Here today, Saigon tomorrow

A family from California moves to Ho Chi Minh City. Hilarity ensues.

Mind the Gap

Every school day the five of us bicycle the not-quite-a-mile to school, starting in the parking structure under six residential skyscrapers and passing a variety of sites.  While there are houses on the route, there are also plenty of empty lots, the largest of which is contained by a huge metal fence.  On the street side of the fence, chairs and an awning have been set up in a few places which serve drinks or simple rice dishes, alongside a little café/house which extends into the lot a bit more.  It’s an example of something you see quite a bit in Vietnam which blurs the boundries between commercial and retail space and challenges strict Western interpretations of property rights.


I don’t really know what their primary product is, though in the picture above you can see a sign that says cơm which means rice (or just food); we have also paid a bit to use their air compressor to fill up our bike tires.  They have prepackaged foodstuffs and fruit for sale, but the merchandise seems to bleed quickly into their living/dining/bedroom/everything-else room.  If I can see someone in the back there, does that mean you’re open?  Or are you relaxing after a long day, just wanting to unwind?  You’ll see similar situations quite often at local eateries, with tables set up for customers in the front room, which really is just the family’s living room.

Down the fence twenty yards is another example where the metal fence gives way to the cement wall of a building.  This café is just drinks from a mobile cart, but it seems to do decent business.


Across the street (and about 60 yards from the school) is a more blatant illustration of a tough situation.


The area on the right is a restaurant, I gather.  It seems popular with some of the construction workers and taxi drivers working nearby.  At least the left section offers a bit of privacy.  Most mornings when we pass we see a woman squatting and washing either raw fish or dishes in the metal bowls on the left while her chickens (and occasional rat) wander around.

Yep, we certainly are the 1%.  Then again, you probably are as well.  If you make above $34,000 (in 2012 U.S. dollars) you too are a member of the global 1% club.  While we don’t make quite as much as we did back in the U.S. of A., it’s pretty close.  And the cost of living here is, ahem, a bit lower.

So it goes without saying that the gap between us and the “average” citizen around here can be quite galling.  The median income of my adopted country is around $2,000 (USD) per year according to the World Bank, while my home country’s is 25 times that.  Thus we teach at a school whose tuition is over ten times the salary of the average citizen (though Ho Chi Minh City is certainly the richest city in the country).  Since wages are incredibly low compared to wealthier countries, labor is cheap, and having a “helper” (or multiple) is common.  It reminds me of a friend who described Manhattan as filled with people who are either rich or serving the rich.  But perhaps comparing our situation to Manahattan is a bit crass given that the people serving the rich there have access to things the average Vietnamese only dream about.

With all of that in mind, let’s take a virtual tour of our neighborhood: Thao Dien, District 2, HCMC; a place where the local and ex-patriot rich mingle with the not-nearly-as-rich in a way which Westerners would generally find uncomfortable.  (Americans, at least, like to keep their poor out of eye-shot.)


Home sweet home.


In case you can’t quite see it, there’s a schmancy local mansion behind that imposing wall.  Home sweet home is in the distance on the left.


This is how we get to the commercial part of our neighborhood.  Twice a day during high tide part of this bridge floods.



That’s not tinsel  around all those cameras – it’s razorwire.


Open-air haircut, anyone?


Yep, that’s the same mansion as above.  The ice cream vender is, indeed, looking at his cell phone while cycling.


This is the corner of Thảo Điền and Xuân Thủy, two commercial streets in our area.  Sarah’s favorite tailor is behind the palm tree on the left.

And this house is a few doors down, wedged between a swimsuit place and a dry cleaner’s.



Given how in-your-face the inequality here appears to be, it surprised me to learn that the Gini coefficient (the most commonly used measure of inequality) here in Vietnam is actually slightly lower than in the U.S., meaning that the gap between the wealthy and the rest is actually greater back home than here.  Hmmmmmmmmmmmm…

Perhaps on a related note, over half of public school children back home live in poverty, while the richest 1% in the U.S. “earned more than 19 percent of the country’s household income last year—their biggest share since 1928.”  Since 1928, eh?  What could go wrong?


I often go jogging with camera in hand and podcast in ear, usually listening to something from The Table, our awesome church back in Sacramento (shout out to Linda and Matt!).  While making my way under the Saigon Bridge I heard Wendell Berry’s quote, “Do you want an economy of grace based on generosity, or an economy of scarcity based on acquisition?”  It gave a whole new tint to what I was seeing.



This gets my vote as the most absurd mansion in this collection.


One man’s trash…



Bánh mì is a great Vietnamese sandwich made with “I-wonder-what-animal-this-once-was” processed meat or freshly fried eggs, pickled carrots and daikon radish, cilantro, some other soy sauce gloop, and probably other things, all in an airy baguette.  The two I got here were ~60 cents each.


Bún bò is beef noodle soup.




The banner for the American School of Vietnam (not my school, by the way) serving as one wall of this lean-to is an impressive touch.


And back to the view from the Vista.

Just in case you’re feeling a little bit richie rich right now, maybe you’re in the mood to donate to a charity which helps prevent the second most common parasitic disease in the world?  (Malaria wins the popularity contest, but this one is extremely cheap and easy to prevent.)  For every 85 cents SCI is able to deliver medication which prevents schistosomiasis, a disease which kills 280,000 people each year and debilitates hundreds of thousands more.

Or perhaps share the wealth in other ways.  Just a thought.


– Warren






One comment on “Mind the Gap

  1. Sandy Schnack
    March 15, 2015

    Wow. It does cause one to think! Beautifully written.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on March 7, 2015 by .
%d bloggers like this: