Across the river but in another world, life is simpler in Thanh Da
Thanh Da is to locals what Thao Dien is to expats – an oasis of greenery cooled by river breezes, an escape from the urban reality that is Ho Chi Minh City.
Set on more than 1,200 acres (500 hectares), Thanh Da is actually an island (but usually referred to as a “peninsula” by most Vietnamese) located in Binh Thanh District to the northeast of the city, with Thu Duc across the river to the north and Thao Dien to the south. Other than at the Saigon Domaine Luxury Residences where many of the long-term tenants travel to work in D1 by speedboat, foreigners are rarely seen here.
Currently connected to the rest of the city by a singular, newly constructed bridge, the island, sometimes called the “lung of the city” is an anomaly. The four lane road lined with the usual restaurants (including duck rice porridge for which Thanh Da is known), beauty salons and the one lonely KFC, quickly turns into two narrow lanes where shops are just as likely to sell simple bamboo poles, hooks and floats as they are more traditional household goods. Other than the apartment blocks to either side as you cross over into Thanh Da, most of the houses are only one or two-story, in contrast to the high-rises visible on the other side of the river that hugs three sides of the island.
Maps usually show the one main road, Binh Quoi, but only a small fraction of the labyrinthine unnamed paths that make up the interior of the island, some concreted to about the size of a large sidewalk, where traffic jams are most likely caused by pigs and ducks, but most still dirt paths leading to simple dwellings surrounded by lush green fields. To the uninitiated, it’s mind bending to find rice paddies and fish ponds just five miles from the city center.
Mekong Delta Doppelganger
It is in fact this surreal bilocation that brings the locals to Thanh Da. For instance, if you can’t make it out to the Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh, famously described by Graham Greene in The Quiet American as “Christ and Buddha looking down from the roof of a cathedral on a Walt Disney Fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor,” there is a small Cao Dai temple about halfway down the main road that has served the area’s faithful for more than 40 years. Men and women take separate winding staircases up to see the colorful room dedicated to God the Father, or pay homage to the Mother Buddha in an adjoining building. Visitors are welcome to any of the four daily services, but especially on the first of January, July and October, when a vegetarian feast is prepared and up to 200 local devotees show up.
“Cao Dai combines the best of all religions,” says Hong, this branch’s treasurer. “People sometimes don’t do right by their religion, but in essence, all religion is good,” she says by way of explaining the syncretic aspect of Vietnam’s largest homegrown religion which combines the teachings of Jesus, Confucius and Buddha, all presided over by the Divine Eye.
But the most obvious comparisons are drawn between Thanh Da and the Mekong Delta. Here, it is a case of water, water, everywhere. Besides the every-shade-ofgreen carpets of rice fields that checker the island, many houses maintain ponds stocked with fish for home use or for pleasure fishing. Some of the canals are even wide enough to accommodate large boats. Area businesses have been quick to jump on the eco bandwagon, many with variations of nha la (grass hut) in their names. The three government-owned Binh Quoi Tourist Villages unabashedly embrace every country stereotype onto their well-manicured properties, ranging from water wheels and thatched shacks to monkey bridges and handicraft stalls, making them a magnet for Viet Kieus seeking to revive their country roots and couples posing for wedding photos. But the real beauty of Thanh Da lies off the main road and in the many unmarked paths towards the island’s interior.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that fishing is Thanh Da’s most popular pastime. On both sides of the main road, man-made ponds and pools beckon anglers looking to catch butterfish, tilapia and carp. Shrimp fishing in oxygenated one meter deep pools, surrounded by plastic chairs with poles at the ready, is also popular. Prices vary but average around VND100,000 per hour for shrimp and VND20,000 to VND100,000 for fish depending on how well stocked the pond is. All prices allow for keeping whatever you catch, either to be brought home or cooked to order on site.
Deeper into the island are larger fishing ponds in more natural surrounds. One of the biggest is A Xay, four acres of pond ringed by thatched huts and hammocks. On a Monday afternoon, Minh, 58, is one of only four fishermen with positions staked out around the enormous pond. Delivery man by morning, Minh spends seven days out of seven fishing in various spots around the city.
“Thanh Da is really peaceful during the week,” he says. “On the weekends, there’s a lot of city people, families, teens, so it gets too busy. On weekends, I’m normally tournament fishing anyway.”
Many of these fishing ponds arrange weekend competitions to boost attendance, with a buy-in of as little as VND100,000. Whoever catches the biggest fish by the end of the session walks away with a VND1.1 million cash prize.
“Some of the larger places even award prizes every hour as well as at the end of the day,” says Minh as he carefully molds three balls of putrid rice onto a leader. “This is my secret recipe. It’s rice that has gone bad, but mixed with Knorr seasoning, Laughing Cow cheese and coconut powder. These fish are picky eaters and you’d think this would smell bad, but after it’s all mixed up, it actually smells pretty good!”
Minh has a couple of dozen variations on his recipe depending on the fish he’s after and whether he’s fishing in still or moving water. He postulates that because pond owners typically feed their fish leftover rice and pho gathered from restaurants around the city, they’ve grown accustomed to the taste of rotting rice.
As we talk, he suddenly hooks a 2kg catfish. When asked if he’ll have it for dinner, he grimaces. “I am so sick of eating fish. My fridge is full of them. Just looking at it, I feel like I’m going to turn into a catfish.” Instead, he sells whatever he catches to his neighbors, to lottery ticket sellers and whoever else wanders past his house. “In the market, catfish goes for VND40,000 a kilo. I sell it to them for VND20,000 or to restaurants for VND25,000. I just need enough money to go fishing again tomorrow.”
Living Off the Land
Hanh typifies the families of Thanh Da who have a palpable salt of the earth quality to them. One of 15 children, his family has been here for three generations. “Each of us has our own plot,” he says of his 12 remaining brothers and sisters. A driver by day, he tends to his rice paddy on his off days. “We grow enough for our family to eat throughout the year. We also raise chicken and ducks,” he says as his son tosses bread into the small pond by his home that is fed by the Saigon River. The family catches their own fish whenever they want and raise fish for market
in the small pond across the dirt path.
We walk past his fruit trees – mango, jackfruit, grapefruit – to his house in the back, a modest one story affair with just enough rooms for him, his wife and two boys. While he lives simply, he lives with the ease of a man who owns his own land. There’s a koi pond out back and the largest room in the house is dedicated to ancestor worship. “That’s pretty common here. Everyone has one. It’s not like in the city where people go to court if their neighbor encroaches on their land by a few centimeters. We have a lot of room to move around.”
His corner of Thanh Da is a place where everyone has an address, but no one really pays much attention to it. “Everyone knows everyone here. We may not know the house numbers, but if you tell me someone’s name or who their father is or what their job is, I’ll point you straight to their house.”
A Last Refuge
Thanh Da has changed a lot in the last couple of decades. Nguyet, a real estate prospector and 20-year resident recalls that Thanh Da used to be a Wild West of sorts, known for seedy bia om (beer garden) joints and after-dark activities.
“You wouldn’t dare go out on the streets after 8pm,” she remembers. “But it’s been cleaned up now. Cafes have replaced the bia om places. Families have come in. It’s become gentrified. Years ago, when the government decided to privatize state-owned apartments, you could buy a small flat for just over VND20 million. Now a 40-year-old, 67 square meter apartment goes for more than VND2 billion.”
Thanh Da’s future remains unknown, though. There has been talk for years of investors making high-rises out of the more than two dozen apartment blocks in the area. Flashy plans of a multi-billion dollar supercity surface every few years complete with ambitious talk of universities,
exhibition space and entertainment facilities. Locals wonder whether three more bridges connecting Thanh Da to Thu Duc, Thao Dien and Rach Gia in D2 will ever materialize.
“I’ve heard that talk for the last 20-30 years,” says Hang, a long-time Thanh Da resident. “That’s why it’s so hard for us to build anything. That just means the government will have to compensate people more if they ever decide to develop this land. So now we have to build surreptitiously. If the police see you carting in a load of bricks, they’ll come asking questions, for sure. We’re in construction limbo. Grown children who get married can’t build on their parents’ land. Even if we spend two to three years getting the right paperwork to build, we don’t know if we’ll be compensated fairly for it if they ever take over the island.”
Nguyet agrees. “I only deal with buying and selling apartments because with the interior of the island, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Hanh, for one, hopes that day never comes. “We’ve lived here since forever. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Thanh Da’s extensive network of small, flat paved paths with very little traffic makes it an ideal area to explore by bicycle. Friendly locals can always point you back to the main road. A leisurely 10km biking tour covering some of the spots mentioned here can be booked through Exotissimo by visiting www.exotissimo.com.
Images by James Pham