What makes a good city?
My top 3 must-haves
I’ve lived in 4 major cities in my lifetime: London, Paris, Bangkok, and now Ho Chi Minh City. Each has seen me progress through different stages of life: the alcoholic teen in wild London, the wide-eyed romantic in picturesque Paris, the anxious overachiever in bustling Bangkok, and the self-proclaimed enlightened professional in Vietnam’s chaotic economic capital.
Because I’ve led such different lives in each city, my experience of each has been so unique that I never thought to compare them, to ask myself which I prefer and why.
Last month, I was in Phnom Penh to visit a friend. It was a short trip, but in those ten days I saw so many things Phnom Penh had that Ho Chi Minh City didn’t that it got me thinking:
What makes a good city?
What Phnom Penh had
It’s funny how you often don’t see what’s missing until it’s back in front of your eyes. As soon as I stepped off the plane into Phnom Penh’s international airport, I realised how lacking its HCMC counterpart was.
What Phnom Penh’s airport had that HCMC’s didn’t:
Western shop (Relay) and café (Starbucks) in the waiting area
Clear signs and designated areas in the immigration hall
Wide toilet stalls designed to accommodate suitcases
Immigration officers who did their job without giving you an anxiety attack
Independent taxi drivers who approached gently and went away when you said no rather than chase you across the arrival hall
Over the next ten days, Phnom Penh continued to delight with things HCMC didn’t have:
Super friendly and welcoming locals who smiled rather than glare at you
Efficient service staff—tour operators, waiters, cleaners—all of whom spoke English
Drivers who steered rather than honk their way to their destination
Food delivery app with English menus for every restaurant1
Free drinking water in every establishment
Pedestrian crossing lights that worked
I was so impressed that I wondered what it would be like to live there, asked myself if Phnom Penh would make a good city to live in.
And the answer, sadly, was no, for one other thing it had that HCMC didn’t: rampant bag and phone snatching.
Theft is not uncommon in HCMC, but according to people who live in Phnom Penh, there it’s the rule, not the exception. For ten days as I explored the city on foot, I kept my small side bag zipped and tightly tugged under my arm. I used a notepad with street names scribbled onto it to navigate and only took my phone out three times to consult Google Maps after getting lost.
I did make it back to HCMC without incident. But it was stressful. Despite all the delightful things Phnom Penh had to offer, I didn’t think I could live there for the safety it lacked.
What makes a good city?
The comparison between HCMC and Phnom Penh got me thinking about what I needed from a city, and here are my three must-haves:
Must-have #1: Safety
After ten days in Phnom Penh, returning to the streets of my neighbourhood in HCMC felt like breathing a huge sigh of relief. I could let my bag hang to my side. I could take my phone out for Google Maps when I wanted to. Having lived in major cities, I’ll always be careful with my belongings in public, but there’s “vigilant” and there’s “stressed.”
Must-have #2: Walkability
Something London, Paris, and Bangkok had. Not so much HCMC, which is my biggest complaint against the city. All my jobs require sitting still in front of a laptop, so being able to walk to places gives me that rare opportunity to move my body. Walkability comes with good public transportation—being able to jump on London’s Tube, Paris’ Métro, Bangkok’s Sky Train meant I could “walk” anywhere in the city. HCMC has nothing for me to jump on except taxis. Admittedly, fares are very affordable, but I’d much rather walk.
Must-have #3: Nice restaurants and cafés
I had a lot of candidates for must-have #3: prevalence of English as a spoken language, convenience, culture, people. But any local language can be learnt (where there’s a will…), a lack of convenience can be gotten used to, I don’t value culture much, and new friends can always be made.
What I can’t will into existence, however, is nice restaurants and cafés. And I’d be deeply, deeply distressed if I lived in a city without them. Trying out new restaurants and cafés is one of my most—if not the most—favourite pastimes, and I feel great joy in returning time and again to a place that’s earned a heart on my Google Maps. So this is my must-have #3.
What do you think?
You’ll likely have different must-haves for a good city. You’ve read mine, now do tell me yours:
What makes a good city for you?
Is “safety” also at the top of your list? Do you value walkability like I do? How about green space? What other factors matter? Please hit “reply” or leave a comment—I read every response and I’d love to hear from you. Even better, share this with someone who lives in an unconventional city. It’ll be great to know why they chose it.
Until next Friday… Stay thoughtful,
You could even select which bank note you wanted to pay with, and the rider turned up with the exact change for it. This level of efficiency would be a pipe dream in HCMC.