Saigon’s Japan Town unveiled: a hidden neighbourhood within District 1

Deep inside Saigon’s urban jungle, a patchwork of hẻms (alleyways) and fragrant street food stall-lined streets, is a tucked away neighbourhood known amongst locals as Japan Town. Here, wooden sliding shutter doors akin to the ones you see in Japan’s interior designs are the norm, with authentic eateries that could replicate the taste in Osaka, as well as flashing lights that rival the streets of Tokyo, all packed in a few blocks. Who knew that this is all located in Ho Chi Minh City? And in District 1 no less - truly in the heart of Saigon. But how come then not many people know about this elusive enclave? Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!

© Logan Ly

When I first found out about Japan Town in Saigon, it was with a quick realisation that it’s actually not an official town or area, but it's a name that local Saigonese uses to refer to the area where many of the Japanese businesses and residents are located. I was immediately drawn into this other seemingly secluded side of Ho Chi Minh City, and sitting in Tokyo Moon (a petite cafe run by a local Japanese man who made Vietnam his home for a few decades now) was when I learned the compelling stories of Japanese influence in Vietnam. 

During the late 19th century, many Japanese immigrants came to Vietnam to work in the agriculture and mining industries. They were attracted by the economic opportunities and the relatively mild tropical climate (especially the one we have here in the South). These early Japanese settlers were mostly single men who worked on plantations or mines and lived in segregated communities. 

© Logan Ly

It was in the French colonial period that the number of Japanese immigrants increased significantly, as the French government of Cocochina actively encouraged Japanese migration to Vietnam to develop the economy. The French colonialists believed that the Japanese, who were considered hardworking and disciplined, would be a good fit for the labour-intensive tasks required in the colony. 

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, many of the Japanese population left Vietnam, but a significant number stayed. Flash forward to these recent years, as Vietnam's economy has grown immensely and the country has opened up to foreign investment, the number of Japanese expats living in Ho Chi Minh City has risen again. Many Japanese companies have set up operations in the city, with those businesses being in the heart of Saigon - District 1. What followed are people sent over from Japan through those companies for work. After work, these Japanese expats often find themselves hanging out nearby their offices in an enclave with familiar dishes and nightlife, thus Japan Town. It’s not so uncommon to see Japanese businessmen still dressed in their office suit attire wandering in and out of different ramen joints and establishments in Japan Town throughout the evening. 

© iStock/ y-studio

In Vietnam’s biggest commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City, the Japanese community mostly lives in Saigon’s District 1 and around Pham Ngu Lao Street or De Tham Street, which is now "Japan Town". Here, you can find a treasure trove of authentic Japanese restaurants, supermarkets, and shops. Many of the Japanese expatriates in Ho Chi Minh City work for Japanese companies, but there are also many Japanese entrepreneurs (like Tokyo Moon’s cafe owner) and businesspeople. The Japanese community in Ho Chi Minh City is well-organized, with various cultural and social organizations catering to the needs of the Japanese expats community.

My favourite time to explore Japan Town is in the evenings when all of the lanterns that are hung up and down the alleyways are lit up, and people pour in and out of the many izakayas. These alleyways that makes up Japan Town are like a maze - equally thrilling at each turn with different street art and spots you can pop in for a sake.  In this neighbourhood, I’m really spoiled for the best Japanese food (at half the price of what it would cost in Japan). You can find all your favourite dishes such as sushi, ramen, tempura, okonomiyaki and so many more (some restaurants even just specialises in one dish). You can also find some unique fusion dishes that combine Japanese and Vietnamese flavours - showing how over time, this neighbourhood’s palate has been inspired by the city it is in, and vice versa.

© Logan Ly

Whenever I crave any Japanese snacks, Saigon’s Japan Town also has many Japanese supermarkets, where I can find a wide variety of Japanese goods imported directly from Japan. From niche seasoning and spices to cosmetics and other household items. For travellers, there are also shops that sell Japanese-style clothing and souvenirs. 

My other favourite activity to do in Japan Town is enjoying some of the Japanese-themed onsens in the neighbourhood. This is where you can truly relax from the constant hustle of Ho Chi Minh City and soak in hot water while sinking into the peaceful atmosphere. These are worth spending a few hours slipping away into leisure bliss itself - since the Japanese-themed onsens have multiple different rooms from saunas to hot water springs to even nap rooms. 

Of course, for those looking for a night out - this corner of District 1 makes for a belligerent time too - you will be spoiled for secretive sake bars, karaoke rooms, and various small drinking joints. Just like in Tokyo, you'll definitely catch a Japanese salaryman (who's an expat in Saigon) tipsying in and out of these joints on any given night.

© Logan Ly

To find "Japan Town" in Saigon's District 1, you can follow these directions: Start by making your way to District 1, which is the central district of Ho Chi Minh City and home to many of the city's key attractions.

Once you are in District 1, look for Pham Ngu Lao Street or De Tham Street, which are the main streets in the neighbourhood. You will find many Japanese restaurants, supermarkets and shops on these streets, as well as many other businesses that cater to the Japanese expat community. But officially, the red pillars opening into the alley at “8A Thái Văn Lung, Bến Nghé, Quận 1” serves as somewhat of an official entrance into the hidden neighbourhood of Saigon’s Japan Town. 

© Logan Ly

Overall, Saigon’s Japan Town in Ho Chi Minh City is a great place to discover for locals, expats and travellers if you're interested in experiencing a unique blend of Japanese and Vietnamese cultures. Whether you're looking for mouthwatering food (seriously, the ramen here are next level), interesting shops, or a place to kick start the evening, Japan Town is a true hidden gem in Saigon. 

If you are visiting Ho Chi Minh City, then staying in Saigon's District 1 is already a good start to your adventures here! But to top it off, if you want to be in walking distance to the landmarks and Japan Town, staying nearby this neighbourhood or even in it makes for a great base. Whenever I have family or friends visiting me, they usually stay at the Lancaster Saigon - which is a fully-serviced apartment (think Airbnb… but with all of the hotel luxuries). A quirky hotel alternative is the “Prostyle Hotel Ho Chi Minh プロスタイルホテルホーチミン” which has a fantastic rooftop pool to take in the views from. And if you want to stay smack dab in the middle of Japan Town, WE HOME Thai Van Lung makes for a great abode as it’s super affordable for any budget.

© flickr/ Marco Verch

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