Merging colonial architecture with a buzzy and contemporary restaurant scene, the river city formerly known as Saigon is seriously on the up, finds Blossom Green
Why go? Vibrant, youthful and oh so cosmopolitan, the largest city on Vietnam’s verdant south coast is ripe for exploration in December. As humidity eases and the rainy season gives way to temperatures nudging 30C, it’s the perfect time to visit. The festive season sees Ho Chi Minh City’s streets twinkling with all manner of decorations and fairy lights. On Christmas Eve, the city centre is pedestrianised and hordes of locals take to the streets to celebrate. Join the congregation at a dignified Midnight Mass ceremony at the historic Notre Dame Cathedral.
What to do Friendlier than Hanoi and grittier than Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City is the product of French colonialism (hence the Christianity) and progressive big business. The skyscrapers, trendy restaurants and high-end shops are as much a part of the scene as dramatic old palaces, pagodas and narrow alleyways. Head to energetic District 1 (one of 19 districts), where you’ll find lush parks, tree-lined boulevards, historical sites and the stunning French Quarter. Start with a stroll through lively September 23 Park, then embrace the throngs of motorbikes performing circus-grade balancing acts as they carry up to four people and follow the tide to Jade Emperor Pagoda. It’s one of the most atmospheric temples in the city and features both Taoist sculptures and Buddhist icons. Also worth a visit is Independence Palace dinhdoclap.gov.vn where the Vietnam War ended in 1975. For something lighter, Ben Thành Market is a must. Dating back to the 17th century, it is one of the city’s earliest surviving structures and home to an array of local ingredients such as rambutan (a prickly-skinned tropical fruit), pomelo (a citrus fruit) and piles of chillies, as well as fabrics and souvenirs. Be sure you stop and grab a bánh mì (French / Vietnamese baguette) along the way.
Where to stay? You would be hard-pressed to find a more opulent place to bed down than The Reverie thereveriesaigon.com hotel. Close to Times Square, it’s a potent mix of clashing patterns and high-end comfort. Expect floor-to-ceiling windows with knock-out views from the suites. The Alcove Library alcovehotel.com.vn is a great-value boutique option with classy, minimalist bedrooms. You’ll find it in District 3, an upmarket residential area filled with French villas and cafés. Further north, An Lâm Saigon River anlam.com has 15 suites along the waterfront. Once a chic private home, today it’s the quintessential urban retreat. The classic Park Hyatt Saigon saigon.park.hyatt.com overlooks the Saigon Opera House and has recently had a revamp that is bound to please Francophiles. We suggest booking a room with pool access.
Where to eat and drink? Temple Club templeclub.com.vn is an HCMC institution. Set in an 1880s guesthouse and bedecked with Asian antiques, it’s an inviting space that specialises in local cuisine – order the cha nuong la chuoi (grilled fish in banana leaf). Skewers skewers-saigon.com is a hotspot serving Mediterranean food with Asian influence. Go for the gazpacho, a light salad and one of the flavoursome grilled meat mains. On the banks of the river, The Deck thedecksaigon.com is our favourite place for a sunset-drenched alfresco supper. Expect glam cocktails at a reasonable price come happy hour, and simple, tasty plates along the lines of Vietnamese rock lobster, Phú Quoc prawn rolls and crispy chicken won tons. Book in advance for imperial-style Nam Phan khaisilkcorp.com, a four-storey villa specialising in Vietnamese classics such as thit heo kho to (braised meat in a clay pot),
pho (soup) and bo xao cai ro (stir-fried beef).
Time running out? A quick way to get a good overview of the city is from on high. Head to Rex Hotel rexhotelvietnam.com which has two public access pools with jaw-dropping views.
Trip tip Hair-raising traffic is the norm here. So is the tendency to overcharge tourists. For the brave, xe om (motorbike taxis) are a good choice for short journeys. The standard rate is around £1 but make sure you agree it with your driver before jumping on. If you prefer to avoid white-knuckle rides, or for longer journeys, take a licensed cab from Mai Linh Taxi. mailinh.vn
Currency is the dong. Time is seven hours ahead of GMT. Flight time is approximately 7 hours from Dubai. The cost to carbon-offset is $14.56. For more details visit climatecare.org
Emirates flies directly from Dubai every day. emirates.com
Vietnam Airlines flies via Yangon to Tan Son Nhat Airport every day. vietnamairlines.com
Vietnam Tourism is the go-to for handy information and tips for how to get around Ho Chi Minh City. vietnamtourism.com
Saigon: A History by Nghia M. Vo (McFarland & Co, $40) discusses the city’s 300-year history and development from a swampy Khmer village into the industrial metropolis it is today.