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.
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