Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Houses of Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is crowded by anyone's estimation.
Officially the population of the city is 9 million, though most experts say there are a couple of million on top of that. Even a cursory glance at the city's population will reveal that almost everyone you meet, and certainly everyone that works for you or serves you, is not officially a resident, so heaven knows how many people are actually living there.
It is crowded and cramped, and real estate has become insanely expensive - buying a house in the city area is far more expensive than buying a house in Sydney, for example, but people earn only a fraction of what people in Australia earn, so in real terms the cost of housing is truly astronomical.
So people tend to build up. Every time I return to Vietnam people in "The City" have added another floor to their houses, and long, steep and perilous stairways are very common in urban Saigon dwellings.
One stumbles upon some quite extraordinary architecture, and a distinct "Saigon" look has emerged in the last few years. I love buying all the Home Beautiful style magazines when I am there to see how the rich are building and decorating their often quite tiny homes.
Getting around in Ho Chi Minh City can be quite difficult, with houses hidden down a bewildering series of alleys, leaving you looking for addresses like 1/6/31/8/ bis Pham Van Hai. Each number indicates an alley you need to turn down, and heaven help you if you make a wrong turn - re-tracing your steps can take up a lot of time, and leave you emerging into streets and districts you've never seen before.
The residents of Saigon, too, are inveterate shopkeepers, and houses frequently feature a business of some sort in the downstairs front room. Frequently, in order to get to an actual house, you have to tramp through the premises of a cafe, a pharmacy or a dressmaker.

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