Ho Chi Minh City is the perfect example of a destination that has found its sweet spot. It’s developed enough to be explored, but not so overrun with tourists as to be denuded of all charm. It offers concessions to comfort and luxury, but remains chaotic and fascinating in equal measure.
Sure, there are the big chain hotels, but they are evenly matched by the colonial stalwarts: Rex Hotel, The Continental, The Majestic and Grand Hotel, all displaying their historic birthdates on their brass plaques.
There are plenty of tourists and expats, too, but they are still greatly outnumbered by locals on motorbikes, who give scant attention to road rules and mount the sidewalk with impunity.
It’s also a city on the move. A metro system is being built to ease traffic problems and there are plans to create a “Little Singapore” food area in District One – the city’s central urban district – to support local traders.
Furthermore, from May, Jetstar will fly directly to Ho Chi Minh City from Melbourne and Sydney, opening up Saigon, as it is still known in many quarters, to a whole new band of travellers.
Here are some of the best reasons to visit:
The wide boulevards and the old government buildings, painted in distinctive mandarin and white, are old-school Saigon, and stand as the last vestiges of the city’s French colonial days.
At the heart of District One is The Hotel Continental, which dates back to 1880, and routinely housed writer Graham Greene in room 214. There is a wonderful sidewalk cafe where you can enjoy a drink while looking out on to the old Saigon Opera House, which is what scores of correspondents and politicians did during the war years.
The nearby Central Post Office is perhaps the grandest colonial-era building of them all, with its gothic and Renaissance overtones, and it is right next to the stately Notre-Dame Basilica, built entirely of materials imported from France.
Also worth a look is the attractive Independence Palace, where the first Communist tanks arrived in Saigon in 1975 by crashing through the gates. It’s also a beautiful example of 1960s architecture.
It should come as no surprise that the food in Ho Chi Minh City is full of flavour and abundant, with lots of fresh herbs sprinkled on or stuffed in pancakes, pho and Vietnamese baguettes, known as banh mi.
Many travellers rave about Pho Hoa, on Pasteur St in District One, which is a slightly more up-market version of street hawker grub, so a safer bet for travellers.
If you’re after a modern interpretation of Vietnamese cuisine, head to Propaganda Cafe, behind the Notre-Dame Basilica, where delicious banh mi, rice dishes, salads and spring rolls dominate. Ngoc Chau Garden Home Cooked Vietnamese Restaurant is a popular choice among locals and travellers, but be prepared to queue at peak times.
Ho Chi Minh City is also home to some great Thai and Malaysian dishes. Head to Nha Hang Lac Thai and The Golden Elephant, both in District One, for some reasonably priced curries. The Penang curry at The Golden Elephant is exceptionally good.
Modern Vietnamese dishes at Propaganda Saigon.
One of the first things you notice when you step outside of your hotel is the number of massage centres, employing the modern moniker of “wellness spas”. In fact, expect to be enticed on street corners by hawkers inviting you for a hot stone massage/pedicure/manicure or some mind-boggling combination of all three.
You would be mad not to enjoy a bit of pampering, but it pays to do some research first – not all massage treatments are of a high standard.
If you want to play it safe, head to the five-star Caravelle Hotel, which offers fabulous massages, but they are among the most expensive: a 45-minute massage will cost roughly $65. Or head to the immaculate Soi Spa, off the Nguyen Hue thoroughfare, which is staffed by a professional group of well-trained pummellers. They offer two types of massages: foot or a head and neck. Each massage starts at about $12 for 45 minutes; manicures and pedicures are available.
It’s easy to forget what an attractive place Ho Chi Minh City is when you’re competing for kerb space with motorbikes and the damp heat makes you want to escape into the nearest airconditioned shopping centre.
Which is why, come sundown, the best place to be is at one of the city’s rooftop bars, enjoying the evening breeze and the extensive cocktail lists. By far the best is the Saigon Saigon rooftop bar at Caravelle Hotel, which has a two-for-one happy hour from 4pm to 7pm, and was the meeting point for war correspondents in the 1960s. The standout cocktail is the lychee martini, but, really, you can’t go wrong here. If it’s a view of the Saigon River you’re after, head to the waterfront Majestic Hotel, which does a decent Singapore sling, while a more modern rooftop bar can be found at EON 51 Heli Bar in the Bitexco Financial Tower. Other great rooftop bars are found at The Rex, The Grand and The Sheraton Saigon Hotel and Towers. The cocktails are not cheap by Vietnamese standards (about $11 each), but still half the price you would pay in Australia.
The writer travelled at her own expense.
Jetstar will fly direct to Ho Chi Minh City from Sydney four times a week and from Melbourne three times a week from early May. One-way fares start at $259 from Sydney and $279 from Melbourne (checked baggage not included, conditions apply). jetstar.com
Most of the good hotels – Majestic, Caravelle, Rex, Continental – are in District One and the top attractions are in walking distance or a short taxi ride.
Dong Khoi is the main road through District One. For trips into other districts, take a taxi.