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Home Has Shifted

For just over a year now, I have been living on the edge of district one, on a street named Tran Khac Chan. It is an unremarkable street on the face of it, a typical bustling hive of activity, of which there are an uncountable amount of in Saigon. Only by living there can you start to unearth the hidden gems it holds and start to understand the lives of the people here.

Along with my five housemates, we are the only foreigners in the neigbourhood and despite the locals familiarity with us, our appearance is the subject of much hilarity to them. This is unsettling at first and remains so when the effects of a heavy night linger, but you eventually learn to see the funny side of it and a walk to the shop often involves a lot of laughing with the people you meet, for no particular reason.

The biggest affecinado of this sport, is our lovely maid, who has a cackle to rival any. Tending to and cleaning up after six slovenly ex-pats, must be a trying job and I believe she often vents to us directly, knowing we do not understand a single word she is saying. At first, when she was ranting, I believed she was using her handsfree, as her mouth is seldom without her 3210. However, it became clear with the gesturing and glare, that her ire was often directed at myself or whoever else had disrupted her work. The rants are always finished with a bout of laughter, a mutual one, although usually a sheepish one on my part. That woman has seen things and cleaned things, that would make most people's stomachs turn, despite her grumblings, she is like a marine when it comes to getting shit done.

Just off the other end of the street, sandwiched between our house and Tan Dinh market is one of our favourite haunts, the pool hall. With about 15 tables, half with pockets, half without and another 8 upstairs, it is always busy and the crack of each break is a soothing sound. It follows what seems to be a popular Vietnamese business model, get a business, any business and fill it with lots of women. These rack maids, who wear a variety of different frilly dresses to keep it varied, will come running if they see you trying to do anything yourself. It is perfectly acceptable to blow kisses to get their attention if they are tardy in tending to your table, but only if you can do so without blushing. The pristine tables are brushed down after each session and the balls polished and everyone gives a warm welcome, especially the security guards in the car park, who know that they will receive a slightly above average tip. One of the guards, likes to sneak in and hover over our table to watch our game unfold, giving a running commentary to those around him, well I think that's what he is doing. As with most places in Vietnam, the beer flows in the pool hall and if it wasn't for the god awful music, it would be just about perfect.

While we may be the only foreign residents here, there are a few famous restaurants close by that draw in any tourists with a guidebook. The wonderful Cuc Cach Quan counts Brangelina amongst it previous clientelle. Housed in a thatched cottage, three stories high with a pond in the middle and rickety stairs all the way to the top. While you would hardly even know it was a restaurant from the outside, it serves argubably the best Vietnamese food that you will find and is a tourist hotspot. Another restaurant a stones throw from the pool hall is the Banh Xeo place on the alley, which serves up a delicious crepe filled with fresh shrimp and pork, which takes your mind of the swarms of tour groups who pour through it. Thankfully these outsiders are not aware of the jewel in the crown of the neighbourhood, Fat Wang's.

To the right of my house is the canal, a cesspit with a unique stench, which is both unmistakable and indescribable, however if you can brave it for a couple of minutes you will be rewarded with Quang Map's warm embrace. The name translates into Fat Quang's and Quang certainly lives up to the moniker, his gut keeping the rest of his frame a safe distance from the open flame as he cooks up a storm. The restaurant is sunk into the ground about a metre deep and has wobbly metal tables and cheap plastic chairs. There are two compartments at the side, which we affectionately call 'The Rat Pit', as the name suggests they are often visited by the local rats. This has led to a new sport becoming popular, Ice Darts, as a rat pops his head up from the wall behind the pit he is often pelted by one of the nicely sized blocks of ice and disappears into the abyss behind the restaurant. The rats however do not enjoy the freedom of the family dogs, who perform an admirable job in sweeping the leftovers from the floor. Bones, shrimp heads, tails, fish heads, kangaroo and frog, plus many other remains are cast onto the floor for the healthiest looking dogs in the city to devour. Health and safety would have a heart attack, as will many of their regular customers, addicted to the fine cuisine served up there. The best fried rice and fish, I've ever eaten, not to mention succelent clams, oysters and squid served by the dozen. Along the roadside vendors, musicians and beggars compete for your attention and purse, as you eat and the Vietnamese cheers, 'MOT, HAI, BA, YO!' rings out every few minutes. Despite eating there about four times a week, it is yet to get old. Mini Map at just 3 years old, already shows his father's figure and love of food, hopefully he will keep the business going for another 20 years, in a city which is changing quickly and may lose places such as this and with it some of its charm.

When you see how quickly the city is developing and trying to turn itself into a commercial hub, with western culture spreading more and more, I hope places like Tran khac Chan can hold onto their ways against the sea of change. Some things I can't see changing, the women will always handle the money on the stalls, the motorcycle taxi drivers will still sleep off their hangovers on their bikes and the old folks will still get up at 6am for some stretching on the street. Beer and coffee will still be consumed by the gallon and the people will still do things at their own pace, often with a big grin on their face, possibly due to all the beer and coffee consumed.

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