There is a second city hidden inside District 1 of Saigon; it is an extensive network of back alleys, twisting narrowly behind and between the borough's buildings. This sprawling microcosm is home to hundreds of people, businesses, and restaurants. Inlets into the secret world, both narrow and wide, can be found between almost every street-side shop.
Protected by tall buildings on either side, only a narrow shaft of light can penetrate the shaded maze for most of the day.
Save for one or two "major" thoroughfares, the alleys zig and zag continuously, often ending abruptly at the entrance to someone's home. It is easy to get disoriented with all the doubling back, so I don't bother trying to orient myself at all.
Strolling through these makeshift streets, I may as well be walking down the hallway of peoples' houses. Windows and doors are often open or nonexistent, putting the residents' lives on display like the open back of a dollhouse.
Women sit in the middle of the paths, drinking tea with their neighbors, while lots of men play a board game that looks a bit like checkers. Tables and chairs, toys and pets and kitchens all clutter the alleys, while children skip in between it all, playing, chasing, laughing.
Many people nap away the afternoon heat, flopped out on couches, hammocks, and cots, snoozing with their feet nearly poking out windows and doors. Some stare at TVs while sitting on shiny tile floors, and still others are getting their nails done at one of the many back alley salons.
The atmosphere of this place is a little difficult to capture. Normally, I am keen to approach and engage people in conversation, genuinely curious about what they are doing. Back here, it feels like I'm invading homes with my presence.
Mostly, I just meander through with a quiet smile, snapping photos of things but not people, refraining from busting into their neighborhood like the paparazzi.
One notable exception is when I stumble across three men, busy at work making noodles. They are on autopilot, hardly paying attention to their hands as they crank out pasta that will possibly supply the entire neighborhood with their morning bowls of phở, or evening plates of fried noodles.
Now it's time to find my way out of here!