INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
For most of the year, Saigon is just too darn hot, humid, busy and polluted to enjoy during the daylight hours. At night, however, temperatures are cool, humidity is low, traffic is light, and even the air quality seems to improve: it’s the perfect time to see the city. After dark, when the office workers, the revellers, the tourists have gone home, Saigon is still there: all its famous buildings are still standing, its waterways still flowing, and even some of its markets and street food vendors are still doing business. Like all great cities, Saigon never really sleeps. Night is also the only time you can actually enjoy riding a motorbike in Saigon. In the small hours, it’s possible to leisurely roll down the city’s wide, tree-lined boulevards, meander along its waterside avenues, and over its many new bridges. At night, Saigon is a beautiful and easily traversed city. The following guide is an urban route designed specifically for riding after dark: I call it the Saigon Midnight Motorbike Loop.
GUIDE: SAIGON MIDNIGHT LOOP
The Midnight Loop should be treated as a night out: something to be enjoyed, in good company, at a leisurely pace. Ride with a pillion – friend, partner, family member – stop for food and drink every now and then, and just enjoy the ride and the city, because this is the only time you’ll get to see and appreciate Saigon on your own terms, at your own pace. A good time to start is 9pm (or later), when the city’s traffic begins to dissipate and the streets are calmer and cooler. I’ve separated the Midnight Loop into 5 sections according to the city districts it passes through. Although it’s not necessary to follow the loop precisely, I’ve designed it carefully so that the route moves through each area at the best possible time of night. I’ve included information about places of interest along the way, and food or drink outlets that are open late at night. Rainy season nights (May-October) are damp and cool, and flickers of lightning dramatically illuminate the city skyline, but it can also be close and clammy. Dry season nights (November-April) are very cool and pleasant.
Click on a section below to read more about it:
- SECTION 1: District 2
- SECTION 2: Districts 1 & 4
- SECTION 3: Districts 7 & Binh Chanh
- SECTION 4: Districts 5 & 10
- SECTION 5: District 1
The Saigon Midnight Motorbike Loop
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Route: District 2: ‘Lovers’ Bridge’ – Thu Thiem Park – Saigon River Tunnel [MAP]
Start the Midnight Motorbike Loop at the Thu Thiem Bridge. Also known as ‘Lovers’ Bridge’ (because of the number of Saigon couples snuggling on the curbside), this 2008 piece of infrastructure crosses the wide arm of the Saigon River, affording some of the best and most-photographed views of the city. At night, with the galaxy of office lights flickering in the city’s high-rises, it’s an impressive vista.
Across Lovers’ Bridge, ride through the dust, cranes and building paraphernalia of the Thu Thiem construction site, until the road hits the Mai Chi Tho Expressway. Turn right onto this multi-lane thoroughfare and enjoy the space and freedom of having a freeway almost all to yourself. The lights and ever-growing skyline of downtown District 1 can be seen ahead of you, across the river. Look out for the picnickers on the sidewalk – an endearing, and very Vietnamese, tradition.
Bear right at the toll-booths before the entrance to the Thu Thiem Tunnel. This slip road leads to the riverfront Thu Thiem Tunnel Park. Another popular haunt for young Saigon lovers, the views across the waterway to District 1 are superb. Follow the road around to the right, across a little bridge, until it leads behind half a dozen gigantic, floodlit advertising billboards. The huge structures stand on a grassy bank, dwarfing the small groups of picnickers sitting below them. It’s a surreal, urban-gritty kind of sight, especially at night, with the glare from the floodlights and occasional headlights of passing motorbikes.
There are several ‘moto-mobile’ street food vendors around the Thu Thiem Tunnel Park, offering various fried snacks and sweet drinks. The Thu Thiem Tunnel closes to motorbike traffic from 11pm to 5am, so make sure you get back to the tunnel entrance before this time. Pass through the toll-booths (motorbikes go free) and glide beneath the Saigon River on this spooky, subterranean road – the longest river tunnel (according to some sources) in Southeast Asia – until it emerges out the other side, in District 1….
Route: Districts 1 & 4: Ben Nghe Channel, Mong Bridge, Vinh Khanh Food Street [MAP]
Out of the tunnel in District 1, the Vo Van Kiet Expressway follows the course of the Ben Nghe Channel. Acting as a kind of ring road, bypassing the smaller, clogged streets of downtown Saigon, this highway was only opened a few years ago. Although not especially scenic, it’s a multi-lane freeway that, even during the day, is fun to ride. At night, with the lights of the city reflected in the channel and the air cooled by the presence of the waterway, Vo Van Kiet is one of the most pleasurable riding roads in the city. Open the taps a little and watch the city slide by: the illuminated high-rises of District 1 to the right, and the stout apartment blocks, across the channel in District 4, to the left.
Turn off Vo Van Kiet before Nguyen Van Cu Bridge. Double-back and cross the bridge over the Ben Nghe Channel to District 4. This district is actually an island, formed by two creeks – one to the north and one to the south – and the Saigon River to the east. This is most apparent when crossing the multi-tentacled Nguyen Van Cu Bridge, which straddles the watery junction at the confluence of the Ben Nghe Channel and the Kenh Te Canal.
Follow the south bank of the Ben Nghe Channel on Ben Van Don Street. This side of the channel is more scenic, with an attractive, tree-lined, bank-side park, and plenty of late night quán nhậu (food and beer restaurants) lining the road, if you’re feeling peckish. Not long before Ben Van Don meets the Saigon River, look out for Mong Bridge on the left. Designed by famous French architect Gustave Eiffel in the 1880s, this pretty bridge is a favourite night-time hangout for young Saigonese.
Go all the way to the end of the Ben Nghe Channel, ride under the Khanh Hoi Bridge, and turn back up past the pink, illuminated walls of Nhà Rồng. Now the Ho Chi Minh Museum, this French-era building was the old customs house. It was here that, as a young man, Uncle Ho set sail in 1911, as a ship’s cook, bound for Europe, Africa and the Americas. He was not to return to his native Vietnam for another 30 years. From here, ride southwest, through the heart of District 4, via the burgeoning street food street of Vinh Khanh, until crossing over the Kenh Te Canal into District 7….
Route: District 7: the Crescent, Panorama Park, Nguyen Van Linh Freeway [MAP]
At the Lotte Mart intersection, the half dozen tower blocks of Sunrise City stand tall in the night sky; illuminated in changing garish colours. These towers herald your arrival into District 7’s forest of apartment blocks. But before plunging into the ‘woods’, take Nguyen Thi Thap street east of Lotte Mart. This road offers a little bit of ‘old’ District 7: before the luxury condos and ‘Singaporification’ of the area. You’ll find lots of street buzz here, even at this late hour. Hungry? There’s always something good to eat on Nguyen Thi Thap Street.
Head south on Nguyen Luong Bang, past the international hospitals and luxury car showrooms. Turn right after crossing the Nguyen Van Linh Freeway and head towards the Crescent Mall. A popular place to hang-out, shop and dine during the daytime, it’s totally deserted at night. If you’re a little bit sneaky, it’s possible to ride along the Crescent waterfront promenade, although you may be told (politely) by security guards to leave.
It’s worth heading back to Nguyen Luong Bang and over the Ca Cam 2 Bridge for a quick ride around some of the new residential areas. These streets are lined with brand new, million dollar homes. It’s a kind of American Dream compound, where all houses have white picket fences, neat front yards, lawns, expensive cars, and neighbourhood security guards on every corner. Many of the homes are so new they’re still being ‘unwrapped’, and at least half of them are yet to be occupied. It’s a surreal sight and one that most travellers wouldn’t associate with Saigon.
Moving west from the Crescent, along the Rach Dia Channel, some of the modern architecture becomes more striking and less generic. Follow Tran Van Tra Street along the waterfront. Before its redevelopment, District 7 was mostly swampland, and it is still riddled with creeks, channels and ponds. These bodies of water, combined with the new leafy suburban streets, make riding through District 7 at night a very pleasant, and sometimes quite chilly, experience. There are hardly any street vendors and not much local food of any variety here. Instead, dozens of international food franchises and coffee chains occupy the ground floors of apartment buildings and office complexes. Some of these stay open late and there are also lots of 24 hour convenience stores. It’s a good idea to pick up a snack and a drink and take it away to the attractive Panorama Park on the banks of the Rach Dia Channel.
Rejoin the Nguyen Van Linh Freeway – past several gigantic condominium complexes – before taking a quick detour south over the bridge on Nguyen Huu Tho Street. This leads to Nha Be District where several mammoth apartment projects have stalled, leaving only the empty, 30-storey concrete shells: a haunting and compelling sight at this time of night.
Back on Nguyen Van Linh heading west, the road passes under the red arches of Ong Lon Bridge. Bear right after the bridge, along the lush boulevards of Binh Chanh District. Trung Son traffic circle boasts some great night-time eating spots, not least several large, open-air goat restaurants: look for the signs saying: Dê (goat). Continue north on Duong Ba Trac Street until it crosses, once again, the Nguyen Van Cu Bridge. After the superior infrastructure of District 7, the roads here can seem narrow, slow and busy. Get back onto the Vo Van Kiet Expressway, heading west towards Chinatown….
Route: Districts 5 & 10: Chinatown, ‘Herb Street’, Temples, Night Flower Market [MAP]
Vo Van Kiet continues to weave westward along the channel. The further up this road you ride, the more often you’ll see the crumbling remains of old warehouses. These were (and, in some cases, still are) used to store produce shipped up the channel from the fertile lands of the Mekong Delta, to be sold in the markets of Saigon. Turn right onto Nguyen Tri Phuong Street and left onto Tran Hung Dao. This is Chinatown, and even at this late hour it’s still throbbing with activity. However, the later you get here the better, because there are a lot of hidden architectural gems and fascinating minutiae on roads like Tran Hung Dao: the less traffic there is, the more freedom and time you’ll have to take it all in, without hundreds of vehicles rushing around you.
Turn left onto Chau Van Liem Street, which leads down to a busy traffic circle presided over by a statue of Phan Dinh Phung, a Vietnamese hero who led a resistance against French colonialism in Central Vietnam in the 1880s. Veer east of the statue onto Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street. Named after a famous 18th century medical scholar, this street is lined with herbal chemists and, even at night, it’s filled with the strange and seductive aromas of herbal remedies. The broad boulevard is also home to several impressively ornate, old Chinatown buildings: some are in a state of decay, others are sensitively restored.
Loop back around to the statue of Phan Dinh Phung, and start west along the other end of Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street. This bustling dual carriageway is divided by a stretch of grass and trees, where a statue of Confucius stands watch over the street’s activities. You won’t go hungry here: there are many street food vendors open late into the night, including ones serving súp óc heo – pig brain soup, which is much-loved by Chinatown’s student population.
Take Phu Huu Street north until it hits Hong Bang. This wide boulevard is lined with old trees and landscaped, in the middle, with tropical flowers, including fragrant, porcelain-white frangipani bushes, which scent the night air. To the left, you can’t help but notice the three, 33-storey, pink tower blocks of Thuan Kieu Plaza. Impressive as they may seem, you’ll notice there are no lights emanating from any of its apartments. The entire complex is deserted. This is partly due to financial mismanagement, and partly (much more intriguingly) due to….ghosts. According to popular local legend, the towers are haunted by the spirits of a murdered girlfriend and labourers who perished during its construction.
South of Hong Bang Street, zigzag across Lao Tu Street and onto Nguyen Trai Street, passing on the way, Quan Am Pagoda and Thieu Hau Temple, respectively. Both of these 19th century Buddhist sanctuaries are closed at night but are well illuminated. Stop for a drink at the night vendor right outside Thien Hau Temple, with its intricately carved and splendidly detailed facade just a few metres away.
Back on Hong Bang Street, the road name changes to An Duong Vuong just as it passes by the 1920s Jeanne D’Arc Church on the left. From here, it’s a straight shot, via Tran Phu Street, all the way to the Night Flower Market in District 10. Turn left off Tran Phu before the Equatorial Hotel, and find your way to the bottom of Ho Thi Ky Street. This narrow road is a bustling street food area, but late at night it’s transformed into a colourful hive of activity, as flowers arrive by the truckload from the highland city of Dalat. The later you get here the better – the flowers don’t really start to flood the street until well after midnight. But, even if you arrive early, there are still plenty of flower stalls and street food to keep you occupied, and, of course, you can always just come back again later…
Route: District 1: Backpacker area, Notre Dame, Dong Khoi, Walking Street [MAP]
Head east from the Night Flower Market towards District 1. Nguyen Trai Street offers some late night snacks in the form of noodle soups: try the hủ tiếu Nam Vang at Nhân Quán (A68 Nguyen Trai). Enter Saigon’s famous backpacker district via Do Quang Dau Street. You’ll know you’ve arrived by the number ‘girlie’ bars lining the streets. The area – known as Pham Ngu Lao – has long had a seedy side, but in recent years it’s gentrified, especially along Bui Vien Street, which is where most of the late night action takes place. The bars are smarter, food and drink is better, and the crowd – a youthful mix of Western backpackers, Northeast Asian independent travellers, and trendy Vietnamese – is the most diverse in the city. Bui Vien gets going late and stays up all night: the street is thronged with revellers into the small hours. Find a bar and soak up to atmosphere.
Back on the road, ride the famous traffic circle in front of Ben Thanh Market before hitting Truong Dinh Street, which ploughs straight through Tao Dan Park. Lined with enormous tropical trees, there’s also a spooky sculpture garden here that’s worth a quick look. Turn right onto Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. One of the city’s major thoroughfares, this street is choked during the daytime but gloriously empty at night. As it passes behind the back of the Reunification Palace gardens, the air is damp and scented with night-blooming flowers. At night, the palace itself is in darkness; only the gates are illuminated.
Onto the grand Le Duan boulevard, trees and street lamps lead the way to an icon of Saigon: Notre Dame Cathedral. Sitting in the middle of Paris Commune Plaza, the red bricks shine in the night and, even at this time, there are people taking photos of themselves in front of the grand facade. Across the plaza, ,the yellow ochre walls of the famous post office glow in the dark (albeit next to a brand new McDonald’s outlet!).
Turn down Dong Khoi Street, Saigon’s avenue of chic boutiques and five-star hotels. This glamorous street has been stamped with a double monument to modern Vietnamese consumerism: two Vincom shopping centres, one on either side. Halfway down Dong Khoi, the splendidly handsome (and beautifully lit) combination of the Continental Hotel and the Opera House can’t fail to catch your eye. Then the fancy hotels and fine dining restaurants close in, ending with the elaborate facade of the Majestic Hotel at the riverfront.
Double back on yourself, heading north-west on Nguyen Hue, Saigon’s new Walking Street. Opened in April 2015, the pedestrian walkway has proved a hit with foreign visitors and locals alike. Presided over by two of the city’s new and old architectural icons – the soaring Bitexco Financial Tower to the south, and the wedding cake edifice of the Hôtel de Ville City Hall to the north – the Walking Street attracts a young crowd (yes, even in the small hours) brandishing rollerblades, hoverboards, acoustic guitars and snacks.
Turn left past the Hôtel de Ville and weave back up to Le Duan boulevard. Head all the way up this wide, empty street. Turn right onto Nguyen Binh Khiem, a pretty, tree-lined avenue with the Botanical Gardens on one side and beautiful, old French school buildings on the other. Join the multiple lanes of Nguyen Huu Canh Street all the way back to the start of the Midnight Loop at Lovers’ Bridge, just in time to greet the dawn.
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