HO CHI MINH CITY IS THE BEATING HEART OF VIETNAM. IT’S A TANTALIZING MAELSTROM OF BUSINESSMEN AND STREET VENDORS; BENTLEYS AND BICYCLES, WHICH HAS BEEN THE EPICENTER OF TRADE IN SOUTH EAST ASIA FOR CENTURIES.
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it’s known to locals, owes its prosperity to its location at the confluence of three major waterways and the Saigon River is still where the rich and famous work and play. Hail a cyclo (bicycle rickshaw) and ride next to its shimmering waters, before making a short detour to the peerless Galerie Quynh, a haven for established and emerging Vietnamese artists. For art of a more traditional nature, the Fine Art Museum is home to a fantastic collection of ancient Cham and Oc Eo relics.
Afterwards explore the river in style on one of the luxury speedboats operated by niche tour operator Les Rives. Whether you choose a shorter city tour or a full-day trip to the mighty Mekong or the fabled Cu Chi tunnels, you will get to experience a side of the city which very few get to see. Travel back in time as busy urban canals are swiftly replaced by evocative, jungle-fringed backwaters and business suits are traded for conical hats and loose-fitting robes.
In recent years a focus on the manufacturing and service industries has resulted in unprecedented growth and spending power for the city’s residents. Well-heeled businessmen can stock up on bespoke menswear at Massimo Ferrari Boutique which is owned by a renowned international designer who has worked at both Gucci and Armani. Ladies will delight in the off-the-peg creations at Valenciani, a fashionista’s paradise where timeless Asian silhouettes are given an haute couture makeover. If it’s elegant souvenirs you desire, three of the best stores are Authentique Home, Nagu and Savon de Saigon.
The Caravelle Hotel is Saigon’s most prestigious address and its rooftop has some of the best views in town. For something different and discreet, try the recently opened Alcove Library Hotel which – as the name suggests – is perfect for bibliophiles. Otherwise, there’s always the Hotel Continental, made famous by Graham Greene in The Quiet American. Its glory days may be behind it, but its curbside café is still the perfect spot to enjoy a ca phe sua da – traditional Vietnamese iced coffee lashed with condensed milk.
Architectural highlights include the Saigon Opera House, a flamboyant, rose-tinted building which still hosts regular ballets and the Notre Dame Cathedral, a 19th-century redbrick masterpiece which really comes alive on December 24 when the local Catholic community celebrates midnight mass. Another colonial gem is the elegant General Post Office which has been in continuous service since the 1880s. Its opulent vaulted ceilings are certainly one of the more glamorous places you’ll ever post a letter.
Of course, Ho Chi Minh City’s architectural heritage is nourished by but not confined to the French colonial era. The rhapsodic Reunification Palace is one of the most perfectly preserved examples of 1960s government architecture you’ll see anywhere in the world and the Jade Emperor Pagoda – built by the city’s Cantonese community at the beginning of the 20th century – contains exquisite gilt panels and a roof that positively groans under the weight of dragons, birds and animals.
One of the best things about Ho Chi Minh City is the quality and diversity of its cuisine. It’s entirely possible to eat delicious street noodles for breakfast, real South Indian curry for lunch and a ten-course French degustation menu for supper. Indeed, there’s no better way to start your day than with a bowl of pho (an aromatic beef or chicken noodle soup) at Pho 2000, a low-key joint near the Ben Thanh market which counts Bill Clinton among its patrons.
For Vietnamese cuisine in a far more sophisticated setting, Ly Club Saigon is hard to beat. Housed in an elegant villa with a charming courtyard, its ‘business lunch’ menu will take you on a tantalizing tour of the country’s unique flavors. Come dinner time, choose between La Villa, the city’s number one French restaurant and a bastion of fine dining, and The Deck Saigon a chic, riverside option which serves up innovative fusion food for the jetsetter crowd.
The weather in Ho Chi Minh City is always hot and sultry, so it goes without saying that its best desserts are all cool and refreshing. Sinh to, or smoothies, are a Vietnamese staple and while it’s tempting to opt for familiar flavors such as mango, banana and pineapple, why not be brave and try a surprisingly delectable avocado smoothie? Other must-try sweet treats are xoi kem (sticky rice and coconut flavored ice cream) and che chuoi (steamed banana in a delicate coconut sauce).
The weather in December is cooler and drier than it is at other times of the year, making it the perfect time to witness the hopes and dreams of the 10 million people who call Ho Chi Minh City home. Surprisingly for a Buddhist country, Christmas is most certainly acknowledged in Vietnam and the lights, trees and motorcyclists in Santa suits lend a decidedly festive air.
Ho Chi Minh City is the quintessential Asian Tiger, a dizzying whirlwind that breathes life into all who visit. You could be next.