Diane Squires explores the best and worst of the expat enclaves of Districts 2 and 7. Photos by Angeli Castillo and Jonny Edbrooke.
Read any blog, travel guide, or article on moving to Ho Chi Minh and most will tell you that when it comes to expat living – District 2 or 7 are the places to settle.
And while both districts clearly and proudly cater to the diverse nature of expat communities, that’s just about where the similarity ends between the two districts.
The boulevards, modern shopping malls and clean, tidy streets in District 7 could have you thinking you’re just about anywhere in the world. There are still some parts that are distinctly Vietnamese – local markets and lean-to stores lining the roads, but in Phu My Hung and Phu My, the emphasis is on wide boulevards, large malls and modern shopfronts.
District 7 was built on swampland. It was conceived and established by the Phu My Hung Corporation, a joint venture of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee and the Central Trading and Development Group in Taiwan.
It was started in 1997 and is home to international schools, FV Hospital and Saigon’s first international standard multi complex, which opened in 2011.
In 2009, the Phu My Bridge opened, connecting Districts 2 and 7.
The centre is largely geared towards Korean and Japanese expats – it is home to one of the largest expat Korean communities in Southeast Asia, and is aimed at those with high incomes.
According to the Phu My Hung Corporation, the district was originally established to expand Ho Chi Minh southwards and to create a transport corridor between Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta.
Good for families
But our District 7 expats Felicity Brown Ling and Jan Clohessy tell me they like the family feel and pet-friendly nature of the district.
“It’s much quieter in D7, the air is cleaner and it’s a lot greener,” says Jan.
“We have a dog, there are lots of parks to walk him and there is room to move.”
Felicity agrees. She says there is more security in D7.
“Kids can ride their bikes or rollerblade in the streets,” she says.
“You couldn’t do that in D2.”
D7 consists of a lot of apartments, with more going up all the time. When Jan takes me for a drive around her neighbourhood, we see the Happy Residence Premier under construction as well as numerous other new condominiums and apartment buildings being built.
But alongside all the building work a new park is being laid out in the city’s centre.
“I’m really excited by that,” says Jan.
“I was expecting them to put in another housing estate, but then they kept planting all these trees, so it’s obviously going to be another park.”
Both women work at the Australian university, RMIT, in District 7, and so chose to live close to work.
But they point out that rents in District 7 are cheaper than in District 2. In a city that is generally frenetic, District 7 exudes a sense of calm with its wide streets, fewer vehicles and a plethora of green spaces.
“It’s more like living in suburbia here,” says Jan.
“It’s like an oasis.”
“It’s really great if you have kids and dogs. It feels very safe. It’s so quiet, my daughter can ride her bike around the streets.”
Manicured And Serene
D7, she says, is an expat-oriented version of Vietnam. The streets get cleaned regularly, there is a lot of visible security and the area is very well maintained. And as we drive around the streets, I’m struck by the fact that there are few, if any motorbikes parked along the footpaths.
“Mathilda got lost once,” Jan says of her nine-year old daughter. “Within five minutes the security guards had found her.”
Felicity points out the Western-style shopping malls that make up this part of the city.
“There’s Crescent Mall, which is very quiet, Vivo City, Sunrise City,” she says.
“But then there’s a local Vietnamese area – some nice places that are off the beaten track, just like any other place, you just have to look.
“I like that it’s quieter, if I want frenetic city, D1 is half an hour away. But for us, it’s very quiet here, it’s lovely.”
“You can even hear the sound of birds chirping,” Jan points out.
“I don’t think you’d hear that in D2.”
One thing that strikes me about the Ho Ban Nguyet Park is the manicured state of the gardens. A modern bridge leads from Crescent Mall to the gardens, and the wide boulevards, plentiful cafes and restaurants, and the water fountain outside the complex gives this area a distinctly European feel.
And as she takes me on a driving tour through the wide boulevards and modern streets, Jan points out the volume of new car dealerships on the way into Phu My Hung.
“I always think that’s a sign of new wealth,” she says.
Manufactured And Soulless
But District 7 does have a down side, they both agree.
“There are more activities for the kids in D2, my daughter likes it there, and my hairdresser is there, so I spend a lot of time in D2,” says Jan.
“I think D2 is more cosmopolitan than D7.
“The facilities there are more attuned for western expats, there are better facilities for expats.
“Also, this area can feel a little manufactured, a little soulless.”
When Brad Segal first moved to Vietnam in 1990, there was very little to attract foreigners to District 2.
There was the BP compound and little more.
“Everyone lived behind walls here then,” says Brad.
“All the streets were gravel, it was still empty. There were signs up saying “Welcome to the Future”, but it was hard to imagine what that future might be.”
Like Brad, Christina Yu moved to Vietnam in the 1990s. She moved from Hong Kong with her husband but didn’t move to District 2 until 2011 after setting up her handbag business, Ipa Nima, in Hanoi.
Middle of Nowhere
In those early days, Christina was a reluctant resident in Thao Dien.
“There was nothing here then,” she says.
“But my husband Mark thought that District 1 was too crowded. There were only two choices outside District 1 then – D7 or D2. I didn’t like D7 as it felt soulless, it was full of malls and wide-open roads, like Singapore. There was no connection in the city.
“When I first moved here my friend said ‘why do you want to live there, you’re in the middle of nowhere?’ I was close to The Deck, but there was nothing else around.”
After the financial crisis hit 10 years ago District 2, and specifically Thao Dien started to boom.
Rents dropped, the Saigon Bridge linking the area to the city centre was expanded to six lanes, and dozens of new housing estates and apartment complexes were conceived.
Brad says he has seen a massive increase in housing developments in the area in the past five years, largely as a result of the number of international schools.
“A lot of the growth seems to be coming from the education sector, the number of teachers coming in as well as people moving here to be close to good schools for their children,” he says.
“We’re also seeing a lot of people moving from other parts of Vietnam into D2.” Christina agrees.
“A lot of rich Vietnamese are trying to buy in this area now.”
And with the population has come an influx of services and restaurants.
New Lease of Life
The city is now one of the most popular areas in Ho Chi Minh for high quality restaurants. There is a vast array of cuisines, bars and cafes littering the streets.
“In 2000 I think there was a single restaurant in town, we lived on a takeaway menu back then,” says Brad.
“A few more started cropping up then whoosh, an influx of good restaurants. Now we’re spoiled for choice.”
Those that live in District 2’s Thao Dien say the area has a distinct village feel about it. The narrow streets, bustling streetscapes and friendly faces give the district a familiarity, a homeliness.
Christina says the low-rise buildings and convenience of everything give the city that village feel.
“It’s so quaint, it has a niche village feel, there aren’t large malls everywhere,” she says.
“The shopping may not be as varied but it’s more niche, more boutique, the shops are more interesting, more alternative.”
It Takes A Village
For Adam Schofield, that village feeling is just like home.
Adam moved to Vietnam from England in 2009, living first in District 3 then in Binh Thanh. He’s a relative newcomer to District 2 having moved into Thao Dien 12 months ago.
“I come from a village, I like that feel in a town,” he says.
“It feels charming, you can walk around easily here and there is something for everyone. Everything’s close together and you can buy pretty much anything you want.”
“But that village feel does have its pros and cons, everyone knows everyone, which can be both good and bad.”
As if to prove his point, as we sit having a coffee in Thao Dien, it seems like every third or fourth person knows Adam and stops to say ‘hello’.
“I can’t think of anywhere else that embodies that feeling,” says Brad.
“I feel sorry for expats who move here first, they’ll think this is what being an expat is like; that cities all around the world have this same village feel. But they don’t.
“Here you can walk to almost 100 restaurants, there is almost no reason to leave D2, I love the convenience, that village feel. It’s so friendly and everything is here.
“That and the authenticity of the restaurants. With so many expats our international cuisine is very authentic. Eat in just about any restaurant here and you’ll be transported someplace else.”
“And then there’s the ice rink, Jump Arena – it’s still very safe for kids and teenagers. You don’t worry about letting your teenagers walk around the streets here; it’s very safe.
“It’s like living in the city but the suburbs all at the same time.”
Christina says this village feel, combined with cheaper rents than District 1 and the quality and volume of restaurants in the area is further perpetuating growth in the district.
“A lot of my friends have moved here now,” she says.
“Even some who said they would never move here because they like the bars in District 1, but now we have great bars as well.
“District 2 used to be full of families, singles wouldn’t move here, now there’s no difference.”
Traffic And Smog
But it’s not all utopia in D2, Brad says there are some downsides to the city. As the city has grown in popularity congestion and pollution have become an issue.
He says where once he would have ridden his bike around the streets of Thao Dien, he wouldn’t now.
“I lived in Bangkok between 1990 and 94 and it’s starting to feel a little like that here now. You can be stuck in traffic for ages,” he says.
“The flooding is the worst thing. I know the whole city faces flooding but it’s worse here.”
Christina also points to the traffic as one of the downsides of living in District 2.
“I like living here a lot now,” she says. “But the traffic is terrible.”
“I was in China recently and they are very focused on infrastructure, they’re building a lot of expressways. We have a lot of building, but not a lot of infrastructure.
“And in Thao Dien, most of the families are well off, so the kids are all driven to school in cars. That’s a lot of traffic on the roads. Traffic is particularly bad around 9am then again between 3 and 4pm on school days.”
As well as the traffic there is still a lot of construction in the district, more apartment blocks and homes being built alongside new restaurants and cafes. All this adds to the noise in the ‘village’ and, according to Christina, is leaving the streets in a mess.
“There is a lot of flooding here now in rainy season,” says Christina.
“When we first moved here our street didn’t flood, but now it does, so I think either the drains are blocked or the town is sinking. I know this is happening everywhere, but it seems to be worse here.”
Adam points out that food can be more expensive in District 2. He says the price of fruit and vegetables is three times what you would pay in D1, where local markets are more plentiful.
“The places here know expats are willing to pay more for their food,” he says.
“That and there is very little Vietnamese food here. If you want a late night wonton soup it’s impossible, it’s even hard to find pho.”
If there is one thing about D7 all our resident expats – regardless of which district they live in – agree on it’s the wide boulevards and lack of traffic.
“Our roads here are messed up,” says Adam.
“D7 is much better for that. We should have bicycle lanes here, there’s a lot of money here, they should be able to fix the roads.
“It’s a rich area, so there are more cars on the roads, they really do need to widen the roads.”
While the international schools are a pull to people moving into the area, Adam says the lack of middle ground schools is another downside to living in District 2.
“Almost all the kids go to an international school, but there aren’t many other alternatives here,” he says.
And while Jan and Felicity often find themselves heading into District 2 to make use of the services and restaurants there, those living in D2 rarely go to D7.
“Everything in D2 is just so convenient you don’t go anywhere,” says Adam.
“It makes you very lazy. I love being next to the river, it feels like it’s away from the Ho Chi Minh city centre.
“Once you’re in the bubble here, you’re in the bubble.
“It’s very hard to leave.”