Nguyen Phuong To, or Tofu, an introvert with a burning passion for music, is managing one of the most notable live music cafes in Saigon – Yoko Cafe. She used to be an indispensable part of Saigon Ink – the home of artistic tattoos. Being a Saigonese at birth, Tofu knows the authentic street food stalls, local shops and boutiques and music cafés in District 3 like the back of her hand.
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
Tofu is sat at Yoko Cafe thinking deeply about which places should be in her guide to District 3. Before that, she decides to tell us a bit about her background. Firstly, she likes being regarded as a singer, and her songs are the perfect blend of the old and new, just like her bold and gentle self. “I started my singing career early when I was 18. Twenty-one years – more than half of my life – in this industry, I find joy in building a community where music lovers are free to create and share their own colours.”
Besides being the lead singer of such bands as Tofu Band, Tofu Duo, Hermit 11th, and Chaođao, Tofu is now the co-manager of Yoko Cafe, a music haven for both local and foreign bands in Saigon. Being a bridge to connect people is what she does best. Before Yoko Cafe, she brought the “artists” together, under the roof of Saigon Ink.
“Saigon is a special city to me,” Tofu says warmly. “If this is your first time here, you are certain to be overwhelmed by the traffic that seems to follow no rules. A walk around Saigon can give you insights into different lives – a synchronised disorder. I was born and bred here, I’ve witnessed the fast-track changes of Saigon every day. It gives me mixed feelings every time – excited, nostalgic but never resentful. A developing city has to go through changes…”
Phu Nhuan District is where Tofu spent her childhood, but District 3 saw her blossom into a complicated, beautiful soul. Located between downtown District 1 and the folksy Chinatown and District 5, District 3 is a “half-breed”. “You’ll discover the mutual existence of skyscrapers, giant shopping malls, luxury apartments and small alleys, and the local markets and street food stalls will amaze you!” she smiles proudly.
As the area was recently voted 18th coolest in the world, The Dot Magazine followed this walking encyclopedia to learn the most authentic places to eat, drink, entertain and shop in this guide to District 3.
What To Eat In District 3?
“I’m old-fashioned, so I mostly eat food on the street side,” Tofu shrugs. “I like traditional old markets – they are friendly, familiar and cheap! Vo Van Tan street is the nirvana for munchies. Bot chien, banh xeo, grilled pork noodles, crab noodle soup…you will never get enough of this street if you adore Vietnamese food as much as I do.”
“Bot Chien Van Thanh down the 185 alley on Vo Van Tan street, District 3, might not be the best friend to your weighing scales (it’s literally just carbs, fried carbs), but the perfect small bite to indulge yourself from time to time. It’s a local staple!”
Nguyen Thuong Hien street is also a highlight on her eating list. “Don’t leave without trying snail dishes and banh trang tron,” she advises. “Pair them with a couple of beers and enjoy Saigon’s night breeze. My favourite “nhậu” place is probably Ốc A Sòi (237-239 Nguyen Thuong Hien). Their signatures include steamed snails, lemongrass clams and scallop with spring onion sauce…”
“If you walk a bit towards Ban Co Market, Nguyen Thien Thuat street will also surprise you with a handful of delicious goodies. My go-to breakfast place is Bun Bo Hue 62 (62 Nguyen Thien Thuat). Their bún bò is the closest to the ones I had in Central Vietnam. For lunch, I head to Banh Mi Chao Co Le at Nguyen Thien Thuat apartment for a steaming pan of fried eggs, sausage, cheese and its special sardine sauce, along with the Vietnam-style bread, crispy banhmi.”
“Tan Dinh market is where nocturnal party people head to. Word of mouth makes frog congee Singapore Tan Dinh a popular spot among youngsters, from 10pm till midnight. Come here to feel forever young!”
“And my other favourite nhậu restaurants are around Bo Ke Truong Sa, Hoang Sa. You can’t leave out nhậu if you are in Vietnam! Head to Bia To Bo Ke (1256 Truong Sa) and order their beef salad, grilled frog with chilli salt and fried chicken cartilage…and lots of beer! Opt for a hotpot at Lau De Thai Lan on rainy days – only 50-55K a hotpot, probably the cheapest you can find in this area!”
Often, Tofu wants to enjoy the slow life herself amidst her busy schedule. So she sometimes seeks out a vegetarian or vegan restaurant with a leafy spacious garden and a meditation vibe like Hum Vegetarian, Saigon Vegan or Chay Garden on Vo Van Tan street, Chay Hoan Hi on Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, Prem Bistro and Tiem Com Giac Duc on Nguyen Dinh Chieu, all of which meet her requirements. “I told you, this district has everything!”
Where To Drink In District 3?
Tofu no longer lives the crazy life. Reaching her forties, she prefers spending precious time on nurturing her family, career and passion. She’s not an expert at the most up-to-date clubs in Saigon, but she does know where to go to for live music and bars in her “hood”.
Most of the time Tofu is at her beloved Yoko Cafe. But she is also wild about Acoustic Bar, RFC, Fang Pub and Wood Stock. “Each has its own distinctive vibe. If you are keen on live music cafes and bars, you are sure to find your favorite spot among them.”
Tofu doesn’t like the “takeaway coffee” trend. For her guide to District 3, she’s favouring speciality cafés which focus on quality Vietnamese coffee beans and intimate experiences. The first café that comes to Tofu’s mind is Nomad Cold Brew Coffee, specialising in cold brew – a brand new player in Saigon’s coffee scene. La Viet Coffee is another good one. “La Viet is from foggy, romantic Dalat, and is indeed as romantic as its home city. Drinks are so creative here. They pair coffee with tropical fruits and tea, and the results are astonishingly extraordinary!”
Where To Shop In District 3?
If you are a shopaholic but at the same time don’t want to go broke, continue reading. Vo Van Tan street is not only about food, there are tons of fashionable, reasonably-priced boutiques around here. “Cocosin dresses me up to become a young, modern and elegant lady. Before my important meetings, I will lean on the help of Raku Raku. It’s Japanese style, so you’re sure to get a formal yet sophisticated look.”
For an even cheaper option, steer towards Tan Dinh market. It’s a paradise for affordable fabric and secondhand clothing shops. Tofu’s guide to District 3 wouldn’t be complete without visiting Cua Hang Vai 337, Vai Huong, Tiem Vai 313, all next to each other.
Entertainment In District 3
“I’m already a mom, so my leisure time is dedicated mostly to my kid!” Tofu says happily. “We often go to Turtle Lake after school. We share a banh trang nuong, a cold drink and find delight in just being together and treasuring the moment.”
“Sometimes we yearn to come back to nature and I would take her Tao Dan Park. It’s important to teach kids to blend in with nature, especially in this increasingly industrialised society. Tao Dan Park is an ideal place to take a walk, inhale the rare fresh air amongst the hustle bustle of the big city.”
“And I always encourage my kid to read more books. Books are an endless source of knowledge. Chuon Chuon bookstore is our favourite place to search for books and tranquillity before my evening shifts start,” she nods, finishing her guide to District 3.
Photos by Khooa Nguyen.