Saigon’s suburban districts provide a change of pace for visitors to the chaotic southern Vietnamese city
Saigon. Paris of the East. The Pearl of the Orient. The setting of erotic French novels and thrilling Graham Greene mysteries. There was once a time when the city now known as Ho Chi Minh held a fascinating allure for travellers – a place of intrigue and exoticism, the perfect blend of colonial culture and Oriental charm. Post-war, Vietnam’s meteoric progress saw the country’s most populated metropolis advance at an incredible rate, with the city centre trading in its innumerable ancient shophouses for towering skyscrapers – for better or worse.
The area known as District 1 is where most modernday visitors now spend their time. It’s the city’s financial hub, its beating heart, a heady mishmash of gorgeous colonial structures, stark Soviet-era buildings and striking high-rises, all soundtracked by the bee-like swarm of the city’s omnipresent motorcyclists.
But beyond the business-centric borders, “Saigon” (as most residents prefer to call it) still holds a sense of allure. Take a short drive in either direction of the centre, and you’ll find a city hemmed in by charming enclaves.
Both District 2 up north and District 7 down south are touted as “new cities” – former swamplands reclaimed for the many expats who have flooded the city. For international travellers who’ve spent a few long days slogging around District 1, they make for ideal weekend escapes.
THAO DIEN’S TAO
Linking the concrete jungle of District 1 with District 2’s quiet lights, the Ho Chi Minh highway road crosses the snaking Saigon River via a pair of scenic bridges. These overpasses create a sense of escape, a double feeling of freedom from the city-centre mayhem.
Here in Thao Dien, D2’s enchanting central hub, one swiftly finds a sense of calm. It’s the architecture of the area that makes the difference, with tree-lined streets and wide-open spaces through which amiable types go about their business at ease.
Kick off your leisurely retreat by checking in to Villa Song (villasong.com), a former colonial mansion turned boutique hotel, with a more-than-enviable location on the same twisting river you crossed to get here.
Villa Song’s rooms are a time warp to a different era, spacious abodes heavy on the dark-wood furnishings, with vintage four-poster beds, folding screens and armchairs that call back to the city once known as Saigon. The pool is small but stunning, sitting in the shadow of the gorgeous mansion, while the café on the river offers the rare treat of breakfast overlooking a striking city panorama.
Strolling through Thao Dien’s central streets makes up a large part of the district’s charm. The main artery is Thao Dien Street, a wide-set road with plenty of character – aesthetically pleasing with small town-like shopfronts of cafés, pubs, butchers and specialist grocery stores. An old standby here is Mekong Merchant (mekongmerchant. com), a charming all-day café and restaurant decked out in Indochinese style. Its fusion menu perfectly melds the delicate flavours of Vietnam with contemporary Western touches, while the wine cellar is one of the best in the city.
Once you’ve taken in Thao Dien’s centre, it’s time to start branching out. Exploring the district’s outreaches isn’t always easy, but for those so inclined, zipping your way around on a moped allows you to discover such hidden gems as Boathouse (facebook.com/boathousevietnam). This stunning bar-café is set alfresco, letting you soak in the city’s endlessly balmy weather, while once again treated to stunning river views.
White parasols shade its rustic wooden tables, and the focus here is on quality craft beers, showcasing a curated selection of Vietnam’s thriving scene, including Pasteur Street’s ever-popular Jasmine Street IPA. Food is equally impressive in its laid-back ambition, featuring healthy takes on such comfort food as Buffalo cauliflower and nachos packed with jackfruit.
As the sun sets in the distance and cocktails are drained, thoughts naturally turn to dinner. D2’s focus is less on quantity than quality, with an impressive proportion of some of the city’s most high-end restaurants.
La Villa (lavilla-restaurant.com.vn) is a long-time favourite, showcasing classic French cuisine prepared to a very high standard. Decorated like an elaborate countryside chateau, complete with old-world furnishings and its own pool, chef Thierry Mounon serves a range of set menus that pay tribute to the pareddown world of classic French gastronomy: foie gras, roast pigeon, duck leg confit, as well as one of the most excessive cheese trolleys you’ll ever see.
Finally, there’s time for a quick nightcap before bed. D2’s nightlife might not rival the city centre, but this predominantly expat enclave is starting to hold its own. Saigon Outcast (saigonoutcast.com) is a popular choice among Thao Dien’s younger crowds, an alt-event venue that regularly features food and drink festivals, live music showcases as well as weekend parties, with an impressive layout across its container-like design.
A newer, more refined choice is 86 Proof (facebook. com/get86proof), a recently opened whisky bar inspired by Japan’s tucked-away speakeasies. You’ll find a fantastic single-malt selection here, as well as some of the most balanced cocktails in all of Ho Chi Minh City.
The long road out to District 7 showcases Ho Chi Minh City’s vast spread arguably better than anywhere else. Set a good 30 minutes from the centre, the endless trucks, cars and bikes are nearly all making their way towards the port and the ocean, for deliveries set far beyond Vietnam’s borders.
But if only they stopped and parked for a moment, they’d discover an area far removed from the rest of the city. Known colloquially as “Saigon South”, it’s a place inspired by suburban America, with quaint family houses, leafy green parks and SUVs rumbling down roads flanked by extra-wide sidewalks.
The fact that D7’s many families often choose the area because they’d prefer to ignore the rest of the city, means the district isn’t as obvious a weekend escape as D2. But the area’s charms are certainly there, often spread out and hidden away within its widespread borders.
Start your suburban-like retreat at the TajmaSago Castle (tajmasago.com). The only five-star resort in the area, it’s a grand, sweeping hotel modelled after the Maharaja palaces of India. Equipped with a spa, library and infinity pool, as well as a fine-dining French restaurant and a British steakhouse, the resort is almost an escape unto itself. Rooms are tastefully designed, featuring white as the central colour scheme throughout, contrasted by the latest in modern technologies to keep you entertained. It’s a cosy escape, and the kind of place that would cost triple the price in most other global cities – but resist the urge to spend your entire weekend here and journey out into D7’s vast expanse.
The area’s more affordable rents (compared to the centre), coupled with eager young entrepreneurs, have resulted in some of the most distinctive eateries in the city – case in point, Jane’s Bistro (janesbistro. com), a fine-dining, farm-to-table restaurant set up by an expat husband-and-wife team. Serving up healthy American and Italian dishes, the homestyle ambience mirrors the quality of the ever-changing menu, artfully plated and paired with classic cocktails.
The architecture of the area makes the difference, with tree-lined streets and wide-open spaces
As a family-friendly town of sorts, lazy afternoons in D7 are often spent walking along its many promenades. One of the nicest faces onto manmade Crescent Lake, a serene haven that connects to the flashy Starlight
Bridge. After a healthy stroll, stop in at Boomerang (boomerangsaigon.com), an Australian-owned spot that faces the lake and offers an impressive menu of gastropub-inspired dishes and drinks.
Refresh yourself with a rest or a massage back in your room, before preparing for a dinner feast. The El Gaucho (vn.elgaucho.asia) steakhouses are generally regarded as the best in Vietnam, if not Southeast Asia, and the group’s second Ho Chi Minh branch is conveniently set in D7. Inspired by the family-owned meat eateries of Buenos Aires’ La Boca district, the simple brickwork and wooden tables are offset by a contemporary cocktail and cigar bar.
Indulge in tartare and carpaccio to start, alongside a perfectly made Manhattan cocktail, before attempting one of their New York cuts of meat, sourced directly from Australia and the US. Pair it with an impressive red wine from their cellar – the restaurant being one of the few to source high-end bottles from the Burgundy, Piedmont and Napa Valley regions.
After all that charm, bring things down to earth with one last drink at Speakeasy (facebook.com/ speakeasyHCMC). The name refers more to the vibe than any kind of retro style, but compared to the many rowdy neighbourhood pubs in the area, it’s a fairly quiet affair. Old Charlie Chaplin movies are projected on the walls, restrained odes to Americana are displayed throughout and the fine selection of whisky makes for an ideal nightcap, rubbing shoulders with the district’s friendly denizens.
THIS PAGE AND OPPOSITE: Villa Song; Boathouse; and TajmaSago Castle
THIS PAGE FROM TOP LEFT: Corked Tales; Vietnam House; and Starlight Bridge