Peter Cornish takes a look into the history of a storied Saigon neighbourhood, refered by locals as The Ghetto, and the changes occurring to it during this period of rapid development. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Nestled between Thai Van Lung, Le Thanh Ton, and Ngo Van Nam sits an area known for many years as the Ghetto, and more recently as the Japanese Ghetto. Many of us delve in and out of its warren of hems in search of food, drink or other forms of entertainment. Some of us have lived there, benefiting from reasonable prices and convenient location. But few know the history of this unique and historic pocket of central Saigon.
A rummage through old maps reveals some of its long and diverse history. Once home to the Artillerie de Marine, it housed French naval soldiers in barracks that allowed rapid access to the nearby port and fast deployment of military forces.
Close by was a marine hospital in the space now occupied by Saigon’s Children’s Hospital. At one time known as Grall Hospital in honour of Cochin China Inspector-General of Medicine, Dr Charles Grall, the hospital was recognised as the flagship of medicine in French South East Asia and a model for its time.
The naval offices and buildings stretched down to the river and were flanked or separated by canals that have long since disappeared, filled in during the 1880s to become part of the port naval area and for reasons of hygiene.
On Ton Duc Thang sits a small museum, named for the first president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under the rule of Le Duan, housed in a building that was once home to the French Admiralty. Although the grand gates marking the entrance to the artillery facilities at 3A Ton Duc Thang have long gone, remnants of the military barracks and other buildings can still be seen nearby.
In the 1859 Siege of Saigon, the area saw conflict and the French built a makeshift fortification around the junction of what is now known as Thai Van Lung and Le Thanh Ton. Referred to as Don Dat, or earthen fortress, Thai Van Lung was known by this name for many years and can be still recalled by older residents in the area.
By The turn of the 20th century, the area had seen further development and was home to many of the city’s wealthier French occupants. What remains of this colonial past are still visible but rapidly disappearing in the name of development as land prices continue to soar in this densely-populated area.
Once the French had left the area it reverted to Vietnamese use, and then to the Americans as they occupied the space during their war, making use of its military past and easy access to the nearby port facilities. When they too were routed, and the area was divided into plots and allocated in perpetuity to Vietnamese naval officers, with rank determining the size of the lot awarded.
As we walk around the Ghetto we can still make out the low-level houses built by naval officers, nestled between the current tenement blocks, and find people who have lived there since this time. It was at this stage of the area’s incarnation that Western foreigners started to be drawn into its warren of hems and alleyways.
In the early 80s, the simple housing and quiet, secure neighbourhood started to attract Westerners looking for affordable, central accommodation. Guarded by the navy police, and out of bounds to the civilian police except by invite, the hems had a feel of a village, friendly, and where everyone knew everyone else. Secure from crime and street hawkers, the area was a favourite among parents who could let their children play among the alley ways, confident that they would be safe.
By the early to mid-90s the foreign community had grown, attracting a cosmopolitan mix of French, German, Spanish and English expats, drawn to the energetic vibe, cheap prices and convenient location. The place was really buzzing, with many of the city’s first, foreign owned bars springing up immediately around The Junction of Le Thanh Ton and Thai Van Lung. Places like Sheridan’s, Mama Linda’s, Greenhill, Why Not, The Gecko and Kim’s Hideaway sat at the heart of the community, operating free from police interference and the worry of midnight raids.
By the late 90s new nationalities started to move in, with the area becoming home to the city’s Filipino community of musicians, adding to the flavour of the area. Construction had started in earnest and noise was becoming an issue for the local residents.
Long-term mainstays Apocalypse and Smiley Bar had found their niche and were attracting visitors to the city. Slowly rents increased. Bars, restaurants and residents started to relocate and new occupants moved in, cashing in on the growing real-estate boom and anticipating future growth.
By the mid-2000s, the area continued to attract expat residents, keen for a cheap, centrally located base, or short-termers who settled temporarily whilst they looked for a more permanent place to live. By now the area had become the hive of tenement blocks it currently is, with one bed apartments, rooms for rent, the occasional shop and bars of ill repute.
Towards the end of the 2000s the Japanese started to move into the area in noticeable amounts, giving rise to the area’s current moniker. Ngo Van Nam attracted swathes of businessmen, tempted through curtained doors by scantily clad young ladies, and the lanes cornered by Thai Van Lung and Le Thanh Ton now home sushi restaurants, sake bars and darkly lit rooms where a weary soul can have their muscles soothed.
The Ghetto’s future remains unclear as rampant development continues and property values go through the roof. Where once stood a well-known bar, then a pizza restaurant, now appears one of the city’s better known food, beverage and retail brands sitting on a corner with a colourful, historic and varied past. At some point, the new metro will be completed and connect the area to other parts of the city, no doubt bringing with it another incarnation, adding yet more colour and energy to what has already gone.