The New Look of Saigon, Vietnam
In less than a decade, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, has transformed itself into Asia’s most dynamic boomtown—the epitome of the Wild, Wild East. But in its mad dash to the future, will the city still called Saigon make room for its past?
It was, for years, a prisoner of memory—memories of colonialism, the war, and the failures of the Communist era. Through the final quarter of the 20th century, Ho Chi Minh City was stuck in the past. Then again, so were the rest of us. Travelers came expressly to soak up its history, both distant and recent. That was certainly my motivation when I first visited, in 1997, alongside a scattering of backpackers and curious baby boomers. To us, Saigon then felt like one big After. So we swooned over villas built by the French, inhaled jasmine incense at century-old pagodas, bought U.S. Army dog tags for souvenirs at Dan Sinh Market. (Never mind that the dog tags were fake.) We walked banyan-shrouded streets imagining what it must have been like thirty, eighty, two hundred years ago. And the city indulged us: harkening ever backward in its architecture and iconography, fulfilling its role as our time capsule. Hell, we even still called it Saigon. Everyone who lives here still does.
Flash forward to 2008, and that frustrated town held hostage by history has become a vibrant cosmopolis, caught in the throes of what’s next. So much attention and energy is being put toward an idealized future that it’s increasingly hard to see Saigon in the present tense.
Vietnam’s reawakening began, fitfully, in the mid 1980’s, with a series of market-based reforms known as doi moi (renewal), but only hit its stride in the new millennium, during which the economy has kept up an extraordinary 7.5 percent growth rate. This year it outpaced India, Russia, and China to become the world’s top-ranked emerging retail market. Once among Asia’s poorest nations, Vietnam will soon be a middle-income country. It’s definitely spending like one: high-end boutiques and restaurants no longer cater only to tourists (although tourism is one of the country’s biggest industries) but to trend-conscious, status-hungry Vietnamese. A case of irrational exuberance?Possibly: this year, inflation hit 25 percent, stocks took a tumble, and an overheated real estate market began to cool. Yet despite the alarming signs, a boomtown swagger endures in Vietnam’s financial capital.
Saigon has always been a city of entrepreneurs, hucksters, and short-term profiteers, where shops charge their own customers for parking and seemingly every conversation—whether among checkout girls or Party bureaucrats—revolves around money. (People in Hanoi would have you believe all their café talk is about art and poetry, which isn’t true, but it’s a useful indicator of priorities.) The difference now is the scale of the ambitions. Saigon has been riding a huge wave of foreign investment and frenzied property speculation, and all that lucre is altering the face of the city. With farmers and other country dwellers pouring in for new manufacturing jobs, Saigon’s population has swollen from 6 to 8 million in just eight years. Traffic is certifiably crazy—though the city’s first subway system, scheduled to open in 2014, may provide some relief. Local incomes have risen dramatically (but not as quickly as the price of rice); rents have gone through the roof; and new satellite cities are materializing out of the swamps. Change is marching at a furious pace.
If all this comes as a shock to you, you’re not alone. Americans are largely unaware of how much Vietnam has changed since 1975, focusing instead on our common history. Search the New York Times website for the keyword “Vietnam,” and in an average week about 15 articles pop up. Guess how many make reference only to the war—usually in a comparison with Iraq—and how many are about the country today?Twelve and three, respectively.
In Vietnam, the papers are concerned less with what’s already happened than with what’s yet to come. (A typical front page will have at least one artist’s rendering of some sparkling future skyscraper.) Besides, the current generation sees little use for history—a 2008 poll found that 80 percent of Vietnamese students have no interest in the subject. “Aside from discussing some lyrics by Trinh Cong Son [the 1960’s singer known for his poignant anti-war ballads], I haven’t talked about the war once since moving here,” says Hawkins Pham, a Vietnamese-American who works with Indochina Land, a Saigon-based real estate investment fund. This isn’t surprising: two-thirds of Vietnam’s population was born after 1975. “There’s a sense of exasperation among young Vietnamese when it comes to the war,” says Suzie Meiklejohn, a British expat and magazine editor in Saigon. “They’re sick of hearing about it. For anyone under 30 the attitude is, Let’s move on.”
“Moving on” appears to be Saigon’s mandate. I spent six months here in 1998, which might as well be a century ago. Of my life then, almost nothing remains. A restaurant used to be over there, now it’s a Segway rental shop. Businesses shut down without warning, buildings disappear overnight. Saigon exists in permanent flux. Seldom back then did one encounter an actual car, only motorbikes and jingling bicycles. This spring I saw a canary-yellow Porsche cruising Dong Khoi Street. It could have been a Javanese rhino: What the hell was it doing there?The driver was Vietnamese and looked about 20.
Ah, yes, Dong Khoi Street. If there’s a better—or worse—symbol of Saigon’s transformation, please don’t tell me about it. This slender promenade, running from Notre Dame Cathedral to the river, was known to the French as Rue Catinat. Its dozen sun-dappled blocks used to be lined with modestly scaled buildings, their storefronts open to the sidewalk. Here were the favored haunts of colonial society: Café Brodard, a fixture since 1948, and the Continental, Grand, and Majestic hotels.
Today Dong Khoi is lost beneath a forest of slablike high-rises entirely out of scale with its intimate proportions. Hardly any sunlight reaches the street. The newer shops (Gucci, Louis Vuitton) are hermetically sealed and bear no relation to the sidewalk. Across from the Grand Hotel will soon stand a 43-story tower called Times Square that, judging from the billboards, will be populated exclusively by Caucasians. Oh, and Café Brodard?Now an outpost of the U.S.–based Gloria Jean’s coffee bar chain. Troi oi! as the Vietnamese say. Good lord!
At its eastern end, Dong Khoi meets the banks of the Saigon River. On the opposite shore lies what looks like swampland fringed with jungle. Welcome to the future downtown. Central Saigon is already one of the densest places on earth, yet just outside it are vast swaths of unsettled space. So, onward across the river. High-rise development will be concentrated here; a tunnel and a pedestrian bridge will connect the “new downtown” with the old. Developing the 1,600-acre site, known as the “Thu Thiem New Urban Area,” will take another 15 years. But since Thu Thiem rests on flood-prone marshland, the ground level must first be raised by six feet.
Reclamation projects like this are under way all over, as Saigon pushes farther and farther beyond its natural boundaries. Such development is taking a heavy environmental toll: hundreds of acres of ponds, canals, and rivers have been filled in. Experts have warned that the pace of construction threatens to suffocate the city.
Let me say, lest you get the wrong idea, that I adore Saigon, even now. Few cities can match its youthful spirit, its unpredictability, or its extraordinary food and nightlife, which range across all levels of formality and cost. Any decent city will have a few good high-end restaurants, but only a great city can sustain a thriving street-food scene as well. I’ve spent evenings sipping Shiraz at jazzy candlelit boîtes and nights drinking bia hoi (draft beer) at raucous joints with plastic stools along the curb, and I can’t decide which is more fun. Money is remaking much of Saigon, but even in the face of globalization and gentrification, the city keeps a refreshingly democratic vibe.
“Saigon is not pretty like Hanoi or Hoi An,” says Luc Lejeune, who co-owns the chic Temple Club restaurant. “But it’s always had a very strong character, in its street life and its people.” A former lawyer who grew up in Provence, Lejeune moved to Vietnam in 1991, settling in Hanoi. He first visited Saigon the following spring. “The winters up north—ugh, all this gray,” he recalls. “Then I came south and found this explosion of color. It reminded me of Marseilles when I was a kid—the same atmosphere, the same light.”
Saigon’s patchwork cityscape may not be traditionally pretty, but it contains a remarkable diversity of architecture—the legacy of so many foreign occupations, not to mention Vietnam’s highly syncretistic culture. (The Cao Dai religion, a homegrown mix of Catholicism, Taoism, and animism, counts Pericles, Sun Yat-sen, and Victor Hugo among its patron saints.) Every block of the city shows off a dizzying blend of influences: squat Chinese godowns, Art Deco cafés, Modernist apartment blocks, Brutalist police stations, and not least, the iconic “tube houses.” These are often no more than 12 feet wide (owners were taxed according to width of frontage) but can rise a dozen stories, their skinny frames stretched upward like Giacometti sculptures, painted in flamboyant pastels and layered with all manner of decorative elements—Palladian to constructivist, Belle Époque to Miami Deco. For all their borrowing, such assemblages are the closest Saigon has to a vernacular style.
Finally, there are the colonial follies that earned Saigon the sobriquet “the Paris of the East.” The city’s stock may not match Hanoi’s, but some fine examples remain: the rococo Hôtel de Ville, the moody Fine Arts Museum, the magnificent Archbishop’s Residence. The French-built residential villas, meanwhile, are paragons of green living from a time before the term existed: generously scaled windows and doorways provide natural air-conditioning, letting in breezes cooled by surrounding vegetation. Walking around the city one grows accustomed to the whir and sputter of A/C units; what’s striking about the villas is the silence that attends them.
Some villas have been reborn as restaurants, some restored as houses for the rich. Others are losing battles with the elements, indifference, and the mad race of development. (Preservation is hard to embrace when developers are offering $1,000 per square foot.) The sobering fact is that Saigon’s historic cityscape is receding—replaced or overshadowed by glass-and-steel towers. And as any gift-shop clerk can tell you, it’s not glass-and-steel towers that sell the postcards.
Right, postcards. Vietnam ranks first in projected tourism growth in Southeast Asia, and fourth worldwide (after India, China, and Libya). Last year foreign arrivals jumped by 16 percent to 4.2 million—and 2.7 million of those visitors came to Saigon. So how do tourists figure into the city’s agenda?Based on recent developments, not as much as they’d hope. Officials are frantic to lure business travelers with corporate hotels and conference centers. They pay lip service to leisure travel, but miss much of the point. The very things that have drawn so many visitors to Saigon—its historic architecture, vibrant street life, and singular sense of place—are precisely what is already being lost.
Consider Ton That Thiep Street, one of the most appealing lanes in Saigon and a favorite of foreign travelers: three tree-shaded blocks of quirky tube houses and colonial-era shop-houses. On one corner stands the Sri Thendayutthapani Temple, topped by a colorful gopuram bedecked with Hindu gods and goddesses. Across the street is a row of cool fashion and home-design boutiques. And at the heart of the block, the aforementioned Temple Club, all polished lacquer, palisander, and opium-den screens. In Vietnam, restaurants with incandescent lighting generally serve dull food, while fluorescent-lit joints with toilet-paper dispensers for napkins turn out the tastiest cooking. (This shall be known as the Inverse Relation of Atmosphere to Authenticity.) However, said rule does not apply to the Temple Club, whose interiors and food are both fabulous.
Before Luc Lejeune opened Temple Club in 2000, Ton That Thiep was decidedly down-market—“just shops selling fridges and videos,” Lejeune says. “Everyone told us we were crazy to open here.” Now the street is a Saigon institution. But maybe not for long. Rumors are flying that the city has earmarked the block for redevelopment. Everything but the Hindu temple, it’s said, will be knocked down and cleared away to make room for…offices?condos?a Porsche dealership?No one can say what will happen, or when.
One thing you could never find in this town a decade ago: a decent margarita. Whether you wanted one is another question—but you can now get a fine rendition at Cantina Central, a Mexican place run by an American and three French expatriates. Loosened restrictions on investment and property ownership have encouraged more foreigners to do business and even settle in Vietnam. (Current estimates have 80,000 expats living here.) Indeed, Saigon now has a restaurant for every nationality. Singaporeans get a chicken-rice fix at the Red Dot; Danes find smørrebrød at Storm P; Canadians head to Le Pub for poutine.
But it is the returning Viet Kieu—“overseas Vietnamese”—who are the salient foreign influence. Some were born in Vietnam and left as children; others were born abroad, in the States, France, England, Australia. Some learned Vietnamese from their parents; some hardly speak a word. After decades of being regarded with suspicion by the government, Viet Kieu are now welcomed more readily. They are no longer categorized with all other foreign visitors when applying for visas, and are finally allowed to own property here. The economy has lured more Viet Kieu to Saigon of late, and they’re bringing with them global styles and trends—which in turn are embraced by young Vietnamese.
“Our clientele is half Vietnamese and Viet Kieu, half travelers and expats,” says Bien Nguyen, the owner of Xu Restaurant Lounge, where local twentysomethings come to drink espresso martinis and snack on tuna-tartare pizzas. “It’s the [native] Vietnamese as much as foreigners who drive the lifestyle market nowadays.” Nguyen, born in Perth to Vietnamese parents, moved to Saigon in 2005. He opened Xu in 2006, and this year, Bun Bo Xu, a casual joint specializing in bun bo Hue, the spicy noodle soup customarily found at humble sidewalk stalls. Nguyen’s version is equally delicious and twice as expensive, but dished up in a polished storefront with smart wooden tables. Bun Bo Xu is quite the hit among the city’s youth, who prefer their street food served indoors with a side order of dance pop.
Down the street at Xu, Nguyen has just added a swank new bar—despite rumors that this whole block, like the one around Temple Club, is slated for demolition. A developer plans to erect a retail and office complex on the site, though a timetable has not been set. “If I get three more years I’ll be happy,” Nguyen says with a shrug. “I’ve been open two years already.” In Saigon that qualifies as a pretty long time.
“Everything is so transient here,” says my friend Thuy Mong Do, who owns a downtown spa called Glow. Thuy’s Vietnamese parents met in Laos, where Thuy was born; in 1975 her family left Vientiane for Colorado. She’s been in Saigon since 2000, and lives with her Scottish boyfriend, Ro, in a walk-up close to downtown. But their landlord may not renew their lease, so they’re considering a move to the suburbs. One Saturday I accompany them on an apartment hunt.
Twenty minutes by motorbike from central Saigon, Phu My Hung six years ago was mainly bogs and fishing villages. It’s now an ultramodern live/work/play enclave for Saigon’s burgeoning middle class, complete with lawn sprinklers, speed bumps, golf courses, and man-made lakes. The broad boulevards are lined with fitness clubs, Vietnamese fast-food chains, and the occasional Korean primary school. One still encounters a fair number of pedestrians, but no cyclo-rickshaws, and definitely no sidewalk barber stands.
“I like it out here,” says Thuy, who is probably just relieved to breathe fresh air again. “The planning is sensible, and you can walk and not look foolish.” (Right then a jogger passes, chirping “Guten Tag!”) Prices, however, are rising fast. Three-bedrooms sell for as much as $750,000; the unit Thuy and Ro are considering rents for $1,800 a month.
It turns out to be too small, so we give up the search for now and reemerge into the stifling afternoon heat. Across the road flows a moss-green canal, and across the canal we can see Vietnam, the old Vietnam: wooden huts on stilts, dugout canoes, fishermen wearing conical hats. They drag their nets silently through the water, appearing not to notice the skyscrapers looming behind them.
Back on the highway we pass more billboards for shiny new apartment towers—only the families in these renderings aren’t Westerners, they’re Vietnamese. Blissed-out mother does yoga on balcony; happy father holds baby up to sky-blue sky. The Vietnamese ad copy reads Experience Singapore in Saigon!
And there, people, is the scary part. Saigon wants to be Singapore. Every Southeast Asian city wants to be Singapore. For God’s sake, why?Such a stultifying, bloodless place! Sterile as a shopping mall! It is a shopping mall! But of course that’s Singapore’s appeal: it is the antithesis of Saigon and Bangkok and Jakarta and Manila—the tranquil to their tumult, the method to their madness, the future to their past. And Saigon sure is starting to look more like Singapore, with those innumerable coffee bars, food courts jammed with teenagers, and trash cans shaped like baby pandas. A proposal has been floated to relocate most of the downtown bars to a designated “entertainment area” across the canal, à la Singapore’s Boat Quay. Meanwhile, a citywide beautification campaign is under way, as local authorities—who designated 2008 “The Year of Civilized Lifestyle”—attempt to crack down on littering, swearing, public urination, traffic jams, and inappropriate dress. (But not chewing gum. Not yet.) The campaign is a “very top-down sort of tutelage” that’s typical of the government, says Hawkins Pham, who wonders how successful it will be. “Singapore is an enviable model, but it has very little street culture. In Vietnam, everything happens on the pavement. People use the sidewalk as their kitchen and their living room. I can’t imagine that changing.”
In 1998 one could walk down Le Duan Boulevard and gaze upon the shell of the former U.S. Embassy. The forbidding concrete grillwork and infamous rooftop helipad were still intact. I used to pass it twice a week—my favorite noodle joint was around the corner—and met many an American tourist gawking at the embassy gates. Later that year the building was torn down (surprise!) and replaced by the far less imposing U.S. consulate next door.
In those days history was still close enough to touch. A French expat I knew attended a reception honoring Vo Nguyen Giap, the legendary commander of the Viet Minh and architect of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. “And I had dinner with him!” my friend told me, incredulous. “If my grandfather had known I was having dinner with General Giap, he’d have killed me!”
That proximity to the past, notes Luc Lejeune, was exactly what people came for. “They came because of the references, the remnants of history. Whereas you didn’t need references to travel in, say, Thailand.” Why, then, do they come now?Saigon is no longer so cheap, which was part of its appeal before. Nor is it the quaint “land out of time” it was even a decade ago. These days few women wear the traditional ao dai tunic-and-trousers combo other than hotel clerks and restaurant hostesses, who only do so for tourists. Then again, today’s visitors—at least those under 35—seem more interested in Saigon’s present. They’re here for edgy fashion, for stylish restaurants and sultry nightclubs, for the Norman Foster skyscraper set to rise downtown.
I suppose I was lucky to get to Saigon when I did. Looking back, however, I was clearly mistaken—I and all my fellow travelers who came believing that whatever could happen here already had.
When to Go
The city is best between November and March, when temperatures range between 87 and 92 degrees. April to October can be uncomfortably hot and often rainy.
Fly to Saigon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) via Taipei from San Francisco or Los Angeles on Vietnam Airlines, which partners with American Airlines. Or fly to Hong Kong (nonstop from several U.S. cities), then connect to Saigon on Cathay Pacific, United, or Vietnam Airlines.
Where to Stay
Runner-up to the Park Hyatt Saigon (directly across the square) for the title of the city’s top hotel. 19 Lam Son Square; 84-8/823-4999; caravellehotel.com; doubles from $270.
A 1925 landmark where the riverfront location and colonial details compensate for sometimes halting service. 1 Dong Khoi St.; 84-8/829-5517; majesticsaigon.com.vn; doubles from $175.
The obvious choice, if you’re willing to pay, with two stellar restaurants, a fine spa, an enviable site, and assured service. 2 Lam Son Square; 888/591-1234 or 84-8/824-1234; hyatt.com; doubles from $320.
Where to Eat & Drink
A fantasia of white leather and Lucite copped from Philippe Starck, offering soursop smoothies, lattes, and a Sade sound track. A favorite of young Vietnamese. Grand View Building 3, Nguyen Duc Canh, Phu My Hung, District 7; 84-8/412-2178; also at Saigon Centre, 65 Le Loi Blvd.; 84-8/821-4958; snacks for two $10.
51 Ton That Thiep St.; 84-8/914-4697; dinner for two $20.
Open-air barbecue and beer garden where patrons grill strips of tangy marinated beef—bo tung xeo—on tabletop braziers. 81 Ly Tu Trong St.; 84-8/825-1330; dinner for two $8.
Vietnam’s national dish—a rich beef consommé spiked with herbs and spices and laced with noodles—gets the fast-food treatment at this popular chain, with surprisingly fine results. Follow the Vietnamese and go for breakfast. 5 Nguyen Thiep St., and many other locations around the city; 84-8/822-6278; lunch for two $4.
A brilliant concept: former street-food vendors cook dozens of classic dishes—including muc nuong (grilled squid with chili sauce) and bun cha gio (rice vermicelli topped with fresh herbs and crispy spring rolls)—but with table service in a shaded courtyard. 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St.; 84-8/825-7179; dinner for two $16.
Streetside joint with metal tables, plastic chairs, and the very best crab in town. Order cha gio cua (crab spring rolls), mien xao cua be (cassava noodles sautéed with mushrooms and crabmeat), and, in season, deep-fried soft-shell crab with sweet chili sauce. 84 Dinh Tien Hoang St.; 84-8/910-1062; lunch for two $11.
Don’t miss the mi quang soup. 29-31 Ton That Thiep St.; 84-8/829-9244; dinner for two $45.
71-75 Hai Ba Trung St.; 84-8/824-8468; dinner for two $70.
For more on best food in Saigon, Vietnam, check out T+L's Guide to Restaurants in District 1