Dana Filek-Gibson searches for new surprises on one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most well-known streets. Photos by Ruben Luong.
The beginning and the end of Pasteur form a circle. In geographical terms, of course, the street is stick-straight, charging northwest from the banks of the Saigon River all the way to District 3. Traffic runs in the same direction and moves as most one-ways in town do: hurried, efficient and not unlike a school of fish swimming upstream. But travel this tree-lined street on foot and you’ll realise that no matter which direction you take, it ends in the same way it begins. In a manner of speaking.
Miniature cafes and glitzy ao dai shops jockey for space on the northern end. Going against traffic a couple blocks later, aging storefronts give way to chic, modern cafes and European-inspired design firms. Then Pasteur opens up onto 30-4 Park and all hell breaks loose — a riotous tangle of traffic exploding across the wide downtown boulevards. Students chat over coffee and banh trang tron in the shadow of the Reunification Palace. Beside the Cathedral, young brides-to-be clutch their trains, slowly wilting in the heat.
And from there, the sky’s the limit. Pasteur’s extravagance escalates, the looming tower of Saigon Centre watching over a steady trickle of upscale shops. Then something funny happens: amid trendy boutiques and lavish street-side cafes, a patchwork of rice stalls and coffee stands, street vendors and local tap hoa begin to work their way back into the fabric of the street. At once sleepy and hectic, tree-lined and cramped with shops, Pasteur runs the spectrum from lively, jam-packed Saigon street to sleek, contemporary metropolitan avenue and back.
204 Pasteur Bookshop (Nha Sach 204 Pasteur)
Hemmed in by the Phan Dinh Phung sports centre on one corner and a mammoth ILA building on the other, the exterior of this tiny bookshop is somewhat deceptive. In addition to EFL textbooks and Vietnamese-language novels, 204 Pasteur keeps an impressive collection of English- and French-language magazines, including Time, Elle, Marie Claire, National Geographic, Cosmopolitan and Conde Nast Traveller. Better yet, all of these publications arrive on a timely basis, with most weekly magazines coming into the store only a few days after their international release. A copy of Time will run you about VND 10,000 while larger, glossier magazines are slightly more expensive. Take care to note the shop’s address, however, as it does not coincide with its name.
Happening upon Alexa Cafe from the street, you’ll find a couple things likely to catch your eye. The terrace, for one, is an oasis of open space amid the cramped storefronts of the downtown area. Add to this a chic black-and-white décor and the large sign out front and there is little chance you’ll miss the place. This elegant cafe serves up the usual array of beverages, from Vietnamese and European coffee to smoothies, fruit juices and beer, as well as Vietnamese breakfast in the mornings, all at reasonable prices. There is also an interior courtyard for those looking to escape the street noise but still enjoy the great outdoors.
For anyone in search of an odds-and-ends shop, look no further than this Japanese import. Packed with everything from gardening materials and storage containers to hair products, children’s art supplies, pet care items and all manner of tchotchke, Tokutokuya has something for everyone. Due to the varied nature of its goods, prices have a wide range, but some of the staff members speak English and are able to help customers searching for a specific product. Otherwise, this shop is an ideal place to discover must-haves that you never knew you needed.
A recent District 1 transplant, Saigon Casa’s design philosophy speaks for itself through a sleek, sophisticated exterior and the rows of colourful samples that line its showroom walls. Supplying Italian-made ceramic and porcelain tiles to both home and business owners, the company offers high-quality materials as well as design consultation in creating contemporary spaces, from kitchens and bathrooms to offices and outdoor pools. Saigon Casa also carries eco-friendly products certified by the American-based Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, as well as goods endorsed by Ecolabel, the European standard for environmentally friendly building products.
Having had time to settle into its District 3 storefront, Hassan’s Carpets stands out in that it is one of the only suppliers of authentic Persian rugs in the city. Boasting a remarkable collection of hand-knotted carpets from throughout the Middle East and Central and South Asia, this family-owned business began in Singapore before making the leap to other Southeast Asian countries. In addition to its Persian masterpieces, Hassan’s also offers more standard carpeting, including contemporary European-made rugs. Prices depend on the material and quality of the item, but the staff is incredibly knowledgeable and able to assist customers in finding the right carpet.
Phan Gia Coffeeshop
A new kid on the block and no more than 10 feet across, this miniature storefront is easy to walk by, as it blends in with other businesses crammed onto the very end of Pasteur. A well-equipped barista counter gives way to the narrow seating area beyond and a well-lit upstairs, where the massive bay window offers nice views of the bustling intersection below. Phan Gia’s menu lists typical offerings like coffee and fruit smoothies, though the favourite is tac xay, a refreshing ice-cold blend of honey, mint and kumquat. Snacks are also available, including meat skewers and french fries, though portions are certainly snack-sized. For something different, try the banh gao Han Quoc, a Korean dish featuring thin, savoury glutinous rice cakes served over sausage, onions, peppers and okra, all topped with kimchi for a slight kick. Items range from VND 15,000 to VND 50,000.