I’ve always wanted to live on an island.
It seems my whole adult life has been a series of trips trying to find that most perfect of beaches accompanied by a carefree existence perennially lived in flip flops and a faded t-shirt. And coconuts. In my dreams, there are always coconuts.
So it was a bit of a shock to have recently found out that I do live 5 minutes from an island. One that I regularly visit three times a week when I go play tennis.
In my defense, I’m geographically challenged. And there are tons of little bridges all over Saigon, crossing rivers, sewers and general muck. And the Vietnamese call this place a peninsula. And there are no coconuts. (Actually, there are, but we’ll just let that one slide).
But I checked and it definitely is an island, enveloped on all sides by the Saigon River.
Welcome to Thanh Da, the island within Saigon, the 20th most densely populated city on earth.
Most Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans come to Thanh Da for the three government-owned Binh Quoi Tourist Villages which unabashedly embrace every country stereotype onto their well-manicured properties, ranging from water wheels and thatched shacks to monkey bridges and handicraft stalls. I’ve been to the weekend buffet and it’s a circus. During the week, though, it’s one of the few places you’ll find actual grass, making it a popular spot for wedding photos.
Area restaurants do serve up the most delicious lotus stem salads and fried fish, though.
But its closely guarded secret is that once you leave the many riverside cafes and restaurants and head into the island’s interior, it looks and feels like you’re in the Mekong Delta.
Here, you find 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.
The reason the island is underdeveloped is unclear. Some say the land is too soft to build high buildings. Those who are a bit more conspiratorial favor a government coverup. 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 other parts of the city will ever materialize.
I talk to Hong, a long-time Thanh Da resident.
“I’ve heard that talk for the last 20-30 years. 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 2-3 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.”
Whatever the reason, it’s preserved this corner of the city into a slice of country living.
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 have 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, jack fruit, 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.”
If you’re visiting Saigon and want to stay on the island of Thanh Da, there’s a beautiful property called Saigon Domaine, an all-suites hotel / apartment.
There’s something to be said for rocking out a suite while on holiday, being able to grab a beer from a full-sized fridge instead of a minibar, playing cards around a dinner table instead of a dinky side one and lounging on a sofa that’s meant to be lounged on.
I stayed for a night in a three-bedroom suite, featuring gorgeous wood floors, marble bathrooms and a separate kitchen with dishwasher and washing machine, all dressed up in an eclectic Asian chic decor. The property has a nautical theme throughout. Instead of numbers, each suite is named after a ship. Brass railings and fixtures and model ships in the common areas, as well as in the design of the green central atrium, create the feeling of being aboard a very exclusive cruise.
But my favorite thing about the property is their Sunday BBQ buffet lunch. Hands down, the best value BBQ buffet in town (at around USD15), lunch features Australian rib-eye, lamb and king prawns (and sometimes salmon) marinated in your choice of sauces, and a revolving assortment of cold salads, hot foods and desserts like cheesecake and apple tart.
I’ve been back several times, and it’s always a treat, having a great meal right on the banks of the Saigon River (the main seating is actually in a boat house which bobs every time a speedboat passes). Value priced for guests at the property but open to anyone, the BBQ buffet isn’t advertised anywhere outside of the hotel, and with an included beer, soft drink or glass of wine, it’s one of my favorite spots in the city.
To read my full review, click on the article below.