Ho Chi Minh is a well-kept secret of a travel destination that’s positioned to become the next mega city in South East Asia. As the former Southern Vietnam capital continues to explode in economic and real estate development, neighborhoods are transforming to respond to the growing spending power of locals and the increase of tourist traveling to this Megalopolis-in-the making angling to become the next Bangkok. We deep dived into this culturally rich mecca to take an insider’s look at the city’s oasis-like District 3.
Ho Chi Minh City (which locals still choose to call Saigon) is a play of contrasts, blending a bustling mix of the old and the new: renovated colonial villas, countless coffee shops, generations of mom and pop storefronts and recently opened bars and boutiques resting in the shadows of a shimmering skyline of newly minted high-rises.
Most of its 24 districts are seeing the change – it’s in the relatively tranquil District 3 however that we see the finest mix of the contemporary and the old, arts and culture – and where you can find some calm from the chaos of the city. Adjacent to District 1, the more obvious business and retail concentration – District 3 is a quieter alternative preferred by locals. “District 3 is one of my favourite districts in Saigon and one of my favourite streets is Pham Ngoc Thach. It’s not that there’s a lot on that road, but it is lined with giant trees that make for the perfect walk, ending at the Ho Con Rua (Turtle Lake),” offers local artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran.
In addition to the beautifully dilapidated colonial structures and some of the oldest pagodas in the country, in District 3 you’ll find the Venerable Thich Quang Duc Memorial, the monument dedicated to the monk who set himself on fire in protest of the Persecution of Buddhists and the seminal War Remnants Museum, where the American War (as Vietnamese call it) is chronicled in raw, gory detail. These are all important stops for tourists who want to revisit Vietnam’s recent, turbulent history.
Heaviness aside, “District 3 possesses a distinctive characteristic that represents the daily living culture of Saigon,” says Dàm Vū, leading Vietnamese architect of the modern yet nostalgic T House building in District 3. “It is considered by the Saigonese as the best place to live in the city, which has been transcribed into an age-old saying every local knows, ‘Eat in District 5, live in District 3, and play in District 1.”
Living in District 3 means “to feel alive,” offers influential gallerist Quynh Pham, whose own Galerie Quynh is just over the border in District 1. “It is the vibrant area of Saigon with an eclectic mix of cultural spaces in renovated villas and hip, young boutiques and cafés.” One of these cultural spaces Quynh recommends is Salon Saigon. Located in one of Ho Chi Minh’s historic cul-de-sacs in one of the 1960s homes of former American Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, Salon Saigon is a well-appointed townhouse cum arts space. Founded by collector John Tue Nguyen (a sort of Charles Saatchi of the region) who established the space as homage to contemporary Vietnamese art. His passion for the preservation and promotion of local and international-based Vietnamese artists and cultural events is levelled in this charming two-story villa which doubles as a “salon” for conferences, talks and lectures. Sandrine Llouquet, the French-Vietnamese visual artist serves as Salon Saigon’s resident curator.
There’s a plethora of tiny boutiques scattered across Ho Chi Minh selling locally produced products, much falling in the category of “knock-offs” and visibly “inspired by”. Vietnam Designers House is the most compelling of the stores we discovered. Minh Hahn, the designer of the majority of collection approaches volume like a JW Anderson, who forces you to lean in and examine slightly “off” features like a cascade of shirred fabric from one side of the midsection of dress or boxy oversized dresses with Victorian lace accents. It’s conveniently located steps away from the go-to M Gallery Hotel. Cong Tri, located a block from the War Remnants Museum, on the other hand is an emporium of original designs. This chic standalone boutique from Nguyen Cong Tri – who is recognized as one of Vietnam’s leading designers – is a riot of colourful cocktail and printed day dresses for the growing professional set, for ladies who lunch and a fierce designer discovery for the discerning tourist. Meanwhile, hipster designer Vo Thi Li Lam’s celebrity friendly Lam boutique is located in District 1 but she swears by the calm she finds at La Maison de L’Apothiquaire Spa and Golden Lotus Healing Spa, her two favourite addresses in District 3.
The food culture in Ho Chi Minh is on full display. Food is of cultural pride to the Vietnamese people and dining means consuming with all five senses. Every other storefront is some form of a dining spot, from street food to vegetarian restaurants and BBQ joints to myriad upscale establishments. Banh Xeo 46A, located on a narrow passage in front of the iconic Tan Dinh Parish Church (the pink church) offered the best local flavor on our trip. Ban xeo is a Vietnamese pancake with various meat and vegetable fillings that you assemble with your fingers, rolling “mini-tacos” and dipping in the tastiest sauce to a finger licking good experience. Other notable mentions in the area are Biogarten and Moc Cafe. Biogarten is proper vegetarian restaurant upstairs with a curated organic supermarket downstairs while Moc is a fauna strewn joint teeming with young Saigonese sipping on fresh juices and delicious sandwiches. Sit outside on the succulent filled terrace; it’s bliss.
To fully capture the sheer scale and impact of Ho Chi Minh, you’ll need to go high above. SOHY Bar and Restaurant on the 25th floor of the Centec Tower on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai is one of the two current hotspots in the quarter bringing out the hipsters and the elevated tourists to their “futuristic beach resort” theme spot. This trendy perch sports everything from a cigar room to a champagne garden and a jaw dropping view.
The perfectly situated 5-star boutique Hotel des Arts Saigon M Gallery Collection Hotel is resplendent in self-described “Indochine Francaise.” That means an ample display of antiques throughout the 25-story property that underscores the intertwined history of the two cultures. Its two restaurants Saigon Kitchen and Café des Beaux Arts are the closest you’ll get to Michelin star dining in the city. In fact the hotel regularly brings in Michelin rated chefs to show their commitment to the culinary experience. The spa and the regular jazz crooners are all charming features of the hotel. But it’s the 360-degree view from the pool and the Social Club Rooftop Bar that will blow your socks off. This is where you want to stay and to concentrate your socializing. Take it all in and ponder what this city may look like in 10 years. It’s sure to be markedly different.