With multiple metro stations on the way and a developing road infrastructure, Thu Duc is closer than ever to Ho Chi Minh City. Harry Hodge and Amanda Saxton investigate a district on the rise. Photos by Kyle Phanroy

 

When we elected to take on a feature on Thu Duc, I don’t think we were quite prepared for the vastness of the district. It really is its own city, with a population nearing 500,000, set to boom once the Ho Chi Minh City Metro opens multiple stations there in a few years.

 

The flip side of exploring uncharted terrain is the people this charting will bring. On this trip, a couple of the foreigners who tagged along voiced worry that any publicity about some of the places we visited would “ruin it” for them. Then I scooped everybody in the contingent with a trip to the student village at Vietnam National University, and they had to admit there’s a first time for everything.

 

After the bustle of the first stops, the tranquility of the other parts of the district further removed from the Hanoi Highway proved what a diverse and interesting place Thu Duc is — not just remarkable for outer Saigon, but for all of Vietnam. — Harry Hodge

 


 

Stop 1

 

Bien Dong Restaurant,

8 Einstein Street, Thu Duc

 

 

 

There seemed to be no immediate explanation for why there is an Einstein Street at all in a place like Thu Duc. The proximity of some nearby universities may have something to do with it, but Hi-Tech Park, a future metro stop, isn’t exactly close by.

 

Bien Dong was proposed by Paul Blake, an American working as an English teacher in neighbouring District 9. Blake often refers to District 1 as being too western, so we took his advice to try out this beer-and-seafood quan amid a number of fancy coffee shops and imported beer joints.
“I climbed that tree one night,” he said, pointing. “And instead of kicking me out, they put a table underneath in case I fell.”

 

Unsure of Blake’s account, but never one to deny his behavior, his anecdote seemed to prove itself as one party-hard patron was carried by with the help of some waiting staff — at 3pm. I can only imagine what it’s like at 8pm.

 

 

“I think this is a nicer area,” Blake says. “You can get good beer here, and I like the coffee shops.”

 

The six of us scarfed down a plate of tamarind wings, grilled squid and snails, and some Sapporos and Saigon Reds for VND343,000 all told. An affordable and certainly authentic Vietnamese drink-and-dine hangout. — Harry Hodge

 


 

Stop 2

 

Café Tram,

132 Thong Nhat, Thu Duc

 

 

Not wanting to drink my face off in the surprisingly varied Einstein warren of pubs, we settled on a next stop at the arty Café Tram. Owned by screenwriter Le Kim Hung, it was the little touches that made this dark, mellow coffee shop so chilled out. Walking across stones with fish lapping at the edges, you feel like you’ve wandered into a sort of beatnik enclave, replete with original artwork on the walls, exposed brick and flowers in coloured bottles.

 

In the plus column for Café Tram were soothing tunes and a lack of smoke. With a cafe sua nong priced at VND33,000, and nothing breaking the VND50,000 mark on the menu, our group rated it a thumbs up.

 

A more sedate crowd was hanging out this particular Sunday afternoon, including stockbroker Tran Anh Tuan. After a week making deals in District 1, he likes to spend his weekends in the more laidback vibe of Thu Duc.

 

 

“In the future, when the subway comes, Thu Duc will be popular,” he said through a translator, estimating he visits Café Tram twice weekly. “It’s cheaper out here.”

 

“I think the food is cheaper in Thu Duc than District 1, and it’s more quiet (here),” said Lam Dinh, a 26–year-old accountant originally from Bac Ninh Province, who lives minutes down the road. “I think the weather is good because we have a lot of trees.”

 

She also felt the district was growing in numbers compared to when she first moved there, due to the roads making the area more accessible to Binh Thanh, District 2 and elsewhere. — Harry Hodge

 


 

Stop 3

 

The Vietnam National University Student Village,

6 Quarter, Linh Trung Ward, Thu Duc

 

 

Within moments of pulling onto the placid campus of Vietnam National University exhortations of “oh man, everything’s so cheap!” rose from our travelling contingent.

 

This is not a huge surprise, since the population living around and between different faculties is overwhelmingly peopled by students.
Faculties here include universities for natural sciences, technology, social sciences and economics, in addition to an environmental institute and a medical school. It is also home to the Ho Chi Minh City High School for the Gifted. As such, cheap dining options, clothing shops, bookstores and cafés are scattered throughout the campus area — just on the other side of the highway from District 9’s Suoi Tien Amusement Park. On a crossroads of sorts, some streets are Thu Duc on one side and Di An Town, Binh Duong Province on the other.

 

Highlights here include an outdoor student market with lots of cheap snacks and clothing — my wife found skirts for VND40,000 and my travel buddies sourced a hearty plate of vegetarian food for VND8,000. A bia hoi we elected to stop at cost only VND4,000 for a glass of fresh beer. If you’re on a budget in Thu Duc, there are worse places to be than on campus. — Harry Hodge

 


 

Stop 4

 

Temple Tour

 

 

Thu Duc is also home to a number of temples, as we discovered driving around the western edge of the district, where bridges connect it over the Saigon River to Binh Thanh. While this area is largely dotted with simple one-storey family businesses and factories, there are some notable temples here to break up the shopping and eating.

 

Van Duc Temple (502 Tinh Lo 43, Thu Duc) boasts one of the tallest non-residential structures in the district, at the intersection of Ngoc Van and Cay Keo. The portrait of Thich Tri Tinh, the Supreme Patriarch of the National Vietnam Buddhist Sangha, remains on display there after the venerable religious leader’s passing in March, at the age of 97. Monks go about their business as visitors freely wander the grounds and garden in the back, with the property open from 5am to 9.30pm, with a 90-minute lunch interval in between. It is a colourful place of worship, heavy on golden motifs and temple details and significantly quieter than some of its District 1 counterparts.

 

Other notable places of worship in the area include Minh Gian Temple (212 Hiep Ninh, Thu Duc) and An Lac Temple (434/6 Kha Van Can, Thu Duc). Considerable roadworks in the area makes the latter difficult to get to. As the city expands, the new Pham Van Dong Ring Road, which leads straight to Tan Son Nhat Airport, will eventually connect to Binh Duong and Dong Nai Provinces. — Harry Hodge

 


 

Stop 5

 

Lakeside Sundowner

 

 

Hidden within Thu Duc’s labyrinthine university campus, Ho Dat Café perches on the shore of a small lake. Getting there is an adventure! An opportunity to experience the extremes of Vietnamese roads — from the Hanoi Highway to a bumpily bucolic track — and practise the lingo: “Ho Dat Cafe o dau?”

 

If you crave peace and fresh air — as surely everyone in Saigon must — this rustic café is worth the journey. Huddles of hammocks with stone tables, sat among eucalyptus and jackfruit trees, cater equally well to social clusters, workers and nappers. Gather up a picnic of street snacks and fruit from stalls you pass along the way, and then enjoy Ho Dat’s VND12,000 cafe sua da or a fresh coconut.

 

 

There is food on the menu here, but its chances of materialising are slim. Tranquillity, on the other hand, is guaranteed. Far from traffic and mercifully free from any 1990s pop, the only soundtrack Ho Dat provides is the occasional student strumming a guitar. Packed dirt floors and a view of fishermen wading with nets through the lotus-filled lake make one feel far from modernity, yet the Wi-Fi is strong and discretely dangling extension cables abound. The only reason to leave is fear of the WC.

 

To leave: find your way back to the university’s main entrance on Highway AH1 and turn left. At the huge cloverleaf junction, follow the signs back to Cau Sai Gon. — Amanda Saxton

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