A District Apart

Ho Chi Minh City is much, much more than just District 1. Venture over to neighborhoods like An Phu and you’ll be surprised by what there is on offer…

“The main draw here is the more relaxed pace of life, and since it’s close to the river the air feels cooler,” says Alex, the owner of now closed Blue Crab restaurant and long time resident. Most tourists, and even expats, miss out on the quiet charms of An phu, whether out of disinterest or a misguided notion that “It’s too far”. But take the time to hop over the Saigon Bridge or through the Thu Thiem tunnel and you will find that this suburb offers many unique shops and restaurants worth exploring.

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The odd location of Phuc Ban Me Cafe (39 Xa Lo Ha Noi), on a frontage road just off the highway, hides a secret garden. This recently opened cafe was built by the owner and offers a lovely, rustic atmosphere to its patrons. There are four open-air buildings set around a central garden with a large pond and waterfall. The cross-cut log paths that lead up to the fall coupled with the sound of running water provide the perfect combination of white noise and isolation needed to relax. While the menu offers the usual café fare, it’s the quality that makes it stand out. We recommend the salads made with fresh, crisp produce (no wilted lettuce here) for VND25,000 to VND50,000. Then balance the healthy salad with a rich and creamy milkshake for VND30,000. And for a glimpse of the chaotic city just outside, head up to the rooftop terrace to watch the world literally speed by along the Hanoi Highway.

Next, head out to do some shopping. There aren’t a large number of shops in District 2 but it is the go-to area for gardening supplies and homewares. Tran Nao Street is lined with plant nurseries and local shops selling wooden and bamboo furniture where you can pick up beautiful tropical orchids starting at VND60,000 or perhaps even a hanging egg-shaped basket chair for VND3 – VND5 million. Many luxury furniture stores can be found on Xuan Thuy and Thao Dien Streets. B.O.M Shop (2 Thao Dien) is one of the few places in the city to find beanbag chairs. Here they’re called Chilly Bags and are handmade in Vietnam with a wide range of colors and patterns, and can even be custom printed with logos or pictures. The fabric can be coated to resist chlorine, making them waterproof – perfect for an outdoor terrace during the rainy season or by the pool. Prices start at VND1.6 million.

Indulge Yourself

For a fun mother and daughter pampering session, head to Concept Coiffure (48 Tran Ngoc Dien) – a salon and spa that takes full advantage of the numerous French colonial houses that An phu is known for. Set in a re-purposed villa near the river, you can sip green tea while looking out over the sunny garden and pool during your makeover. And your junior counterpart can receive the same professional service at Concept kids with treatments such as Diva for a Day (VND520,000) and pampered princess (VND300,000).

And for those who don’t have time to escape to a resort for the weekend, then let Papagayo (18 Tran Ngoc Dien) bring that holiday-feel to you. Greg, the owner, explains “it’s meant to have the feel of a resort. You can spend the whole day here dining, drinking or swimming”. This small compound of bungalow-style buildings houses a restaurant, bar and boutique as well as a small swimming pool and petanque court. You can enjoy an al fresco Mediterranean dinner on the restaurant patio, or order a drink and unwind poolside in a lounge chair or beanbag. At night the atmosphere is dreamy with soft lighting throughout and floating colored lights in the pool. The menu consists of French cuisine, pastas and salads. A highlight of the food here is the open air barbeque pit where you can watch the cook prepare your meal. We recommend the homemade creamy passion fruit mousse with mango coulis; it’s excellent. Main dishes range from VND180,000 – VND490,000. The onsite boutique, Diablo, offers high-end houseware, furniture and art.

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World food options

District 2’s quaint backdrop and wide sidewalks make this area a great place for dining outdoor and Le Delices de Mai (33/2-33/5 Quoc Huong) restaurant sits perfectly in a spacious alley. They describe themselves as a French, Cameroonian and Vietnamese restaurant. Mai used to live in Cameroon with her French husband and family where she learned to cook Cameroonian cuisine like juicy chicken with plantain. It is an unusual combination that makes for complex and delicious food. The best seats are across the street under a canopy of tree branches decorated with caged tropical birds offering musical ambiance. The menu is different every day and includes dishes like basa fish meuniére, Cameroonian chicken and a variety of grilled sausages and skewers. Main dishes range from VND80,000 – VND100,000.

While it may take a little effort to drive out to District 2, it’s well worth it. As you ride back into the city center and the traffic starts to close in around you it’s easy to start planning your next excursion here.

Images by HUY TRAN

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