With most tourists and expats centred in District 1, branching into Districts 3 and 2, and others all the way down in District 7, it’s easy to forget there is a western side to Ho Chi Minh City.
As the city spreads west of downtown, the residential areas are almost exclusively Vietnamese, and English is not spoken as often. The pavements, if there are any, are crowded with banh mi stands, parked motorbikes and xe om drivers awaiting their next ride. Streets are lined with the usual cafés, women’s clothing shops and mobile phone stores, but the businesses are more densely packed together.
In these neighbourhoods, you’ll find a few gems that you won’t encounter anywhere else in the city.
Take District 10. It sits smack in the middle of the city limits and is known to locals as the sports centre of Ho Chi Minh City. But to the adventurous culture vulture, there are some all-city-calibre activities hiding within.
Thong Nhat Stadium
138 Dao Duy Tu, Q10
Thong Nhat Stadium, or ‘Reunification Stadium’, is a 20,000-seater, multi-purpose stadium. Rebuilt in 1975 to replace an older, damaged venue, Thong Nhat is home to the V-League’s Ho Chi Minh FC — recently promoted to Division 1. Until recently, it was also home to Xuan Thanh Saigon FC and Navibank Saigon FC.
However, Thong Nhat stadium is more than a field for V-League football. In January, it hosted the Japanese and Vietnamese national U-19 teams, as well as the youth clubs of Tottenham and AS Roma in the NutiFood Cup. And this spring, it is scheduled to host the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, where the Vietnamese team will play.
Matches will be held from May 14 to May 25. The top five teams will advance to Canada for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. Check the AFC website at the-afc.com for more information on both men’s and women’s Asian Cup matches.
Maximark, 2nd Floor, 3 Ba Thang Hai (3/2), Q10
Let’s not kid ourselves. Laser tag is designed and marketed for children, especially this laser tag. Set in an arcade with video games and kiddie rides for three-year-olds, it functions as an adolescent refuge from shopping with parents.
But make no mistake — laser tag is fun for big people, too. So strap on the sensor-loaded vests and grab your weapons.
The passageways are decorated with an ancient temple theme, and 1980s pop songs accentuate the mood. The half-maze of corridors would probably suit six adults, although up to 14 people can play at a time — great news if you want to keep a classroom-full of pre-teens occupied.
The 20-minute showdown costs VND40,000 per person. Players go to war as one-man armies or as teams. Points are added for hitting an enemy and deducted when a player gets hit or goes rogue and shoots a teammate. Just remember your weapon stops working for three very long seconds after you are hit.
Ho Thi Ky Flower Market
Ho Thi Ky, Q10
If you have the energy for middle-of-the-night shopping, one of the best markets is the flower market on Ho Thi Ky, nestled in the triangle between Ly Thai To and Hung Vuong.
Along the narrow strip and in the alleys, you’ll find an assortment of freshly cut flowers — roses, lilies, orchids and chrysanthemums, for example — and brightly dyed ornamental grasses and pussy willow. The air is perfumed, and it seems like the full-spectrum of the rainbow is achieved.
Bundles of flowers are ready for purchase, or you can get a pre-made flower arrangement. You’ll also find stands with ferns and baby’s breath among buckets of flowers, ready to make an on-the-spot bouquet.
The market starts late. At 11pm, delivery trucks still creep among the people and the dogs. Some merchants have their stands set up, while most are still putting together displays. Go after midnight. Flowers are sold all night and into the morning. They’re much cheaper than elsewhere in the city, too.
Saigon Art Retreats
Another treat tucked down a residential alley in District 10 is Saigon Art Retreats. Here you can learn Vietnamese-style watercolouring in classes taught by Canadian artist Lindsay Erdman.
The classes are held on the terrace of the C & T Homestay, a residential building catering to expats, where you can sit among the red and fuchsia blossoms from the nearby potted plants and create a watercolour painting on silk or paper. Whether you know your way around a canvas with a paintbrush or are a complete novice, Lindsay is patient and encouraging, helping make sure you leave with a painting that makes you happy.
The class, usually offered once or twice per month on a Saturday afternoon, is taught in English and is attended by both local Vietnamese residents and expats alike. All supplies are included.
41 Hoang Du Khuong, Q10
The Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, or the FITO Museum, is a deceptive name, as it presents much more than medicine. It is also an art and architecture museum.
FITO Museum is run by Fito Pharma, a company specialising in natural medicine. While visiting, you’ll encounter some of their self-promotion, but on the whole, the trip is an educational experience.
You’ll learn how older Vietnamese medicine was influenced by Chinese medicine thousands of years ago. Together, these two disciplines created what is now recognised as traditional Vietnamese medicine, a philosophy that centres on holistic and preventative measures to ensure health through medicinal plants and other natural remedies such as acupressure.
The museum is also an attractive space filled with beautiful artefacts — all objects of art. Walls and doors are made of intricately carved wood, many displays contain ornately decorated glazed pottery and porcelain vessels, and pearl inlay and red lacquer pictures depict moments in medical history.