|Vietnam – a country bound by tradition
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 D to G of Saigon.
Disappearing Da Kao
The official nether parts of District 1, look on a map and geographically Da Kao Ward should be part of somewhere else. But where gravity defies cartographic logic, history doesn’t. Together with neighbouring Tan Dinh, Da Kao is a slice of original Saigon and remains a bastion of non-downtown gentrification. Not surprisingly the embassies are here as are the city’s rich.
With age on its side, so the architecture also brings with it the wear and tear of time. Crumbling colonial and post-colonial era houses litter the area as well as development. We would like to say that Da Kao is avoiding the smash, chop and tumble of the developers. Unfortunately it isn’t and what is appearing in its place is an odd mesh of new, decades old and pure ancient. Huge, patisserie-cake back street villas, gaudy cafes and office blocks are here in droves. But so is restoration.
Take for example the temple on the corner of Nguyen Van Thu and Nguyen Binh Khiem. The symbolism, awning and pagoda-yellow architecture remains, but the inside has been converted into a Vietnamese-style gym — conservation of sorts.
Hem 178 on Hai Ba Trung has gone a step further. Colonial era buildings have been converted, restored or knocked down to create an alleyway chock full of middle class restaurants and spas.
This is just the start. For every building that seems to go to dust, so another one is preserved or, if rebuilt, maintains a modicum of its original charm.
If ever there is a central area in this city to walk around and explore, it is Da Kao. The changes going on in this five by five block space make for fascinating viewing.
The Land of Smiles?
With so much concern about the spread of HIV / Aids in Vietnam, a few sex shops have sprung up around town: maybe the name ‘condom shops’ is a more accurate moniker. Cau Be Vang has three shops in the city (www.caubevang.com, 93B De Tham, Q1) selling condoms of all sizes, flavours and names (Black Panther for example) and lubricants as well. Chac Nhu Bap(www.chacnhubap.com, 174 Bui Huu Nghia, Binh Thanh) is another chain offering identical products but also some “finger massagers”. Don’t expect the same extensive kinky collections that you may be familiar with in the west.
These days the cuisine available in Saigon runs the full gamut of east and west
Food, food, fabulous food: with just a little perseverance and a taste for adventure, Ho Chi Minh City can be a foodie’s delight. This is a metropolis that stops only for lunch and that makes sure its inhabitants are able to assuage their hunger at any time of day or night. Find a pho, bolt down some bun, seek out a banh xeo, catch yourself some soft shell crab, grab some com tam. On almost every corner there’s a feast fit for an emperor, on a farmer’s budget.
So, here is a little itinerary. Start your tour at the Hainanese chicken rice joint Com Ga Hai Nam at 114 Le Thi Hong Gam. We have a penchant for the boiled chicken, sweet-roasted pork and rice cooked in chicken stock that came from Hainan Island by way of Singapore and, having tried the full gamut of eateries doing a take on this dish, will confidently say that this restaurant is the best in town. And with a plate of the good stuff weighing in at VND30,000, you can’t complain. Just make sure you ask for your chicken without bones (khong xuong).
Also courtesy of Singapore, but this time taking a roundabout route via somewhere in India is the to-die-for chicken curry at Lion City (45 Le Anh Xuan, Q1). A real taste of the hybrid Malay-Indian influence in what some call the culinary capital of South-East Asia, this fiery, mouthwatering concoction goes for VND90,000 for a large bowl and, eaten with bread or rice, is perfect to be washed down with a kopi-o.
Hotpot is an obsession in this town with the Thai version and more recently shabu-shabu ruling the roost. But the more recent import of the Japanese steamed hotpot is a must-try. Tasty and healthy, too, the best version we know of is at Mus Mus (117 Vo Van Tan, Q3). For VND98,000 per person choose from 12 ingredients — anything from shitake mushrooms through to pork, Japanese fish cake and carrots — steam over a tasty broth and then eat. The meal can be finished off by taking the broth with a choice of noodles or rice. A great meal for sharing.
Another sharing dish is bo tung xeo (VND124,000 per person) made famous by the recently reopened Luong Son(31 Ly Tu Trong, Q1). Quite simply thin strips of marinated beef barbecued at the table and eaten with a range of sauces, this is one of Vietnam’s best.
Vietnam-themed art – a big hit with tourists but not with collectors
Galleries & Arts
Ho Chi Minh City is still coming into its own as an art destination but all signs point to an increasingly vibrant scene percolating in the city which is in turn giving life to an ever growing number of art galleries. These galleries are primarily and conveniently concentrated in District 1 and host regular, though under-promoted, exhibitions of the work of Saigon-based artists.
The focus of artistic endeavours here continues to be squarely on painting although there is a substantial minority of primarily younger artists who are embracing newer forms of expression like performance and installation art. With the focus being on painting, it is perhaps not surprising that Saigon is blessed with a large pool of talented painters of both young and old whose work can be seen on the walls of the city’s galleries —a limited sampling of which are mentioned below.
The venerable Galerie Quynh (65 De Tham, Q1) has been leading the way since 2000. First promoting some of Saigon’s pioneering abstract painters, GQ has recently embraced a more contemporary international programme.
Tu Do Gallery (53 Ho Tung Mau, Q1) is the dean of local galleries. Established in 1989 and run by a local artist, the gallery has a large collection of both masters and more contemporary Vietnamese art.
Craig Thomas Gallery (27i Tran Nhat Duat, Q1) was established in 2009 and has since focused on identifying and promoting young Saigon-based artists through a regular series of exhibitions.
The downtown Dong Khoi area of Saigon is dotted with galleries which, while aimed more towards the tourist trade than the three above, also contain a great number of interesting works by local artists. The most well-known among these is Apricot Gallery (50 Mac Thi Buoi, Q1), which also has an outpost in London.