I returned to Melbourne after being away for just over two years. I didn’t intend to be away so long, as I like to return to the homeland at least once every calendar year. Unfortunately my back injury of 2016 put me out of commission for a while and I wasn’t able to travel.
This was the longest I’ve ever been outside of Australia, and only the second time I wasn’t in Australia during a calendar year (the last time being in 2000 when I was half way through a work visa in the UK). Being away for so long made the changes more pronounced and the reverse culture shock more intense.
I began this blog in February 2009 when I was still renting a place in Melbourne. I left that house in September 2010 and I have rarely been back since. Apart from a few updates I’ve never blogged about my own home city, so here are my thoughts and observations of a week spent in Melbourne in 2017.
The Melbourne apartment boom
One of the most noticeable things about what is happening in Melbourne has been the inner city apartment boom. It used to be that the city was the preserve of business, and the city at night was rather quiet. Now most of the new buildings are residential, and there lots of new cafes and restaurants in the city that goes with servicing an increased population.
On the other side of the river, Southbank continues to develop into a city in itself with more apartment towers. The street level activity is still missing though so it lacks the same vibrancy of the city.
One of the current projects in Southbank is Australia 108, which will be the tallest building in Australia by roof height.
Many of these projects haven’t happened on empty blocks that were just waiting to be redeveloped. One of the towers in the first image sits on land that was once a Victorian-era pub. And I took a photo of this historic church building which was in its last days of existence.
This is not a new building but I wanted to put this here as it looks like a homage to the tall and skinny buildings of Vietnam.
Food that got politised while I was away
Even though I don’t live in Australia I still read the Australian newspapers online to keep up with the national zeitgeist. Something that has become a thing since I’ve been away is the smashed avo breakfast. This has been around for years, but as a hard-core traveller spending $15 for a breakfast was against my religion while I was saving for overseas travel.
In the last few years of my travels I’ve noticed the rise of Australian breakfast culture around the world, like Aussie-style cafes in Paris, and the avocado on toast craze in the US.
The smashed avo breakfast became politised when a local politician suggested that Millennials should forgo avocado on toast if they want to afford a house in Australia’s ridiculously expensive housing market.
I’m from Generation X, but I will not tolerate any lazy badmouthing of Millennials, so in solidarity I had a smashed avo for breakfast.
I was nice, but not something I would do every day (especially not at $16). I went to a market and saw the avocado prices, which made me think that I should get my own avocado plot somewhere.
Another food that was politised while I was away was the Halal Snack Pack (HSP). It’s always been available, just never under that name.
Australia’s resident racist put the HSP in the national headlines with her objections to halal, and proving the Streisand effect to be true, the obscure HSP became an international sensation.
The HSP is basically a kebab without the bread, and with chips. It must be amazing drunk food, and even for this sober person I loved it. If it was topped with squeaky cheese it would be better than poutine.
Hipster doughnuts have arrived
I went to Portland in 2012 which is where I encountered my first hipster donuttery. Being the hipster capital of Australia I was surprised there wasn’t one here. This oversight has been corrected and and Melbourne now has a hipster doughnut stand.
I saw a number of people walking around the city with the doughnut boxes like it is some sort of status symbol. At $6.70 for a donut we’ve come a long way from the 25c jam donuts I recall in primary school. To be fair these things are the size of a mini cake, and they have cool names.
Is it just me, or has Vietnamese food become the most popular Asian food in Melbourne?
Maybe it’s because I’ve spent so much time in Vietnam that I am noticing all the Vietnamese restaurants here, but all the ones I am seeing are new.
On a previous visit back to Melbourne I visited Little Saigon in Richmond. There you will find the first wave Vietnamese immigrants in more traditional restaurants, perhaps named after the proprietor or where they came from. I saw the flag of South Vietnam flying there, and you would not see any imagery of Ho Chi Minh.
By contrast the new restaurants are modern fusion style restaurants, perhaps second generation owned who have had Vietnamese cuisine filtered through modern Australia. I visited a cool restaurant and bar named Uncle, which seemed to be a nod to the use of the word uncle in Vietnam (like Uncle Ho).
I met a friend for dinner and I didn’t know where we were going. I was taken to a new restaurant called Ho Chi Mama. I thought to myself that it would be a great name for a modern Vietnamese restaurant, and sure enough it was.
Pho has become a common fast food as well.
And I had to laugh when I saw there is now a Pho 24 in Melbourne. Pho 24 is a chain pho restaurant in Vietnam .
Thai restaurants are also evolving
Even though Vietnamese food seems to be everywhere now, Thai food remains as popular as ever and is also evolving from the restaurant with tablecloths setting.
One place I went to was a restaurant called Soi 38, which is the name of a famous street food street in Bangkok (or it was until it recently closed). Soi 38 specialise in boat noodles, which is more famous around the Victory Monument area of Bangkok.
I went for lunch and the interior was like stepping into a portal to Thailand. I got a little misty-eyed for the Land Of Smiles when I walked in and saw the flags and portrait of King Rama IX. The restaurant has imported all the furniture from Thailand to recreate a Thai street food scene. The food carts, tables and chairs, the 4-cup condiment holder, the chopsticks box, and even the metal water cups are all exactly like you find in Thailand. The only thing they got wrong was they had boxes of tissues instead of toilet paper dispensers.
For a non-food related touch the staff were wearing vests the motorcycle taxi riders wear.
Like any good street food cart they only offer a few items so I got the boat noodles. The aroma and soup was as just like I remembered it to be in Bangkok. The noodles were maybe not exact, which might be to do with the fact that noodles in Bangkok are pre-softened by the humidity, and are infused with tuk-tuk exhaust fumes.
At $10 it’s a great deal for Melbourne, though at 264 Baht it was certainly the most expensive bowl of boat noodles I’ve ever had, but I am not complaining. I could imagine coming here on a bitterly cold Melbourne winters day and feel like you’ve been transported to Bangkok. Maybe they should invest in some humidifiers to add to the effect.
And Melbourne is more Asiatic in general
I had just come from Darwin which I had hoped to be more of a Asia-inspired city. It’s not yet but it is on the way. Melbourne though has more Asian influence than ever. Part of this is from the booming university destination that Australia has become, being a large English speaking country of the region.
There are so many interesting shops and restaurants here that I really needed more time to eat and explore.
No visit to Melbourne is complete without spending time in the many cafes. Australian cafe culture has now spread around the world, and Melbourne is the mecca for this new coffee religion.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the lack of public wifi in cafes. It’s embarrassing to think that a little roadside cafe some obscure Southeast Asian town will have wifi but not in first-world Australia. It’s wrapped up with Australia’s poor handling of internet modernisation.
One place that is internet friendly is The Little Mule.
I was delighted to see Old Town White Coffee – a Malaysian chain – in the city as well. The coffee is no match for a creamy Melbourne latte, but I discovered their frozen coffee drink in Penang and it is addictive.
I was only here a week and I had meet ups to attend so I didn’t get to go to many new places. I would need to spend a month here and have a detailed spreadsheet of every cafe I was going to visit if I was to make a cool cafes of Melbourne list.
Sk. Kilda and my old house
I would love to come back for a month and compile a cafe list, and just spend time in a great city. Part of my problem is no longer having places to stay like I used to. On this trip I ended up staying in Airbnb accommodation.
I paid a visit to my old inner city neighbourhood of St Kilda and went by my old house. When I was living here with two friends this 100-year-old house was practically falling down around our ears. The last month I was there we were paying $333 AUD a month each, which even then was insanely cheap. Each time we complained about something not working the rent would go up, so we mainly put up with it.
The house has since been sold and appropriately renovated, and it’s now the multi-mullion dollar house that it was destined to be.
Before I left Australia, St. Kilda Beach used to be the centre of my universe. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, or at least not returning on a regular basis.
Now I come back and I feel nothing for my old neighbourhood. It’s still a lovely place to live, it’s just not my place any more. I went to the pier where there is a great view of the city over the bay. It’s really a beautiful city, worthy of its world’s most liveable city status. For now though it’s not where I’m meant to be.
Great read James. Your comments about Thai food brought a smile. We are long term travellers who spend a lot of time in Thailand so always enjoy a taste of Thai food when we return to Australia. The price is a bit of a shock but we miss it so much we have to try the Aussie version.
Enjoyed this James! Sounds like you were back just long enough to keep you happy for the next year 🙂
…….Succinctly put James , fascinating . Personally speaking I always feel extra-terrestrial when I re-enter Melbourne BUT I think that has a lot to do with living in Mullumbimby ……
“One thing that hasn’t changed is the lack of public wifi in cafes.”
After almost 5 years away from Australia this was my No. 1 gripe. It felt like almost everywhere else in the world there was free wifi basically everywhere. There is even free wifi in the little park behind City Hall in NYC. Here in Australia, not so much. We’ll get there, eventually! Loved reading about your observations! So much of it rang true for me too.
James Clark says
Hi Peggy, thanks for that.
yes hopefully we catch up with the rest of the world soon!
It is just a lovely well put up. If you truly get a sense for the heart beat of Melbourne, it is also good to spend some hours sitting in a park or on a busy road corner all on your very own simply watching day-to-day life events happens. We’ll share it this with your permission
Ralph Quito says
James this is great! It is such a lovely article and I find that the photos are lovely as well. It’s just amazing how you put all these together on “A bemused Melburnian returns to Melbourne after two years absence” with such great tips! Looking forward to more of these.