ENTERTAINMENT IN HO CHI MINH CITY
Ho Chi Minh City is said to have the have most lively nightlife in the Communist world. Much of the city's upscale nightspots are centered around the top-end hotels on Dong Khoi Street. Here you can find bistros, fancy restaurants, cafes and nightclubs frequented by expatriates, such as the Q-Tip, which is located underneath the 95-year-old Municipal Theater.
There is a lively nightclub scene along Thi Sach and Hai Ba Trung. Many discos, karaokes and nightclubs are found in the large hotels. The backpacker scene is centered around Pham Ngu Lao Street, where Vietnamese used to sometimes take walks to gawk at the foreigners. The Municipal Theater (also known as the Opera House, Nha Thanh Pho) hosts concerts and cultural events. During the day, water puppet performances can be seen at the War Remnants Museum and traditional music can be seen at Reunification Palace.
Hoa Binh Theater (14 3 Thang 2 Boulevard, just outside Saigon) is an open air theater that hosts pop concerts on Saturday night. Water Puppet shows are also held here. On the weekends many young people head to “soirée dansantes” (dancehalls) at hotel and nightclubs, which cater to people with money. There is usually a live band and they play a mix of Vietnamese, Western and dance hall songs. Expatriates and Vietnamese yuppies haunt Apocalypse Now. A Hard Rock Cafe opened in the mid 2000s. Superbowl is a $13.5 million two-story complex with a 32-lane bowling alley, shopping mall, video arcade and fast food court. Bowlers pay up to $4 a head, a lot of money in Vietnam, to bowl and listen to loud pop music. On the some weekends the main source of entertainment is motorbike racing and fleeing the police.
Ho Chi Minh City has a reputation for raunchy entertainment that dates back to the Vietnam War era. After the arrival of the Americans in 1960s, Saigon became into a center of decadence and sin, filled with brothels with mini-skirted prostitutes and opium dens and gambling halls with marijuana-smoking and drug-taking GIs attempting to forget and exorcize their battlefield demons in intense bursts of reckless partying. After the end of Vietnam war in 1975 the Communist tried to neuter Saigon's decadence by outlawing anything that hinted of capitalism and the United States. For more than a decade Saigon slept. But when the market reforms were enacted in 1986, Saigon was reborn and the gambling halls, drug dealers and prostitutes that prospered in the 1960s returned.
Night Spots in Ho Chi Minh City
On the entertainment that might appeal to travelers with a little money, Emily Brady wrote in the New York Times, “After serving stiff cocktails and eclectic music to expats for a decade, the ever-popular Vasco’s (74/7D Hai Ba Trung Street; 84-8-3824-2888) this year moved to nicer digs. At its new location in a tiny alley, the outdoor balcony is great for chatting, while indoors it’s all about the music, which can range from visiting French D.J.’s to Vietnamese rap. If the music isn’t to your taste, duck into one of the sedate bars downstairs, where you’ll find a lot of French and other expats sipping wine. [Source: Emily Brady, New York Times, December 18, 2008]
“Push through the lavender doors of L’Apothiquaire Artisan Beauté (61-63 Le Thanh Ton Street; 84-8-3822-1218; www.lapothiquaire.com) and be greeted by the soothing sound of flute music and a cup of anti-stress herbal tea. This tiny day spa feels straight out of Provence, though the motorbikes buzzing by the front doors are a distinct reminder that you’re still in Saigon. The spa offers a range of body treatments, including mud wraps ($30) and 75-minute Swedish-style relaxation massages ($37). There are also house-brand aromatherapy beauty products for sale, along with the anti-stress tea, in case the soothing effects of the massage wear off.
“ At Cage (3A Ton Duc Thang Street; 84-8-3910-7053), a chic new club that opened in June 2007, the namesake birdcages are suspended around crystal chandeliers and filled with votive candles as table decorations. Live music is offered five nights a week. On a recent visit, a Vietnamese singer belted out Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi.” A few hours later, a D.J. got the expats and Vietnamese on their feet with salsa music. For those craving privacy, there are little nooks off to the side, filled with plush purple couches and veiled by long lavender tassels.
“In Vietnam, coffee is brewed directly into your cup through a small, metal filter. Add ice and sweet condensed milk and you have a café sua da, an antidote to the thick heat and the perfect way to refuel. At Café Terrace (65 Le Loi Street; 84-8-3821-4958), a trendy spot in the city’s center, you can drink your coffee (30,000 dong, or $1.70 at 17,647 dong to the dollar) outside beneath an umbrella, or retreat to the stylish, air-conditioned interior, decorated with red curtains, vases of white lilies and lots of pretty people lounging in comfy chairs.
Phu Tho Turf Club was built in 1932, shut down during the war, and turned into a Sports and Education College for training athletic coaches after the liberation of Saigon in 1975. In 1989 it was reopened as a state-run horse track with privately-owned horses and an archaic wagering system that offers only exacta betting. About 5,000 people show up on Saturday and Sunday afternoon for a seven-race card.
Restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnamese food, French food, French-Vietnamese food, Chinese food, Italian food, Thai food, Japanese food, Indian food, Korean food and other international cuisines are all available in Ho Chi Minh City. The city’s first McDonald's opened in January 2014. If you want to try a local version on the same vein there is the “Ma nhat tan” pizza and several homegrown burger joint). There is also KFC and Jollibee and TexMex cuisine. On the Saigon River there are several expensive floating restaurants, including one shaped like a huge whale. The tourist offices in Saigon may be able to provide you with a list of restaurants organized by national cuisine. Also check lists of restaurants in the Saigon newspapers, the Lonely Planet books and other guidebooks.
A good place to sample Vietnamese food is at the numerous small restaurants and food stalls in and around Ben Thanh and Binh Tay markets. For good Chinese (and Vietnamese food) head of Cholon (Chinatown). Mueseli, banana pancakes, ice cream and cheeseburgers can be had around Pham Ngu Lao Street. Noodle soup stalls and sidewalk eateries are everywhere. Jeremy Laurance wrote in The Independent, “Outside the Rex hotel in the center of Saigon the evening rush hour is a scene of motorised pandemonium.... As darkness falls, clusters of tiny plastic tables and stools spread across the pavements - improvised street-side restaurants to feed the armies of office workers. The acrid smell of pigs' trotters seared over charcoal braziers beside pans of meat bubbling on spirit burners fills the humid night air. [Source: Jeremy Laurance, The Independent, February 27, 2006]
The best restaurants are generally located in the large hotels or around Dong Khoi Street. Emily Brady wrote in the New York Times, “What happens when you gather Saigon’s finest street chefs in one location? Enjoy finding out at Quan An Ngon (138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia; 84-8-3825-7179), an open-air restaurant with one menu listing each chef’s specialty. The place bustles at night with locals and in-the-know foreigners waiting for Vietnamese classics like bun cha — vermicelli with minced pork balls and fresh herbs — and green papaya salad with shrimp (24,000 dong each). Fortunately, there are a lot of tables, so the line moves quickly. For dessert, don’t miss the che suong sa hot luu (10,000 dong), an oddly delicious combination of coconut milk, tapioca pearls, water chestnuts and jelly worms, served in a tall glass over crushed ice. [Source: Emily Brady, New York Times, December 18, 2008]
“Follow the trail of lanterns up the dimly lit stairs to Temple Club (29-31 Ton That Thiep Street; 84-8-3829-9244), an elegant restaurant. The place has a colonial feel, with white tablecloths, whirling fans and antique silverware to accompany the chopsticks, but most of its menu is distinctly Vietnamese. Favorites include grilled beef on lemongrass skewers and fish wrapped in banana leaf (120,000 dong).”
Upscale Restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City
Alan Richman wrote in Conde Nast Traveler, “From the coffee lounge of the Rex, I rode the elevator to the roof and ordered my usual: imperial spring rolls, Saigon style. These are crunchy-fatty little rolls stuffed with pork and shrimp, wrapped in lettuce leaves, and dipped in the all-purpose, slightly sweet/slightly spicy, clear Vietnamese fish sauce. The spring rolls were as good as ever. [Source: Alan Richman, Conde Nast Traveler, December 2005]
“ The rooftop bar wasn't. The cats and the topiary are gone. Saigon has fabulous passageways, which double as odd little food courts. Banh Xeo appears to have taken over an entire alley, plus a lot of the houses in it, with indoor and outdoor seating for about 200. It's an alley empire. The name of the restaurant is also the name of a Vietnamese crêpe that's the specialty of the house. There's more on the menu, but everybody eats banh xeo until they're stuffed. The crêpe, or maybe it's more like a pancake, is filled with bean sprouts, pork, and shrimp and is about a foot long. The idea is to rip off a chunk, place it on a mustard green, pile on fragrant herbs, wrap, and dip in fish sauce. It's great that way, but in my opinion it's even better without so many herbs—the Vietnamese tend to over-accessorize. Leave out some of the greenery and you taste the shrimp and the pork and the unbelievable pancake, which is cooked in blackened pans by little old ladies squatting in front of charcoal fires.
“No single dish I ate in Saigon beat that, but for entertainment value, the restaurant Com Nieu Sai Gon is better. It's in another passageway, and yet it's oddly formal, with air-conditioning and a few chandeliers. The food is perfectly good, but the lure is rice charcoal-grilled in a clay pot. The pot is removed from the fire and smashed, and then the rice is scooped up with a paddle and flung across the room. It arcs high over the heads of patrons and is caught on another paddle. The airborne voyage separates the rice from the remaining shards of clay, a flavor-enhancing technique that would surely be impossible in a country with liability laws.
“For those who do not embrace alleys, Deetz suggested the staid Hoang Yen, in the heart of touristy Saigon, between the Grand and the Renaissance hotels. In France, Hoang Yen would be called a bistro; in Italy, a trattoria. It has air-conditioning, tablecloths, and cushioned chairs. It appears unremarkable, and yet it's always crowded but never with tourists. I ate alone, ordered too much, and cleaned every plate. I had shrimp steamed in coconut milk and served in a hollowed-out coconut; a huge grilled prawn that cried out to be eaten with knife and fork; spinachlike morning glory sautéed with garlic; and best of all, fish cooked in a clay pot. I asked for catfish, and my waiter, who spoke a few words of English, pointed to the knuckle of his hand and said, "Bony."
“He recommended the bulbul instead. I hesitated. I always thought a bulbul was a bird. Still, he hadn't tried switching me to the mudfish, and that meant he had my best interests at heart. Here was great eating. The fish was soft, well-cooked, and sweetly caramelized. Pickled vegetables and bean sprouts cut through the honeyed richness. The last of Deetz's irresistible restaurants was Quan An Ngon, which has embraced street food in a way I find acceptable: by bringing the vendors inside. They've set up a kind of perimeter around a gutted old French villa. The food is ordered from a menu, brought by a waiter, and tallied on a computer. Seating is both indoors and out, but the place is so hectic, the bustle so intense, that I really wasn't certain whether we were under a roof or not. The food is basically Vietnam's greatest hits, and the "shaken beef"’stir-fried cubes accompanied by a lime/salt/pepper dipping sauce—was the only beef dish I ate on my trip that I liked. The highlight of the meal was a cool after-dinner drink of jelly, sesame seeds, water chestnuts, and tapioca in sweetened coconut milk. Southeast Asian dessert drinks, sometimes called cold soups, are Asia's top refreshers.”
Shopping in Ho Chi Minh City
The two largest municipal markets in Ho Chi Minh City are Ben Thanh Market (at a large roundabout on Le Loi Boulevard) and the Binh Tay market (in Cholon near the Cha Tam Church). Ben Thanh Market is a good place to stop on the day before your flight leaves for one-stop souvenir shopping. Other good places to shop for souvenirs, gifts, and interesting items are Cholon (Chinatown) and Pham Ngu Lao Street. On the Rach Ben Nghe, an arm of the Saigon river, there is lively floating market, with peasants countryside who arrive in boats from the Mekong Delta and other places and sell fruits, vegetables, cheap consumer goods and other items. In the tourist areas, visitors are often assaulted by street vendors selling cigarettes, chewing gum, postcards, lighters and other items.
Dong Khoi Street has long been home to some of the city’s finest shopping. Formerly known as Rue Catinat) and immortalized in Graham Greene's novel “The Quiet American” and once the most fashionable French street in Asia, it is lined with bookstores, new offices, hotels, restaurants upscale shops, bistros, cafes and nightclubs frequented by expatriates. Up until 60 years ago it was called Rue Catinat. Dong Khoi means “Uprising Street” and before that, it was called Freedom Street. The shops sell lacquerware, silk clothes, souvenirs, jewelry, silver items, Vietnam War paraphernalia and hill tribes crafts. A pleasant place to sit outside and have a beer and watch the street life go by is across from the National Assembly. Up the street from Lam Son Square is the General Post office, a building designed by Gustave Eiffel. For More See the Article on Sights in Ho Chi Minh City
Emily Brady wrote in the New York Times: “In colonial times, it was known as Rue Catinat, and was where the narrator in “The Lover,” by Marguerite Duras, claimed she bought her infamous felt hat. Today, it’s a great place to window shop, home to more silk and handicraft stores than hat shops, not to mention tailors. In a country where custom-made clothing is an affordable luxury, tailors abound. For one with panache and a 24-hour turnaround, duck into Tricia & Verona (39 Dong Du Street; 84-8-3824-4556; www.triciaandverona.com). This boutique and workshop is run by two sisters who have Anglicized their names to reflect their more Western sense of style — namely, more daring cuts. Summer dresses start at $34, men’s suits at $160. [Source: Emily Brady, New York Times, December 18, 2008]
Binh Tay Market (in Cholon at Tran Hung Dao Street, District 5, near the Cha Tam Church) has a lively atmosphere and lots of good buys. Emily Brady wrote in the New York Times: “For everything from fermented duck eggs to flip-flops, head to Binh Tay Market, a rambling market laid out like an Arab souk and far less touristy than the Ben Thanh Market downtown. Situated between Thap Muoi and Phan Van Khoe Streets, the market is divided into sections that contain everything one might need to run a household, from kitchenware, to cloth, to candied fruit. Pushy peddlers are almost nonexistent; some merchants even nap in hammocks between customers. Toward the back, you can grab lunch, like a tasty bowl of seafood noodle soup at one of the many stalls (18,000 dong) and listen to a rooster crow in the nearby butcher section (not for the squeamish). [Source: Emily Brady, New York Times, December 18, 2008]
Art Galleries: There are about a dozen first-rate art galleries scattered around town. Well known ones in the early 2000s included Gallery Saigon (5 Ton Duc Thang), in a garden near the waterfront; the Blue Space in the Art Museum (1 le Thi Hong Gmay Pho Duc Chinh Street), with works by young artists; Gallery of Tran Hau Tuan (14 Ly Chinh Thang), where the artist Tran Hau Tuan sells his own work; Phai Memory House (next to the Gallery of Tran Hau Tuan), dedicated to Bui Xuan Phai, a famous realist painter who died in 1988; and the Photographers's Association (122 Suong Nguyet Street)
Ho Chi Minh City is famous for its copyists who can do credible Rembrandts, da Vinces. Picassos, Monets and Van Goghs. The artist tend to congregate in the alleys of the central business district, around the Thanh Hoa Gallery on Le Loi Street. The artists dipslay their works of art and will paint any painting you give them. You can have changes and improvements made to great masterpieces. A credible Van Gogh cost about $50. Large works can cost several hundred dollars.
Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market (at the intersection of Le Loi Avenue, Ham Nghi Avenue, Tran Hung Dao Avenue and Le Lai Street, 700 meters south-west of the Rex Hotel) was situated near the Ben Nghe River Dike. After being moved many times, it is now standing in the center of the city where consumers can conveniently find all sorts of products. According to Vuong Hong Sen, author of "the book Saigon of the Past", in 1912, the French filled a pond, the Boresse, into a solid foundation of 12,000 square meters and built a market on it. The market was close to a landing stage (Ben) of the old city (Thanh), hence its name of Ben Thanh. The opening ceremony for the market in March 1914 was a big festive event.
Ben Thanh Market is housed in shedlike building with four entrances. At present, the front of Ben Thanh Market faces Quach Thi Trang Square; its rear faces Le Thanh Ton Street; its right, Phan Chu Trinh Street and its left, Phan Boi Chau Street. At all of its four sides, there are bustling trading shops. Ben Thanh Market is always loaded with varieties of goods, such as consumer goods, cakes and candies, food and foodstuff, and particularly high-quality fruit and vegetables.
R.W. Apple Jr. wrote in the New York Times, “By the door stand piles of rice from several provinces, some with large grains, some with small grains, some darker, some lighter, each with a wholly different aroma. Down the aisle are banks of vividly green herbs and vegetables, with their hyperintense Asian scents and tastes, stunningly fresh despite the lack of refrigeration because they arrive direct from their growers in the middle of the night. Many of the vegetables are Asian natives - bumpy bitter melons, lotus stems, long beans, banana flowers, luffa squashes and pungent Chinese celery. But others are European transplants - delicacies like baby cress, escarole, miniature artichokes and exquisite asparagus. [Source: R.W. Apple Jr., New York Times, September 5, 2003]
“Over there is a cauliflower the size of a basketball. Over here are mounds of delectable, unfamiliar fruit - enormous knobby durians, which smell like rotting cheese but taste like rich custard, and spiny little soursops, which yield a sweet-and-tart juice that makes an unforgettable sorbet, and lipstick-pink dragon fruit. Breadfruit. Jackfruit. Custard apples. Tamarind pods. On the other side of a partition are caged chickens and other fowl, squawking noisily, and all kinds of sea creatures - iced squid, crabs tied with red ropes, clams the size of silver dollars with ridged shells, carp swimming in basins and tiger prawns that look as ferocious as their namesakes, all overseen by a raucous corps of vendors in rubber boots.”
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.
Last updated August 2020