I’ve visited Alley 51 in District 10 a number of times over the years. I came across it after the more well-known Ho Thi Ky Street and its flower market attracted me to the small enclave that’s hemmed in by Hung Vuong, Ly Thai To and Le Hong Phong streets.
Ho Thi Ky dissects the residential area through its middle from Hung Vuong at the southern end to Ly Thai To. The road is perhaps just 500m long and the entrance to the street is a short walk across from the Hotel Equatorial in District 5.
The vibrant flower market bursting with the colours of freshly cut flowers straight from Dalat creates something of a whimsical atmosphere, and you can’t help but be drawn to it. And the fragrance they emit offers a welcome respite from the usual smells of hem life that greet you around any corner.
But it’s Alley 51 that runs off Ho Thi Ky that remains the most alluring part of this area for me, because of its food and the authentic experience it offers travellers who want to steal a peek into the lives of Vietnamese and Khmer families without feeling too much like they’re intruding. That there is a large Khmer community here is the result of Pol Pot. Many Khmer who managed to escape Year Zero and make it to Vietnam in the mid-to-late 1970s ended up settling in the area in and around Ho Thi Ky.
Because it’s not a tourist destination — although I’ve noticed an increase in the number of guided tours coming through — anyone who ventures into the hem, for the most part, can expect to be treated like anybody else. There’s the odd lottery ticket seller or lady begging for money with a toddler in her arms, but mostly it’s business as usual for the locals as they go about getting on with their lives. Expect to be bumped into or tooted at from behind, but also expect curious looks and smiles as well.
On a recent visit, I dragged along one of our photographers, Olga Rozenbajgier, to capture life in Alley 51. If you’re familiar with Olga’s work, you’ll have noticed her talent for capturing people in moments of time in their natural surroundings. She manages to get photos of them without it looking contrived. Even if her subjects are looking down her lens, her snaps show us more than just someone smiling for the camera.
One of my favourites in this series is of the lady sitting in front of her store, Cho Campuchia (Cambodia Market). It is on a corner in the alley, with an assortment of sausages and meats hanging behind her. She’s looking slightly to her left and appears to be deep in thought, taking a quick break from setting up for the evening. She seems oblivious to Olga’s lens and everything else going on around her.
Another of my favourites is of the lady who has just laid out a batch of her chuoi nuong (barbecued bananas), a snack you’ll see quite a lot of in this alley. Other food that can be sampled along here is the banh quai vac — known as banh goi in northern Vietnam — a tasty empanada-type snack, not too unlike a Cornish pasty, which sells for VND10,000 a piece. At the same stall, small bags of banh chuoi chien are sold for VND10,000, a nice sweet palate cleanser before tucking into more savoury delights further down the alley.
Not too far away is a small stall selling ha cao and xiu mai (VND20,000 for six pieces), and further on still is a small stand frying up some of the best and freshest bot chien trung that I’ve ever tasted. A small plate of these fried rice flour cubes, pickled vegetables and fried egg costs VND20,000.
The list goes on. There’s a lady selling mi ga xoi (chicken noodles) that is drizzled in a beautiful sweet and savoury hoisin-style sauce and served up with a side bowl of clear chicken soup for VND30,000. Nearby a lady serves up hu tieu (VND15,000) to a steady stream of hungry customers who arrive on foot and by motorbike. She has something of a reputation for her noodles, judging by the number of customers. In fact the area has a reputation for its hu tieu Nam Vang. This is where the Chinese noodle soup dish first arrived in this city courtesy of Khmer-Chinese fleeing Pol Pot.
On this particular night, just as I was about to devour my mi ga xoi, the heavens opened up directly above us, putting on an impressive sound and light show that sent people scurrying for cover and grabbing anything within reach to keep themselves dry.
Looking back through Olga’s photos of that night, they alerted me to the importance of women in hem life and how their contribution through their food stalls, flower shops, produce stores and banh mi stands is integral to the micro-economy of their communities and the health and wellbeing of their families.
PHOTOS BY OLGA ROZENBAJGIER