The other district

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Every fifteen minutes, the best bargain in Ho Chi Minh City departs from downtown and heads for District 2.

Unlike many of the pricey private boats, waiting to shuttle wealthy foreigners to a collection of compounds and villas in An Phu Ward, this ferry travels to Cat Lai Ward, a rambling collection of homes and green space"”a place where past, present and future collide.

For VND1,000, you can take the journey, any time.

Just follow the motorbikes as they board the ferry at the dock across the street from the Renaissance Hotel on Ton Duc Thang Street.

On a recent afternoon, I boarded the boat along with an accountant and an old woman carrying a shoulder pole loaded with vegetables. On the deck, clusters of cigarette smoking xe om drivers rode with uniformed schoolgirls.

Diesel exhaust wafted into the air as propellers churned the dirty Saigon River water under the grease-stained wooden deck.

Two ramps allow riders to climb up to enjoy the view but few passengers do. No one aboard appeared to be sightseeing.

Once across the river, a whole new world emerged along Cat Lai's main drag. Open air barbershops abounded; a clock repairman tinkered patiently, on the sidewalk.

I began to wander, past motorbike repair shops, down palm shaded alleyways and along canals where fathers and sons fished.

Kids waved and old women smiled from their courtyards; roosters crowed and dogs lazed in the shade.

Billboards, heralded a "new city" filled with skyscrapers, man-made lagoons, office parks and a even subway stop (hope springs eternal in Vietnam).

Before long, I found myself amongst a number of small temples painted in vibrant yellows. I stopped to admire one, amid the rubble of a demolished home.

A nun, with a bright face and a shaved head, smiled from behind the temple fence.

A billboard plastered with an artist's rendition of a new, modern pagoda dressed the facade.

In a combination of sign language, halting Vietnamese and English I tried to ask her if the current temple would be destroyed or relocated.

She walked out onto the street, pointed at the picture, smiled sweetly and gestured far off into the distance.

Down the road, two young men clad in freshly pressed shirts, holding faux leather briefcases, joined me in my walk. After the obligatory "where are you going? where are you from?" one announced he works as an interpreter.

"All this gone soon," he said, gesturing around the neighborhood. "Great investment opportunity for you."

I return to the main drag, which forks into two options.

To the right lies the ritzy sprawl of An Phu; to the left, the busy arc of Thu Thiem Bridge.

At the peak, an elderly woman sells coconuts in a conical hat. The bridge's apex affords a view of the city, old and new. As motorbikes whiz by, people stop to take in the sights, and take photographs.

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