Over the last ten years, the term ‘Thao Dien’, which is short for Thao Dien Ward in District 2 in the eastern outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, has been associated with a conglomeration of Western culture and life.
The area caters principally for foreigners dwelling in Saigon, with high-end sporting facilities, entertainment centers, shopping malls and schools of different levels.
'The United Nation flea market'
This term is the local way of referring to a meeting point of Thao Dien-based foreign citizens.
It is a flea market operated at weekends and on national holidays by a group of young people.
Visitors to the 'UN flea market' can readily spot nearly 50 booths selling clothes, shoes, backpacks, purses and wallets, as well as souvenirs, cosmetics and aromatic spices.
Most of these products are claimed by sellers to be handcrafted in a peculiar style of a certain country.
All this shopping and browsing takes place amid melodic live music by a non-Vietnamese singer living in Thao Dien.
As your correspondent entered, he was greeted by a cheerful British lady: “Buy these! They’re all hand-made in the British style, but the material is from Vietnam.”
The singer, Anny, has been working as a teacher for an international school in Vietnam for a decade.
She has been socializing around this flea market for the last few years, selling necklaces, earrings, ties and accessories made from cloth, leather and paper.
Nearby is a chocolate cart owned by Marc Vanborren from Belgium.
His chocolate bars, according to Marc himself, are homemade from Vietnamese cacao planted in Lam Dong, Dong Nai, Tien Giang and Ben Tre provinces.
|An Indonesian woman sells her country’s traditional cake at the ‘United Nation flea market’. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Also boasting their self-made cakes, a Russian man was luring customers by offering complimentary samples.
Similarly, an Indonesian couple were demonstrating how to cook their fried pancakes, while an American man close by was tending to his jewelry products.
Alaxka from Kazakhstan strongly impressed your correspondent with her dog portrait paintings.
“If a dog comes to your house, it brings wealth,” she said.
Alaxka came to Vietnam with her boyfriend a year ago on a holiday trip.
Domestic overseas learning
Thao Dien is also popular considering the presence of numerous international schools.
According to the People’s Committee of Thao Dien Ward, there are 40 international schools from kindergarten to university level.
For this reason, Thao Dien gives off an impression that Vietnamese students here are ‘studying overseas’, although they are still in their own homeland.
Tran Van Nam, vice chairman of Thao Dien People’s Committee, informed that there are two types of schools in this locality.
The first type uses only one foreign language such as English, French, Korean or Japanese as their instructional language. No Vietnamese is spoken here.
There are roughly ten such schools and they are geared towards children of foreign residents.
The second type is bilingual, using Vietnamese and a foreign language as instructional languages at the same time, and taking both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese students.
“School tuition is astronomical at these schools. It can amount to a billion VND a year [roughly US$ 43,950], so only foreigners and the wealthy send their kids here,” he added.
This is a gigantic amount of money compared to the GPD per capita of around $5,000 of Ho Chi Minh City, measured in 2015 by the General Statistics Office of Vietnam.
British International School, in particular, has just started their third campus running.
Their three campuses are all enormous in size and host nearly 4,000 teachers and students.
An affluent area
Situated along Saigon river, Thao Dien possesses a mild climate that draws foreigners, rich Vietnamese as well as certain embassies.
Around the 1990s, foreigners working in Saigon started to approach Thao Dien for accommodation.
Since then high quality villas have sprung up along with an increased influx of tenants.
|An international school in Thao Dien ward, District 2, has an overpass connecting is two campuses. Photo: Tuoi Tre|
Besides top-notch educational institutions as mentioned above, Thao Dien offers all kinds of other services, including medical facilities, shopping malls, sporting centers and restaurants.
In certain parts of Thao Dien, not a single Vietnamese word can be found on public signage.
According to Nguyen Ngoc Tuan, chairman of the People’s Committee of Thao Dien Ward, there are nearly 5,500 non-Vietnamese residents living amongst the 19,000 inhabitants here.
Also, he said that traffic congestion is a hot issue as the number of cars and buses that operate during school-end hours number more than 2,100.
The committee have openly encouraged schools to promote the use of buses for students’ transport, but parents have stuck to their private cars, causing unresolved traffic jams.