Street food, scooters and vintage architecture are all highlights of Ho Chi Minh City's irresistible energy, but there's also a stylish vibe emerging in Vietnam's biggest city. Below, six of the coolest spots in town.
Craft beer at Pasteur St Brewing Company
Negotiate a narrow staircase at the back on an alley – just head past the foot massage ladies playing cards with the security guards – to this haven of big and bold craft brews. Pasteur Street's head brewer Alex Violette is from Colorado, a US beer hotspot, and he's having loads of fun using local Asian ingredients in his beers. That means a hoppy IPA tinged with jasmine, a jackfruit-infused wheat beer, and a brown ale fortified with coffee from the Vietnamese highland town of Dalat.
Single origin Dalat coffee at The Workshop
The fine arabica beans of Dalat are also showcased at The Workshop, Ho Chi Minh City's first specialist coffee destination. Courtesy of the French colonial period, compact outdoor cafes dot the city's street corners, but The Workshop's high-ceilinged downtown location is a far more sophisticated operation. Bookish baristas craft cold brew and Chemex options from beans roasted onsite, and the industrial loft-like space – with free whip-smart wi-fi – is perfect for settling in with a tablet or laptop. Black and white photos of old Saigon are other interesting distractions.
Saigon Street Art
Vibrant street art dots Ho Chi Minh City, and the most colourful locations are in the Japantown area just out of downtown. For the best examples, wind past mini-hotels and ramen restaurants through the laneways east of the intersection of Le Thanh Ton St and Thai Van Lung St. From there it's a short walk towards the Mekong River and the 3A Alternative Art Area. There's more colourful street art here – it's a popular venue for Instagramming locals and also weekend wedding photos – and an essential refreshment stop is the hip Plantrip Cha teahouse.
Across the river in the up and coming Thao Dien (District 2) area, Saigon Outcast fills a raffish corner location with everything from outdoor screenings of cult movies, a cool little bar dispensing local Saigon Cider and Fuzzy Logic craft beer, and occasional urban flea markets. Graffiti art and a skate ramp complete the picture, and Saigon Outcast is definitely worth the 20-minute cab ride (around NZ$10) from downtown. Check the website for regular live music gigs too.
Exploring 14 Ton That Dam St
The architectural modernisation of Ho Chi Minh continues apace, but still to elude the developers' wrecking balls are many blocks of 1940s apartment buildings being repurposed for atmospheric cafes, hip vintage clothing stores and affordable artists' studios. Most convenient to downtown Ho Chi Minh City, a crumbling building at 14 Ton That Dam St sits just one block from the river. Businesses share the space with easygoing residents, and exploration of the building reveals cool cafes like the 4th floor's Mockingbird with retro furniture and beats from slowly-spinning vinyl. It's a forever changing scene, but the rickety stairways are well worth negotiating for an intrepid Ho Chi Minh City experience.
American BBQ at Quan Ut Ut
From banh mi baguette sandwiches to banh xeo Vietnamese crepes, pork is a favourite ingredient in Ho Chi Minh City, but no-one does it quite like Quan Ut Ut. A rough translation of 'Quan Ut Ut' is 'Restaurant Oink Oink', and the huge barbecue out the front turns out perfectly smoked ribs and pork belly, spicy sausages, and sugarcane smoked chicken. Sides include chilli-spiced sweetcorn and honey-grilled pineapple, and the switched-on owners even brew their own craft beers.