20 years ago, only a few Japanese restaurants were located on Alley 15B of Le Thanh Ton Street in Saigon’s District 1. Opposite the alley loom high-end housing complexes popular among Japanese experts and investors. Over time, this community grew to form ‘Little Japan’.
Another, smaller Japanese community was later established on Pham Viet Chanh Street in Binh Thanh District, more accessible to the southern provinces of Binh Duong and Dong Nai, where many Japanese and foreign companies are located.
Today, ‘Little Japan’ has expanded to line 300 m of Le Thanh Ton Street, connecting to Thai Van Lung, Thi Sach and Ngo Van Nam streets where authentic Japanese restaurants and shops litter the sidewalks.
The area boasts plenty of bars, coffee shops, hotels, convenience stores, spas and massage parlors decorated with signs in Kanji, red lanterns, and wooden doors reminiscent of Japan.
Contrary to bustling Bui Vien walking street in District 1, a popular area for backpackers, for instance, ‘Little Japan’ is relatively quiet and uncrowded, with a greater community appeal. Music, sounds of cooking, drinking and eating and laughs are hidden behind the closed doors.
Most restaurants and shops in the area are owned by Japanese living in either Vietnam or Japan.
A portion of Japanese ramen in ‘Little Japan’ costs around VND100,000 ($4.3). Restaurants around here use fresh local ingredients, while spices, noodles, and pickled vegetables, are imported from Japan to ensure an authentic taste. Photo by VnExpress/Tam Linh.
Diep Nhat Huy, 21, a local ramen cook on Alley 15B, said: "Our boss is a Japanese chef who came here to open a restaurant and taught us how to cook Japanese cuisine professionally."
Restaurants in ‘Little Japan’ are simply decorated and cozy, in stark contrast to the fancy and luxurious Japanese eateries opened by Vietnamese in other areas. Famous for their etiquette and manners, Japanese however enjoy slurping up their noodles to express appreciation.
"My family taught me to eat like this since I was young, so it became a habit," a Japanese customer explained.
Most local Japanese rent either a budget friendly house, serviced apartments or self-catering hotel rooms, available at VND500,000 ($22) a night.
According to a hotel receptionist on Alley 6C2 Thai Van Lung Street, Japanese usually leave for work around 6 a.m. Returning around 7-8 p.m., they eat and drink until 10 p.m. On weekends, they often hang out at bars.
"Japanese living in Saigon often have dinner around here. They work from morning to evening and wear office clothes to dinner before returning home," a restaurant staff member said.
Vietnamese visit the enclave to take wedding and regular photos during the day. Photo by VnExpress/Tam Linh.
During the day, the quiet neigborhood is ideal for photographers. Its restaurants open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The area livens up at 5 p.m, with "Irasshaimase" or "Welcome" ringing through the small alley until 1 a.m.
Today, ‘Little Japan’ offers additional Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Thai, European and American cuisine to satisfy both Japanese residents and foreign visitors to the area.