Workspace cafés sit alongside Indochinese elegance and remnants of a bloody past in the lively, resilient and beautiful metropolis that is Ho Chi Minh City
Where to stay
The Reverie Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City is the new kid on a very competitive block, opening last September with an Italian flourish – mosaics, glitter, gold and oversized furniture (think Versace going out for a Christmas party). It’s opulent and loud but it works. The 224-room hotel sits at the centre of commercial hub District 1 and offers levels of service and luxury new to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).
Bedrooms are huge and the décor is more muted than in the public spaces. Every detail has been carefully considered – the king-sized beds are fitted with Frette linen, blackout blinds turn each room into a calm retreat from the buzzing city, bathrooms have Hermès products and from the tub you can either watch TV (one channel simulates a log fire) or enjoy the spectacular view. There’s a 10-room spa, a wonderful sixth-floor outdoor pool and three restaurants including the Royal Pavilion, which offers some of the best dim sum outside China.
Where to eat
HCMC is a food lover’s paradise with fare as delicious on the street as in the vast range of restaurants. Try L’Usine – an industrial chic café/design shop/working hub run by local entrepreneurs or head to Cuc Gach Quan, which serves locally grown, organic food in a Fifties building restored by local architect Tran Binh.
Take time out from the bustle in the serene Temple Club – an Indochinese restaurant and bar that has been central to the city’s dining scene for more than a decade. Popular for a nightcap or sundowner is Alto on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower and the Caravelle Hotel – a popular haunt with foreign correspondents in the war, who joked they could see the frontline from their bar stool.
What to see
HCMC has so much to see from the markers of its scarred history to the green shoots of its entrepreneurial future. Try to balance your sightseeing between the two. Walking is good (once you have sussed the moped swarms – see right) and the city is safe. A five-minute stroll along Nguyen Hue will take you to the Beaux Arts Saigon Opera House, the Central Post Office and Hotel Continental – a favourite of the international press corps during the First Indochina War.
Take a stroll up to the remarkable Reunification Palace, built in 1962 as a symbol of the South Vietnamese regime; the bunkers are preserved as they were when North Vietnamese tanks stormed the gates in 1975. Head back down to the 17th-century Ben Thanh Market where traders will do deals on everything from scorpion wine to Saint Laurent fakes and then weave your way back along the antique shop-lined alleys.
If you have a spare half day take a Les Rives tour to the Chu Chi tunnels – travel by boat along the Mekong river to the network of tunnels and bunkers dug by Viet Cong guerrilla fighters to provide communications and supply routes, food and weapon caches, and living quarters during the many conflicts.
The single most important thing to know about HCMC is how to navigate the mopeds – you step out, they will go round. It takes a day to get used to that, make sure you recalibrate before you return home! If you’re dining with locals, the senior diner pays for everyone and if going to a private home, remove your shoes when entering. And on the Saigon or HCMC issue: locals use both, Saigon more in conversation and HCMC formally.
For the flight
Gen up on the city before you arrive. Vietnam: Rising dragon by former BBC foreign correspondent Bill Hayton gives a great overview, covering everything from local life to the city’s complicated political structure. For fiction, try Lucy Cruickshanks’ The Trader of Saigon, a thriller about Eighties Vietnam and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, set in war-torn Indochina in the Fifties. The movie version is as good with Michael Caine superb as English journalist Thomas Fowler. If you’re a military history buff then, of course, Apocalypse Now, Platoon and The Deer Hunter are brilliant but bleak films from American perspectives. Both Lonely Planet’s Vietnam guidebook and Wallpaper’s City Guide Ho Chi Minh City make great companions.