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Asia travel

Underground in Ho Chi Minh City: insider’s guide to the places to eat, drink, party and shop

Where to find the hidden restaurants, back alley bars, concealed clubs and more as we take you beyond the tourist haunts of a city that offers a fascinating mix of cultures and cuisines

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2016, 12:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 May, 2016, 12:57pm

If Paris is the city of light, Ho Chi Minh is a place of shadows. Tourists may be more familiar with its crowded centre and remnants of a debilitating war, but for locals there exists an underground world where anything is possible. Secret spaces in abandoned buildings, hidden rooftop restaurants, back-alley bars, and the endless street food stalls. Here, we pull back the curtain on the former Saigon, giving you an inside glimpse at a hidden Ho Chi Minh City.

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Ho Chi Minh is a fascinating mix of cultures, a place where fresh-faced returning Vietnamese and long-resident foreigners happily share the same soil. The best place to rub elbows with that mishmash blend? The Observatory (5 Nguyen Tat Thành, +84 8 3925 9415) – a dark, dingy, weekend-only club, situated appropriately right on Saigon Port. An ever-revolving mix of local and international DJs grace its smoky stages, and it’s one of the very few spots that keeps its concealed doors open till late.

Ho Chi Minh’s cafe culture is unrivalled, and thousands of makeshift coffee shops serve up the country’s jet-black, up-all-night blend. Ditch the popular spots and take a perilous journey to 14 Tôn That Dam, a half-abandoned colonial-era building that holds some of the city’s coolest cafes, each suited to individual personality types.

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Banksy is the obvious hipster of the bunch, a street-art inspired cafe where the colours are mismatched and the drinks equally quirky (think Oreo blends). Things is a homely cafe that feels like someone’s living room, complete with well-worn lounge chairs and a limited menu. And Mockingbird is somewhere in the middle, a ’60s-inspired cafe with soulful tunes and views overlooking the sprawling streets. Once you’ve got a buzz going, head to Snuffbox in the same building, a late-night smoky jazz club that mixes up some of the finest cocktails in the city.

Relaxed licensing laws and cheap rent makes Ho Chi Minh a maven of private kitchens. Secret Garden (Rooftop, 158 Pasteur, Ben Nghé, +84 90 990 46 21) isn’t easy to find – down a dark alleyway and then up a steep set of stairs – but you’re rewarded with a bright, airy rooftop restaurant that dishes out some of the city’s finest traditional Viet favourites. We particularly recommend the slow-cooked pork and spring rolls, each packed with TLC and priced at less than 100,000VND (HK$35).

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Ho Chi Minh’s haphazard mix of new and old buildings often mean that cramped alleyways are a frequent leftover – but they’re sometimes put to good use, as in The Narrow (63/1 Pasteur Street), a tiny bar hidden down a backstreet on famed Pasteur. It’s nothing more than a makeshift tin-hut bar and a few high tables dotted around, but with an authentic, friendly vibe and old-fashioned cocktails (Gimlet, Daiquiri) at just 40,000VND, there’s no better city-centre spot to feel truly in the mix.

Ho Chi Minh’s low-rise nature means the city holds some of the best rooftop bars in Asia. But their appeal soon wanes when you realise they’re teeming with rowdy expats and overpriced drinks. We prefer the chilled-out local vibe of Mary Jane’s The Bar (85 Nguyen Huu Cau, P. Tan Dinh), a 10-minute drive from the centre, but worth it for its sweeping views, relaxed atmosphere, simple drinks and friendly disposition of the many Vietnamese folk who frequent it.

Most cities would kill for a place like Saigon Outcast (188/1 Nguyen Van Huong, Thao Dien, saigonoutcast.com), a massive, multi-purpose artistic venue located right on the banks of the city’s river. There’s something for local artists to indulge in every day, from live music gigs to indie art exhibitions, flea markets to outdoor cinema showings, and plenty of weekend sessions lazing on the grass.

Saigon folk love their barbecue, and once the sun sets, it’s common to see huge groups of locals hunkering down in makeshift venues to grill meat and seafood alongside each other. It’s also one of the best ways to truly get in the HCM mix, and the 5Ku Station (27 Lê Thánh Tôn, Ben Nghé) guys have got the vibe down, a series of ever-changing pop-up restaurants of simple wooden tables, ice-cold beer and plenty of grilled goodies. There’s a permanent spot in District 1, but ask around for the latest pop-up.

There’s a bit of a fashion revolution going on in Vietnam, aided by high-quality local fabrics, foreign-educated Vietnamese designers and a sheer excess of creativity. 3A Station (3A Tôn Duc Thang, P. Ben Nghé) is the place to take it all in; three former warehouses that have been converted into a series of affordable galleries and shops for up-and-comers to showcase their pieces. Weekends see the best bargains, with regular flea markets, performances and shows. It’s kind of like what PMQ promised us to be.

Vietnam’s blend of Asian cuisine and French influences lends itself to some of the finest food in the region – and the best place to experience it all is right on the streets, far from the city centre’s tourist markets.

Van Kiep Street, in the north of the city, is probably the best stall-to-stall spot, with more than 50 plastic-stooled stands serving up hundreds of Viet specialties, including favourites pho, banh mi, banh xeo. Neighbouring Tran Khac Chân is less intense, but no less appealing, with grilled meat trolleys, juice stalls and our personal favourite, crab noodles. And fans of deep-sea flavours should head to Nguyen Thuong Hien – or as the locals call it, “Snail Street”, a catch-all term for every kind of seafood, including shrimp, crab and conch.

Getting there: numerous airlines fly non-stop from Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh City, including Vietnam Airlines, Cathay Pacific and United Airlines.

Staying there: you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to options to stay, from age-old colonial hotels to questionable backpacker hostels. Your best affordable bet is one of the quaint boutique hotels located smack-dab in the city centre, starting as low as HK$200 a night, such as Little Saigon Boutique Hotel (littlesaigon.com.vn) and Cinnamon Hotel (cinnamonhotel.net).

Alternatively, splash out for the Villa Song (villasong.com), a restored colonial mansion that’s located in the quiet riverside expat enclave of Thao Dien.