There’s something deeply energizing about cities influx; places such as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC),where, despite the totems that keep it familiar — the grand, colonial-era structures and other crumbling holdovers of a more recent past; the distinct print-on-print style of dress; and the ubiquitous two-wheeled transport of choice — everything seems bigger, shinier and the same but somehow different with every visit.
It’s not a city you can see once then cross off a bucket list; you’re almost guaranteed to find a fresh layer to the city while peeling back another. For almost a decade, I’d made annual trips to the city, always leaving with the distinct feeling that I’d only really scratched the surface. And I’d gone back again at the slightest nudge. So, last month, when my sister-in-law announced she was visiting Vietnam’s most populous city for the first time, my husband and I timed a short hop to show her our favorite spots, an excuse we held on to until it became clear that we needed a Saigon fix ourselves.
The last time we were in HCMC was three years ago for New Year’s Eve, and the center of town was a festival of clanging sounds and flashing lights, thanks to all the holiday décor and thousands of motorbikes and possibly even more speakers. Together with an elderly couple we’d befriended on a languid four-day cruise along the Mekong River just after Christmas, we braved the sudden and stark change of scene and the throngs of families sauntering down the Nguyen Hue walking street, which stretches from the ornate People’s Committee building towards the river and which had just been permanently closed off to vehicular traffic.
Weeks later, during Tet — the Vietnamese Lunar New Year — the same promenade would be almost completely covered in fantastical arrangements of colorful blooms, trucked in from the country’s flower-growing regions, each type of flower carrying its own special meaning. Most ubiquitous in southern Vietnam this time of year would be the yellow Mai flower, to ward off evil spirits and call forth happiness and good fortune; the northern half of this long country, including the capital of Hanoi, meanwhile, is decked out in the electric-pink shades of peach blossoms for love, well-being and prosperity. During the long Tet holiday, which heralds spring, the usual fever pitch in HCMC drops down two notches as the Vietnamese spill out of the big cities for more than a week of family reunions in the rural regions.
But in the waning hours of 2016, the festive mood in downtown HCMC bordered on pandemonium — motorbikes roaring against the flow of traffic or lurching onto the sidewalks, already teeming with young Vietnamese casually drinking and eating in huddles. “Sidewalk life is the best thing about Vietnam in general,” a friend and local city guide once told me. “We prefer to engage with each other outside. The environment — air, sounds, noises — are real. Which is quite different to shopping-mall life.”
To catch our breath we had trooped to the rooftop bar of the Caravelle Hotel, mostly for the benefit of our new friends who had been in their early twenties when the Vietnam War broke out. Ruth and Dan had followed the developments from the other side of the world courtesy of dispatches filed by the likes of Walter Cronkite and Peter Arnett from this same hotel, back then a 10-storey block and the city’s most modern building.
A 24-storey tower was added to the Caravelle in 1998, and three years ago, as we waited for the New Year, the view from the rooftop — of a generally low sprawl punctuated here and there by soaring skyscrapers, including the 68-storey Bitexco Financial Tower with a lip of a helipad jutting out — seemed to drive home the point of how much, and how briskly, the city was changing. I recall feeling a sense of achievement when, after we’d listed a few places they should pack in — visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office, stop for coffee and chocolates at Marou on Calmette street, end the day with craft beer at the Pasteur Street Brewing Company along its namesake thoroughfare — I heard our friends gasp, a clear signal that they were overwhelmed but excited to make the attempt.
A whole layer of city has risen around and over the Caravelle in the 44 years since the end of the war, but today, the hotel’s location in Lam Son Square still makes it an ideal starting point for exploring the rest of the central tourist hub. From there, we could go up and down Dong Khoi, the main commercial street. Here, seemingly dark and nondescript entrances to grimy, decaying buildings often lead to bijou clothing boutiques or concept stores, selling everything from reusable metal drinking straws in canvas cases to tabletop potted cacti. Sometimes they lead to trendy restaurants and bars, many of which are finished in polished gray concrete, exposed brass piping and bare-bulb pendant lights, and serving banh mi plated to current photographic demands. Here, a large Louis Vuitton outlet stands on the same row as small souvenir shops selling local crafts, cone hats or silk ao dai (traditional dress) and tailoring workshops whose creaking government-brown shelves look like they’ve been saddled with bolts of fabric since the previous century.
HCMC is not what you’d call a soft landing in Southeast Asia, especially for infrequent or first-time visitors to the region. Much has been written of its swarms of motorbikes, but I only truly appreciated the scale of it once I found myself crossing the street on my first visit in 2010 — eyes fixed forward, sweat pooling in my armpits, heart in my belly — as I’d been advised: just go, don’t hesitate, and the swarm will flow around you. Back then I had the privilege of having local guides who could traverse wide avenues with confidence, and who knew that dinner and drinks at The Refinery, a French bistro in a former opium refinery (hence the name) in an atmospheric courtyard along Hai Ba Trung, just behind the Opera House, would make a trendy counterpoint to the quintessentially Saigon experiences of street-side pho for breakfast and bargains at Ben Thanh Market.
Over the course of multiple visits in the years that have followed, a Hanoi-based entrepreneur and friend, Nga Hoang introduced us to the endless summer hipness of garden restaurants, gastropubs and boutiques in District 2, across the river; the under-the-radar culinary delights in District 3; an interactive and fun way of discovering Cholon, the city’s Chinatown; and the rising craft beer scene all over the city. Nga herself describes the city as “a lot like the Big Apple of Vietnam, a place where most young Vietnamese including young Hanoians come in search of work opportunities, networking and entrepreneurship”.
This certainly felt truer than ever when, last month, ahead of our mini family reunion, we decide to circle back on our favorite haunts. We arrive earlier than my sister-in-law, Liz — who’s still making her way halfway across the world from bucolic Oxfordshire in England — and park ourselves in one of the new boutique hotels along Dong Du street. Like many of the new buildings downtown, the Sky Gem Central Hotel is pencil-thin but deep, and a selling point for the higher suites is that they have four windows (a rare treat) — the better to behold the view of the Saigon River.
We hop in a Vinasun taxi to Thao Dien, in District 2, where the flavor is noticeably different from downtown and where the Western expat population’s influence is evident in gastropubs called the Flying Pig and open-air arcades where the busiest lunchtime stall sells poke bowls.
The point of our brief excursion to Thao Dien is mainly to check out the showroom of the made-in-Vietnam ceramics brand Amaï, which uses a fine white clay called kaolin. Founded by two expat friends — Ingrid Ploem from the Netherlands and Ina Stas from Belgium — the brand’s muted pastel palette gives the products a hard-to-place and updated aesthetic, making them ideal souvenir finds that represent modern, cosmopolitan Saigon.
“Liz will like this, won’t she?” I ask my husband while inspecting a ceramic cup. Showing off Saigon to Liz, as planned, quickly becomes the running theme for the rest of the day. While sipping cocktails at the moody second-floor bar called Layla: “We should take Liz here for a sundowner.” Through the steam that rises from a clay pot of broken rice at Chi Hoa, a contemporary Vietnamese restaurant serving comfort food: “I think she’s going to like this; we should take her here.” While watching the motorbikes flow in all directions from the relative stillness and safety of the fourth-floor balcony at Rico Taco, a Mexican eatery and bar, just above Chi Hoa: “Should we take her here or somewhere a bit more local?”
After dinner, we take a stroll down Nguyen Hue walking street at twilight and wander into Nguyen Hue, also known as Cafe Apartment. The ’60s-era apartment block was originally intended as private housing but many of the long-time tenants have sub-leased their spaces to small businesses. Today the building stands as a testament to the never-say-die entrepreneurial spirit of young Vietnamese — more than 30 businesses flourish across nine floors, including several tea and coffee shops with small balconies that look out to the walking street below, designer clothing stores, restaurants, craft studios and specialty shops (there’s one dedicated entirely to bras, and another to making your own perfume).
The dimly lit, winding staircase of faded and peeling paint, possibly unretouched for 50 years, adds to the building’s appeal, which seems to draw droves of young and trendy Saigonese. While looking for cult clothing brand Cosette by designer Chi Yen, we’re distracted by little scarlet signs for a bar called Krystalini plastered on the wall. The breadcrumbs take us down a narrow back stairwell, past what looks like an ill-maintained private apartment, and onto a landing with a brown shelf. Another sign instructs us to slide the shelf to one side, and the little passage behind it takes us into a speakeasy that, a day before Halloween, is decked out in cotton cobwebs. It is completely empty except for the bartender and her friend, plus a waiter, who all watch us polish off our cocktails (which are very delicious) to decidedly sadcore music. Last call comes close to midnight, and if that sounds a tad too respectable for a speakeasy, it’s because the apartment next door, the bartender explains apologetically, is still actually a private home. The bar crew close up even as they see us off, slightly more sober than we were when we first arrived.
In another place I might have found that awkward, but the strangeness of it is one more thing to love about Saigon. Those of us who have been smitten by the idiosyncrasies of modern Vietnamese big-city life will find that there’s so much to embrace, starting with the sidewalks that become extensions of home, which is exactly what we find as we make our way back to the Dong Du hotel. Even in the glossy corners around Lam Son Square, you’ll find someone sprawled on a parked motorbike, as if in his living room lounge, casually scrolling through his phone and unmindful of fast-moving human traffic. Someone might be squatting along the pavement and, somewhat remarkably, fixing a meal.
By the time we meet up with my sister-in-law on the evening of the next day, we’ve narrowly escaped being swiped by a motorbike rushing against the general flow — twice. We meet at the lobby of her hotel, the two-year- old architectural standout called The Myst, a tall block of white, with greenery tumbling out of large cutout windows. She looks bright and fresh despite having just gotten off a plane. “Let’s keep it local, shall we?” she says, wisely pacing herself for all that is to come: strong Vietnamese drip coffee, bowls of pho, restaurants both crumbling and new.
“Sure, sure,” we say, nodding briskly like overeager guides, trying to seem cool but bursting to share all our new discoveries. Saigon, after all, is like that movie you can’t stop telling others about, and that you take all your friends to see, just so you experience the unfolding action with them over and over again.