x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

My kind of place: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Fly direct to this 300-year-old city, a gateway to Vietnam's culture and past.

Why Ho Chi Minh City?

While not the capital, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the commercial hub of Vietnam, a communist country that is rapidly transforming itself into a 21st-century powerhouse. The dark days of the Vietnam War are long gone; today, sleek office towers and luxury brands are being embraced by a young generation of educated urbanites and fashionable expats.

The city may be a young one, little more than 300 years old, yet in that time it has been a Khmer seaport, a French regional capital (it was the French who created the city's tree-lined avenues and parks), the capital of the wartime state of South Vietnam (1954-1976), and where the US military were headquartered. Each of these roles has left a legacy that gives HCMC (or Saigon, as locals still like to call it) its unique flair and architectural mix.

Every evening the city's streets, parks and restaurants are busy and crowded, which can be chaotic, but also captivating for anyone willing to spend some time in this city of eight million people.

A comfortable bed

Those wanting to rest in historical surrounds can book a few nights in Hotel Continental Saigon (www.continentalhotel.com.vn; 00 848 38 29 9201) in Dong Khoi. The landmark hotel provided the backdrop for much of Graeme Greene's novel The Quiet American, and was the heart of the city's social life during French colonial time from the moment it first opened its doors in 1880. Double rooms start from US$103 (Dh380) per night, including breakfast.

Among the international five-star chains, the Sheraton Saigon (www.starwoodhotels.com; 00 848 38 27 2828), set in the city's entertainment and business district, should be considered, if only for its 23rd-floor Signature restaurant that commands the best views of the city, especially at sunset. In fairness, the hotel's rooms and services are also top of the line. Double rooms start from $200 (Dh735) per night, including taxes.

Find your feet

Start at the Reunification Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral in Dong Khoi before walking south into the historical centre of the city to see some of the colonial-era architecture, finishing up at the grand 100-year-old Opera House. Next, take a motorbike ride over to Cholon, HCMC's Chinese district, to visit temples, traditional Chinese apothecaries and food markets. Stop at the dimly lit, 200-year-old Quan Am Pagoda (12 Lao Tu Street) to witness metre-long coils of incense being lit as worshippers come to pray.

To truly experience the city like a local, rent a motorbike for a day or two ($5; Dh18 per day), which requires nothing more than having a passport and nerves of steel.

Meet the locals

On weekends and in the evenings, the green areas around Notre Dame Cathedral become a gathering place for hundreds of residents, who happily approach non-locals to practise their English.

Enjoy an evening meal outside Ben Thanh Market, where locals flock after the market shuts down for the day. Tables are long and communal, making it easy to strike up a conversation with those sitting around you while watching the world go by.

Book a table

Fresh, succulent and reasonably priced food is one of the main reasons people keep returning to Vietnam. There are dozens of hole-in-the-wall restaurants and street stalls on every block that serve great food, from goi cuon (fresh spring rolls) to pho (noodle soup).

For an upmarket spin on Vietnamese cuisine, try Temple Club (29 Ton That Thiep). The stylish rooftop restaurant, housed in a colonial villa, offers excellent food (main dishes from around $20 [Dh73] a person) and a great atmosphere.

Huong Lai (38 Ly Tu Trong) is an airy restaurant staffed by former street children being trained so they can have a better life and future (mains from $8; Dh30).

Shopper's paradise

Most visitors will eventually end up swinging by Ben Thanh Market. The indoor bazaar first opened in 1914 and sells all manner of knock-off goods and cheap souvenirs, from lacquer bowls to Vietnamese coffee, wood carvings to ethnic clothing. Those looking for more expensive purchases can visit one of the growing number of malls appearing in the city, including Diamond Plaza and Parkson Saigon, which boast many international luxury brands.

What to avoid

Motorcycle bagsnatchers. Like any large city, HCMC has its problems with crime, though little involves intended violence. This doesn't prevent the occasional accident, however, especially those involving thieves who employ motorbikes to snatch bags and cellphones off pedestrians. This mostly results in lost possessions, but it does occasionally lead to victims being pulled into traffic by unyielding bag straps.

Don't miss

The War Remnants Museum, once called the Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes. Not for the faint of heart, it offers graphic proof of some of the worst incidents that took place during the Vietnam War. A collection of US tanks, planes and heavy artillery dating from the Vietnam War creates an imposing spectacle outside, but it is the displays of haunting photography, the accompanying stories of those who suffered through the war, and the cramped and medieval prison out back that 35 years ago held suspected guerrillas, that really hit home the brutality of the war.

Particularly striking is a permanent top-floor exhibition that features the work of journalists and photographers who covered the war, bringing together a collection of their most evocative imagery, describing the way they worked and commemorating those who lost their lives in the bloody conflict.

Go there

Emirates (www.emirates.com) will commence flights to Ho Chi Minh City from Dubai on June 4. A return flight costs from Dh2,770, including taxes.