Sight Unseen in Saigon

With its landmark heritage buildings, and now shimmering skyscrapers, Dong Khoi Street is undoubtedly Saigon’s most prestigious address. But it’s the drag’s more inconspicuous charms, squirrelled away in century-old apartment blocks, that continually coax Connla Stokes to the area.

Feb 19, 2019

By Connla Stokes.

1. THE CATINAT BUILDING
Between Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Opera House, you’ll find the Catinat Building—an evocative, Art-Deco building that once hosted Cochinchina’s leading French entrepreneurs. In more recent times, a wave of Vietnamese millennials has taken over, room by room, transforming this striking heritage site into a five-floor emporium filled with fashion boutiques and quirky cafés. Wander and browse freely after grabbing lunch at Bong Cai Xanh (fb.com/bongcaixanhcafe) or an iced coffee at the kitschy Công Cà Phê (congcaphe.com), literally, “Communist Café.” Entrance at 26 Ly Tu Trong.

2. RED DOOR CAFE
Duck through the art arcade at 151 Dong Khoi (never mind the cheap knickknacks and ersatz Klimts), head down the hallway and turn right, then walk up to the third floor to find Red Door, where a discerning crowd of coffee lovers confabulates over cold brews and drip pours. The Saigonese owner —who was formerly a biochemist in the U.S.— curates an ever rotating selection of single-origin roasts from the world over while adorning his walls with the work of contemporary artists. Back on ground level, you can dig into a bowl of bun thit nuong (vermicelli noodles) at a 60-year-old no-name institution behind the parked bikes. fb.com/reddoorspace.saigon; coffee from VND65,000.

3. SAKE CENTRAL
Wander up the well-lit staircase at 59 Dong Du to find this modern haven of sake and small plates with a shared-table concept. Like the original Hong Kong flagship, there are no less than 30 varietals of sake on offer, by the glass or a 180-milliliter tokkuri, if you’re not eyeing the whole bottle. Unsure of navigating the menu? Order omakase and summon sommelier Jesse Selvagn to advise on pairings. fb.com/sakecentralsaigon; sake flight VND900,000; omakase menu VND1,000,000.

4. BANH DA CUA DI LY
The interior might be rather sleek and modern but you’re coming for the best of Haiphong’s street-food scene at this family-run restaurant up the stairs at 103 Dong Khoi. The signature dish is banh da cua, a noodle soup with pappardelle- wide, brown noodles served with river-crab patties and a plethora of tasty morsels thrown in. But it’s also worth sharing a serving of banh cuon nhan thit (steamed rice-flour crêpes) and a plate of Haiphong banh mi (crunchy breadsticks filled with pâté). fb.com/banhdacuadily; mains from VND69,000.

5. BANN BAR & CUISINE
Downtown’s artsiest little cocktail bar is an eclectic affair. You might catch a stand-up comedy act, live band, or simply a DJ playing mellow electronica melodies on the higher, seventh floor—that’s also the ideal spot to enjoy sundowners with a cooling breeze coming off the Saigon river. Downstairs, things are simpler. Prop up the stylish bar, where the mixologists make a mean Blood and Sand. Or for a thirst quencher, try the Sacred Fire ale by Heart of Darkness, a local craft brewery. fb.com/bannbarsaigon; drinks from VND180,000.

6. THE MYST DONG KHOI
With its whiter-than-white façade, hanging plants and asymmetrical windows, the Myst has been a breath of fresh air for Saigon’s ever-rising, but rather generic, skyline since opening in 2017. There’s an equally singular feel to the eccentric yet elegant interiors that merge a cornucopia of lost artefacts, collectibles and aged handicrafts, all of which pay tribute to the mercurial history of Saigon. Bonus: every room features a balcony with a spa-bath (hence the hanging plants— they’re curtains). themystdongkhoihotel.com; doubles from US$195.

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