Even though Ho Chi Minh City is approaching the status of megacity, there aren’t distinct neighbourhoods compared to cities of a similar size. Apart from the colonial-era inner city, most of the city has the same uniform mayhem to it. There is a Japantown in District 1, and a couple of Korean enclaves. Cholon is the Chinatown of Saigon, though it is spread out and doesn’t have the same Chinatown feel like, for example, Yarowat Road in Bangkok.
Things are changing though, and in my time here I am seeing small changes in neighbourhoods. There are the mico-hoods of the old apartment towers that have been turned into artistic enclaves. And the most distinct neighbourhood that is developing in Saigon is Thao Dien in District 2.
Thao Dien is a ward in District 2, on the other side of the river of the historic Saigon centre. Thao Dien is snugly tucked into a dramatic meander of the Saigon River, and bounded by the massive Hanoi Highway, making it a clearly defined enclave. Just looking at it on the map you would guess it would be a swampy kind of place, and sure enough it’s prone to flooding during the wet season.
The future metro that will change the face of Saigon
Part of rise of Thao Dien has to be attributed to the future metro that defines its southern border. There is already an apartment construction boom happening along the line that follows the Hanoi Highway.
This is the first metro line in Saigon, and it’s due to open in 2019 (though it has been delayed a few years already). Saigon will soon discover how metro lines have the power to redefine a city. I would say that this stretch of road will eventually resemble the canyon of apartment towers of Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok.
There are three stations that run along the boundary of Thao Dien, and Thao Dien station will be 5 stops from Ben Thanh Market, which will be the central station of Saigon. For visitors to the city who are staying in the central area, Thao Dien would then become a viable place to visit for evening entertainment.
Thao Dien – The Seminyak of Saigon
Being based in Southeast Asia and revisiting popular places, I notice changes and trends in different cities. I returned to Bali recently after a few years absence and I noticed how much Seminyak has developed over the years. Seminyak is the fashionable beach resort area of Bali. It has grown from a village that was separate from the original beach resorts, to becoming a world-class destination (seriously!) While there are better beaches on other islands, and the infrastructure is terrible, the amount of restaurants, night clubs, and cool shops there is as good as you will find anywhere. It also has an abundance of healthy food options and a booming wellness industry.
Coming back to Thao Dien I am struck by how much it reminds me of early Seminyak. There are more healthy eating options here than any other neighbourhood in Saigon.
You can get things like organic soy yogurt ice cream, which would be a hard sell where I live, but definitely not out of place here.
There seems to be more wellness activities here too, such as yoga, pilates, and meditation.
What also reminded me of Bali are the small laneways that are lined with greenery.
Cafes in Thao Dien
I spend most of my time haunting the cafes of District 1, so I rarely get out to District 2. Every time I visit there is a new cafe that has been added to the circuit of places to visit. One of my favourites is Dolphy Cafe, which is on a prominent corner of Thao Dien Road.
One of the best cafes in District 1 is Shin Coffee, and they now have a branch in D2.
Check out the big iced coffees at Hue Cafe Roastery.
Snap cafe is a D2 institution, and features a large garden area with a children-friendly play area.
I had already had a coffee when I walked into Voelker Bakery, so I opted for a pain au chocolat. This was so good that I was glad that this place wasn’t within walking distance of my place, otherwise I would be eating one of these daily.
Places to eat
With such a big expat/foreigner scene here there are are a high proportion of international food options. Mekong Merchant is a great western breakfast option, and it’s open at 7am.
Phats Dumpling House is representative of the casual western food scene here.
This fusion Japanese sushi cafe was just opening on my last visit.
I rarely eat Thai food in Vietnam (or Vietnamese food in Thailand), though I made an exception to eat at Thai Street. This restaurant is set in a warehouse and resembles and an outdoor Thai street food environment, with a combination of food carts and a real kitchen out the back. It could have been really cheesy yet somehow they made this work.
Down by the river
The Saigon River is the most under-utilised asset of the city. Considering how much river frontage the city has, there are barely any riverside cafes. There was once a riverside cafe in district 1 but that closed.
The Deck is probably the best riverside cafe in Saigon. It puts its river location to good use with a deck over the river. There is indoor and outdoor seating options here, offering the best views of the Saigon River.
Another place making good use of river views is Bistro Song Vie.
I’m hoping that more riverside places open up in the future.
Modern architecture – the good and bad
My first impression of Thao Dien was of the big villas which borrow from several centuries of European design styles. Perhaps the style is supposed to emulate old-money Europe, but they just come off looking like new-money tackiness. There is also a gated community feel in some areas, which gives the area a vibe being in suburban Florida. This was not what I came to Vietnam for.
Saigon’s modernist architect expert, Mel Schenck writes that Saigon’s architecture should express our times today, not the past. Having revisited a few times I see there are some more modern buildings going up.
I would like to see Thao Dien filed with new buildings showcasing innovative design of local architects.
As I mentioned at the start, Thao Dien is a bit of a swamp when it rains. One place which is more sympathetic to the local environment is Family Garden. There are some offices built around a water feature, and more cafes and restaurants are moving in.
Complementing these new buildings is an emerging art scene, with places like Saigon Outcast and The Factory being artist-friendly.
Where to stay in Thao Dien
If you are visiting Saigon for a short trip then I wouldn’t stay in Thao Dien (here’s my guide for where to stay for new visitors to Saigon). Thao Dien is more suitable for people living in the city. I would only stay in a hotel here if you are hunting for a place to live in the area. Plus there are not many hotels anyway, though you can find Airbnb rentals here.
If you do want stay in Thao Dien then have a look at The Village, which is set in a lush garden on the banks of the Saigon River.
Search for more hotel in Thao Dien here.
How to get to Thao Dien
The cheapest way to get to Thao Dien is to get the 35 bus, which leaves from Ham Nghi near Ben Thanh Market. A ticket costs 5000 VND.
And of course we are all waiting for the day when the metro arrives. You will then be able to travel from Ben Thanh Market to Thao Dien station in 5 stops.