving so rapidly in D2 that the developers have already turned their attention elsewhere. With an audacious plan to turn what was, until last year, one of the last remaining patches of countryside in Saigon into another high-rise urban utopia, the cranes and drills and jackhammers are already lined up on the banks of Thanh Da Island, the neighboring Binh Thanh District peninsula which faces Thao Dien’s trendy riverfront bars and restaurants.

As a foreigner, it’s a little sad to see the traditional sights and sounds of Saigon slipping away one cement mixer at a time. I’m a complete hypocrite, of course. As a foreigner who just moved into District 2 myself, and into one of the aforementioned tower blocks, I can hardly complain, but it’s sobering to consider that for many of the residents who grew up here, those “traditional sights and sounds”, in reality, translate to mosquito-friendly swamps, rutted, slippery and dangerous dirt roads, a fragmented infrastructure, and low-value, low-quality housing.

A che seller in Thao Dien.

Despite the ongoing flooding problems, the recent arrivals to Thao Dien — from metro stations and five-star hotels, to flashy malls and even Saigon’s largest ice rink— have been largely welcomed by the original Thao Dien community.

“Since around 10 or 20 years ago,” says Hue Lac, “when foreigners started coming here and building villas and big houses, the whole area has prospered, and everything seems to be getting better, especially the roads. They used to be so bumpy and dirty. The value of land has rocketed too. As far as I know, a square meter here can be sold for between eighty and ninety-million dong.”

With several swanky apartment blocks already overlooking the temple’s gardens, I ask if the monks are tempted to cash in and move out. “No,” she says with a smile. “We will never sell this temple.”

So, perhaps "Little Vietnam" will survive after all.

Story and photos by Simon Stanley

Additional reporting by Nhung Nguyen

By Simon Stanley