The city is a paradise for foodies, bargain-hunters, and fashionistas; here’s where you should go when in Vietnam’s capital
by Duncan Forgan
Ho Chi Minh City has come a long way, and nowhere is this shift more immediately apparent to visitors than in the boom in its consumer culture. Vietnam is still nominally a communist country where portraits of Ho Chi Minh are ubiquitous.
Closer inspection, however, reveals the modern-day Ho Chi Minh City. Glass fronted shop fronts bear the names of luxury brands such as Cartier, Gucci and Christian Louboutin. A growing collection of towering skyscrapers, the most striking of which is the iconic lotus flower-inspired Bitexco Tower, conceal glitzy sky-bars and contemporary dining options. Vietnam, with its relentlessly entrepreneurial southern hub, has an ever-evolving shopping and dining scene to rival any in Asia.
What makes shopping in Ho Chi Minh City such a rewarding experience is not just the increased profusion of big name brands and labels. It is also the way that these international options are juxtaposed with niche independent retailers, boutiques, and traditional markets.
Most of the main international names are located in the city’s downtown area. The Rex Arcade (→4-6 Le Loi St, District 1, +84 8 3829 2185) adjacent to the iconic Rex Hotel, features Chanel, Burberry, Cartier, Rolex, and Ralph Lauren among its stores, while Dong Khoi—probably Ho Chi Minh’s City’s main shopping street—has Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Aldo, and Christian Louboutin. Worth visiting for a fix of global glamour is the Vincom Centre (→72 Vincom Center HCM, 72 Le Thanh Ton St, +84 8 39369999), which counts Jimmy Choo, BCBG, Gap, and Mango among its many stores. There is also Runway Boutique, regarded as the premier shopping spot in town by many of Ho Chi Minh’s fashionistas.
Ho Chi Minh City, however, has plenty more in its retail locker. One of the best things to do in the city is to get a garment tailor made. Good quality fabric can be bought at low cost at various markets and shops in the city. Excellent choices include Ben Thanh Market (→District 1) and Tan Dinh Market (→District 3). Having secured your fabric, bring a picture or, better, a sample of what you want to one of the many master tailors in town. Tricia & Verona and Cao Minh are both reliably good options.
The city is also strong on independent retail outlets. L’Usine (→151 Dong Khoi, D1, +84 8 6674 3565), a concept store café, is situated in a beautiful converted shophouse off Dong Khoi and houses men’s and women’s street fashion and a range of stylish trinkets such as retro motorcycle helmets and Lomo cameras. Other fascinating places include Lam Boutique (→71 Mac Thi Buoi, D1, +84 9 06712 309) and Song (→76D Le Thanh Ton, D1, +84 8 3824 6986) for clothes, Gaya (→Le Lai Corner, Nguyen Van Trang St., D1, +84 8 3925 1495) for designer furniture and home goods, Life Impression (→47 Ton That Thiep, D1, +84 8 3831 4521) for creative lacquerware and Ho Chi Minh Kitsch (→43 Ton That Thiep, D1, +84 8 38218272) for a pop art take on Vietnamese Communist Party memorabilia.
Bargain-hunters should head for Ben Thanh Market (→Ben Thanh Roundabout, D1) or Saigon Square (→77-89 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, D1). The former, the city’s most famous market, is great for home goods and accessories, while Ho Chi Minh Square hides many excellent fashion items.
Ho Chi Minh is not known as one of the world’s great food cities for nothing. From exclusive dining areas to spots filled with locals devouring smoky short ribs and toasting each other with icy bottles of Ho Chi Minh beer, the variety is extraordinary.
The city’s stock in trade is great Vietnamese cuisine, so that’s where you should probably start. Some of the best food is found on the street, but the variety of dishes and vendors can be intimidating for the casual visitor. For an authentic and easily interpreted insight into sidewalk fare, head to Quan An Ngon (→160 Pasteur St, D1, +84 8 8239 9449). Here, top street vendors are corralled into the garden of a giant colonial villa where they can showcase their skills in palatial surrounds. The atmosphere is generally buzzing, the prices are low and the food is amazing.
Another place for top-notch traditional Vietnamese cooking is Cuch Gach Quan (→10 Dang Tat, D1, +84 8 3848 0144). Located on the outer fringes of District 1 in a gracefully converted mansion, their menu covers a full spectrum of Vietnamese dishes lovingly prepared in an open kitchen by chefs Co Diep and Chi Bay. Special mention goes to their smoky eggplant fried in scallion oil and Diep’s wonderfully silken house-made tofu.
Surprisingly, given the city’s modernity, new spins on Vietnamese cookery are hard to find. One of the few contemporary Vietnamese restaurants is Xu (→75 Hai Ba Trung Street, Dl, +84 8 3824 8468) where Australian-Vietnamese chef Bien Nguyen produces fusion dishes such as pork belly braised in coconut juice.
Most of the world’s great cuisines are represented in Ho Chi Minh. The French flag is flown proudly at venues such as La Cuisine (→48 Le Thanh Ton, D1, +84 8 2229 8882) and Ty Coz (→178/4 Pasteur St, D1, +84 8 3822 2457). Other international gems include Tandoor (→7 4/6 Hai Ba Trung Street, D1, +84 8 930 4839) for Indian food, Warda for Lebanese (→71/7 Mac Thi Buoi, D1, +84 8 3823 3822), and Pizza 4Ps (→8/15 Le Thanh Ton Street, D1, +84 8 3822 9838) for flawless traditional wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas with a Japanese twist.
For a splurge, try Square One (→Park Hyatt Hotel, 2 Lam Son Square, D1, +848 3824 1234) or head across Lam Son Square to Reflections (→Caravelle Hotel, 19 Lam Son Square, D1, +84 8 3823 4999) and then back upstairs to Ho Chi Minh to get this runaway train of a city into perspective.