A mix of history, culture, fine dining and motorbike tours await in Vietnam’s largest city, says Jane Archer.
Forty-three years ago, the world watched in stunned silence as a tank crashed through the iron gates of the Presidential Palace in what was then Saigon. The North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam had taken the city, ending the Vietnam War. Panic set in and scenes of Americans and South Vietnamese trying to escape filled the TV screens.
It’s all a far cry from what today is Ho Chi Minh City (it was renamed in 1976), where rooftop bars, swanky international hotels, chic restaurants and an ever-growing number of tourists are the order of the day.
Among them are both river and ocean cruisers – the former because Ho Chi Minh City is the start or end point for cruises on the Mekong, so naturally passengers stay a few days to see the sights; the latter because more and more ocean-going ships are calling there on voyages around Southeast Asia.
River ships dock in My Tho, about 90 minutes from the centre, although the vessels operated by Avalon Waterways and CroisiEurope can navigate the Chao Gao canal and take passengers into the heart of the city. Small ocean-going ships sail up the Saigon River and dock close to the city centre; big ships use the port of Phu My about 130km away.
The city will come as a culture shock for those travelling in Asia for the first time. It’s chaotic, noisy and bustling with people, cars and so many motor scooters laden with people and produce that something as simple as crossing the roads takes courage. The trick is to step out when there is a bit of a break in the traffic and walk slowly, allowing the bikes and cars to go around you.
It is possible to go it alone in Ho Chi Minh City as the historical centre, District 1, is compact, but a tour is the best way to learn about the history and culture. If coaches don’t appeal – and they are not ideal because of all the traffic – you can see the sights on a motorbike. You travel on the back of one, the guide follows on another. It’s great fun if a little scary at times.
Sightseeing highlights include the French-built Notre Dame Cathedral, the colonial-style Post Office and former Presidential Palace, now known as the Reunification Palace. The War Remnants Museum is both informative and distressing but unsurprisingly also very anti-American. Shoppers will love Ben Thanh Market, where you can buy everything from sandals to spices and haggling a price is all part of the fun.
Outside the city, tours visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, a vast network of underground burrows where the Viet Cong lived during the Vietnam War. You see the terrifying weapons and get to crawl through a tunnel.
After the war, Vietnam’s economy collapsed, there was no food and the people were starving. Not any more. Over the past 20 or so years a unique ‘Vietconomy’ has developed, allowing free enterprise to flourish within the Communist political system.
Investment has flooded in, buildings are going up everywhere and fabulous bars and restaurants are springing up throughout District 1 (confusingly still called Saigon).
One of the newest is SoHy, a restaurant and cocktail bar on the 25th, 26th and 27th floors of Centec Tower that would not look out of place in London’s West End.
There are plenty of others, including Saigon Saigon, on the ninth floor of the Caravelle Hotel, and the Chill Sky Bar on the 25th floor of Saigon’s AB Tower. The Rex Hotel’s rooftop garden is only on the fifth floor, but was where the US government held military press briefings during the war that were dubbed the ‘Five O’clock Follies’.
Visitors keen to try authentic Vietnamese street food should look out for Banh Mi – a baguette filled with pork, salad and pickles – but there are plenty of good restaurants serving authentic dishes including Lemongrass and Xu Restaurant.
For the best food in town, it has to be Vietnam House, the new restaurant opened by Australian celebrity chef and APT Ambassador Luke Nguyen, whose parents escaped Vietnam after the war. He has also opened a cookery school, Grain, above Xu Restaurant where you can join fun hands-on classes in traditional Vietnamese cookery.
THREE HO CHI MINH CITY CRUISES
River cruise with APT
APT – AmaLotus
Ho Chi Minh City-Siem Reap
April 5, 2019
Three days in Ho Chi Minh City includes dinner at Vietnam House, the Cu Chi Tunnels, a walking or motorbike tour of the city and a cookery class in Grain before a seven-night Mekong cruise.
River cruise with Avalon
Avalon Waterways – Avalon Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City-Siem Reap
December 9, 2018
This 15-day itinerary starts with three nights in Ho Chi Minh City and an included city tour, a cookery class
and trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Ends with three nights in Siem Reap.
Ocean cruise with Silversea
Silversea – Silver Shadow
Singapore-Ho Chi Minh City
November 24, 2018
Eleven days, three countries and two days to explore Ho Chi Minh City before flying home. Add-on tours include the Cu Chi Tunnels and a traditional junk cruise on the Saigon River.