Saigon’s leafy streets, art deco delights and elegant colonial-era villas mean the city is easy on the eyes. But after dark, when splendid old buildings such as the Opera House and City Hall are spectacularly illuminated, the city is stunning in parts and atmospheric everywhere else.
While it’s fun just to wander about, a well organized evening of cocktail sipping, street food snacking, sightseeing by night, and smooth jazz, will ensure you don’t waste a moment.
Here’s our Saigon after dark itinerary, based on the best of our nighttime jaunts around Ho Chi Minh City:
Kickstart the evening with a strong Vietnamese coffee at one of Saigon’s many excellent cafés (see this post for a comprehensive guide), then head to the nearest hotel and ask the doorman to hail you a taxi…
5pm: The Deck
It’s a bit of a drive from downtown to the The Deck, a sleek, minimalist, waterside restaurant-cum-cocktail bar, but it’s worth it to sip a cilantro gimlet or two as the sun sets on the Saigon River, and the barges chuck by slowly, especially during happy hour. We also dined here on the modern fusion cuisine, and while we were disappointed with the food, we highly recommend The Deck for cocktails. Make sure you allow enough time to take in the late afternoon light and pastel shades of dusk; check sunset times with your hotel or phone the restaurant. A tip: The Deck is tricky to find, so make sure the hotel staff explain directions to the taxi driver or have a mobile phone handy. 38 Nguyen U Di, Thao Dien, An Phu, District 2; 84 (0) 8 3 744 6632.
6.30pm: Ben Thanh Night Market
While the stalls inside Ben Thanh Night Market have mostly closed by 6pm, on the street outside, running beside the market, eateries and stalls selling souvenir, crafts and cheap clothes are starting to set up for the night, and should be smoking and sizzling by the time you’re ready to snack on some delicious Vietnamese street food. Do a lap of the market, have a bite to eat, then negotiate with the cyclo drivers for an alfresco ride to your next destination, or simply take a dull old air conditioned taxi. A tip: the cyclo drivers and taxis that park directly outside the market will try to over-charge you; walk a block or so away from the market. Le Loi Street, at intersection with Tran Hung Dao and Ham Nghi, District 1.
7.30pm: Sightseeing by Cyclo a Night
Ask your cyclo driver to take you to Lam Son Square and to cruise directly by the City Hall on the way so you can take a snap. It’s stunningly illuminated at night. As is the Opera House, your next destination…
7.45pm: Q Bar at the Opera House
Q Bar was closed for renovation when we were in town but it was continually recommended to us. From what we understand there’s usually an alfresco bar with tables and chairs running along the exterior of the Opera House that are ideal for a quiet drink, while inside there’s a more serious bar that has a solid programme of good international DJs all year round. For now, sip something cold at an outside table while you take in the action of the busy interaction and revelers heading out to the bars and restaurants in this part of town. If it’s still closed, you could slip around the back and poke your head into the Park Hyatt’s cocktail bar 2 Lam Son, however, it was full of suits and the mood was sombre the few times we checked it out. 7 Lam Son Square, District 1. www.qbarsaigon.com
8.30pm: The Amber Room
Head to nearby Dong Du street, home to a handful of girlie bars (best-avoided) and another decent drinking spot to note for another evening, ZanZBar (#41). Slip in the door to #59 (there’s often a doorman at the entrance) and up the narrow stairs of the renovated shophouse to this chic little bar with an even tinier balcony. The liquid of choice here is bubbly, and there’s a long champagne list, but the cocktail list is alluring too, including perfect, potent martinis, best for sipping to the cool head-bobbing soundtrack. 59 Dong Du Street, Phuong Ben Nghe, District 1.
9.30pm: Sax’n Art
We hate backtracking as much as you do, but it was too early to send you to Sax’n Art after the market and transport in Saigon is cheap if you don’t feel like walking… so hightail it back to Le Loi, a couple of blocks from the Ben Thanh Night Market, to Sax’n Art. Depending on who is performing you could be in for some brilliant jazz at this club owned by Vietnamese saxophonist Tran Manh Tuan. Try to snag a seat on the long, curvy, banquette-like sofa right in front of the stage. 28 Le Loi Street, District 1.
There’s a restaurant upstairs that was highly regarded by people we met, but we like the dimly-lit ground-floor bar that gets packed with a fascinating mix of locals, expats and foreign travellers, many of them perched on a stool at the bar to gasbag with the bartenders. We took a table by the floor to ceiling windows, as the action on the street outside is easily as entertaining. The street is popular with Japanese businessmen and there is a row of restaurants and girlie bars opposite. The cocktails at Cepage, especially the martinis, were easily the best in the city. Ground floor, Lancaster Building, 22 Le Thanh Ton, District 1.
Up for more? Head back to Q Bar and hit the dance floor.