Fast-paced and frenetic, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam at its most electrifying. Capital city Hanoi conceals its beauty behind a bevy of banyan, fig and flame trees, in a warren of ancient streets and in the elegant ‘Paris of the Orient’ villas behind tree-lined boulevards. The former Saigon, on the other hand, teases with its brazenness and pride. Its French colonial buildings are dwarfed by groves of skyscrapers; alcohol flows more freely in the louche night, thick with tropical stickiness, while the relentless tide of Hondas flushes some seven million Vietnamese on four million bikes through the city’s busy streets.
Saigon — as it’s still known by the locals — is insatiable. Big commercial interests (oil, construction, steel, textiles) and small industry (from shoe shiners to the beef noodle soup makers) power this southern metropolis, which, year on year, strides further towards the Mekong Delta as it gobbles swampland for homes, businesses, schools and roads. Every day, migrants arrive in the city, pinning their dreams on Vietnam’s economic powerhouse. Here, the sense of possibility is almost tangible.
Ho Chi Minh City’s powerful position was born of planning, plunder and providence. It began life as Prey Nokor, a small Khmer village surrounded by tiger-infested jungle. By the 17th century it was under Viet control; a citadel had been built, a canal system dug, the commercially savvy Chinese had arrived and French Catholic missionaries were at work. In 1859, France added Ho Chi Minh City to its colonial acquisitions. La plus grande France — evident in the wide boulevards, cafes peddling baguettes and pastries, ochre-splashed shuttered villas, and civic buildings like the Post Office, Opera House and Town Hall — made the city the capital of its new colony, Cochinchina. After the French were defeated by communist-nationalist revolutionaries in 1954, the country was split into two political halves; the US later swarmed in on an anti-communist mission, propping up the South Vietnam government during a savage internecine war. The communist north won in 1975 and Saigon was rechristened Ho Chi Minh City.
Now part of the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the former capital still marches to the beat of its own drum, with visitors required to submit to its thrilling, noisy, rampantly capitalist vortex. While immersed in the urban spin and the percussive thrum of the motorbike river, watch for the tableaux of stills — the cyclo driver napping in the shade of frangipani blossom; coffee drinkers perched low on plastic stools, penned in on pavements by the snouts of parked motorbikes; and the hairdresser snipping locks on the sidewalk with a cracked mirror pressed to a French colonial wall.
Reunification Palace: The feng shui-designed 1960s palace of the South Vietnam government is now a museum — with psychedelic carpets, bunker, and replica North Vietnamese Army tank (the original stormed the gates of the palace on 30 April 1975, heralding the end of the Second Indochina War).
Historic heart: The French transplanted Paris to the tropics. Visit the custard-coloured Ho Chi Minh City Hall, the paprika-hued Notre Dame Cathedral, beaux arts Central Post Office, wedding-cake-ornate Opera House, and the famous Hotel Continental Saigon, whose bar drew a gaggle of gossips, idlers, war correspondents — and Graham Greene — during Vietnam’s war-raddled 20th century.
War Remnants Museum: The horrors of the Second Indochina War distilled through the subjective lens of the winning side. Some of the photos, military hardware and torture tools require a strong stomach. baotangchungtichchientranh.vn
Chinatown (Cholon): Squished into the dense urban sprawl of Chinatown are the sweeping roofs of meeting halls and temples, encrusted with vivid ceramic friezes and figures. As Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and animism conflate, historian Tim Doling’s new Cholon tour expertly sheds light on the religious pantheon. historicvietnam.com
Cu Chi Tunnels: Twenty-four miles north west of the city are subterranean tunnels that sheltered communists from 1948 through to the 1970s. Around 75 miles of this labyrinth housed schools, hospitals and living space for 300,000 of those hiding — first from the French and later the Americans. Getting there by boat offers the chance to glimpse the busy Saigon River. saigonriverexpress.com
Cao Dai Temple: Travel writer Norman Lewis wrote in A Dragon Apparent that the Cao Dai Temple, 60 miles north west of the city, ‘must be the most outrageously vulgar building ever to have been erected with serious intent’. In doing so, he helped seal its fate as a key sightseeing stop. Its European-Oriental hybrid architecture erupts in a sea of lurid imagery — spiralling, whiskered dragons with bulging eyes wrapped around candy-pink pillars — dedicated to a home-grown religion that incorporates the teachings of Christ, Buddha, Taoism, Confucius, and Muhammad, among others.
Sophie’s Art Tour: Sophie Hughes, an art gallery manager-turned-guide, illuminates the city’s art scene with a tour exploring pieces from the French colonial era to the modern day, taking in museums, galleries, shops and avant-garde collectives. sophiesarttour.com
Street food tour: Aussie Barbara and her Vietnamese husband, Vu, organise trips to sample Ho Chi Minh City’s street stalls’ best pho (beef noodle soup), banh mi (baguettes with pate), broken rice, iced coffee, pastries and chè (dessert), while ensuring visitors lacking city know-how don’t make any cultural clangers. saigonstreeteats.com
Dong Khoi: The main shopping street, selling everything from silks to souvenirs and luxury brands in the heart of downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Mai Lam: Reworked ao dais (traditional women’s dress) and embroidered, vintage US Army gear feature in Mai Lam’s store-cum-gallery. mailam.com.vn
Liti: This small boutique is artfully filled with delicate embroidered fabrics, floral crockery, perfume bottles and antique knick-knacks — many hailing from the French colonial period. litishop.com
Saigon Kitsch: Vietnam’s propaganda art, with its bold colours, war vignettes and chiselled jaw lines, has been grafted onto eye-catching merchandise, including mugs, mouse mats, folders, cards, notebooks and drink mats. T: 00 84 8 3821 8019.
Anupa: Eco-boutique featuring handmade fish leather bags, chicken leg watchstraps, and cow leather evening bags, yoga bags, travel bags and nappy bags made in Vietnam by a British designer with an Indian background. anupa.net
Vietnam is a culinary nirvana where flavour, colour and texture combine to produce dishes of noodles, shellfish, salads and meats marinated and infused with spices and herbal elixirs. Eat on its street or in its restaurants for the full national repertoire.
£ Koto: The lunch menu at this training restaurant for disadvantaged youths includes Vietnamese cuisine highlights such as green mango salad with prawns, beef wrapped in betel leaf, barbecue pork ribs, plus soup and a dessert. All for the bargain price of 98,000VND (£2.91). koto.com.au
££ Hoa Túc: Set inside the courtyard of a former opium refinery, chic Hoa Túc serves up delicious modern cuisine like soft shell crab with passion fruit sauce, and spicy char-grilled beef with kumquat. hoatuc.com
£££ Blanchy Street: This new restaurant has made its culinary mark with Japanese-South American fusion food from former Nobu Berkley chef Martin Brito. blanchystreet.com
Like a local
Motorbike taxis (xe ôm): Fares are negotiable and it’s worth bargaining hard (drivers carry a spare helmet) because many journeys are cheaper in conventional taxis. Or hire one for a cruise; zooming about just for the hell of it is known as chay lòng vòng.
Coffee shops: Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of the coffee bean. It knows it and loves it and you can find purveyors of the caffeine-lover’s drink almost everywhere across the city — inside a florists, in a ‘cuckoo’s nest’, on the ground, inside an abandoned apartment building, or in fashionable French colonial villas. Young locals head to hole-in-the wall Phuc Long. 63 Mac Thi Buoi, District 1.
Bitexco Financial Tower: The city’s tallest skyscraper, at 860ft, opened in 2010 with a Skydeck costing 200,000VND (£5.95) to visit. Alternatively, head to the 52nd floor for drinks at the Alto Heli Bar — there’s no entrance fee and you can grab beers for around 60,000VND (£1.73). Surely a no-brainer.
Most first-time visitors prefer to stay in District 1, which encompasses the main sights, as well as the majority of restaurants, shops, bars and clubs.
£ Grand Hotel Saigon: Spacious and quiet rooms right on Dong Khoi — the main shopping street — in this historic hotel that’s undergone several upgrades since opening in 1937. The al fresco pool is a boon in humid Ho Chi Minh City. grandhotel.vn
££ Rex Hotel: An upgraded downtown hotel with a pivotal role in the nation’s history — its fifth-floor bar hosted press conferences during the Vietnam War. The new ‘deluxe’ rooms are very comfortable but steer clear of rooms overlooking the main roads. rexhotelvietnam.com
£££ Park Hyatt Saigon: No expense was spared when building this luxury hotel with a French colonial air — from the stylish Indochine rooms to the renowned Square One restaurant. The hotel’s location — directly behind the Opera House — makes it the perfect base for sightseeing. saigon.park.hyatt.com
Ho Chi Minh City sweats alcohol. From after-hour dive bars to cocktails in glitzy, glassy abodes, you can party till the wee hours with the city’s vibrant nightlife. Alternatively, take the coffee route, favoured by many Vietnamese.
Cún House Lounge: Tucked away in a hem (alley), this stylish architect’s studio is great for a quiet drink before heading a few blocks into town. Hem 36, Chu Manh Trinh, District 1.
Xu: Heaving with a largely expat and wealthy Vietnamese crowd, this popular bar wows with its liquid nitrogen cocktails and exotic Vietnamese mixes, including Sticky Mulberry — juice, sticky rice liquor and sparkling wine. xusaigon.com
i.d Café: Idling in cafes is all part of the Saigon experience. Hidden away upstairs, behind the central Ben Thanh Market, is this artfully designed cafe-cum-drawing room with gorgeous, mismatched upholstery and plenty of space to recline, eat and drink. idcafe.net
Vietnam Airlines flies direct from Gatwick. Emirates flies from Gatwick via Dubai. Etihad flies from Heathrow via Abu Dhabi. Malaysia Airlines flies via Kuala Lumpur from Heathrow. Singapore Air via Singapore from Manchester and Heathrow. Air France via Paris from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Heathrow, Newcastle and Manchester. vietnamairlines.com emirates.com etihad.com malaysiaairlines.com singaporeair.com airfrance.co.uk
Average flight time: 12h.
Walking is ideal for getting close to the action. But when you need to negotiate longer distances, there are lots of taxis and motorbike taxis, and a handful of cyclos. Vinasun and Mai Linh are the most-trusted taxi firms. Many drivers don’t speak English so it’s best to have your destination — including the district — written down.
When to go
November to April, when it’s cooler with temperatures around 27 C; summers can be unbearably humid.
Need to know
Visas: 30-day, single-trip visas can be bought on arrival for $45 (£27).
Currency: Vietnamese dong (VND). £1 = 34,000VND.
Vaccinations: Check with your GP prior to departure.
International dial code: 00 84 8.
Time difference: GMT +7.
How to do it
Buffalo Tours offers five-night city breaks, including Etihad flights from Heathrow, accommodation at the Grand Hotel Saigon and touring, from £900 per person. buffalotours.com
Footprint Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos, by Claire Boobbyer. RRP: £15.99.
Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)