Saigon’s sub­ur­ban dis­tricts pro­vide a change of pace for vis­i­tors to the chaotic south­ern Viet­namese city

Business Traveller (Middle East) - - Contents - WORDS PA­VAN SHAM­DASANI

Es­cape Hoh Chi Minh City’s hus­tle and bus­tle

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 mod­ern-day 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 high­rises, 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 (vil­la­, 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 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 (mekong­mer­, 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 (face­­se­viet­nam). 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-restau­ 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 pared-down 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 (saigonout­ 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 (ta­j­ 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 (janes­, a fine-din­ing, farm-totable restau­rant set up by an ex­pat hus­ban­dand-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.el­gau­ 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 fam­i­ly­owned 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 (face­ 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

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