Perhaps Saigon’s most often overlooked neighbourhood is an enclave of chic boutique clothing shops, trendy cafés and quaint European-style villas otherwise known District 2’s illustrious Thao Dien Ward. While most tourists flock to attractions located in central District 1 such as Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, Nguyen Hue Walking Street and Ben Thanh Market, visitors should also take the opportunity to spend a day exploring this charming little alcove of Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City).
The Origins of Thao Dien
Since its founding by the French in the 1850s and all the way throughout the next century, Ich Phu (Thao Dien’s original name) would remain as one of the city’s poorest areas due to its isolated location on the eastern bank of the Saigon River. District 2 was reachable only by boat, and though just a mere 200 metres away, this severely limited commercial and commuter traffic between the two sides. It wasn’t until construction of the Saigon Bridge in 1961 that urban sprawl began to overtake the rice paddy fields of Thao Dien.
Over the last decade, the area has experienced a sudden influx of expats and well-to-do locals, which in turn has led to a plethora of businesses opening up to cater these individuals. And adding to the exclusivity of the community are its well-defined boundaries. The Xa Lo Ha Noi highway marks the ward’s southern border while the three other sides are enclosed within the confines of the meandering Saigon River.
An Escape from the Bustling City
Whereas Ho Chi Minh City is recognized as Vietnam’s vibrant metropolis that never sleeps – complete with an endless horde of motorbikes and a cacophony of traffic noises, street vendors loudly peddling their wares and the incessant sounds of construction – there is quite a sharp contrast with the peace and serenity of District 2. Unlike its counterparts on the western side of the Saigon River, Thao Dien has the honour of being the city’s most pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood in terms of walkable distances and road infrastructure. If one were to witness a family on a leisure cycling tour or a couple walking their dog in Saigon, chances are it is in this neighbourhood.
Located between the numerous high-rise luxury apartments dotting the outer edges of Thao Dien are all the fine amenities one could ask for – which is why many of its residents rarely feel the need to venture outside their cozy bubble. From the Vincom Mega Mall, complete with 6-screen cinema and ice skating rink, to the numerous petite retails parks with fashion boutiques and Instagram-able eateries, there is no shortage of shopping opportunities. Thao Dien is also a mecca for the health-conscious, offering an assortment of organic supermarkets, outdoor rock-climbing walls, kickboxing studios, pilates and yoga studios.
Fine Dining & Coffee Culture
It’s no secret that some of Saigon’s finest international dining is located in Thao Dien. Among the most notable restaurants are La Vella French Restaurant, helmed by renowned chef Thierry Mounon, and the time-honoured Pendolasco, a family-friendly Italian eatery established in 1998. Some of the fresh up-and-comers serving gourmet cuisine include Beneras Garden (Indian), Kazama (Japanese) and Lu Bu (Mediterranean), and riverside venues such as The Deck and BoatHouse are perfect spots for sunset cocktails and intimate settings.
Though Vietnam is quite well-known for its countless cafes serving up the signature ‘ca phe sua da’, coffee shops in Thao Dien set themselves apart with their laid back vibes and artsy decor. Digital nomads will feel at home at The Loop or Dolphy Cafe, while The Snap or Soma Art Cafes are perfect for social gatherings with friends.
Explore Thao Dien before or after your Lower Mekong River Cruise
Heritage Line offers 3- and 7-night cruises between Saigon (Vietnam) and Phnom Penh or Siem Reap (Cambodia). While in the city before or after your cruise – and if you are feeling adventurous – hop into a taxi and head out to District 2’s enchanting Thao Dien ward!