Hours in Ho Chi Minh City
Justin Mott for The
New York Times
Quan An Ngon,
an open-air restaurant with the city’s best street chefs.
December 21, 2008
CHI MINH CITY, or Saigon, as most
locals still call it, is a relative newcomer. With only three centuries of
history, compared with Hanoi’s
thousand years, the city has a youthful spirit and is quick to embrace change.
This is not the Saigon familiar to the West in
films like “Apocalypse Now”; it’s a forward-looking city, home to glittering
skyscrapers, innovative fashion and a pulsing night life. As Vietnam’s
largest city, it has an energy and noise level that can be at once exhilarating
and wearying. Sure, you can still catch an occasional glimpse of
like an old woman in a conical hat pedaling a bicycle, but she’ll most likely
be lost in a sea of motorbikes, rumbling toward the future.
Where to Stay
Where to Eat
What to Do
Go to the Ho Chi Minh City Travel Guide »
Weekend in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Chi Minh City, Vietnam
1) COOL COFFEE
coffee is brewed directly into your cup through a small, metal filter. Add ice
and sweet condensed milk and you have a café sua da, an antidote to the thick heat and the perfect way to
refuel. At Café Terrace (65 Le Loi Street; 84-8-3821-4958), a trendy spot in the city’s
center, you can drink your coffee (30,000 dong, or $1.70 at 17,647 dong to the
dollar) outside beneath an umbrella, or retreat to the stylish, air-conditioned
interior, decorated with red curtains, vases of white lilies and lots of pretty
people lounging in comfy chairs.
Street has long been home to some of the city’s
finest shopping. In colonial times, it was known as Rue Catinat,
and was where the narrator in “The Lover,” by Marguerite Duras,
claimed she bought her infamous felt hat. Today, it’s a great place to window
shop, home to more silk and handicraft stores than hat shops, not to mention
tailors. In a country where custom-made clothing is an affordable luxury,
tailors abound. For one with panache and a 24-hour
turnaround, duck into Tricia & Verona (39 Dong Du Street;
84-8-3824-4556; www.triciaandverona.com). This boutique
and workshop is run by two sisters who have Anglicized their names to reflect
their more Western sense of style — namely, more daring cuts. Summer dresses
start at $34, men’s suits at $160.
3) OFF THE STREET
happens when you gather Saigon’s finest street
chefs in one location? Enjoy finding out at Quan An Ngon
(138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia; 84-8-3825-7179), an open-air restaurant with one
menu listing each chef’s specialty. The place bustles at night with locals and
in-the-know foreigners waiting for Vietnamese classics like bun cha —
vermicelli with minced pork balls and fresh herbs — and green papaya salad with
shrimp (24,000 dong each). Fortunately, there are a lot of tables, so the line
moves quickly. For dessert, don’t miss the che suong sa
hot luu (10,000 dong), an oddly delicious combination
of coconut milk, tapioca pearls, water chestnuts and jelly worms, served in a
tall glass over crushed ice.
4) MIX IT UP
serving stiff cocktails and eclectic music to expats for a decade,
the ever-popular Vasco’s (74/7D Hai Ba Trung Street; 84-8-3824-2888)
this year moved to nicer digs. At its new location in a tiny alley, the outdoor
balcony is great for chatting, while indoors it’s all about the music, which
can range from visiting French D.J.’s to Vietnamese
rap. If the music isn’t to your taste, duck into one of the sedate bars
downstairs, where you’ll find a lot of French and other expats sipping wine.
through the ancient quarter of Cholon and you’ll hear
more Chinese spoken than Vietnamese. A 20-minute cab ride from District 1
(around 80,000 dong), this Viet-Chinatown is home to many fine temples, like Quan Am Pagoda (12 Lao Tu Street),
built in 1818. Coils of incense hang from the ceiling, perfuming the air, along
with the slender, golden sticks the faithful leave as offerings. In front of
the main altar is a statue of Quan Am, the Goddess of
Mercy. A nearby courtyard has nooks dedicated to other deities and a small pond
filled with turtles.
6) BLACK EGGS
everything from fermented duck eggs to flip-flops, head to Binh Tay Market, a
rambling market laid out like an Arab souk and far less touristy than the Ben Thanh Market
downtown. Situated between Thap Muoi
and Phan Van Khoe Streets,
the market is divided into sections that contain everything one might need to
run a household, from kitchenware, to cloth, to candied fruit. Pushy peddlers
are almost nonexistent; some merchants even nap in hammocks between customers.
Toward the back, you can grab lunch, like a tasty bowl of seafood noodle soup
at one of the many stalls (18,000 dong) and listen to a rooster crow in the
nearby butcher section (not for the squeamish).
through the lavender doors of L’Apothiquaire Artisan Beauté (61-63 Le Thanh Ton
Street; 84-8-3822-1218; www.lapothiquaire.com)
and be greeted by the soothing sound of flute music and a cup of anti-stress
herbal tea. This tiny day spa feels straight out of Provence, though the motorbikes buzzing by the
front doors are a distinct reminder that you’re still in Saigon.
The spa offers a range of body treatments, including mud wraps ($30) and
75-minute Swedish-style relaxation massages ($37). There are also house-brand
aromatherapy beauty products for sale, along with the anti-stress tea, in case
the soothing effects of the massage wear off.
the “American War,” as it is called here, the Rex Hotel (141 Nguyen Hue
Boulevard; 84-8-3829-2185; www.rexhotelvietnam.com) was the home of the
“Five O’Clock Follies,” the daily briefings the United
States military gave the press corps. Today, the palm-lined rooftop
bar provides a kitschy setting — complete with giant ceramic elephants — for a
sunset pastis (65,000 dong) or fresh pineapple juice
9) COLONIAL DINING
the trail of lanterns up the dimly lit stairs to Temple Club (29-31 Ton That Thiep Street; 84-8-3829-9244), an elegant restaurant. The
place has a colonial feel, with white tablecloths, whirling fans and antique
silverware to accompany the chopsticks, but most of its menu is distinctly
Vietnamese. Favorites include grilled beef on lemongrass skewers and fish
wrapped in banana leaf (120,000 dong).
Cage (3A Ton Duc Thang Street;
84-8-3910-7053), a chic new club that opened last June, the namesake birdcages
are suspended around crystal chandeliers and filled with votive candles as
table decorations. Live music is offered five nights a week. On a recent visit,
a Vietnamese singer belted out Joni
Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” A few hours later, a D.J. got the
expats and Vietnamese on their feet with salsa music. For those craving
privacy, there are little nooks off to the side, filled with plush purple couches
and veiled by long lavender tassels.
11) BONSAI AND ELEPHANTS
from humanity at the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens
(2B Nguyen Binh
84-8-3829-1425; www.saigonzoo.net; admission, 12,000 dong),
also home to a temple and history museum. The gardens, established by a French
botanist in 1864, feature 2,000 trees including Chinese incense-cedar, a bonsai
“forest” and a large greenhouse full of purple orchids. Animals include
bored-looking orangutans in cages close enough to touch and a small herd of
Asian elephants. There is also a colony of penguin-shaped garbage cans
scattered around the place, along with many benches where you can sit and
ponder this surreal touch.
are no direct flights between Ho
Chi Minh City and New York, but several carriers, including
Continental, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines, fly between the two cities with
a connection, usually in Hong Kong
Round-trip fares for January travel start at about $1,100, according to a
recent search online. A cab ride from Tan Son Nhat Airport
to the city center costs about 100,000 dong ($5.67 at 17,647 dong to the
dollar). Most major attractions are accessible on foot, though taxis and moto-taxis can be hailed everywhere.
ultra-swank Caravelle Hotel (19 Lam Son Square;
84-8-3823-4999; www.caravellehotel.com) overlooks the opera
house and the Saigon
River, and has 335 sleek
rooms, starting at about $230.
the square is the historic Continental Hotel (132-134 Dong Khoi
Street; 84-8-3829-9201; www.continental-saigon.com).
Founded by a Frenchman in 1880, the hotel was a popular watering hole for journalists
during the war. It has high ceilings and lots of carved wood. Rooms start at
on the budget is the modern Elios Hotel (233
Pham Ngu Lao Street;
84-8-3838-5584; www.elioshotel.vn), a new, 90-room guesthouse
overlooking a leafy park in Pham Ngu
Lao, the backpacker district. Rooms with a view start at $80, including
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 4, 2009
The 36 Hours column on Dec. 21, about Ho
Chi Minh City, misstated the location of the Temple Club
restaurant. It is across the street from a Hindu temple, in what was once a
guesthouse for the temple; it is not in a former Chinese temple.