THIS month on April 30, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest metropolis, celebrates Liberation Day: the 38th anniversary marking the end of the American War and the country’s reunification of north and south. Still widely known as Saigon by locals and tourists alike, the former capital – dreamily named the “Paris of the East”, with its wide, Kapok tree-lined boulevards and French colonial architecture – is continuing to evolve at a rapid rate. Scores of young creatives – fashion designers, chefs, artists, musicians, hipster entrepreneurs – are flocking to HCMC. The city bursts with oomph and a modernity to rival Bangkok. Claire Knox visited the slick former capital – just a 40-minute flight or six-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh, a perfect Khmer New Year getaway.
Xin Chào, Việt Nam. We arrive at the city’s airport just over half an hour after leaving Phnom Penh. Gliding over the city is a treat: shiny, gleaming skyscrapers curl around the Saigon River, miles of lean Vietnamese apartment buildings sprawl out as far as the eye can see. Tan Son Nhat International Airport lies about seven kilometres from the bustling nucleus of the city, District One (there are a total of 24), where you’ll find the biggest attractions. Saigon is sans tuk tuks, so we opt for a taxi (Mai Linh and Vinasun are reliable) into town – we pay 250,000 dong ($12). Cambodia Angkor Air have return flights to HCMC for around $164, while Sorya and Capitol bus services have one-way tickets for around $10.
Late afternoons are the perfect time to explore the area, easily traversed on foot, but more exhilarating on the back of a xe ôm, or motorbike taxi. With almost five million motos on the roads, the traffic makes Phnom Penh look tame. Start on Đồng Khởi, where you’ll find the dome-roofed, ornate Central Post Office, designed by Gustave Eiffel, who lent his name to Paris’s most famous tower. Adjacent is another French remnant, the ruby-brick Notre-Dame de Saigon cathedral. Head east down Le Duan Street, flanked on either side by parkland where scores of young Saigonese hipsters sit in circles playing acoustic guitars, writing poetry and taking Instagram photos, and street-food vendors sell rice paper rolls. They fry up delicious Banh Trang Nuong: rice paper toped with pork, shrimp, egg, shallots, chilli sauce, grilled crispy and then folded over like a taco. Opposite is the concrete, iconic Reunification Palace (preserved now as a museum – 30,000 dong ($1.50) entry), the former home of the South Vietnamese president and where television cameras famously captured North Vietnamese army tanks crashing through its gates on April 30, 1975, marking the end of the war.
On the north-western fringes of District One on Dang Tat, architect Tran Binh has restored a derelict, French-colonial mansion into the dreamy, maze-like restaurant Cục Gạch Quán. The interior is decorated with antique furniture, 1960s maps, floating staircases, ponds, a cherry blossom tree and day beds swathed in fabric. The Jolie/Pitt entourage dine here when in town. The menu is superb: we devour melt-in-your-mouth fried silky tofu with lemongrass, shallots and chillies, caramelised pork in clay pots, soft shell crab roasted with salt and chilli, and crispy cactus beans sautéed in garlic.
Head to the skies:
Rooftop bars are sprouting around the city and are hugely popular with Saigon’s jet set. Start with the more modest and work your way up. The wonderfully kitsch fifth-floor bar atop the Rex Hotel, once a popular foreign correspondents’ watering hole, comes replete with neon lights, Mai Tais and cartoonish elephant statues. Later, dance to Latino tunes and listen to jazz at Ho Chi Minh institution, Saigon Saigon, nine levels above the pavement. The city’s most opulent, cooler-than-thou bar, Chill Skybar, is perched 26 floors up in the AB Tower on Le Lai Street. Soak up panoramic views of Saigon’s glittering skyline and major arteries stretching out across the metropolis from the outdoor bar. Be warned: the pretension is palpable. Hostesses parade bottles of Veuve Cliquot and Moet with sparklers attached to well-heeled patrons, the dresscode and door policy is strict (no flip flops here) and cocktail prices are steep – the cheaper varieties hover around 250,000 dong ($12). Still, the views are worth it. In direct view from here is Saigon’s tallest building, the spectacular 263-metre glass Bitexco Financial Tower – a symbol of the city’s booming business future (the 49th-floor observation deck is open until 10pm on weekends and 9:30pm on all other days).
You can’t visit Vietnam without sampling its national dish, pho. Bowls of steaming beef (bo) or chicken (ga) stock, seasoned with cinnamon, ginger, star anise, cloves and other herbs, are ladled from cauldrons on almost every street corner in the city. Saigon’s best version of pho comes with rare beef and cooked, pastrami-thin flank and slippery noodles, garnished with bean sprouts, chilli, lime, basil and coriander leaf. For those wary of street food, Pho 24, next to Ben Thanh Market (and scattered around the city) serves up a solid soup for around 40,000 dong ($2). With over 3,000 stalls, there isn’t much you can’t find at Ben Thanh, airier than many Southeast Asian markets. We haggle with a vendor for knock-off Mulberry clutch bags and textiles inspired by the H’mong. While at the market, pick up a cup of Ca Phe Sua Da, iced coffee. The Vietnamese take their coffee seriously. This is thicker and stronger than the Cambodian variety, brewed over a French drip filter and served over ice with condensed milk.
Those hipsters need a place to snap up their Cheap Monday stovepipes, mauve Converse high tops and reconstructed vintage paisley pinafores, and HCMC is teeming with stylish boutiques tucked down labrynthine alleyways. Thai fashion house and vintage-inspired shop It’s Happened to be a Closet (yes, you read right) has opened a store, café, restaurant and nail salon on Mac Thi Buoi street – think kaleidoscopic printed dresses, sequined T-shirts, crocheted shorts and flapper dresses with hefty price tags. Pick up floaty, printed skirts and Peter Pan collared shirts at Lam, hidden down a laneway off the same street. Villa Anupa on Dong Du Street sells high-quality, buttery-soft leather bags, encrusted with beads and semi precious gems. Đồng Khởi has long been Saigon’s main shopping drag, and it still delivers. Start at the Post Office and head south-east, passing international fashion houses like Cartier and Dior, huge shopping malls such as the Vincom Center and Parkson Plaza and countless silk boutiques selling slinky áo dais and tailored dresses (Khai Silk has a good reputation.) Florist-turned-fashion-designer Mai Lam returned to Saigon from Australia in the early ’90s and now displays her exquisite, hand-embroidered shirts, military jackets (homage to her father who was tortured and killed under French colonial rule) and bold, geometric dresses in her Đồng Khởi boutique, which could easily pass as an art gallery. Just around the corner is the celebrated Hotel Continental, where Graham Greene lived while penning The Quiet American. Stop for a lime soda at the hotel’s outdoor terrace.
Further down the street are cute stationary shops selling Vietnamese propaganda art and the uber-chic lifestyle emporium L’Usine. Peruse racks of silk dresses with embroidered collars and fitted high-waisted shorts by French-Vietnamese designer Linda Mai Phung, sneakers and suede loafers by LA label Clae and other hip brands. With another outlet on Lê Lợi Street, L’Usine serves up buttery croissants, macaroons, salads and excellent flat whites. Hang a right once you get to the Saigon River and stop for lunch just below the Bitexo tower on Ham Nghi Street at Nhu Lan bakery. The Bánh mì, Vietnam’s interpretation of a ham and salad baguette, here is delicious: crusty bread packed with deli meats or grilled pork, pork liver pate, pickled vegetables, onions, coriander, shallots and fish sauce, just 20,000 dong ($1) each. Catch a xe ôm to the corner of Pasteur Street and Lê Lợi Street, where you can find bohemian, breezy linens at SONG and bright printed cotton shirts, dresses and silks at boutiques like Chi Chi, Bunga and Magonn. Saigon Center, just across Lê Lợi, is the place to go for high street and discounted designer labels like French Connection and BCBG.
The War Remnants Museum houses harrowing documents and images of the French and American Wars and is one of the most visited sites in the city. The History Museum displays artefacts dating as far back as the Bronze Age in a lovely 1929 colonial mansion, and in Saigon’s Chinatown, Cholon, ancient temples still reside amongst traditional medicine shops and a great local market. The Cu Chi Tunnels – the 200-kilometre network of passages, rooms and hospitals built by the Viet Cong during the war – are worth a visit, but at 70 kilometres out of the city, will take you half a day.
Le Bouchon on Thai Van Lung is a lively, French bistro serving up delectable, Gallic fare with celebrity chef David Thai (of Vietnam Ironchef fame) at the helm. The French onion soup, a layer of cheese cooked golden brown atop it, is excellent, as is the foie gras terrine, swordfish carpaccio and baked seabass. Complimentary glasses of sparkling wine on arrival are a nice touch.
Chả cá, a fish dish made famous by Hanoi institution Chả cá Lã Vọng, is mouth-watering: waiters bring tumeric marinated fish fillets, dill and shallots to your table, which you fry with green vegetables, spring onions and fish paste, then toss with fresh vermicelli noodles, peanuts and herbs. The dish is worth the two-hour flight to Hanoi; however, Chả cá Lã Vọng have ingeniously opened a Saigon branch of the same name on Ho Xuan Huong Street in District Three.
Stop at any of the numerous Bia Hoi corners in the city for ridiculously cheap (30-40 cents) local beer and an energetic atmosphere. Saigon Outcast, on Nguyễn Văn Hưởng in District Two, could have been pulled straight out of Shoreditch – the bar/open air cinema/skating hub comes with a grassy lawn, swings, stacked shipping containers, a half pipe and a barbecue. Young owners Ha and Linh host weekly jamming sessions, “secret garden” parties, street art competitions and “how to build a pizza oven” workshops. If hedonism is what you seek, head to backpacker hub Pham Ngu Lao, which never sleeps, or the legendary Apocalypse Bar Club on Thi Sach Street.
Bánh cuốn (literally “rolled cake”) makes for an excellent, light breakfast. Head to Món Ngon Việt on Hàm Nghi Street in District One, where a chef sits outside steaming slippery rice crepes, filled with shrimp and pork mince, minced mushroom and shallots, and served with bean sprouts, cucumber, herbs, crushed peanuts and nước chấm (fish sauce) to dunk it in for just a dollar.
Art and Pancakes:
Saigon is teeming with contemporary art. Sàn Art is an independent, artist-run exhibition space in District Binh Thanh. Last year, an in-residence “laboratory” program showcased artists Tuan Mami, Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai and Truong Cong Tung. Galerie Quynh on District One’s De Tham Street shows installation works by Tiffany Chung and vivid, abstract paintings by Hoang Duong Cam.
Tucked away down Dinh Cong Trang Street in District Three is Quan Banh Xeo, a pancake restaurant popular with locals from all walks of life. A gigantic, crescent shaped pancake is filled with morsels of grilled pork, prawns, bean sprouts and nuts dunked in fish sauce. The ban xeo here are perfect: the pancake light and lacey and lettuce cups to scoop it up with, folded like origami, giving it a crunchy texture.
Where to Stay:
Apartments are a good option for families or bigger groups. Norfolk Mansion on Ly Tu Trong Street have modern rooms with a kitchen, lounge and balconies overlooking the city. The swimming pool and handy location is a bonus. Two bedroom apartments for three people with breakfast are about $170 a night on agoda.com. Rooms at the historic Continental Hotel, overlooking the Opera House, come with high ceilings and elegant furnishings. Superior rooms for two people go for about $100 a night.
Rooms in the backpacker hubbub of Pham Ngu Lao can be snapped up for as little as $10 a night, however pay a little more for a Superior Double room ($30) at Ngoc Minh for aircon, spacious rooms and breakfast on their rooftop terrace.