As we've explored HCMC, Hanoi and other towns and cities, repeatedly we've seen arches with flags and banners or OLD carvings announcing the name of a particular neighborhood. Often these entrances quickly narrow to an alley only wide enough for a motorbike, bicycle or pedestrian. Every-once-in-a-while, we've entered to visit a specific shop or do a little investigating. But when we were invited to the new home of our dear friend Vinh and her husband Thinh (newly weds), we knew we finally had the opportunity to share some of the experiences of such a "neighborhood".
Sure enough, we could only get so close by taxi off a narrow street. Then into the arched portal we went, getting lost trying to find the house number in a maze of little winding alleys without clear names or numbers on houses. As we kept asking, we found folks did know who lived where and got ourselves found!
The entrance to their house (a traditional three storied, narrow building snugged in between several other buildings complete with roof-top porches) was off of yet another alley through which we passed at least one other house entrance. Just across the narrow alley was the entrance to another house -- and a special elevated door to reach Thinh's uncle's house (the uncle makes sure someone parks a motorbike under the door so he can step down from or up to the door via the motorbike seat!). Without the help of the neighbors we NEVER would have found them!
Everyone greeted everyone as we wandered around the alleys with many folks relaxing on their front steps or at their doorway. Or up on 2nd floor balconies or at windows. Neighbors seemed to be a mix of long time residents, extended families as well as "new comers". Thinh's Uncle's family had clearly lived in the neighborhood for quite a while. It was obvious that only with cooperation could everyone find a spot to park motorbikes (who knows what you would do if you had a car) or bicycles.
Shopping was within a short walk to fresh produce, meat and seafood markets open in the morning and again early evening -- not a lot of room for food storage as refrigerators (and kitchens) are modest-sized.
Here we were in the middle of BIG HCMC, very near the main railroad station and yet this small neighborhood was calm, quiet and connected with a diverse group of neighbors who relish the big city while preserving some of the sense of village life we have glimpsed in rural parts of Vietnam. Now when I walk or drive by these "neighborhood arches" I imagine a different city unique to Vietnam and her people.