Once the area where Westerners of all sorts found accommodation in Saigon, over the past 15 years, The Ghetto has become home to the city’s expat Japanese.


It’s the stuff of B-grade Hollywood martial arts films from the 80s — a Japanese enclave in the heart of a heaving city in the Far East with dark alleyways lit by flickering neon lights, dingy little noodle shops and seedy massage parlours open till the wee hours of the morning.


Well, it’s not quite that bad, but Saigon’s own Japan Town in the heart of District 1 is close enough. Hemmed in by Thai Van Lung, Le Thanh Ton and Ngo Van Nam streets in District 1, the alleyways and roads which make up the ironically named Ghetto by day are a sleepy hollow. By night, they’re an energetic above-ground warren of food, drink and entertainment options catering mostly for Japanese clientele who miss the comforts of home.


We present The Ghetto. Dozo!


The calm before the storm. It’s just after dusk and one of the alleys in the ghetto awaits it first set of customers



A hive of activity. The ghetto isn’t just Japanese hostess bars and sozzled salarymen. There are some excellent izakayas and coffee shops worth searching out with friends


After dark. It’s not hard to find a massage joint around the clock in the ghetto from regular Vietnamese joints to cheeky Japanese cosplay ones


Behind closed doors. The ghetto is a multicultural enclave so it’s common to find young Vietnamese cooks and chefs learning the fine art of Japanese cuisine and greeting customers in Japanese with Irasshaimase!


Free flow. Hiding behind nooks and crannies are plenty of hideaways for dinner or an evening snack with friends. Look for places offering a nomihodai — something we would call ‘free flow drinks


Kaunta ba. The ghetto is densely populated with small karaoke joints and what the Japanese call kaunta ba — in English ‘counter bar’ — small bars where patrons sit up at the bar and order drinks directly from a hostess


On the street. A Japan Town wouldn’t even be close to authentic without takoyaki — fried octopus balls. These little gems are an Osaka speciality typically bought right out of a shop front window on the street like this one just off Le Thanh Ton



The bare necessities. A late night convenience store — or kombini in Japanese — in the ghetto where the proprietor misses nothing


Life goes on. There are scores of places to hide from the world in the ghetto until you’re ready to come out




Matt Cowan

Managing Editor of Word Vietnam. Destined to be a dairy farmer until he accepted a spur of the moment job offer in Japan in 1998. After making it big in Japan, he now finds himself wrangling stories in Vietnam instead of cows in Australia. Matt has been living in Saigon since 2010.

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