For a place with so much history — decades of wartime and occupation have left their scars — Ho Chi Minh City (still often referred to as Saigon) feels surprisingly new. The metropolis is constantly reinventing itself, and when you consider that the U.S. trade embargo was lifted only 25 years ago, and that the majority of the city’s population is under 35 years old, you begin to understand why.
A short period of overwhelming foreign investment, plus rapid urbanization and a booming labor force, has established Vietnam as one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with vibrant, stylish, youthful Ho Chi Minh City at its forefront. And while increasingly taller buildings continue to reshape the skyline, the city remains firmly in touch with tradition. After all, you can still find the best street-side bowl of pork vermicelli in the city (at the intersection of Nguyen Trung Truc and Le Loi) mere blocks away from a sprawling Louis Vuitton store.
It’s that dichotomy — between a 50-cent scooter ride and a $150 omakase, for example — that has turned visitors into residents and residents into the new business owners who diversify the city’s ever-evolving cultural landscape. In particular, Viet Kieu, the children and grandchildren of refugees who fled the country during the war — the same generation that has led much of the Vietnamese renaissance happening stateside (for instance, the poet and novelist Ocean Vuong and chef Dennis Ngo of the restaurant Di An Di in New York) — are returning to their roots and inspiring contemporary perspectives on Saigonese fashion, food and art. Here, a guide to Ho Chi Minh City’s many attractions.
The Myst Dong Khoi
Located just steps from the 68-floor Bitexco Financial Tower, the soaring beacon of downtown, and Ho Chi Minh City’s main commercial drag, Dong Khoi, the 108-room Myst feels like a much-needed oasis in the otherwise chaotic, noisy metropolis. Tropical plants grow wildly from the balconies inset around the building’s white exterior, while inside, the generously sized, minimally appointed rooms — with touches of Vietnamese craftsmanship seen in hand-carved rosewood benches and ceramic drums — are shielded from the onslaught of honks and horns outside. themystdongkhoihotel.com
Hotel des Arts
Ho Chi Minh City has accommodation options for visitors of every budget, but until the Hotel des Arts opened in 2015, it wasn’t easy to find a boutique hotel with both modern amenities and charm. Built in the style of the grand French Indochine-era institutions described in Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, “The Quiet American,” the hotel sits in the heart of District 1 but feels a world away from the tourists and bustle of the city center. From the hotel’s buzzing Social Club Rooftop Bar, which has some of the best panoramic views of the city, you can get a firsthand look at just how much the neighboring blocks are changing day by day. hoteldesartssaigon.com
Anan and Nhau Nhau
Nowhere is the convergence of old and new Ho Chi Minh City more apparent than on Ton That Dam Street. Here, vendors of the street market Cho Cu (literally Old Market) proffer fried rice-cakes and produce to the sound of portable karaoke machines, while tucked away at the center of the block is chef Peter Cuong Franklin’s pioneering experimental new-Vietnamese restaurant Anan. On the second floor is the more casual, more boozy Nhau Nhau (which translates to “drink, drink”), a retro-style bar outfitted with old Khanh Ly and Mai Le Huyen records, and ceramic tiles that recall the city’s prewar glory. But that allegiance to the past stops just short of the menu, which features innovative mash-ups like banh xeo tacos and foie gras imperial rolls.anansaigon.com
Traditional Street Food
Anyone with even cursory knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine is aware of pho (and of how readily it can be found in Vietnamese-American enclaves like San Jose, Calif., and Houston), but in Ho Chi Minh City, you’d be remiss not to explore some of the funkier, more complex noodle soups of the region: a crab-and-tomato broth cradling fresh snails and fried fish cake at Bun Rieu Cua Oc (66 Nguyen Thai Binh); the pork rib and Vietnamese charcuterie in clear broth punctuated with fermented shrimp paste at Bun Moc Thanh Mai (14 Truong Dinh); or the dry noodles with wontons and lardons at Hu Tieu Mi Co Giang (176 Bis Phuong Co Giang).
Little Japan Town
Of the many expat groups in Ho Chi Minh City, the Japanese community is the most visible — particularly within the block of alleys known as Little Japan Town (bordered by Le Thanh Ton and Thai Van Lung). A favorite of businessmen and young Vietnamese partygoers alike, the area is the city’s answer to Golden Gai, Tokyo’s famous district of hole-in-the-wall bars, and it’s similarly jam-packed with izakayas, noodle shops and massage parlors. Look out for Tori Soba Mutahiro (8A/A1bis Thai Van Lung), a tiny restaurant that makes a bowl of ramen — the rich, chicken fat-slick broth sharpened with shreds of fresh ginger — that rivals the best in Japan; Mangetsu shochu bar (at the base of the Azumaya Hotel), where you can polish off your yakitori with a pickled plum sour; and Powers (8A/2B1 Thai Van Lung), a rooftop taqueria where you’ll find Japanese skaters and surfers queuing up ’90s hip-hop on YouTube while downing ice-cold pints of Sapporo.
At the end of one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most picturesque residential alleys in District 3 lies the ceramics studio and shop Hey Camel. Using traditional Vietnamese stoneware and glazes, the ceramist Leandro Marcelino brings together local materials and techniques with inspiration from his upbringing in the Canary Islands. His collection of vases and mugs adorned with a singular colorful eye, for example, reference both the Moroccan influences of his birthplace and the Cao Dai religion of south Vietnam. heycamel.com
The New Playground
Streetwear defines the fashion in Ho Chi Minh City, and the scene’s epicenter is the underground mall the New Playground, a maze of stores catering to shoppers with a penchant for cross-body bags and neon green. The brainchild of Ryan Son Hoang, one of a collective of young creative people in Ho Chi Minh City who’ve branded themselves 42 the Hood, the complex is worth a visit (even if you don’t need a new harness) just to observe the style-obsessed youth culture. instagram.com/thenewplayground
For those with a more polished sensibility, the unisex line Moi Dien, which recently opened its first store, offers sculptural silhouettes and playful pieces in drapey, languid fabrics. The line’s founder, Tom Trandt Minh Dao, a Parsons graduate who returned to Vietnam after his studies and working abroad, is one of a handful of up-and-coming designers and brands (Nguyen Hoang Tu and Aeie Studios among them) who are bridging the gap between the country’s rich history of textile production and contemporary experimental fashion. moidien.com
Doan Lo to Sai Gon Tan Thoi at Rubik Zoo
Ho Chi Minh City might not have a defined gay district, but it makes up for it with a host of new L.G.B.T.Q. venues and parties throughout the city. Within its emerging drag show circuit, the Doan Lo to Sai Gon Tan Thoi (or The Modern Saigon) is perhaps the most authentic and uniquely Vietnamese production. Based in the Southern countryside tradition of “lo to,” a form of cabaret starring drag queens, the show centers on a musical bingo game, accompanied by interactive performances — done to by both traditional folk music and modern pop songs — that carefully reveal the winning numbers. Rubik Zoo, 1 Bis Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street
Independent venues for contemporary art are few and far between in Ho Chi Minh City but one of the most exciting new spaces is the self-described “art bar” 289e. The multidisciplinary venue and cocktail lounge is housed within an old tenement apartment on the second floor of a Modernist cement housing block, and hosts weekly film screenings, musical performances and rotating exhibitions. instagram.com/289e.nct
Suoi Tien Theme Park
There is no shortage of beautiful temples and shrines in Ho Chi Minh City, but travel just 20 minutes northeast of the center and you’ll encounter a very different kind of religious monument: the fascinating, at times eerie, Buddha-themed Suoi Tien amusement park. Here, gaudy, oversize sculptures of dragons and neon-haloed Buddhas lead the way to a water park where slides emerge from sages’ beards. The highlight (if you can call it that) is an underground house-of-horrors designed to evoke a descent through a Buddhist hell. suoitien.com
Southern Women’s Museum
Many of Ho Chi Minh City’s streets are named after notable women, and in 1995 the state took a further step in honoring its female citizens and established the Southern Women’s Museum. The institution comprises four floors of relics and photographs relating to the history of Vietnamese women and their impact on the development and liberation of the country. The ground floor is entirely devoted to the ao dai, the Vietnamese national dress consisting of a side-split tunic and trousers, which has been a unifier throughout the country’s rich, and often difficult, history. baotangphunu.com
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