Hem Spaghetti (My Home in Ho Chi Minh City)
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – January 17, 2019
In Ho Chi Minh City, there are almost 9-million people disseminating into 24 different districts. Like The Hunger Games, I live in District 3, Ward 5, bordering District 1. My location couldn’t get much better than this. On the larger scale, the patchwork of weird-shaped districts make up the city, but as you wander down the streets in center-city, you’ll see sweet little alleyways seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. They call these cozy little places, “hems,” and doesn’t the name just imply how comfy they are?
The air is cooler and cleaner down in the hem. Each one has an atmosphere of its own—a whole new world, a neighborhood unnoticed (unless you happen to live there or take the time to explore). Each little alleyway has new nooks and crannies, many you’d probably never appreciate, even if you drifted down that road every day for the rest of your life. Sometimes I sit on my rooftop, drinking shitty wine, and watching all the moving parts as they work as one.
The old architecture is composed of 3-4 story buildings with some definite French-influence. The tall skinny buildings are usually unfinished on the sides and only adorned on the facade, making room for other rising buildings to share their sidewalls. These shared-houses rise from the pot-holed passage, up through orange-glowing streetlights and a messy web of tangled electric wires. A pastel horizon of tiered roofs rises up into the smoky purple, light-polluted sky. Scratched-off posters, graffiti and molding paint create dirty murals that crawl up the walls. Everything is broken and peeling, rusting and receding, but the urban-decay gives each hem its own unique character. It has been well loved and used-up, and has watched many sunrises turn to sunsets.
Someone is selling noodle soup from the side of the street. Somebody peddles coffee and cigarettes from a small stand. Somebody sleeps on a cot beside bubbling pots of boiled eggs and snails. Someone is slinging slices of meat onto crusty “bánh mì” sandwiches. A family hawks costume jewelry and flashy folk-religion alter-lights. Women get pampered and polished as men lay back, in black leather chairs, puffing hand-rolled smoke as barbers shave their necks with steel-cut knives.
Little children ride tricycles, or kick themselves on scooters, practicing their balance in preparation for a lifetime of motor biking on the busy Saigon streets. Neighbors enjoy family meals from the floor of their apartments, babies coo at unusual cartoons, women wash their dishes in big metal basins and dump the wastewater into the ditches that feed down the sewer drains. People water their cactus-like plants, feed aquarium fish, and drink “ba ba bas” on their balconies.
In the mornings, families open up their gated fences and push grandma’s wheelchair outside so she can soak in the sunlight for a few hours. Walking by and waving at her, it’s as if she hasn’t been waved at in years. She’s startled, and her eyes light up as she struggles to lift her tiny trembling fingers to signal back. She smiles through her gummy toothless grin and life is simple.
It’s peaceful here. In the hem, life seems to slow. You can hear faint sounds from the surrounding motorways, but most noises are muffled within. Thick plumes of burning incense swirl around your ankles and dissipate as you stroll by. Roosters call from their confinement in circular cages, mom and dad are fighting—hissing at each other like savage cats, dishes clang, and baby cries. The hem is the epicenter of Vietnamese life: true local living.
It’s like a city within a city—the hem has a mind of its own.
Alena Horowitz | Miss Potato