Ho Chi Minh City's District 1 mixes colonial charm with Indochic. By B. Hawkins Pham
There's a palpable energy in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. The city formerly known as Saigon is the epicenter of Vietnam's capitalist heartbeat, and since the enactment of economic reforms in the late 1980s, the country has been slowly transforming from rags to riches, with Saigon as its poster child for economic prosperity.
Trading in the cyclo in exchange for a future funded by foreign investors, Saigon is in the midst of a renovation, shedding its French colonial past with the welcoming of high-rises into the local vernacular. While the government has shifted its urbanization schemes to the development of satellite communities on the perimeter of the city, Saigon's main appeal will always be the vibrant, history-laden streets of District 1. Designed by the French during their occupation (1885-1946), District 1 runs along the banks of the Saigon River and is characterized by wide boulevards that radiate from roundabouts. At night, these streets come alive with young Saigonese cruising on their motorbikes, which have replaced bicycles as the preferred mode of transport.
Lately, the city's charming history is being mixed with innovations in architecture and fashion, and visitors to HCM City will find a city under construction and a civilization being reborn.
• Ben Thanh Market
In the coming years, the Ben Thanh market will be reborn as the main terminus for Saigon's first subway line. For now, the market remains a relic from the French Colonial era and is a business-in-the-front, party-in-the-rear experience. Endless rows of vendors hocking textiles and craftwork occupy the front-half of the complex; and in the back, the food stalls offer an interesting study of culinary life in Saigon. For tasty treats, steer clear of the lamb brains and intestines and search out banh hoi thit nuong (steamed vermicelli rice-noodle cakes with grilled pork) and bun chao tom (fresh vermicelli rice noodles with shrimp paste and sugarcane).
• Valenciani, 100 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia; +848 271 6449
Located in the heart of District 1, Valenciani is the brainchild of two of Vietnam's most promising design talents. Adrian Nguyen, also known as Ni, and his partner, Valencia Tran, opened their doors just recently but are already the darlings of Saigon's fashion-elite. Sourcing fabrics from Hong Kong, Italy, and France, their womenswear collection floats from day-to-night with ease, and a closer look at the intricate construction of their pieces will reveal their training in interior and furniture design. Valenciani also stocks a well-edited selection of accessories to compliment their collections.
• Zen Plaza, 54-56 Nguyen Trai; +848 925 0399
Hand it to the Japanese for creating one of the most buzzed about venues for avant-garde fashion in Saigon. Occupying the first two floors of Zen Plaza, the designer boutique features collections from Dieu Anh, Cong Khanh, and Nhat Huy, rising stars in Vietnam's design world. If trendsetting fashion isn't your thing, return to Nguyen Trai at night for some of the city's most lively after hours dining.
• Dung Tailor & Minh Chau, 221-223 Le Thanh Ton; +848 823 2033
In business since 1985, Nguyen Nhat Minh and her sister, Minh Chau, have Saigon's custom tailoring market on lockdown. The sisters know the inseam measurements of every expat worth their weight in Italian wool, and their side-by-side shops are often the highlight of travel itineraries to Vietnam. The Dung atelier houses the tailoring business, and next-door, customers can rifle through hundreds of fabrics imported from afar. While their turnaround time is a week for shirts (U.S. $50) and about a month for suits ($150-$200), the sisters are no strangers to the international post and will gladly ship your orders back home.
• Nong Noc, 86 Le Thanh Ton; +848 827 3134
No bigger than a postage stamp, Nong Noc is easily passed over. Catering mostly to the trendy youth of Saigon, the store carries a notable selection of imports from Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Their collection of T-shirts breaks the mold of predictable graphics found most everywhere in Vietnam, and the store's cabinet of curiosities is a score for those in need of an impulse buy.
• Song, 76D Le Thanh Ton; +848 824 6986
Song's strong environmental ethos and commitment to sourcing the best natural fabrics available have made the brand a favorite among the resort hoppers of Southeast Asia. Sold on highstreets around the globe, Song's collections are designed by Valerie Gregori McKenzie and best revered for their exquisite hand embroidery.
• Quan An Ngon, 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia
Epicureans who crave street food but are weary of falling ill can come to this French villa near the Reunification Palace. The rumor mill has it that the owner poached the best street vendors in town and offered them stalls in the restaurant. In their individual stations around the perimeter of the courtyard, chefs prepare classic Vietnamese dishes like goi du du (green papaya salad), cha gio (crispy spring rolls filled with pork and shrimp), and banh xeo (savory crepes filled with pork, shrimp, mushrooms, and crunchy bean sprouts). The menu is extensive and a good introduction to Vietnamese street food for both experts and newbies alike.
• Nam Giao, 136/15 Le Thanh Ton
Tucked away down an alley near the Ben Thanh Market, Nam Giao is a local favorite for the regional specialties of Hue, the ancient imperial capital of Vietnam. While the restaurant offers a range of selections from the central coast region, the choice dishes are bun bo Hue (beef noodle soup) and banh beo (bite-size rice cakes topped with dried, minced shrimp and fried shallots).
• The Refinery, 74 Hai Ba Trung
In the early 1900s, nearly a quarter of Indochina's national budget was from the sale of opium. The production of opium and its consumption were in vogue until the end of French colonial rule, and 74 Hai Ba Trung was at the heart of Saigon's nefarious trade. Today, the courtyard of this former poppy factory houses a handful of businesses and cafes. And when you crave a crocque monsieur or a western, multi-course brunch, then slip inside The Refinery for a brief respite from the hustle of Saigon's boisterous streets.
• Fruit, everywhere
Indulging in street cart food is par for the course in 'Nam, but we can't be held liable for any missteps. The mum's rule of thumb is that if it can be boiled, peeled, cooked, or fried, then it can be eaten. Satisfying the peeled criteria, eating fruit in Vietnam is high on the list of recommendations. Some of the country's tropical varieties will never be found in American markets, and even if they can be sourced, their prices will prompt one to risk the reprimand of U.S. Customs—a kilo of mangosteens in Vietnam will set you back about $2 bucks, whereas just one will run you about $6 at Dean and DeLuca.
• The Majestic, 1 Dong Khoi, +848 829 5517;
Known to the French as Rue Catinat, Dong Khoi is now a major retail corridor with glitzy storefronts leading toward the Saigon River. Along the waterfront, The Majestic stands at the end of Dong Khoi as a remembrance of times past. Made famous by Graham Greene's novel, The Quiet American, The Majestic was built in 1928 and has undergone several renovations since. During Greene's time, the hotel was the headquarters for Saigon's aristocracy and a showcase of French opulence. Neither the cheapest nor the grandest of hotels in HCMC, The Majestic with its courtyard pool and rooftop bar offers guests a taste of Saigon's luxurious history.
• War Remnant's Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan, District 3
Just outside of District 1, the War Remnant's Museum is a showcase of artifacts, documents, and photos from The American War as well as models of torture chambers used by the French. While the exhibition design is lacking in creativity, the Vietnamese's commentary on their traumatic history offers an interesting take on the country's lurid past. The atrocities of the war still linger, and victims of Agent Orange are commonly present on the grounds and willingly share their stories.
For more Saigon…
• AsiaLIFE and The Word
In developing economies, streetscapes change quickly and new things enter the market everyday. For up-to-date intel, ditch the traveler's guide and flip through Saigon's local rags. AsiaLIFE and The Word—two of HCM City's most informative monthlies that offer stories on current issues as well as info on shopping, eating, and nightlife. Both mags are free and can be found at The Refinery.
• The Gastronomy Blog,
In between Zagat and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, the Gastronomy Blog is penned by a locally based Vietnamese-American and her Alabaman boyfriend. While their residency in Saigon is limited—they are contemplating a return to the States come the end of summer—their blog will remain the best eating guide to HCMC for those in search of savory street carts and local eateries off the beaten path.
• Tourist Information Center, 4G-4H Le Loi Street at Nguyen Hue
If advanced planning just isn't your thing, worry about the details after you touchdown and head to the Tourist Information Center (TIC), where agents will offer advice on traveling around the country and even facilitate transactions to get you on your way. Many world travelers know that cutting out the middleman is the most economically efficient way of getting around foreign territory, and the TIC takes you as close to the source as possible.
• The Lover
An adaptation of Marguerite Duras' autobiographical novel, L'Amant, published in 1984, The Lover is a period piece set in French-colonial Saigon, depicting the steamy affair of a 30-year-old Chinaman, played by Tony Leung, and a 15-year-old French girl. Set in the 1920s, the film is a romantic tragedy of cross-cultural desire, shot entirely on location in Saigon and the Mekong Delta.
Winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1993, Indochine is a dramatic masterpiece portraying the final days of colonial rule in Vietnam. Playing the part of Eliane, a French plantation owner, Catherine Denevue takes up an affair with a young French officer, who eventually falls for Eliane's adopted Vietnamese daughter, Camille. This sordid love triangle turns disastrous when Camille kills a Frenchmen in an attempt to protect a Vietnamese peasant, forcing the two lovers into exile. The couple escapes into territory controlled by the North Vietnamese, and their story becomes fuel for communist uprisings against the French and their imperial puppets.
Ho Chi Minh City's District 1 mixes colonial charm with Indochic.