If “ngõ” and “ngách” make Hanoi different, “hẻm” (alleys) make Ho Chi Minh City special and unique. Hidden in the busy Saigon (common name of Ho Chi Minh City), Hao Si Phuong Alley in District 5 is lined with colorful ancient houses containing the time and cultural features. The alley has been home to Chinese people in Saigon for over one hundred years. Entering Hao Si Phuong, visitors feel like being in a Chinese street because Chinese characters are everywhere, people talk to each other in Chinese and listen to Chinese music.
206 Tran Hung Dao Street, Pham Ngu Lao Ward, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. CLICK HERE to see the location of Hao Si Phuong Alley on Google Maps.
The alley is limited by two streets: Tran Hung Dao Street and ends at Ngo Quyen Street.
Architecture – colorful houses
The houses in the alley are similar to apartments in two parallel two-story buildings. The houses have connecting corridors and balconies. The staircases are different from that in many other buildings in Ho Chi Minh City.
The alley has been always colorful for over a century although the houses have been painted many times. The wrought iron railings are painted blue (or green). Each owner paints the windows, doors and walls at his wish. The most popular colors include green, blue, grey, yellow, white and brown.
The buildings were designed in traditional Chinese and Vietnamese style. Some houses have been restored and have characteristics of modern architecture as well as materials. However, Hao Si Phuong has been said to not be changed so much. Wooden louvered window and door shutters, iron horizontal shutter doors and gates, tiles still remain. There are a few modern iron doors and houses with metal roofs, modern decorations, plastic glass windows, tiled walls in the area.
Although the houses are old and there are not spacious enough for living and arranging furnishings, residents in the alley love to grow trees, plants, vines and flowers. Hao Si Phuong has not only concrete buildings but also small “gardens”. Most of the visitors are surprised at the plants and green spaces. The alley is usually called “green alley” thanks to the green walls, doors, windows, trees and plants.
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Community of Chinese People
According to Mr. A Ton, there was only one Vietnamese family in Hao Si Phuong alley before 1975, the others are from Teochew and Hainan, China. So that visitors can see 五 福 臨 門 (Five fortunes through door) panels or papers above entrances, lots of papers with Chinese characters, and Chinese altars mounted on the walls or put the floors. Incense burners, altar tablets with Chinese characters, red pockets, vases of flowers, plates of fruits are usually arranged on altars.
Many old Chinese people have been living in this alley their whole life. Mrs. Diep Lien who is nearly 100 years old has lived here her whole life, she can not speak Vietnamese. They all talk to each other in Chinese, some of the residents still read newspapers in Chinese and listen to Chinese music. At lunch or dinner, the smell of Chinese foods spread over the air.
Peaceful Oasis in Hustle and Bustle Saigon
Escaping the busy, crowded and noisy Tran Hung Dao Street and entering the alley, visitors are lost in a Hongkong or China residential area. Old people sitting on small chairs, sipping some tea, listening to slow and relaxing Chinese songs while talking together in Vietnamese and Chinese. The relationship between neighbors in the alley is rather good. They usually help each other, sometimes sit together, chat leisurly, sip some drinks and share their stories, especially in the morning and at night.
In the late afternoon and evening, adults come back home after work, talk together and laugh, housewives cook delicious foods when children run around and play together. The alley is a peaceful place to return, relax and forget about difficulties in the life.
Local Life in Hao Si Phuong Alley
There is a small drink stall at the entrance to the alley, with a cabinet containing soft drinks, coffee, tea, glasses, straws and ice, some plastic chairs and tables arranged along the wall. The vendor ist behind the cabinet and is happy to serve her customers refreshing drinks at cheap prices. She also takes care of visitors’ motorbikes and bicycles and charge them a small fee. Residents farm chicken, dry their clothes on lines and tracks, arrange tables, chairs, vehicles, even washing machines in corridors or on balconies because the houses are not spacious enough. In the alley, poor people collect carton boxes, bottles and other recyclables and sell them to make money.
Electrical power system in the building
Tangled wires cause chaos around the building, electricity meters, air conditioners are hung on the front walls. Nearly ten fluorescent lamps are hung between two lines of houses to light the alley at night.
Name of Hao Si Phuong Alley
Most of the visitors wonder what Hao Si Phuong means, when and how it was founded. Hào (hào hiệp) means generous, sỹ (văn sỹ) means writer, phường (in the phrase “buôn có bạn, bán có phường”) means trading has friends, selling has associations. Generosity, literature and trade association are characteristics of this alley.
According to Mr. A Ton who is over 68 years old and has been living in the alley for over 50 years, Hao Si Phuong was owned by Hua Bon Hoa Company of Uncle Hoa or Chú Hỏa who was one of the richest Chinese people in Saigon at the end of the 19th century and famous with the story The ghost in Hua Family. Uncle Hoa had built and leased the houses since 1910. He named the alley “Hào Sĩ Phường”. Some families in the houses still keep the contract with his company.
According to some researchers, the name of the alley came from the job of residents in the alley. The French government let Chinese people construct Saigon China Town (Cho Lon) themselves. Alleys in Chinese style had appeared and their names usually ended with “Lý” (hamlet), “Hạng” (family), “Phường” (same job). Hào Sĩ Phường is the place where workers of a soap factory owned by Mr. Hào Sĩ.