Every time I return to Ho Chi Minh City, even after only a month or two, I notice shining new buildings, new high-end shops, and new hip bars and clubs. The change is straight in your face. The city is transforming into a metropolitan center, which means it’s starting to look a lot like other major world cities with shopping malls and familiar fast food restaurants.
Big brands from Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Europe and America are making their way here. HCMC, however, remains a city in transformation. Juxtaposed to the modernization is still a thriving street vendor culture. Every part of the sidewalk is a storefront for thriving businesses.
Near our office in district 1, there is a woman who has squatted and sold fruit juices for more than 20 years in the same part of the sidewalk. Her dark, sun-baked hands are always busy squeezing passion fruits for her popular drinks. She sells them for pennies and dimes. Sometimes, the police come by and try to disrupt these vendors in the name of modernization but they always come back. I hope they never go away. Progress can suck sometimes.
The tireless work ethic of these people are amazing. Anthony Bourdain documented the daily ritual of the “lunch lady” on his old show, “No Reservations”. I had the pleasure of finding this lunch lady before she passed away. I can still taste the flagrant flavors in her $2 noodle soup.
I’ve bought plenty of coconuts (juices) from these vendors, sweet potatoes, corn, Vietnamese coffee, and even sea snails. I’ve also purchased sun glasses and reading glasses from street vendors.
Walking on the sidewalks, as I do often here, which confounds the locals as they don’t like to walk three blocks due the heat and piercing sun, I’ve actually had to detour around a man giving a customer a shave. They just put up a rope around the chair and voila, they are conducting business. I’ve seen people get manicures and pedicures on the streets, as well as haircuts.
These wonderful scenes of traditional commerce set against the backdrop of thousands and thousands of new luxury condos being constructed annually, is part of the charm of being here.
Another Starbucks store opens a few feet away from a street vendor serving traditional Vietnamese coffee for customers sitting on Kindergarten-sized stools. She’s been doing this for a long time.
Late nights, after some drinking with friends, I’m often taken to noodle stands around 3-4 am. These places are packed with the people of the night. We sit in children chairs, squatting over delicious chicken pho with clear noodles and flavored burnt rice. I look up and right in front of us is the tallest building in Vietnam (Bitexco Financial Tower) with a useless, but impressive nonetheless, helicopter pad. It is an ominous sign for sure.