I arrive in Saigon at noon and take a taxi to Thao Dien, and I stare curiously in all directions on the slow drive through the packed morning traffic: it’s circa one car and two bicycles to 50 scooters/mopeds/motocrosses/motorcycles, and it’s entire families with their pets and possessions that cling onto the growling two-wheelers. Everything happens at a very calm pace – people have a general expression of passive satisfaction painted on their glistening faces. No one is busy. Lining the roads are dubious shops and eateries in primitive, badly built, very colourful shacks covered in tacky English signs. We cross a muddy river and arrive in District 2.
Home is in a nice, white four-storey building with big windows along the entire facade, conveniently drawn back from the busy main road. On the ground floor there’s a gym, sauna and pool. Galleries run along the floors above, from where there’s a nice view of a big football field. On top there’s a cosy roof terrace with potted palm trees. The flat itself is spacious, airy, a bit sterile, but definitely nice: white walls, anonymous dark wooden furniture, pale grey curtains, panorama windows, a seemingly newly installed and still unused kitchen, nice bathrooms. I take a walk down through the main road running through Thao Dien, where a wealth of contrasted impressions meets me: clutter and mess in all possible forms, an exclusive expat-village hidden behind a huge beige wall, delicious organic supermarkets rubbing shoulders with shambles, hip young cyclists on shining new bikes, tattered and ragged old men watching life pass by from hammocks hanging from trees in the middle of the pavements. Apparently there’s a rule that there has to be trees along the road. Such a nice concept; just a shame that the roots have torn up the paving. We walk in a sea of challenges — different levels, lumber and people taking a nap. To cross the road, I have to suppress my ingrown Scandinavian dependence on traffic lights to tell me what to do and just walk – in a constant pace so everyone can judge how quickly they can move in order to avoid hitting me. Finally, I reach my destination: the best banh mi spot in the district. My crispy baguette is stuffed with sardines in tomato sauce, coriander, chilli and lime juice. So yummy. I get it to go and eat while turning the corner at the end of the road and walking towards the sunset above this lively, atmospheric area that I’ve fallen in love with immediately, among happy boys and girls wearing those traditional conical straw hats.