The picture-postcard 'Paris of the East'

The picture-postcard 'Paris of the East'

Savouring the elegance of Ho Chi Minh City – and its exhilarating and wearying energy – is a prospect that could appeal to any traveller

A riverine city with bright lights and bustling boulevards, elegant hotels, and a stylish Opera House.

ImaginE a public holiday coming up with the appealing prospect of a long weekend away beckoning. Where to go from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap that’s convenient, tantalising and affordable? Ho Chi Minh City is the spot.

The locals still call it Saigon, while old Asia hands remember it as the “Paris of the East” – a riverine city with bright lights and bustling boulevards, elegant hotels and gourmet restaurants, fine shops, a stylish opera house and pretty women. What more could you want?

And it’s easy to get there. Ignore the rip-off flights and take the limousine bus service from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City for a mere US$12. Buses depart hourly from 6am onwards. Buy a ticket in advance, reserve a seat, and at no extra cost the bus company will pick you up at your hotel and take you to the bus station.

Choose a window seat and you can watch the countryside roll by as you head towards Vietnam’s biggest and funkiest city, crossing the Mekong River by the Neak Leung ferry where hawkers jostle around the bus selling fruits, drinks, fishes and dried insects.

The driving time is only four hours, but immigration procedures at the border take an hour and there is also a one-hour lunch stop, during which you can change money into dong – the exchange rate is about 17,500 dong to the US dollar. If you take the 7am bus, you’ll step out into central Ho Chi Minh City at 1 pm.

On arrival, stroll away from the taxi touts around the bus stop and pick up a Mai Linh, Vinasun or Vina Taxi a block or so away.

The metred fare to any central hotel will not be more than 30,000 to 40,000 dong.

Ho Chi Minh City has a wide range of hotels from budget to five-star. For a treat, consider the famous French colonial Hotel Majestic beside the Saigon River at the bottom of elegant Dong Khoi Street – the former Rue Catinat is the city’s Bond Street or Fifth Avenue. At around $150 a night, it’s not cheap, but the rooms are lovely, the location incomparable and the big buffet breakfast superb.

An economic alternative is the nearby Riverside Hotel (not to be confused with the pricey Renaissance Riverside), which has the same great location and offers spacious doubles from $60 to $80.

Travel between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh:

  • Getting to/from HCMC:
    The 40-minute flights from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to HCMC by Vietnam Airlines are criminally expensive at $294 with a return flight. Ignore them and take an express bus for $12 one-way. Use either Mekong Express, 87 Sisowath Quay at Street 102 (phone 023 427 518), or Sapaco Tourist, 309 Sihanouk Blvd at Street 274 (phone 023 210 300).
  • Accommodation:
    Majestic Hotel, 1 Dong Khoi St. Phone: (84 -8) 3829 5517. Fax: (84-8) 3829 5510. Email: [email protected]. Online: Riverside Hotel, 18-20 Ton Duc Thang St. Phone: 3823 1117. Fax: 3825 1417. Email: [email protected]. Online: Saigon Royal Hotel, 12D Cach Mang Thang Tam St. Phone: (84-8) 3829 4846. Email: [email protected]
  • Restaurants:
    May Bon Phuong, Cu Xa Do Thanh, 132/6 Vuon Chuoi, 335/5 Dien Bien Phu. Phone: 3833 4743. Luong Son, 31 Ly Tu Trong. Phone: 3825 1330. L'Etoile, 180 bis Hai Ba Trung. Phone: 3829 7939.

For an ace budget spot try the friendly Saigon Royal Hotel, which is not as scenically located but makes up for that in price and service. At $35 a night for a big double, it is hard to beat.

After checking in, you’re ready to explore. First, just amble around the downtown area, starting with Dong Khoi Street. At the top end is the wonderfully ornate opera house, where shows are remarkably cheap, and the evocative Continental Hotel, frequented by Graham Greene’s Quiet American. Around the corner is historic Notre Dame Cathedral, which is always overflowing on Sunday mornings.

Head down Dong Khoi towards the river, checking out the stylish shops and be sure to take a break in one of the excellent cafes – Java is my favourite with its exquisite coffee and delectable cakes.

Then, depending on your taste and energy level, visit the city’s other attractions like Ben Thanh Market, where, even if you buy nothing – and you’ll be lucky to get away with that – the atmosphere is worth soaking up.

From Ben Thanh, pick up a local bus to Cholon, the old Chinatown, and check out the temples and Old World ambience.

The War Remnants Museum is also a fascinating and sobering experience, which sets you up for a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a two-hour drive northwest of the city, where you can explore the subterranean maze used by the Viet Cong in the liberation war of the 1960s.

Top on my list of choice eating places is a gem called May Bon Phuong, where you can sample the exquisite barbecued chicken with five flavours or the small fish with eggs or the fish escalope. The bill for two is rarely more than 160,000 dong, or less than $10. If you take your own wine they don’t charge you to open it.

More well-known is Luong Son, an open-air barbecue-and-beer place where every dish is good and zesty, especially the deep-fried frog’s legs, the barbecued goat, and the speciality: tangy marinated beef (bo tung xeo) cooked on your own tabletop brazier.

Another great eatery that Cambodians will love is L’Etoile, which offers a three-course family dinner with French and Asian flavours for $12, or you can splurge on the four-course menu du chef for $20. This is the place to go for that special occasion.

Afterwards, consider a nightcap at one of the city’s famous rooftop bars, like those at the Hotel Majestic or the Rex Hotel where war-era journalists drank, or if you want a more vibrant scene hit the Caravelle Hotel’s Saigon Saigon Bar, where the city’s in-crowd gather.

Ho Chi Minh City has everything anyone could ask for.


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