My kind of place: The city formerly known as Saigon is a tasty mix of fantastic food, culture and quirky shopping, writes Lara Dunston.
Ho Chi Minh City is the Pearl of the Far East
Why Ho Chi Minh City?
Chaotic, brash and commercial, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam’s south feels more like Bangkok and less like the northern capital Hanoi. In the historic centre, sleek skyscrapers, sumptuous malls and exclusive boutiques like Armani are sprouting up between Chinese shophouses and French neoclassical edifices. Yet in the city that locals still call by its old name, Saigon, the historic sights, colonial architecture and atmospheric markets remain more appealing.
Nothing absorbs Saigon’s increasingly affluent residents like food. Stalls selling steaming soups occupy every street corner, while mobile vendors sell spring rolls and fried snacks. As soon as the Vietnamese finish one meal, they’re planning the next. Make eating a part of your stay and you’ll leave with more local insight than you’ll gain at a mall.
A comfortable bed
Ho Chi Minh City has superb five-star hotels in the central District 1, which is the most convenient area.
The elegant Park Hyatt Saigon (www.saigon.park.hyatt.com; 0087 8 3824 1234), behind the Saigon Opera House on Lam Son Square, is the most luxurious, with an opulent spa and lavish doubles from US$250 (Dh918).
The comfortable Caravelle (www.caravellehotel.com; 0084 8 3823 4999) is the most central, overlooking the Opera House. It played a central role during the Vietnam War, too, when foreign correspondents reported from its rooftop. Spacious rooms start at US$130 (Dh477).
Sleek, with plush rooms from US$100 (Dh367), the New World Saigon Hotel (www.saigon.newworldhotels.com; 0084 8 3829 4000) is handy for the Ben Thành Market and nearby antique shops.
Find your feet
Most historical monuments and museums are in District 1 and can be visited in a day. Close to the graceful Opera House, the Central Post Office dates to 1886 and was designed by the French architect Gustave Eiffel. Beside it, the French-designed Notre Dame Cathedral was built from 1877. A five-minute stroll through the leafy 30/4 Park brings you to the Reunification Palace, where you can wander breezy corridors admiring the 1960s decor while learning about the Vietnam War. Nearby, more graphic, heart-wrenching accounts of war crimes are exhibited at the War Remnants Museum. After dark, hire a cyclo to do the circuit again – Saigon is beautifully illuminated at night.
Meet the locals
Vietnamese coffee is excellent and locals love their cafes. Try home-grown brands like Trung Nguyên (www.trungnguyen.com.vn) and Highlands Coffee (www.highlandscoffee.com.vn). More charming is Au Parc (0084 8 3829 2772) in a shophouse overlooking 30/4 Park, where students socialise in the afternoon, strumming guitars. Meet local artists and curators on Sophie’s Art Tour (www.sophiesarttour.com, 0084 121 830 3742), which visits galleries, studios and the Fine Arts Museum.
Book a table
Local food is so fantastic, ranging from refreshing spring rolls and salads to hearty soups and stews, that there’s no reason to eat anything else. A bowl of pho soup on the street costs around 20,000 Vietnamese dongs (Dh3.48), while a meal for two in a restaurant should cost around 420,000 dongs (Dh73).
If you don’t fancy eating on plastic stools on the footpath, Quan An Ngon (160 Pasteur Street; 0084 8 3825 7179) does delicious street-food dishes prepared at cooking stations in the courtyards of the airy, colonial-style building.
The rustic Cuc Gach Quán (www.cucgachquan.com.vn; 0084 8 3848 0144), which architect Tran Binh has decorated to look like a country house, serves his grandmother’s homestyle cooking. Try pumpkin flower soup, succulent roasted chicken and fried morning glory.
Delectable dishes made from old family recipes also feature at May (www.may-cloud.com; 0084 8 3910 1277), served in flower-filled rooms in a lovely villa. Order banana flower salad with chicken, caramelised fish cooked in a clay pot with ginger or homemade coconut ice cream.
Dong Khoi and its surrounding streets is shopping central. Most shops open from 10am to 9pm. Ben Thành Market (Le Loi Street), for Vietnamese handicrafts and souvenirs, opens from 6am to 6pm.
On Dong Khoi Street, accessed by stairs hidden in an arcade, L’Usine (www.lusinespace.com; 0084 8 3521 0703) is a lofty, light-filled concept store and cafe with a carefully-curated selection of clothes, accessories and gifts, including the fashion label Trois Filles and Valérie Cordier’s recycled clutch purses.
Opposite, the idiosyncratic fashion of Mai Lam (www.mailam.com.vn; 0084 8 3827 2733) is inspired by Vietnam’s history, culture and crafts, features detailed appliqué, embroidery and embellishments stitched onto vintage army jackets and accessories made from recycled parachutes.
On Ton That Thiep Street, Saigon Kitsch (0084 8 821 8019) has wallets, notebooks, coffee cups, and mouse pads boasting colonial and communist imagery. Upstairs, Dogma (0084 8 3821 8272) has a rare collection of original communist propaganda art posters and clothes.
What to avoid
Getting run over by Saigon’s motorbikes. Stay alert, cross at lights or with locals, and maintain your pace. Bikes are used to manoeuvring around pedestrians.
Sample Vietnamese food on a guided walking tour with Saigon Street Eats (www.saigonstreeteats.com; 0084 908 449 408; 750,000 dongs [Dh131] per person) or on motorbikes with female guides with XO Tours (http://xotours.vn; 0084 933 083 727; 435,000 dongs (Dh76) per person) and learn to cook it at Saigon Cooking Class (www.saigoncookingclass.com; 0084 838 258 485; Gourmet Tour 955,000 dongs [Dh166] per person), which begins at Ben Thành Market to buy ingredients.
Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi. The journey time is about seven hours and return flights start at Dh1,549, including taxes.
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