The downtown area of Ho Chi Minh, still affectionately known as Saigon, is a unique only-in-Vietnam experience.
Once known as the “Paris of the East,” old Saigon was an exciting, cosmopolitan city in the days of French colonization (1887 to 1954). It had numerous reputations as a party town, a business and manufacturing hub and a beacon of high culture.
While Vietnam has evolved over the last 60 years, there are still glimpses of the old Saigon to see, especially at night, when the streets come to life with locals looking for a good time.
Follow our guide to explore this vibrant town after dark.
Browse the Night Markets
Night markets are an institution in Vietnam. Usually starting at 7 p.m., they are a favorite meeting spot for locals, who love to spend their evenings eating, drinking, shopping and chatting. You’ll make new friends if you hang around long enough.
Day or night, the city’s most famous shopping destination is Ben Thanh Market. While it’s not the biggest, it’s certainly one of the liveliest — brace yourself for crowds and come prepared to haggle. If bargaining isn’t your bag, you can just browse. The centrally located attraction is also a great place to try Vietnamese street food like steamed buns, banh mi sandwiches, cakes, fresh tropical fruit or a cold drink.
For something a little different, stop by the trendy Eco Box Container Market in the Tan Phu district. This one is open from 5 to 10 p.m. and is far more artistic than the other night markets. There aren’t as many food options here, but you can find unique T-shirts made by burgeoning local designers, accessories, beautiful sarongs, toys and souvenirs. Live music on a small stage adds to the vibrant ambiance.
If it’s local art you’re after, head for the galleries and boutiques around Dong Khoi Street. These venues are open until 9 or 10 p.m.
Try Vietnamese Food
Apart from the fantastic night market fare of Chinese steamed buns and banh mi, Saigon has some of the best French restaurants outside of Paris.
For the best of both worlds, head to Square One at Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Park Hyatt Saigon. Helmed by both French and Vietnamese chefs, the multicultural dining room offers everything from classic steak tartare and duck a l’orange to fiery clay pot black cod and wok-fried beef tenderloin. The food is just as colorful as the Vietnamese décor.
Of course, you can’t take a trip to Saigon and overlook the ultimate Vietnamese soul food: pho. While available on just about every street corner, the late-night favorite is Pho Le, which is always full of devotees who come for a steaming bowl of noodles and broth with fresh herbs, chiles and generous slices of beef.
Housed in a colonial-era opium manufacturing plant, The Refinery is enjoying a rebirth as a fine French bistro and wine bar. Step back in time with a glass of bordeaux and plate of pâté (or a decant crêpe, if you’re craving something sweet) from the comfort of the historic venue’s expansive patio.
See a Show
An icon of Ho Chi Mihn City, Saigon Opera House is worth seeing for the architecture alone. Built in 1898 in the style of the French Third Republic, it looks like it’s been plucked right from France — the building materials were even imported from the European nation.
With its crystal chandeliers, ornate façade and exquisite statues, the venue makes it easy to imagine a night out as it was a century ago. These days, the opera house offers all manners of Vietnamese theater and dance, from tribal culture performances to contemporary fine arts.
The most popular after-dinner beverage in Saigon is not a nightcap, but coffee. A national institution, Vietnamese coffee is served with a metal drip filter atop the cup and condensed milk — a unique combination of sweet and strong — served hot or iced.
It isn’t hard to find an authentic cup here. Look out for local café chains such as Trung Nguyen, where usual suspects like espresso and cappuccino are poured alongside more traditional options until 10 or 10:30 in the evening.
For something a little stronger (with a splash of spectacular views, to boot), try the elegant Rooftop Garden Bar at Rex Hotel Saigon. A former hot spot for war correspondents, the alfresco terrace now draws well-heeled locals and tourists alike for fantastic cocktails, such as the fruity Saigon Express or a traditional mojito.
Rest in Style
When it’s finally time to retreat, sleep in regal comfort at The Reverie Saigon, a hotel with an opulent Franco-Vietnamese feel and fabulous Saigon River vistas. Relax with an in-room soak or head to the spa for a detoxing session in the Himalayan salt steam room. Either way you decide to conclude your night, don’t miss the sumptuous breakfast spread (à la carte and buffet options) at the marble-clad Cafe Cardinal the next morning.