Ho Chi Minh City’s Thao Dien in District 2 has become increasingly famous over the years. Ever popular with expats, the influx of investment has seen it become one of the most developed areas of the city. Its semi-suburban streets are lined with small businesses and large apartment complexes, providing an eclectic, cosmopolitan atmosphere. Slicing directly through the centre of this lies the vibrant yet unassuming Quoc Huong, one of the oldest paved roads in the area.
At first glance, Quoc Huong seems eclipsed by its manicured siblings; the boutique, bar and boulangerie-ridden streets of Thao Dien and Xuan Thuy. However, there’s an authenticity to Quoc Huong that commands respect, making it an equally integral part of the community.
Then and Now
Like its neighbours, Quoc Huong was little more than a byway some 20 years ago. Home to many local families, at the time it made up one of the few traversable streets of the almost-rural Thao Dien village. Today, it boasts a smooth tarmac finish, streetlights and a semi-effective drainage system, yet many of the original shops and businesses still remain. As a result, Quoc Huong is bursting with character, and it bustles unpretentiously throughout the week.
By day, its market stalls and small businesses supply locals and foreigners alike with food and all manner of affordable domestic goods. By night, these stores pack themselves away, and the quans or eateries and street food carts at the southern end of the street light up, swiftly filling with hungry customers.
Keeping it Simple
Nguyen Van Nam, one half of the couple behind Quoc Huong favourite, Simple Place (84 Quoc Huong, Q2, HCMC) has been working in the area for over 12 years. He previously worked as a chef in the kitchens of several nearby restaurants, before finally opening his own place three years ago with his wife, My.
The couple had long been interested in foreign food; Nam with an insatiable love of pizza, and My with an interest in Mexican food which started when she saw her old manager eating a taco one day. The pair’s commitment to their food and their business is inspiring.
Since opening, they have moved into a bigger, but still modest-sized space, and they now employ seven local people. They live in District 9 and commute for an hour and a half each day, both to indulge their culinary passions, and because business here is thriving.
According to Nam, opening a restaurant in District 9 simply wasn’t an option. “No one wants to eat this food there,” he explains with a smile. He says development of the Thao Dien area has been rapid, but speaks positively of change and the opportunity it brings.
“When I first came here there were no restaurants like this, and the streets had no lights,” he recalls. “Now there are more foreigners than ever, all looking for something different to eat.”
As a result, Simple Place has rightfully become one of the most popular spots in the area, dishing out delicious, reasonably priced tacos, burritos and pizzadillas by the bucket load.
Nam and My are embracing the changes the street has undergone; yet for many these changes haven’t been quite so welcome. Hoang Le’s family own a grocery store situated directly at the feet of the imposing new residential tower block, The Ascent.
Her family’s rent has doubled in the last few years, and as a result, to keep up payments they have had to increase the price of their produce.
“Hopefully we can buy [the building] one day,” she says optimistically of her present premises.
Yet she also acknowledges that many families have now moved out of the area. Many have moved to cheaper spots in nearby An Phu, as well as other more affordable districts in the city.
Walking the length of Quoc Huong, it’s clear that change is no longer looming, it is imminent. For every handful of quans, there’s somewhere selling foreign food. For every few family-run convenience stores, there’s a FamilyMart or a 7-Eleven.
There are popular midrange bars like BMV Pub & Grill (38 Quoc Huong, Q2, HCMC), and the rooftop Tropicana (41 Duong So 41, Q2, HCMC), and even upmarket places like Michelin-star chef Thierry Drapeau’s L’Escale (90 Quoc Huong, Q2, HCMC). The choice is ever growing, but for now at least, Quoc Huong continues to be the bustling hub of local activity that it has been for years.
How long this will last remains to be seen.
PHOTOS BY KATE TIPLER