Ho Chi Minh City‘s neighbourhoods were shaped by the colonial period, industrialisation and urban revivals. Among 24 districts, I picked up the coolest areas with its distinctive feels and their highlights include heritage buildings, creative vibes and thriving upscale spots.
You will know you have arrived at District 1 when you spot hordes of backpackers wearing Chang tank tops and short pants and many a tourist focuses on nothing but their camera. It’s hardly possible to swing a cat in the area without coming across sites of cultural and historical interest, ranging from museums, pagodas, churches to cafes, local markets and street food hubs. It’s always jam-packed of course, but don’t let that put you off.
This neighbourhood is home to vast architectural heritage buildings during the French colonial period, which includes not only widely known spots such as Saigon Post Office, Saigon Notre-Dame and Gia Long Palace, but also unheralded bygone cafe-apartments (which can be run down buildings or former high-ranking government officials’ houses during the colonial time) at No. 26 Ly Tu Trong, No. 14 Ton That Dam or No. 42 Nguyen Hue. As the district is brimming with skyscrapers and luxury hotels, don’t forget to drop yourself at a rooftop bar overlooking the urban landscape, the Saigon river and the bustling traffic, all of it lighting up in hallucinatory shimmer once the sun goes down. The nightlife scene is more vibrant when the crowds head to backpack streets and enjoy some late-night eats with both locals and tourists.
Located on the other side of the Saigon River, District 2 is not all the urban class charm and gentrified allure. It instead has an appealing blend of the familial feeling and some renaissance vibes partially drawn by the influx of expat families, particularly around Thao Dien Ward. While the area has started to churn out more upscale restaurants, international schools, bars… the neighbourhood still retains a laidback and low-paced life with the local sense of community. As if artists and musicians have taken advantage of the interesting mix, Saigon Outcast is the city’s take on an art hub with workshops, live music events, contests, urban flea markets, and festivals.
Lying next to District 1, this neighbourhood allows you to experience the real deal Saigon life – a bit off the tourist’s radar but still central enough that you can walk anywhere. District 3 is home to plenty of colonial villas owned by French rubber planters in the early 20th century, for example, the more-than-200-year-old Tan Xa Palace, and a wide range of both upscale and street restaurants on every corner. There are also opportunities for strolling and shopping, with a tempting assortment of high-end fashion boutiques and markets. District 3 also housed one of the most precious hidden gems, the Secret Weapon Cellar which was dug by Saigon resident Tran Van Lai to conceal weapons and explosives for Viet Cong for the deadly attack Tet Offensive in 1968. A few minutes walk from here will take you to the Turtle Lake which lures the young crowds after work for evening hangouts.
Phu Nhuan District
Phu Nhuan District, bordering both District 1 and 3, has become an enclave for expats who wants to stay away from the well-trodden expat zones and immerse themselves in the local life. The neighbourhood hosts a variety of decent spots for street food with reasonable prices and Phan Xich Long Street is definitely a great stop-off during the weekends. One of the highlights in the district is its thriving coffee scene with various places on offer.
If you tire of the city’s elegant French architectural styles or its industrial vibes, head to District 5, the Saigon’s Chinatown and stroll along Binh Tay Market (widely known as Cholon), spying on traditional Chinese family shops and authentic Chinese food. Church of Saint Francis Xavier, staying in the heart of Chinatown can be an antidote to all that consumerism – a complex built in the early 1990s witnessed a historical incident when the South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were seized in 1963 after a successful military coup. The neighbourhood has an old Saigon feel, warmed up by its distinctive architecture and retro-feel decoration.