District 4 is the smallest district in Ho Chi Minh City with a total area of 4km2. It’s also the most notorious.
Located next to District 1 and acting as a connection to the suburbs of District 7, despite some well-to-do neighbourhoods, the district still has its own distinctness with old houses interwoven with modern buildings, food carts pushed through tiny alleys or the weathered faces of young boys selling lottery tickets.
Bordered by rivers, Saigon Port is located here and the area has a strong shipping background. It also has a tough reputation, with warnings not to mess with anyone and to be careful of your belongings, as the area was once notorious for criminal gangs and illegal activities. In the 1990s, food delivery motorbikes refused to service District 4 for fear of having the food stolen, along with the motorbike.
District 4 is still the closest place to downtown where you can observe the ordinary daily lives and culture of Vietnamese people.
Land of Fear
When Word photographer Mike Palumbo took to the streets of District 4, he tried to capture these contrasts with his lens. He was searching out the juxtaposition of a dark past and positive present mixed with poverty and wealth and an area undergoing vast structural change.
In the past, District 4 was where the poor from all over the country came to settle, forming slums with plank houses on stilts along the rivers. Adults worked as porters or cyclo drivers; children didn’t go to school, hung out on the streets and became pilferers. Fights for money, robbery and snatching took place almost every day. As Mike discovered, while the negative effects of poverty are disappearing fast, some of this still exists today.
Ranked as the most dangerous street of District 4, Ton Dan, especially Alley 148, was considered as a cradle of criminals and was where Nam Cam, Vietnam’s best-known gang boss, built his crime empire. He ran a criminal system operating gambling dens and fronting hotels and restaurants for prostitution. But he also spread money around the district, which offered him some protection from the local police.
In October 2003, Nam Cam was arrested and convicted of the assassination of Dung Ha — a rival gangster from Hai Phong — as well as other criminal activities. His high-profile trial in the Ho Chi Minh City’s People’s Court ended with the death sentence and he was executed by firing squad a year later.
Move on 13 years and if there is a legacy to the Al Capone-like activities of Nam Cam, then it is difficult to see. The mafia past is all but gone.
The Current District 4
As Mike’s photos show, District 4 today is far safer. It’s also become well-known as a place to eat seafood. Vinh Khanh is a great place to sample some crustacean fare as seafood restaurants run all the way down the street. Street snacks are also big in District 4, with vendors selling the likes of che (sweet soup), banh xeo, bot chien, agar-agar jelly, xoi (sticky rice) and little cream puffs on Doan Van Bo or Xom Chieu.
Another highlight is the old architecture. You can either drive straight to the Ho Chi Minh Museum or park your bike somewhere and have a walk on Mong Bridge. While the museum was built in 1862 and marks the spot where Ho Chi Minh left Vietnam to go to France at the start of his 30-year journey around the world, the bridge was built in 1893. Other old architectural sites include Xom Chieu Market, Khanh Hoi Temple, Vinh Hoi Temple and Xom Chieu Church.
If you are looking for those plank houses, the shanty-town like constructions of the past, then head to Ton That Thuyet. Here you will see children playing and adults smiling despite the lack of clean water, daily basic needs and the polluted environment. It’s when you head to places like this that you realise your life is blessed.
Photos by Mike Palumbo