Depending on which way you look at it, District 1 (or Quan 1 to locals) is either the most interesting area of Saigon, or the least interesting area of Saigon; it’s all about how you choose to spend your time.
If you’re a tourist, the chances are you’ll spend a lot of your time in and around district 1 as this is where most of the ‘attractions’ are, whereas if you’re an expat, or someone who’s been in the city for more than a week or two, you’ll probably only head here for specific reasons. So, always wanting to show both sides of an argument, I’ll give my opinions on why you should, or shouldn’t, spend too much time in the central district.
District 1 has the most diverse range of food and drink…
Foodies rejoice! Along with districts 2 and 7, District 1 offers more than just your average selection of foods to try; needless to say, Pho is an integral part of Vietnamese cuisine (and is probably the food I eat the most at the moment), but occasionally it’s nice to treat yourself to something a little more familiar or, haply, something new entirely. Whether you miss the taste of a full English breakfast, crave a Mediterranean dish, want to be adventurous with Japanese food, or simply find it difficult to resist the pull of a juicy steak; you won’t be left feeling hungry or disappointed. Of course, if you’re a sucker for plant life, there are more than enough places to find vegetarian and vegan foods; in fact some of the nicest restaurants cater almost entirely for people of the herbivore persuasion.
Naturally, with food comes drink. Now, I’m not going to dwell on coffee here, mainly because, as many of you may know, Saigon (and Vietnam as a whole) is rife with coffee shops of varying degrees of quality, from your typical, overly priced, obesity provoking Starbucks, to your local shops churning out chemically based black or milk ice coffees (caphe da or caphe sua da respectively).
In most districts you will often see this enduring part of Vietnamese culture but, along with the other traditional practices (like people sitting on ruler high stools, leaning over to enjoy piping hot Pho with a few bottles of local beer), district 1 is perhaps not the place to go and is a bit too ‘clean’.
Yes, D1 has a few micro breweries that serve excellent (but costly) ales, and there are few half decent coffee and smoothie shops that don’t want to be as brash as US imports, but the sense of Vietnamese character is often, but not always, lost in these places; if you want to sit with locals and enjoy traditional food and drink, then you need to go further out from the centre.
There are foreigners everywhere…
I don’t tend to spend too much time with other expats or tourists, not for any reason other than that I simply don’t need to; I tend to do most things alone and prefer to keep it that way. However, if you don’t like the idea of drinking or eating alone, as most people don’t, then you’ll have no problem meeting a few fellow travellers or new expats out and about in D1 ( the easiest way to get your bearings in the city is by starting from the centre).
The city centre is, among other things, a mad medley of briefcase wielding businessmen, cheap shirt wearing teachers, and flip flop flapping tourists desperately trying to find some form of cover from the sweat inducing heat; the truth is that it can be a great place to people watch…
Places like Nguyen Hue, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Bitexco building attract people to the city’s core; the relatively modern architecture (compared to the very old 60’s style apartment blocks and French colonial buildings), and clean streets are a huge change of scenery from most other districts, and the high number of foreigners is often appealing to locals (many young folk enjoy talking to foreign people, mainly to practise their English).
One place where not quite as many locals venture is a street called Bui Vien; this is the central strip of ‘the backpacker area’ of town and is trimmed out with countless bars, restaurants, ‘massage’ parlours, and shops. Here is where most foreigners stay while passing through the city; it’s noisy, it’s busy, it’s cheap and the food, generally, is poor.
However, it is a good place to go every now and again for a few drinks, some half decent grub, and to have a vaguely good time (the comparison between the daytime and nighttime on this street is remarkable). I used to spend a lot of time on this street when I first arrived in Saigon but, as I’ve explored more of the city and found new interests, I rarely venture down the almost never sleeping street, except for the occasional smoothie (from the best place in town).
It goes without saying that as soon as you start heading out from the centre, the amount of familiar faces starts to dwindle apart from in 1 or 2 other districts. Inherently, with a high amount of tourists and expats in and around the district, prices are high.
There’s a lot to see…
I’m not going to go into too much detail here about the things to see in the city, as I’ll follow that up another time but, as far as sightseeing goes, D1 pretty much has it covered. If you’re interested in history or art there are more than enough museums and galleries to keep you busy for a day or two or, if you’re someone who likes to find ‘hidden gems’ and places off the beaten track, there are countless backstreets and alleyways dotted about that provide enough true Vietnamese culture to keep you going.
As well as the larger, more commercial sites to see, there are also smaller, lesser known architectural gems, or, for the gastronomes out there, it’s not uncommon to accidentally find a charming little cafe or bistro that you never knew existed (I’m nearly always discovering new places for a quick bite to eat or to read a good book). There are also a lot of bespoke shops, catering for people who appreciate the finer (and more expensive) things in life. Sadly, but expectedly, you’ll find that most things are nearly double what you’d pay elsewhere in the city but, considering where you are, it’s a small price to pay; the city has made a (mostly) concerted effort to keep D1 clean and comparable to other Asian cities (such as Singapore or Hong Kong).
One thing I mentioned earlier is that a lot of expats only really head into D1 for specific reasons, whether it be to eat at a favourite restaurant, buy produce not available in the more local orientated districts, or to live it up with a few other foreigners; the truth is that, for expats finding themselves in Saigon, D1 really is unavoidable whether they like it or not.
I’ve only really touched on what District 1 has to offer, and of course you can find good, local, traditional food, half decent Vietnamese coffee, and shops etc inside the district, and there are places to see ‘the real Saigon’ but, my point is that, if you woke up in the centre of Nguyen Hue, and didn’t know where you were, you certainly wouldn’t believe you’re in the heart of one of Asia’s greatest cities- you could be, well, anywhere…