After checking in to my hotel, I got on a tram and spent the afternoon in Richmond, located just a few kilometers from Melbourne CBD (central business district/downtown). Most of the Vietnamese shops line Victoria Place so I spent hours walking up and down the street. Great little markets, restaurants, and fantastic houseware and restaurant supply shops. At Unicorn, I scored Chinese egg tartlet pans that are hard to get in the U.S., and at Chefland I found moon cake molds to add to my collection. What’s striking about Richmond is how much it looks like Vietnam. Narrow buildings with some colonial architecture, there’s even a mini version of the landmark Cho Ben Thanh market clock tower from Saigon. With the peeling paint and Melbourne’s dreary spring weather (think Seattle), I felt like I was in Hue or Hanoi in winter. Only most of the people here are southerners.
Vi ‘Em (“Because of You”) is an open storefront-type restaurant fashioned to look like you’re in Saigon. There were men loafing about café style in the mid afternoon. I had great pho at old-school Thu The and banh khot coconut rice cakes/dumplings at Thanh Hai (the banh cuon was so-so).
However, at the end of Victoria, close to the train station, newer, more modern Vietnamese restaurants. Tran Tran, a smart looking restaurant, was opening that night and the inside smelled faintly like new paint. The all-English menu and minimalist décor was not Vietnamese-modern with vestiges of antiquity but just 21st century modern. This is multicultural Melbourne, and Victoria Place’s businesses are mostly Vietnamese or Chinese, with an Italian pizza joint, Turkish, Indian, and Thai thrown in. There are also Asian furniture importers and of course a bottle shop (liquor store). You can’t go far in Australia without seeing a liquor store.
Yesterday afternoon I took the train from Flinders Station to the working class suburb of Footscray, which I found to be like a cross between Cabramatta and Richmond. You’ve got the colonial architecture, but there’s also a large indoor market full of stalls. One aisle is mostly comprised of Vietnamese butchers.
In Footscray, like in Cabramatta, you can walk the neighborhood whereas in Richmond, “Little Saigon” is a jammed packed kilometer of Victoria. To get a sense of the bigger Vietnamese community, just wander outside of the market. There are several streets to explore and restaurant and shops to pop into. I enjoyed a nice bowl of vegetarian bun bo Hue (called bun Hue because there’s no bo beef) from Bo De Trai on Hopkins. Down the street was an outpost of Nhu Lan, named after the famed deli/banh mi shop in Saigon; there’s one in Richmond too. The sandwich was lightly filled, as it should be and made for a nice snack. There are several Frenchy-type of bakeries too.
In Richmond, I saw non-Viet families getting meals at Vietnamese markets. In Footscray, there was more of an immigrant community of Vietnamese, African and Indian coming together. There are many alleyways in Melbourne and its environs and down one, I met two female graffiti artists from persquaremetre gallery who were spraying on a gorgeous wall of voluptuous artwork. There are a number of commissioned graffiti alleyways in Melbourne that reflect the city’s intellectual and artistic grit.
As a side note, at the Preston and Queen Victoria markets, there are Vietnamese vendors too, but they’re a minority there. You would not find this kind of commingling of race and ethnicity in the States. Here in Australia, it seems more natural, or just is. I’m sure there are tensions but people seem to get along.
Any thoughts on race and ethnicity in Australia? Do share!
Related links: How Little Saigon in California is like big Saigon but not