The A to Z of Saigon

 

This chaotic and ever-expanding city can be hard to decode, so we’ve broken it down into an alphabetical guide where each letter is accompanied by our insider knowledge and tidbits about the sights, sounds and culture of Saigon. Time, then, to take an A to Z tour of this sprawling metropolis. From getting lost in alleyways and scavenging through junk yards to discovering the history of the city and catching some winks, we’ve got you covered. Photos by Quinn Ryan Mattingly, Khoa Tran & EJ Chung

 

 

The A to Z of Saigon

Saigon is a city of contrasts, of old meets new, of rich versus poor, of west up against the east. So, here is a mini guide to what makes this city unique. Meet the A to C of Saigon.

Alleys & Hems

With rising rent costs and never-ending construction, hiding away in a quiet alley looks ever more appealing than the main strip. It may be the Saigon of the last century, but the appeal of the alleyways endures. Take for example the hemsoff of Le Thanh Ton (hems 15 and 17) and Thai Van Lung(hem 8). Amidst the convoluted maze of streets are several rooms for rent, shops, spas, salons and restaurants. The atmosphere is completely different than the city’s major thoroughfares. For Ho Chi Minh City, it’s astoundingly quiet.

“There’s no other reason why we’re here really,” says Anupa Horvil, owner of her eponymous shop anupa (17/27 Le Thanh Ton) which sells luxury leather goods and jewellery. “There’s no construction noise. The rent’s cheap. You don’t feel stressed out shopping here. It’s relaxed.”

That same chilled out vibe can be found on Ngo Van Nam(pictured) — at least during the day. An enclave of Japanese restaurants, kitschy karaoke joints and bars overflowing with throngs of dolled-up women enticing businessmen dominate the night. Tucked away behind Saigon Square amongst the street haircuts and overgrown trees is Humidor, a cigar smoke shop (1A Ngo Van Nam), French restaurant La Cuisine (28B Ngo Van Nam) and Eurasian-style IVY Saigon (17A Ngo Van Nam).

The Pham Ngu Lao area is a cluster of quasi-western offerings but nestled behind are scenes of Vietnamese home life up-close and personal. The labyrinth between Bui Vien(particularly hems 107 and 183) and Tran Hung Dao is enough to leave even a veteran expat turned around. If you can overcome feeling like you’re intruding into people’s homes, the maze of alleys offers glimpses of babies being rocked asleep, raucous card games and groups of women cutting up vegetables and preparing the family’s next meal.

Alleys and Hems in Ho Chi Minh City

Burning Rubber

Bicycles may have long ago been replaced by the motorbike as the preferred form of transportation, but there are still plenty of places to get your pedal on. Several shops on Vo Thi Sau, including the CAT Shop (160 Vo Thi Sau, Q1) sell mountain bikes, road bikes, hybrids and accessories to go along.

Across the street you can find the favourite of every 12-year-old: the Martin 107 (several shops together at 93-107 Vo Thi Sau, Q1). Saigon Cycles (51-1 Skygarden 2, Phu My Hung) has top-of-the-line bikes and gears for cycling enthusiasts.

Minsk motorcycles (pictured) remain popular, especially for longer journeys, but not like they once were. Until recently, Minsks were the preferred bike for trips up to Hanoi, Laos and further afield, says Tran, ( vespatran1@yahoo.com; Tel: 01225 656508) who rents and sells them. Bikes in good condition used to sell for US$350 but now go for about US$275. They can be rented for US$30 a week.

“Honda Wings (US$300 to US$350) are now the bike of choice,” Tran adds. “Minsks experience too many electrical problems and Hondas are an easier fix.”

Vespas remain the ‘it’ bike to have in the city. Several shops along Ly Thai To including Hoa Vespa(hoavespa.fotopic.net, 86 Ly Thai To, Q3) and Hungmapvespa2 Shop (www.hungmapvespa2.com, 96 Ly Thai To, Q3) can fulfill all your Vespa and Lambretta needs. If you want top of the range, reconditioned bikes then check out Saigon Scooter Centre (www.saigonscootercentre.com, 25/7 Cuu Long, Tan Binh) for something vintage or rarer.

Two-wheeled transport is the way to go in Ho Chi Minh City

Covering the Music

If you’re left without your iPod for a night but in desperate need to listen to some tunes just head out to the numerous bars in Saigon to hear your favourite songs covered live. From Journey and The Eagles to Jason Mraz and Leona Lewis, you can hit the town for a few drinks and catch some great music almost every night of the week. Here’s our rundown of just some of the places to listen in — Sheridan’s Irish Pub (17/13 Le Thanh Ton, Q1), La Habana (pictured) (6 Cao Ba Quat, Q1), Bernie’s (19 Thai Van Lung, Q1) Pacharan (97 Hai Ba Trung, Q1), Vasco’s(74/7D Hai Ba Trung, Q1), Acoustic Bar (6E Ngo Thoi Nhiem, Q3), Carmen (8 Ly Tu Trong, Q1), Hard Rock Café (Kumho Plaza, 39 Le Quan, Q1) and Seventeen Saloon (103A Pham Ngu Lao, Q1).

And don’t forget the hotels. Most of the five stars have their resident house bands playing almost every night at their in-house bars.