Saigon: Next Great Neighborhoods
The French, and Graham Greene, called it the Rue Catinat. Americans knew the boulevard as Tu Do, or Freedom; during the war it became a bawdy R-and-R haven for G.I.'s. In 1975 the Communists renamed the street Dong Khoi, or Uprising. Today developers—American, French, Russian, Japanese—are taking the name literally, as a half-dozen new office towers go up on or around Dong Khoi every year.
Saigon's District 1, the neighborhood that frames this avenue, is the heart of Asia's liveliest boomtown, and it's positively roaring. Cell phones are as common as conical hats. Real estate is through the roof. With uncannily cosmopolitan flair, natives and expatriates are filling the neighborhood with chic cafés, first-rate restaurants, lavish nightclubs. Things change at a manic pace: the monthly What's On guide has gone weekly.
Skyscrapers are forcing small businesses off Dong Khoi and onto the side streets. A few elegant colonial façades remain, but much of the architecture, where it's actually completed, is dull and graceless. The real life is in the boulevards, jammed nine-deep with mopeds; in the lush interior of a new boîte or dance club, hidden down an alley; in the wrinkled faces of the old cyclo drivers, shading their eyes under (counterfeit) Calvin Klein baseball caps.
Though things took off here a few years back, with pioneers like Q Bar and Apocalypse Now, it's only in the past year or so that Saigon has found a confident stride. There are still the inevitable comic moments—like the sight of the Vietnamese mariachi band, necks bent under giant sombreros, playing at the new Wild Horse Saloon; or those delicate mahogany carvings of army attack choppers at otherwise tasteful boutiques. But when Saigon's restaurants, shops, bars, and cafés get it right—and they do, with remarkable consistency—the experience is as thrilling and as satisfying as in any world-class city.
"I'm so glad to meet you tonight!" says the beaming waitress in the red silk ao dai as she shows you to your table at Vietnam House (93-95 Dong Khoi St.; 84-8/829-1623; dinner for two $25). The best classic Vietnamese food in Saigon has a setting to match: a lovely old shuttered house, one of the only remaining pre-war mansions on the main boulevard. A dulcimer player pings quietly in the corner; impeccably attired busboys align chopsticks on the tables. Belying the rather ordinary menu (fish cakes, prawn rolls, chicken with lemongrass), each dish is exceptionally well prepared, with a minimum of distraction, so the bright flavors come through.
Vietnam House's sister establishment, the funkier Lemongrass Restaurant (4 Nguyen Thiep St.; 84-8/ 822-0496; dinner for two $20), moved last year from Dong Khoi to narrow, trendy Nguyen Thiep. With its spare white-stucco interior and loft ceilings, this is the modern take on Vietnam House's colonial villa, filled with young Westerners smoking clove cigarettes. Seafood wins the most praise here, especially the whole crab in pepper sauce.
Just down the street, the staff at Augustin (10 Nguyen Thiep St.; 84-8/829-2941; dinner for two $25) is as haughty as those mythical Parisian waiters. This small bistro is French, dammit, with a cadre of regulars imported, like the foie gras, from la patrie. Copies of Impressionist paintings hang on the canary yellow walls, including a version of Renoir's Le Moulin de la Galette with an apparently Asian cast cavorting in boaters and hoopskirts. The French pop music manages to annoy every non-Gallic customer, and that's just fine with the maître d'. Still, lunch here is terrific, as old men linger over steak tartare, quiche, crusty baguettes, and much Sauvignon Blanc.
You expect Burroughs or Bowles to saunter in for an absinthe at Globo (6 Nguyen Thiep St.; 84-8/822-8855; dinner for two $30), a richly bohemian bar and restaurant next door to Lemongrass. Sit on stools fashioned from conga drums under Tunisian folk art, zebra-striped fans, and black-and-white jazz portraits. Listen to Gilberto Gil croon in Portuguese on the stereo, while the bartender murmurs in French and your neighbors swap apartment tips in Russian over clams gratiné. The atmosphere is ultra-civilized in the early evening, heated and sultry later at night when the bands come on.
Tan Nam (60-62 Dong Du St.; 84-8/829-8634; dinner for two $25) is one of several stylish new restaurants causing a stir on nearby Dong Du. The main floor, which opens onto the sidewalk, is at once refined and quirky—rust-toned walls and mounted wooden antlers speak more of Santa Fe, but fragrant lilies and cascading ferns bring the picture back to Indochina. Clay-pot dishes, brimming with noodles and broth, are the thing to order, though their spiciness can inspire delirium.
Unlike many of the Western-style restaurants here, La Camargue (16 Cao Ba Quat St.; 84-8/824-3148; dinner for two $50) knows that escargots go better with Charlie Parker than with Celine Dion. (Really, it's astounding how many nearly great dining rooms in Saigon are undone by grating sound tracks.) In a gorgeous thatched-roof villa, with a moonlit balcony surrounded by palms and frangipani, chef Billy Laurent aims high with his Continental-via-California cuisine. Among the standouts are a salad of smoked duck and foie gras, rack of lamb with mango sauce, and roasted salmon fillet served on spinach with hollandaise. You'll pay what you'd pay in New York, an expense more than justified by the sybaritic setting and expert service. Not to mention the men's-room door, marked by a wholly incongruous oil portrait of the Bee Gees' Barry Gibb.
A New York Times Magazine cover and a mention in Doonesbury haven't yet spoiled the scene at Q Bar (7 Lam Son Square; 84-8/829-1299), just a block down from La Camargue and still Saigon's top upscale nightspot after five years. Flush-faced expats in linen suits sip Patrón tequila in the low-lit cloisters of the bar or gather nine to a table on the terrace. The Q is also one of the rare bars where locals mix with the well-heeled foreign crowd—the Vietnamese, in fact, are usually the better dressed.
Shops along Dong Khoi itself are generally uninspiring (Tin-Tin serving trays, teakwood helicopters). An exception is Trang Fine Arts (45 Dong Khoi St.; 84-8/829-2536), notable for its collection of musical instruments: the chan, the tybo, and the bau are priced from $20 to $100. Along the sidewalk, look for antique cameras (often a good buy) as well as stamps and currency from colonial days. The more serene Le Thanh Ton, a street at the western edge of this neighborhood, has attracted several new boutiques, including M.G. (92C Le Thanh Ton St.; 84-8/822-6003), which sells handmade calligraphy sets, wooden bowls, and serving trays; and Made in Vietnam (26B Le Thanh Ton St.; 84-8/822-0841), carrying beautiful terra cotta and lacquerware.
It's maddeningly hard to find a decent silk shop, considering the proliferation of beautiful ao dais and dresses you see on local women. Natives consistently recommend Ben Thanh market, at the edge of District 1, where the effusive vendors have an immense selection. Most of the items on display are marred by gaudy embroidery; ask if you want to see simpler, more elegant designs. Ben Thanh is also an ideal spot for a snack, with plenty of pho (noodle) vendors and fruit stalls.
I couldn't find fresh durian at the market, but I did find durian ice cream, surprisingly good, at Dong Du Café (31 Dong Du St.; 84-8/822-2414), an airy pastel gelateria across from Tan Nam. I sipped sublime coffee (served in a tin filter, with condensed milk, of course) while watching lemon gelato drip onto a distracted American's laptop. We could have been in San Francisco, only in San Francisco a place like this would be playing Portishead, not Supertramp.
Next door is a splendid storefront épicerie, Sama (35 Dong Du St.; 84-8/822-4814; lunch for two $8), staffed by amiable young Vietnamese who prepare simple sandwiches on just-baked baguettes. A bona fide cheese counter holds a few dozen varieties and several pâtés; the old wooden shelves are stocked with French biscuits, wines, chocolates, jars of pesto and olives and artichokes, tins of caviar. The caviar goes fast.
One of the best new nightspots, right up the street, is Café Latin (25 Dong Du St.; 84-8/822-6363; dinner for two $20), a chic tapas bar that comes off like Barcelona minus a proofreader ($2 gets you a delicious plate of "grilled squit" and "Spanish olivers"). The formal restaurant upstairs serves a silky pumpkin soup and Norwegian salmon; but the crowd—young male consultants from the U.K. or Australia, each clutching the Asian Wall Street Journal and a stunning Vietnamese girlfriend—tends to linger at the bar. "Casual" here means they're still wearing crisp white oxford shirts and shiny Kenneth Coles, though the ties are loosened.
As a skinny waitress in an orange-sherbet miniskirt refills your Merlot, it's easy to forget you're in Vietnam—until, suddenly, the lights go out in the middle of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Power outages aren't infrequent in Saigon, even now. The night I was at Café Latin the blackout was business as usual: candles appeared and the place took on an illicit air, as if we were out past curfew. A curious chicken, clucking, wandered in through the open door of the bar, trailed by its embarrassed owner. She wrestled the bird into a gunnysack, then disappeared into the darkened street. Outside, a charcoal fire under a cauldron of pho was the only source of illumination, save for the occasional passing moped. When the house lights came on 20 minutes later, everyone stiffened slightly, squinting, and sighed.
For more on the best food in Saigon Vietnam, check out T+L's Guide to Restaurants in District 1.