Coming up: my online travel writing class for Catapult in mid-April.

Guest post: Saigon

In this week’s installment of the Everthenomad guest post series, Liz Ledden of A Girl in Asia takes us for an exciting tour of Saigon, Vietnam’s largest city. Liz currently calls Saigon her home so you’re in expert hands of a local guide. Enjoy the article!

THE NEW FACE OF SAIGON

Saigon is not all bowls of pho, conical hats and roaring motorbikes. Sure, you’ll eat, see and hear each of these things in droves, but Saigon is a city shaking off the shackles of the past at a breakneck pace. It is now home to cool cafes, funky nightspots, sleek wine bars, international fine dining and amazing shopping spots that belie the Saigon of old. The city is forging ahead with relentless construction, and new places to eat and drink are constantly opening.

Saigon still manages to retain pockets of charm, though, in the form of French colonial buildings, quaint coffee shops and hidden alleys that are home to amazing food finds. You might spot a vintage Vespa or two amongst the shiny new Hondas cruising the streets – it’s this mix of old and new that gives Saigon its spirit. Some of my favourite places in Saigon sum up the city’s forging-forward mentality and ingenuity.

The city’s cafe scene is home to some Euro-style gems, with deli counters, freshly baked cakes and Lavazza and Illy coffees. Au Parc Cafe is set in a beautiful, high-ceilinged building with gorgeous tiles, wrought iron chairs and mosaic tiles, and a blackboard displaying the daily specials. The desserts are a definite highlight here, with their must-try item the insanely decadent ‘chocolate nemesis cake’. La Fenetre Soleil is another of Saigon’s standout cafes, with its French/vintage feel interior and extensive snack and drink menu. It also seamlessly combines a Japanese influence (try a bowl of edamame with your Vietnamese iced coffee!). It’s the kind of place you can lounge around all day.

There are also Vietnamese-style cafes at every turn, and these range from huge, multi-storied contemporary coffeehouses to tiny, family-run neighbourhood cafes with simple interiors and super-strong local coffee. The monolith-type cafes can be found in abundance near a roundabout named Ho Con Rua at the intersection of Pham Ngoc Thach and Tran Cao Vanh streets. The roundabout is a fascinating sight in itself with its towering concrete lily pad and pathways over a pond (very Asian kitsch!). As for the tiny, neighbourhood-style cafes, a centrally located favourite is a no-name, old-school Vietnamese coffee shop just around the corner from Dong Khoi Street at 24 Ho Huan Nghiep. Tiny in scale but big on retro sensibility, this cafe is the last of a dying breed along a rapidly gentrifying strip (it’s in the shadows of a Versace store and across from a construction site of a new 5-star hotel).

Saigon is definitely a city for food-lovers as well as caffeine fiends – there are great meals to be had from the variations of Vietnamese cuisine through to Middle Eastern, French, Spanish, Japanese and more. Banh mi (a Vietnamese baguette filled with meat, salad, fresh herbs and chilli) is a delicious snack or lunch food to try; some of my favourite places for a quick fix include Banh Mi Bistro on Vo Thi Sau and King Baguetteria on Tran Quang Khai (where the banh mi sells for less than US$1!). The shredded chicken is always a winner in my humble opinion, but most banh mi places will also feature options like tuna, pork and sometimes scary-looking pâté. Across the road from King Baguetteria, a street vendor can often be found selling banh mi from a cart at half that price again, specialising in a tasty grilled pork filling.

To sample an assortment of Vietnamese rolls like pork and prawn wrapped in fresh rice paper, or others wrapped in mustard leaves, I love TIB Express, located across the road from Ben Thanh Market. For something a little more upmarket and for a wider range of Vietnamese dishes, Hoa Tuc in the Refinery grounds is a favourite. The setting is stylish with its wall decals and elegant decor, and the food all beautifully presented and flavourful. Their fresh salads (like banana flower and lotus seed) are outstanding.

When craving a Japanese food fix, I head to K Cafe on Hai Ba Trung for the freshest sashimi. Despite its decidedly non-Japanese sounding name, K Cafe is a stalwart amongst the city’s Japanese expat dining scene. I also head to Ty Coz for hearty French cuisine at almost too cheap to be true prices, Byblos for tasty Lebanese and the Mosque on Dong Du Street for delicious curries and Malaysian-style fried chicken.

Drinking options in Saigon range from the humble bia hoi (read: home brewed beer joint) to backpacker joints and the flashiest of cocktail bars. My taste in Saigon bars is skewed towards the latter, so when the mood for a ginger mojito or lychee martini strikes, I head to Q Bar, Amber Room or Cepage. Cute wine bar Qing is another favourite, along with QD Bar & Lounge (see photo) – a brand-new stylish wine bar with a sophisticated atmosphere.

Shopping is a favourite pastime of Saigonese and Saigon visitors alike – and the city definitely caters to those with a wide range of tastes and budgets. While chain stores and high end designer brands are readily available in Saigon these days, it’s the more unique offerings I’m drawn to. One is a handbag emporium, Ipa-Nima, featuring bags, purses and wallets designed by a chic ex-lawyer. New collections come out each season, and the bags are stunningly unique creations featuring leather, embroidery, ribbon, sequins and more in a rainbow of colours. There are boutiques in both Saigon and Hanoi, and now in various locations around the world, such is the label’s success.

For contemporary Vietnamese designed fashion, Valenciani is a stylish boutique with a focus on glam cocktail frocks, while for gorgeous baby and kids wear featuring Vietnam’s famous embroidery, Ninh Khuong (with various branches including Le Loi and Dong Khoi) is simply gorgeous.

One of the best bits about Saigon is that there’s always something new happening – a bar opening here, a new shop there, yet along with all the changes the city manages to retain its Vietnamese flavour. And did I mention the amazing food?!

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