Every year I return to my home city of Melbourne to see my family and attend to general business and personal duties. I still by default call Melbourne home, even if I haven’t lived here since 2010. I returned last year after an unintended two year absence, and like last year the city continues to change at a rapid pace. The building boom is still on, and there are more new places to eat which my short visit could not do justice.
It’s still Marvellous Melbourne, and I never tire of seeing the Victorian-era buildings.
How I travel to Melbourne has also changed. I’ve been away for so long I that don’t have a regular place to crash anymore. I was once again Airbnbing like a tourist in my own city. This turned out to be a good thing as I stayed exclusively within the Central Business District. City living has become more popular with the apartment boom, as before it was mostly office buildings in the city. I got to wake to city views like this.
And I stayed at another place in Southbank, which had a view of St Paul’s Cathedral.
This trip was the first time I’ve returned and didn’t visit my old neighbourhood of St Kilda. The only time I ventured outside the city was to a cafe in South Melbourne, and to my doctor in Port Melbourne. Both are next to the city, and I walked back from Port Melbourne along a green walking path next to the light rail.
Here are some notes and observations I made during my return as a former resident.
A new metro line
The first morning back I went for a city wander and saw that a new metro line is being built.
While my friends in Saigon are complaining about how long the first metro line is taking, they can take heart to know that this project began in 2017 and is looking to be completed by 2026.
Vietnamese restaurants continue to dominate
During my visit last year I noticed the amount of new Vietnamese restaurants. There is a huge Vietnamese community here, so that is no surprise. Mekong pho on Swanston Street is one of the old-school Vietnamese restaurants, which was made famous when Bill Clinton visited and had two bowls of pho.
The old places were started by Vietnamese refugees and have more prosaic names (such as place names). The new restaurants are more likely to be the children of the original migrants and have more contemporary names like Mama’s Buoi.
There is even a shop dedicated to Vietnamese che desserts.
I usually give Vietnamese food a rest while I travel, but for this trip I was curious to see Twenty-Pho Seven, which is – as the name would suggest – a 24-hour pho restaurant.
I went at around 6pm and it was packed out, so I got a seat at the bar.
They have an ipad ordering system, where you can custom-make your pho with additional extras. Not something I’ve seen in Saigon yet.
I got a chicken pho, which was pretty good for a pho outside the homeland.
More regional Asian food
In addition to all-night pho, you can get a bowl of ramen all night. I tell you, when I was a young lad drunkenly roaming around the streets of Melbourne at 3am we didn’t have 24-hour pho or ramen. The best we could hope for was an old pie at a greasy spoon diner on Swanston Street.
I went past Hakata Gensuke on Russell St and there was a queue to get in.
Also back in the day, Chinese food was just lumped under one category of Chinese. Now you can get dishes from the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of Northwestern China.
Or how about food from West Sumatra.
I walked into a regular supermarket and saw dragonfruit and durian on sale like it’s no big deal.
And the Asian supermarkets have become bigger and better.
Asian franchised brands continue to arrive in Melbourne. I was surprised to see Killiney from Singapore here. I love their Kaya toast with half-boiled eggs, and if I was in Melbourne a little longer I would have make a stop for breakfast here.
The new arrival I wanted to try was Hawker Chan from Singapore. The worlds cheapest Michelin-starred street food legend has since opened a branch in Bangkok, and now Melbourne. I went to the Singapore restaurant in May last year, and the Melbourne branch was equally busy.
The signature dish of Soya Sauce Chicken with Rice was $6.80 AUD, which is indeed cheap for Australia.
A visible sign of how population demographics have changed in the city, I found a noodle shop on Swanston Street (the main street) serving pork intestine noodle soup for breakfast, and it was busy. There is a huge international student population here, so that isn’t surprising.
Still the best coffee and breakfast culture
I was telling some friends about the diverse international food culture in Melbourne, and I was asked if means that Australia is losing its own food culture. The thing is that we don’t really have a signature dish as we are a nation of many cultures. What has emerged is that Australia has one of the best breakfast cultures in the world. The most popular cafes are independent, and each has their own menu. I’m always delighted when I come back and see how good cafe food is here. It sure beats a muffin (AKA breakfast cake) at Starbucks.
I arrived in Melbourne on Easter Monday, which is a public holiday in Australia. Half of the cafes in the city were closed which meant queues everywhere.
Some of the best cafes are hidden in alleys you would never think to walk down.
Krimper in Guildford Lane is one such cafe. You will need a map of cafes when you visit Melbourne.
Melbourne is famous for its laneways in the city, and one of the laneways has been renamed ACDC Lane.
Bon Scott lived in Melbourne when his family emigrated from Scotland, before they eventually moved to Fremantle. While AC/DC was formed in Sydney, the Melbourne-AC/DC connection is from the film clip for It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll), which was filmed in Swanston Street. Not only is this a great Aussie tune, the video is an excellent time capsule of Melbourne in the 1970’s.
The laneway now has a tribute to Bon Scott, and a nightclub in the lane has a mural in honour of Malcolm Young.
Accommodating Chinese visitors
In the city I saw these yellow bikes delivering food. The writing was all in Chinese, apart from the website name. Some of the bikes are electric, and they seemed to be doing a brisk trade in the international student area of the city.
At the airport it’s apparent that China is now by far the top tourist source for Australia. A quick look on the Melbourne Airport Wiki page reveals that there are flights from 14 cities:
Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Qingdao, Shenyang, Changsha, Xi’an, Zhengzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Hangzhou, Xiamen.
The airport also has advertisements for milk formula. Chinese buyers come to Australia and buy formula in bulk at retail prices.
You also see more businesses accepting Alipay and UnionPay.
Dockless bike-sharing has arrived
Unfortunately Australia is a land full of dickhead bogans, so bikes have been reported to be mistreated. A similar problem has been reported in Manchester, which also has a binge drinking culture where nice things like bike-sharing is probably not going to work. I saw these bikes having a swim in the Yarra River.
Another obstacle to bike-share success in Australia is the mandatory helmet laws. It’s a $185 fine for not wearing a helmet, so bikes should have a helmet attached, or you can buy a cheap one from 7-Eleven for $5.
Melbourne Docklands – a missed opportunity for a world-class new urban area
Docklands has been a work in progress since the early 2000’s. Every time I’ve visited it’s felt like a lifeless and windswept urban space. This year has been the first time that it felt like there was some life going on. It’s mostly complete now and people are living here.
Most of the Docklands are new buildings, being built on old railway yards and warehouses. The most notable buildings were preserved, such as the Queen’s Warehouse building which now houses The Fox Classic Car Collection.
The most historic building is the No. 2 Goods Shed. At 385 metres the shed was so long that it stood in the way of the extension of Collins St. The tough decision was made to cut it in half to allow the road extension. The two sections have been repurposed into office and retail spaces.
There are now some cool cafes here that don’t feel like office worker cafeterias.
I like the look of this office building as well. If I had to work in an office again I wouldn’t mind being here.
I ran into a fellow travel writer in a cafe, and he recommended that I check out the new city library at Docklands. Melbourne has some of the best cafes in the world, but they are not conducive for work. The libraries though are ideal for working, and the Docklands library has instantly become one of my favourites. It’s a modern building with big windows overlooking the harbour, and it has lots of work spaces throughout.
At the park next to the library I had a thought that this part of Docklands could pass for a modern urban area in the Netherlands. The new buildings next to the the former industrial harbour reminded me of Rotterdam.
The difference though is that Rotterdam is famous for its adventurous architecture. Most of the buildings in Docklands are unremarkable glass boxes.
A decision was made when planning Docklands that it would be low-rise (compared to the CBD), so there are no signature skyscraper projects here (and thus we never got the 500 metre Grollo Tower). Bigger doesn’t equal better, and there are plenty of famous modern buildings around the world that aren’t skyscrapers. If they weren’t building a landmark skyscraper, they should have at least sourced a few rockstar architects to put Docklands on the world map. For example city is getting a Zaha Hadid building, which would have been good to have.
Docklands has a few interesting buildings here and there, but there are no landmark buildings. There is nothing here which would feature on a postcard or travel story about why you should visit. No gherkins, no dancing houses, and no Rotterdam Market Halls.
So that was my visit to Melbourne for 2018. I always get asked if I’m going to give up the nomad life and return home one day. My stock answer is “who knows?” I do ask myself this question when I return every year, and so far the answer is still no. I would like to spend more time here though and perhaps rent an airbnb for a few weeks, so we shall see what 2019 brings.