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Besides the delicate cuisine, the tangled network of narrow and super-narrow alleys is one of the things we’ve most enjoyed in Vietnam, especially in the country’s biggest city, Saigon. That’s where you’ll be able to take an exploration trip for free, and discover the authentic local lifestyle for yourself; a hands-on experience that no tour could ever offer.
What will you find in ‘hẻm’?
For tourists and expats, the alleyways are the best locations to people watch, and observe the intimate lives of local people, which is totally different from anything you may have experienced strolling on the main streets. You might capture Vietnamese families sitting flat on the house’s floor sharing meals, with their front door wide open. Some alleys are so narrow that the people who live in two opposite houses can actually talk to each other over the path, without ever leaving their homes. It’s very interesting seeing people chatting like that! The alleyways are also used as a public yard, where children can play and adults can exercise.
The wonderful smells permeating the air all day long are the second greatest thing that makes Saigon alleyways so unique and special. In the morning, the scent of Vietnamese herbs and delicious food gets spread all over the air, which can make passersby pretty hungry! Sometimes, the perfume of an extra-fragrant laundry detergent tickles your nose while passing by a house where the laundry is hanging under the sun.
‘Hẻm’ are the perfect place to look for authentic homemade Vietnamese food. There are numerous food vendors that are only open for their neighbours. They typically only serve one dish, but it’s usually really good. You shouldn’t miss the chance to grab a hot soup and eat it while seated on a five inches stool. It will be an unforgettable experience in Vietnam.
As you travel deeper through the alley network, you will start feeling a slower and more relaxed vibe. In these parts you will be able to see some intriguing architecture, such as various two to three floor houses and many hidden pagodas.
What time is best to make a trip?
We found that many Vietnamese people have the habit of taking a short nap at noon, so we recommend exploring the alleys in the morning between 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM, when people are usually taking care of their housework and preparing meals, or on the late afternoon, from 3:00 PM to 5:00 PM, when children often play outside. You’ll get more chances of observing some more authentic moments of the local people’s real lives during this time. Besides, evening is also a good time for trying snail vendor alleyways.
Our recommend alleyways
Basically, most ‘hẻm’ in Saigon are pretty similar, as they fill the gaps between major streets. You will eventually end up in a main street, where you’ll be able to easily grab a taxi home. In case you get lost and can’t find an English speaker to help you, our tip is to look for the main electricity wire and follow it to the main street. Depending on the location, each alleyway network has its own atmosphere and things to enjoy.
Alleyways to See Pagodas
If you want to see some beautiful hidden pagodas, you could visit the 498 Le Quang Dinh alley. This place was believed to be on a ‘dragon line’. That’s why five pagodas were built in the location, not to mention some others around. Usually, the atmosphere here is absolutely calmer and more quiet than other Saigon alleyways. But during Buddhist Festivals and Lunar New Year, it’s very crowded. Among them, Gia Lam Pagoda is our recommendation to take a visit. It’s a beautiful wooden pagoda with old Hue style architecture.
Interesting, Narrow Alleyways
For exploring narrow and super-narrow alleys, we recommend the two alleyway networks in Phu Nhuan and Binh Thanh District.
Duy Tan alley (start from 72 Huynh Van Banh Street) and Co Giang, Co Bac alleyways (start from 216 Phan Dinh Phung Street) are networks of various small and tiny alleys in Phu Nhuan District. A feature of these alleyways is that they have one big alleyway that goes to a major street, and other smaller alleyways. So don’t forget to make some random turns and see where it takes you. They might look complicated at first but you will soon end up at a big street. Along the way, you will find many Vietnamese afternoon food stands.
334 Chu Van An Alleyway (Binh Thanh District) is also known for its dense network of tiny alleys. There are alleyways inside alleyways; and sometimes the path can only fit one person to go through, so you have to actually drive right next to people’s house in order make a U-turn. This is for real explorers who want to try something excited and thrilling as the network is super deep and confusing. People in this area love the outdoors, so you will meet many of them who tend to sit on the path.
Alleyways for Street Food at Night
284 Le Van Sy alley (District 3) is a common destination for Saigonese to enjoy Hue Street cuisine. You can not resist plenty of different Hue dishes and noodle soups that are hard to find anywhere else. This ‘hẻm’ is home of many Hue families in Saigon, so go there to try authentic Hue food.
Another option for night street food lovers is the 200 Xom Chieu alley in District 4. After 6:00 PM, where numerous food stands are gathered in the alley, selling tasty street food, such as rice, porridge, rice noodle, sticky rice, spring rolls and lots more!
Alleyways to Have Garden Coffee
The Le Truc alley starts from 126 Hoang Hoa Tham Street (another starting point is 142 alley, Hoang Hoa Tham Street) and ends at Le Quang Dinh Street (Binh Thanh District) is a perfect destination for cafe lovers to lay back in a secret garden. There are so many beautiful garden cafes along a small hidden path, which can be easily missed from the busy street. The alleyway is simple, short and filled with tree shades. So just wander along, have a look and visit your favorite place.
Alleyways to People Watch
You can simply visit any nearest ‘hẻm’ from you location, meet the people and getting in a bit of people watching to see what its like to be a local. Every alleyway has its own beauty and there’s always something interesting for you to discover. For people watching, we suggest the alleyways along the railways near Le Van Sy Street (Phu Nhuan District) as it will give you a different perspective of the local people’s lives.
If you have any interesting Saigon alleyways to share, please write in the comment box below. We’d love to hear!