Street Smart Pham The Hien

Dana Filek-Gibson explores this winding waterfront avenue in District 8. Photos by Christian Berg.

On paper, Saigon is small. Despite the 40-minute drive separating the airport from the southernmost reaches of District 1, or chaotic Cho Lon from the quiet neighbourhoods of District 2, the distance is, in reality, no greater than a hand print on a map. Many of us carry out our lives in a tiny fraction of Saigon’s actual area, but beyond the comfort of these well-trod routes are an abundance of streets and alleys waiting to be explored.

District 8 is another world altogether. Relegated to the edge of the map, this oft-ignored area boasts some of the city’s most impressive street life. At once, it is both Saigon and not, a genuine mix of city chaos and countryside hospitality. From the jumble of shops boasting every manner of goods imaginable to a cluster of rickety, warped fishing boats docked beside the odd bridge, Pham The Hien embodies much of District 8’s half-step from friendly, laid-back community to fast-paced urban environment.

To get to this area, take Tran Hung Dao Street from District 1 to District 5. Make a left on Nguyen Bieu, about two kilometres down, and go over the bridge, bearing left. Once you descend into the bustle of Nguyen Thi Tan, turn left again at Da Nam, the street directly off the bridge, and follow this road around to Pham The Hien.

Street Smart Pham The Hien, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamMinh Hoang Bike Shop
324 Pham The Hien
The jam-packed storefront of Minh Hoang is one of a few bicycle businesses lining this stretch of Pham The Hien. In addition to purchasing used vehicles, Minh Hoang also sells bicycles of all shapes, sizes, and quality. There are brand-new knock-off Martin 107s, as well as used Giants and other two-wheeled vehicles from foreign brands. The staff speaks some English and a bicycle will set you back around VND 2-4 million, though it is possible for you to bargain at these shops, as there are so many close together. While these businesses might be a nice place to pick up some new wheels on the cheap, you should look elsewhere for any bicycle maintenance or repair needs. since these shops seem less equipped to handle proper bike care.

Tuong Vy Furniture Shop
459 Pham The Hien
Farther down Pham The Hien is a series of shops offering all manner of household furniture, from desks and dressers to headboards, bed frames and even mattresses. This particular shop, Tuong Vy, has English-speaking staff as well as affordable items. A sturdy desk, for instance, runs just over VND 1 million, as does a medium-sized dresser. Best of all, these pieces come in neutral wood-coloured tones as well as brighter colours, giving you a range of designs from which to choose.

Pham The Hien Market
For a true collision of city and country life, pay a visit to Pham The Hien Market. This bustling centre of activity is half indoor market, half open-air bazaar, with vendors lining a thin, well-worn path around the back of the building to hawk fruits and vegetables, meat, rice, and all manner of local goods. In addition to produce, the interior of the building houses vendors selling clothing, accessories, and household items. It appears this market does not often see foreigners, making it a refreshing departure from the local marketplaces of downtown.

Chao Ca Lady
2 Lo 24 Pham The Hien
Directly across from the entrance to Pham The Hien Market is a street cart selling banh canh cua, or thick, rope-like rice noodles with crab, an excellent morning meal. This vendor also serves up a tasty version of chao ca, the savoury fish-and-rice-porridge dish. You can find these local meals in the morning for around VND 30,000 a bowl, but make sure you come early, as the day’s food goes fast.

Hu Tiu Chay
594/21 Tran Xuan Soan
If you cross the bridge separating District 8 from District 7, you’ll find a small vegetarian food stall on your right boasting hu tiu chay in bright orange letters. This famously eclectic concoction of thin noodles, vegetables, dumplings, pork, prawns, and whatever else happens to be lying around is served up meat-free, replacing protein with things like mushrooms and potato dumplings, all of which make for a hearty meal. The shop is small, easily missed if you’re zipping past like most of the traffic that goes by, but if you make a stop here you can try a bowl for just VND 20,000.