Ho Chi Minh City is a place of history and enchantment; one that captivates the imagination with both tradition and elegant new trends.
Originally named Saigon of course, the city’s wide boulevards and sidewalk cafes once earned it the title of the ‘Paris of Asia’ and while those boulevards and sense of history still remain, a surprisingly growing contemporary culture from shopping to retro bars and fine dining options is emerging yet with a far less hectic pace than Bangkok. Ho Chi Min City is an ideal destination for an authentic cultural experience (and is only a short flight away from Bangkok, for those with a flexible itinerary).
There are a number of things Vietnam is known for, it’s cuisine being the main one such as Pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup, pronouced ‘Fuh’) and it’s delicious pork rolls available just about everywhere along with a wide range of culinary dishes guaranteed to put hairs on your chest like fermented scorpion wine or deep-fried snake. If you are extra-keen and not with PETA, you can have the snake killed in front of you (while the true renegades feast on the still-beating heart). Reputable hotels can point you in the direction of a good restaurant with such creatures on the menu, or look out for glass bottles of snake wine known as Ruou thuoc at most markets (the venom is neutralised by the ethanol).
Hairy chests aside, make a stop at the Ben Thanh Market either in the day-time or during the night markets. This enormous, indoor market in District 1, is cris-crossed with maze-like alleys filled with roughly 3000 tiny shops and stalls. The outer ring of Ben Thanh is a good place to start, but once you are comfortable with the crowds, wander inside for an amusing escapade amongst the locals though but prices can often be inflated for tourists. The lesser-known alternative Tan Dinh (also in district 1) specialises in silks and clothing material.Dong Khoi Street in the old French Quarter of District 1 is a street lined with delightful shops and colonial mansions now converted to haut dining venues. Also known as Silk Street, Dong Khoi has been gaining fame of late as the place to find custom tailored silk clothing in styles from traditional Vietnamese attire to suits, dresses and hand-made, high-quality one of a kind jewelry.
By the time the afternoon rolls around on any given day, you are guaranteed to find more than a few locals on street corners and in ramshackle bars across the country, knocking back fresh beer made that day. Bia hoi : Vietnam’s answer to microbrewing, a tradition coming from the Czechs way back when. It’s free of preservatives and therefore should be consumed rather quickly given the humidity and keep in mind that the standard can vary greatly but at about US¢25 a glass a fun time can be had when seeking to find the best.Look out for the ubiquitous hand-scrawled Bia Hoi signs around 3pm.
Of course much like a ‘Singapore Sling’ at the Raffles Hotel has to be done, a drink at the famous Saigon Saigon bar at The Caravelle Hotel is in order. It was from this bar, during the final days of the Vietnam War, that journalists could see the front line from their bar stools – cold beers in hand. By the mid-70’s many journalists were covering the action without even leaving those stools.
The Caravelle,- also on Dong Khoi Street – forms an integral part of Ho Chi Minh city’s historic past and now prides itself on offering traditional refinement in an ambiance that is welcoming, sophisticated and understatedly elegant. It was refurbished in 1998 from the original French architectural design to its current, chic interior earning it the title of the Best Luxury Hotel Award three years running, making it the leading five-star hotel in Ho Chi Minh.
As you would expect, there is much more left over from the ‘American’ war as it’s known locally. 70km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City are the Cu Chi Tunnels, a 200km underground maze of deep, airless, water pipe-sized holes up to three ‘storeys’ and 15ft deep , where Viet Cong soldiers lived, fought and hid from American and South Vietnamese troops. The tunnels have been widened considerably to accommodate the varying girths of travellers and there are exhibitions containing the infamous torture traps the Viet Cong used: leaves covering a bed of foot-long bamboo spikes, and a rolling set of spiked poles ready to snare a soldier up to his waist while back in Ho Chi Minh, the War Remnants exhibition is where Nick Ut ‘s time-stopping photo Napalm Girl still hangs. Needless to say, it’s just as poignant standing there staring at it as it is in newspapers and computer screens.This year being the 40th anniversary of the end of that war, it’s even more profound and is a testament to the resolve of this magnificent country.
After my tunnel experience, it was time for some atmosphere and charm and I certainly found it in a Chinese temple turned upscale restaurant and bar known as The Temple Club (Ton That Thiep St). Highly recommended is the tom me – a dish of prawns in tamarind sauce – and the Hanoi-style cha ca: fried monkfish followed by banana coconut cream pudding, served with sesame seeds.
There are a few places such as The Temple club though Ho Chi Min City has also embraced the retro/indie bar ethos with a strong vigour and with a wealth of cultural and historical mish-mash (French, Chinese and American) influences over the last 100 years time it’s almost to be expected.
The Vespa sofa bar for example, with vespa saddles as bar seats and an actual Combi van inside the venue features in many a blog post regarding it as a great night out making a nice change from the usual bars in the backpacking street and similarly, Saigon Outcast is a kind of Viet take on Hipster-ism with skate areas and street art incorporated into it’s surrounds though it’s a 20 minute cab ride out of the city so check if an event is on before committing to it.
Propaganda on 21 Han Thuyen, District 1 is the place for new directions in Viet fusion-food sitting perfectly beside the re-unification palace, at the very least stop for a mint lemonade, you won’t regret it. Equally special is the Chill sky bar on the 26th floor of the AB Tower on 76A Le Lai which much like any Skybar has a dress code but with the view and the atmosphere, this is a moment.
A little closer to the ground level both in real and economic terms is Broma, a hip little bar set inside an old French-colonial-period building on 41 Nguyen Hue. With skyscrapers on either side of you, the contrast and juxtaposition of time vs money stays with you all night.
There is no doubt that Ho Chi Min City is both an exciting, post-colonial destination and a rapidly developing city but it’s as much the areas outside the hub that make Vietnam the ideal destination.
Getting to Hanoi by train or The Reunification Express, Vietnam’s north-south line is not exactly a dream mode of transportation where standards are concerned but little about it has changed so it’s pretty unique. Built during the period of colonial French-Indochina and mostly destroyed during the War , it was re-opened in 1975 and boasts some magnificent views along the way.
A ticket from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min is around US$45 depending on when you go and can be booked 60 days in advance. There is the option of the soft sleeper; named as such because of the mattress as opposed to wooden planks. Make sure you check this when you book as being charged for one and getting the other is common but aside from this, an incredible journey awaits.
About 4 hours bus ride out of Hanoi through farmlands and towns in the Red River Delta is the famed Halong Bay in the Quang Ninh Province . It covers about 1553 square kilometres containing 775 islets formed mostly of limestone over a 500 million year period. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 and for very good reason: This breathtaking landscape unfortunately gets around two million visitors a year so don’t plan on having an idyllic paradise to yourself unless you want to get physical and explore the bay using kayaks, which if you are, you can do a two night tour for around US$150 which will see you strap on headlamps and paddle into numerous dark caves with bats hanging from the roof. Paddle around the bay through another cave and into a lagoon surrounded by limestone cliffs before and you’ll soon arrive at Bai Tu Long Bay and Vung Ha beach. Depending on the tour you are on you may stop at Sung Sot (surprise) cave on Bon Ho Island which receives a fair share of the 2 million visitors I mentioned but the view and the brief history lesson is more than worth it .
If luxury and a fixed itinerary is what floats your boat (sorry), a luxury Chinese-style junk is hard to beat. There’s also some luxurious paddle ships, based on a French craft from the early 20th century but one thing you should bear in mind: Often a ‘two day’ tour can involve less than 24 hours actually on a boat after taking travel from Hanoi into account so a bit of research can make the difference as some tours can be a few hunderd dollars (US) per person.
When it comes to incredible landscapes, centuries of history and architecture along with an impressively cosmopolitan capital city, Vietnam is somewhere that I imagine will stay special for a long time.
Scott Griggs is a 24 year old British Backpacker who
“…needs to pull his finger out and start a blog”.