Peter Cornish explores a downtown street that’s partially gentrified, partly as seedy as it ever was. Photos by Angeli Castillo.
Huynh Thuc Khang street is in the centre of downtown District 1, connecting the intersection of Le Lai and Le Loi streets by what was the Ben Thanh market roundabout, before crossing Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Pasteur, Ho Tung Mau and ending at Nguyen Hue walking street.
The street is named after Huynh Thuc Khang, a famous Vietnamese scholar born in the late 1800s in the western part of Quang Nam province. An avid anti-colonist he lead the fight against the French in the Fifth Interzone before being sent to Con Dao and dying under mysterious circumstances in 1947. Most Vietnamese cities have a road named after him which, given the frequent repetition of Vietnamese street names, is hardly surprising.
The top end of the street, starting by Le Loi, runs one-way until it crosses Pasteur. The first block from the Ben Thanh roundabout to Nam Ky Khoi Nghia is relatively nondescript, housing the back end of Saigon General Hospital on one side (a great place to get stitched up should you have a bike accident late one night), and a ugly office building on the other.
A little further down, past the office block, is the infamous 24 hour massage parlour, Roma, providing hands-on entertainment to suspecting and unsuspecting businessmen for many years. Next to it is an equally dodgy hotel housing the Fly Business Club. One can only wonder what happens in there. A row of com trua sits opposite, attracting plenty of custom from late morning and through lunch.
Across Nam Ky Khoi Nghia is Cao Thang Technical College that proudly boasts its affiliation with Arizona State University. Throngs of blue-uniformed students mill around, blocking the pavement and generally getting in the way.
Opposite once stood Krauts, a cozy, aptly named German beer-n-BBQ joint serving up huge quantities of bbq-ed dead animals and large glasses of Deutsche weisse and dunkle bier. It now houses the Organic Box that offers fresh, organic breakfasts and lunches. How times have changed.
This block also offers more com trua and plenty of small plastic chairs for the blue-clad students to perch on, once again blocking the pavement for passing pedestrians. Not that there are many people walking this block other than the blue-bedecked scholars. Perhaps their reputation precedes them.
In among the cheap eats are the first camera shops the street is known for, although peering in leaves one wondering how they do any business. Rumour has it they’re a front for exam cheat sheets that local students are so fond of, but that’s just hearsay and I wouldn’t want to encourage unfounded speculation.
Crossing over to the next block takes us to the overflow of Pasteur’s seedy bars full of thirsty young ladies waiting to be bought drinks and ask “what your name, where you from?” Places like 92 Salon, Xu’s Bar, Navy and the originally named Hideout Bar, all offering cheap happy hour beers, over-priced girly drinks and attracting a strange mix of clientele, some of whom know exactly what’s going on, others wondering why they have suddenly become so attractive to so many young ladies. Check your bill if you venture in one drunken evening, I’m not suggesting it’ll be wrong but you know how these things can happen when you’ve had a couple.
This block was once home to Emergency Room, famed for the plumpest bar girls in town, kicking parties, generous drinks and some pretty decent pizza. It’s now called the Corner Bar which might be just as good, but we’re not sure as no one we know has ever been there.
Wandering along the road past Mac and PlayStation go-to Halo, past more com trua and plastic chairs, and plenty of camera shops that also sell irons, microwave ovens and stereos, we come to Soul Kitchen, an up-market curry house and tea emporium that serves some of the best curry in the city. On the opposite corner is In SaiGong, an Australian owned Wollongong themed sports-type-girly-bar but not really, that’s claim to fame is the lowest rooftop bar in the city. Decent live music on occasions too.
In SaiGong sits on the corner of Ton That Dam street, overlooking Cho Cu or old market, which was once considered the best source for high-quality imported products in the city but is now better known for bottles of cheap bootleg liquor that many of the local bars serve to unsuspecting punters and oblivious pissheads who can’t tell the difference. Moving past the market and Phuc Long Coffee, much of the next block is taken up on one side by a parking lot, long earmarked for development but still sitting there as a blot on the landscape.
This end of the road is better known for its attemptedly trendy tea shops that seem to close as quickly as they open, perhaps a front for money laundering or with owners unable to calculate how many cups of bubble tea they need to sell just to cover the extortionate rents. Nha cho thue (house for rent) signs can be seen on a number of them, and scattered in amongst the empty buildings are highlights such as Kim’s Tavern, BoBaPop Taiwan Lattea, The Office and Pick Me Up stuffed toys extravaganza.
Crossing over Ho Tung Mau takes us to the last block before Nguyen Hue, entirely taken up on one side by Sunwha Tower. The other side of the road houses the last remaining DVD shop that this area was once famed for, and a regular stop-off for many expats before the days of Netflix and YouPorn. Apart from a tired looking Wrap n Roll and Le Gia Hong Kong Street Food restaurant, this block is the go-to place for Castella, thick fluffy jiggly Japanese sponge cake, with both Tai Yang King Castella and Le Castella squeezed in next to Uncle Lu’s Cheese Cake.
The road can be driven in a couple of minutes and walked in a few more.