Literary City Guide | Ho CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM
Tour Guide: Izzy Pulido
A Bostonian by way of the Philippines, Izzy Pulido is an avid collector of first-time experiences. After three years of traversing the Asian continent, she’s taking her travels stateside. Find her musings on wayfaring over at The Next Somewhere, travel lensed through graphic design. You can also catch her on Facebook and Instagram. (Photos by Izzy Pulido.)
Relationship to Ho Chi Minh City: After strategically running out of money in Vietnam at the end of a 6-month backpacking trip, I let my anchor down in cacophonous Ho Chi Minh City. Fifteen months later, Ho Chi Minh City rewarded me with a year full of discovery, both outward and inward. But I’ve finally gone stateside, back to my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts.
Writer you’d like to invite to dinner: Comedian Trevor Noah. I feel like dinner parties are synonymous with laughter and good wine. South Africans know a thing or two about good wine.
Chef you’d like to prepare the meal: Eddie Huang. Brazen and fastidious, he’s the perfect balance of craft and grit. When it comes to the world of Chinese cookery, I definitely need more product knowledge.
Writing soundtrack: Of Monsters and Men, Raury, Raleigh Ritchie, Lana Del Rey. Anything emotive and rhythmic.
Pen or Pencil: Paper Mate Flair Felt Tip pens.
Coffee or Tea? Tea. But the way Vietnam does coffee can persuade even the staunchest of tea lovers to go to the dark side.
Paperback or Hardback? Hardback. I love the initial resistance a brand new hardcover gives when you peel it open for the first time. It’s like lifting the lid off a gift box.
BOA Bookstore. You could not dream up a more Saigon approach to a bookstore. Hidden in plain sight and overlooking the popular Turtle Lake Roundabout, BooksOfAwesome was a studio apartment repurposed into a library of English and French titles. You can cozy up in their “booknook,” a corner of the room designed to look like a fort from childhoods past. They sell beverages named after famous works of literature.
Ca Chep Bookstore. This five-story bookstore takes a page from the “tube house” style buildings that dominate the cityscape. It’s a fairly new franchise, with only two locations in Districts 1 and 3. The first floor is primarily Vietnamese titles, although there is a satisfying amount of trendy adult coloring books. On the 2nd floor is a large selection of stationery, followed by the children’s section on the third floor, English books on the fourth floor, and a secret café on the top floor with floor-to-ceiling windows and bleachers at opposite ends of the room.
FAHASA Bookstore. Characterless but undeniably dependable, Fahasa retailers almost always have the most recent international books in stock (imagine my surprise seeing Deep South by Paul Thoreux on the shelf), as well as more widely consumed reads—John Green, Jojo Moyes, Dan Brown, etc. There are a number of locations around the city and you can order books online and pick it up at any store, or have it delivered to your home.
Vesta Bookstore. Opened in April 2016, Vesta Bookstore is a family-friendly seller based in Thao Dien, with a small, but carefully curated collection of books, stationery, and art supplies. They host a healthy amount of social gatherings, such as exhibitions, workshops, and run book swaps every now and again.
InPages. Northeast of the city in District 2 is InPages, a hyper-niche bookstore specializing in collector’s edition art books from the Asian region. Score one-of-a-kind art prints and ‘zines from independent printers.
Youth Culture Library. Born from the radical idea to disseminate censored, alternative literature to Vietnamese youth, YCL is an underground movement that has set up shop in Saigon’s art-themed hostel, Chaosdowntown and there’s a second outpost at Saigon Outcast.
The American Center. A free, membership-only American library catering to Vietnamese audiences interested in learning more about American politics, society, and culture. Located in The Diamond Plaza on the 8th floor, in addition to books, the list of resources also includes DVDs, CDs, and textbooks.
Artbook/Tri Books. Bookstores with a similar premise, doubling as souvenir shops. The assortment of tasteful souvenirs include Vietnam-related coffee table books, mostly recipe tomes and photography collections, as well as communist-era propaganda posters. They also sell English magazines like Vogue and Elle at inflated prices.
Nguyen Van Binh Walking Book Street. A pedestrian-only lane next to Saigon Post Office and across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral with 24/24 bookstalls and open-air cafes. Fun fact: 24/24 is the Vietnamese equivalent to the American concept of 24/7.
AMLacquerwares. Like every run-of-the-mill backpacker street, you’ll have that one shop that has become the donation drop off for backpackers. AMLacquerwares on Pham Ngu Lao is said drop-off point in Saigon with secondhand books in various languages such as German, English, French, and Japanese, as well as Lonely Planet guidebooks.
Vietnam Coffee Republic. Coffee purists rejoice! Vietnam Coffee Republic is a temple of worship for caffeine devotees and design enthusiasts … so long as you can find it. It’s hidden in the maze of Little Japan.
RuNam Bistro. This high-end coffee proprietor is one of the few coffee shops that serves egg coffee, a Northern import, in Ho Chi Minh City. Splurge on one of their decorative gift boxes including a “phin” drip filter and a ground blend of Arabica and Robusta beans
Vietcetera Cafe. From the minds behind creative symposium, Vietcetera, comes the brick-and-mortar answer to the digital platform. The café is known for the Kaya Toast but don’t forget to order The Saigon Siblings Ice Blended sua da.
A PROPER MEAL
Mountain Retreat. There’s no better way to kickstart one’s appetite than a grueling walk up six flights of stairs. Rustic Vietnamese restaurant Mountain Retreat was my go-to dinner venue when it came to out-of-town guests. Make a reservation early in the day and request to be seated on the rooftop.
Poke Saigon. The poke craze from the Hawaiian islands has finally landed in Saigon. You decide what and how much goes into your poke bowl. No better deal than this one, especially since they use the freshest ingredients.
L’Usine Dong Khoi. The L’Usine name is glorified in the city, a homage to Saigon’s time as the capital of French Indochine. The menu is heavily influenced by European traditions, but the setting itself is unwaveringly Saigonese.
Prem Bistro. With a heavy focus on zen (think: mandalas and floor seating), this vegetarian haunt is where individuals go to detox after heavy feasting. The menu is as extensive as it is creative. Warning: the smoothies are pretty heavy so don’t go overboard with your order.
Bep Me In. Mama’s kitchen with a twist. Homemade Vietnamese food remixed to be both comforting and new. I suggest sitting on the second floor, painted in the warmest shade of Chefchaouen blue, and eat family-style. That’s the only way to try everything.
Partea. Fancy a tea party? You can have one right in the heart of Saigon. Handpick your china and don’t let the cakes distract you; order a plate of scones with clotted cream and jam and you’ll having high tea in no time.
Takashimaya B2 Food Hall. In the basement of Japanese department store Takashimaya is an impressive sweep of Japanese sweets. Some of the more off-script orders include charcoal soft serve and 24-karat gold speckled ice cream.
Sweet + Sour. A bakery that excels in nonpareils and icing flowers. The pretty-in-pink Sweet + Sour café is famous for their cupcakes, but their cake pops, quite literally, take the cake for me.