Culture · Things to do · Destinations
February 06, 2019 Words: Terry Elward

How to Enjoy Saigon Nightlife

Once the sun goes down, the Southeast Asian city lights up.

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Although Ho Chi Minh City is the official name of this sprawling metropolis, locals will tell you the downtown area is still affectionately known as Saigon. Once called the “Paris of the East,” old Saigon was an exciting, cosmopolitan city in the days of French colonization (from 1887 to 1954), with a reputation as a wild party town, an industrious manufacturing hub and a place for fine dining and high culture. Saigon was one of the few colonial cities in Asia where locals and Europeans were on relatively equal terms, which meant a beautiful fusion of East and West.

Vietnam is now still emerging from many years of communist austerity, but there are still glimpses of the old Saigon — which is at its most beautiful and most exciting after dark. This is a 24-hour city where the excitement takes place after business hours. Vietnamese like to enjoy their evening leisure time out of the home, and this is how you can join in:

Shop

Night markets are an institution in Vietnam. They usually start at 7 p.m. and are a major meeting point for locals, who love to spend their nights loafing around, eating, drinking, shopping and chatting. You’ll make new friends if you hang around long enough.

The most famous market, for both day and night, is Ben Thanh Market. It’s busy, extremely touristy and the vendors are pushy, but it’s favored by hardcore shoppers. Come prepared to haggle. Start at 50 percent of the asking price, as this is standard in Vietnam. Ben Thanh sells everything from clothing to accessories, food to souvenirs — absolutely everything.

For something a little different, try the Eco Box Container Market at 99 N1 Street, Son Ky. This one is open from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. and is far more hip than the other night markets. There isn’t as much to eat as the other markets, but you can find trendy T-shirts made by burgeoning local designers, along with accessories, beautiful sarongs, toys and souvenirs. Live entertainment is provided on the small stage — usually by musicians.

The markets are also a great place to get your watch repaired or your shoes shined. In addition to the markets, many art galleries and boutiques around Dong Khoi Street are open late, so pick up some local artwork if you’re so inclined.

Eat Saigon Pho

Apart from the fantastic night-market fare of Chinese steamed buns, spring rolls, fresh seafood and banh mi (French baguettes with meat and salad or pâté), Saigon has some of the most exquisite French restaurants outside of France. At 74 Hai Ba Trung Street, behind the Opera House, is an old opium refinery now put to good use as a restaurant facility. The inside courtyard is home to Delices, a beautiful French bistro. Try some traditional French cuisine such as homemade pâté, beef fillet, lamb or — the pièce de résistance — the Grand Marnier soufflé for dessert. Delices is like stepping back in time, a great place for a leisurely dinner.

It’s hard to visit Saigon and overlook the ultimate Vietnamese soul food: pho. It’s available on every street corner, but one late-night favorite is Pho Le, at 413-14 Nguyen Trai. Pho Le is always packed full of devotees who come for a steaming bowl of noodles and broth with fresh herbs, chili and generous slices of beef.

Sea

The Saigon Opera House, at 07 Long Truong Lam Son in District 1, is worth checking out even if you’re not a fan of the performing arts — simply to experience the breathtaking building itself. Built in 1898 in the style of the French Third Republic, this elaborate edifice looks like it’s been plucked out of Paris. Bedecked with crystal chandeliers, an ornate facade and exquisite statues, the materials of the building were all imported from France. One can imagine a night at the opera as it was 100 years ago.

These days, the Opera House runs Vietnamese theater and dance, showcasing tribal culture and contemporary Vietnamese fine arts. It’s well worth a visit; the performances are of high quality and tickets can be booked online.

Drink

The most popular after-dinner beverage in Saigon is not a nightcap, but a Vietnamese coffee. A national institution, sweet and strong Vietnamese coffee is served with a metal drip filter atop the cup and condensed milk inside. Hot or iced coffee shops abound — Vietnam has several of its own coffee chains, such as Trung Nguyen Coffee, because Starbucks just didn’t cut it for them. The usual suspects such as espresso and cappuccino are also on the menu, but why not go local?

For something a little stronger — and with a spectacular view — try the elegant Rooftop Garden Bar at Rex Hotel. It became a hot spot for war correspondents in the 1960s, and now well-heeled locals and tourists alike gather for fantastic cocktails such as the fruity Saigon Express or a traditional mojito.

Relax

Affordable luxury abounds in Vietnam, and this is specifically prevalent in the spas. Most salons, spas and massage parlors are open until late at night. The massages are very inexpensive, and while some of the local venues may not be glamorous, the massage rooms are safe and clean — these businesses thrive only on good reputation. Every five-star hotel has a spa with massages, pedicures, body scrubs and facials. For a late-night treatment that is both affordable and glam, try the fabulous Coco Care Spa, which is open till 10:30 p.m. and is housed in a renovated old shophouse with a beautiful interior right in the middle of town, at 148/9 Bui View in District 1. The 60-minute aromatherapy massages are only $12. Body scrubs and pedicures are also offered, along with a host of other pampering packages for both ladies and gents.

A woman sells vegetables at a market in Saigon
A cup of Vietnamese style coffee
A picture of the facade of the Rex Hotel in Saigon
A view of the rooftop garden and bar at the top of the Rex Hotel in Saigon
Saigon Night Market
A picture of bowls of Pho from Saigon