48 hours in: Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam's biggest city packs in fresh flavours, French relics and a futuristic skyline
Chris Leadbeater is a full-time travel journalist who has written for The Independent since 2009. He specialises in the USA, South America and Europe, but has covered destinations as varied as Mozambique, New Zealand, Indonesia and Lebanon. Prior to becoming a travel journalist, he worked as a music writer and for men's magazines.
Friday 15 February 2013
Why go now?
The dry season in the southern portion of Vietnam runs from December to April, making now the ideal time to visit the country's biggest metropolis. The city will also be in party mode on 30 April. Liberation Day celebrates the anniversary of the end of the American War and the reunification of the two halves of Vietnam in 1975.
British citizens travelling to Vietnam require a 30-day tourist visa to enter the country. It costs £38 through Vietnam's embassy in London (020-7937 1912; vietnamembassy.org.uk).
Tan Son Nhat airport (hochiminhcityairport.com) sits 7km north-west of the centre of the city. Vietnam Airlines (020-3263 2062; vietnamairlines.com) offers the sole direct service from the UK – twice weekly from Gatwick.
Indirect options include Air France (0871 663 3777; airfrance.co.uk) and Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) from a variety of UK airports via Paris and Dubai respectively; and Singapore Airlines (020-8961 6993; singap oreair.com) and Qatar Airways (0844 846 8380; qatarairways.com) from Heathrow and Manchester via Singapore and Doha respectively.
Malaysia Airlines (0871 423 9090; malaysiaairlines.com) flies from Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur.
Transfers will be included if you are on a wider tour. I travelled with Wendy Wu Tours (0844 875 2433; wendywutours.co.uk), which sells an 18-day Vietnam Highlights package from £2,590pp. Taxi firm Mai Linh (00 84 8 232 323; mailinh.vn) has a booth in the arrivals hall. Cabs to the centre cost 200,000 Vietnamese dong (£6), taking 15 to 30 minutes. Bus 152 runs to the main bus station (1) on Tran Hung Dao street, for V$5,000 (15p), during daylight hours.
Get your bearings
Although it has borne its official name for almost 40 years since Vietnamese reunification (it was the capital of the anti-communist, American-supported South Vietnam), Ho Chi Minh City is still largely referred to by locals as Saigon.
It straddles the Saigon River in the south of the country, north-east of the Mekong Delta. It is split into 24 districts, but District One – the core of the French colonial city of the 19th century – holds the key sights.
Taxis are the easiest method of transport – Mai Linh (green and white livery) or Vinasun Taxi (white livery; 00 84 8 3827 9259; vinasuntaxi.com) – and far safer than the informal motorbike rides (xe om) that can be hailed. The centre can also be covered on foot. There is no tourist office – but vietnamtourism.com is a solid resource.
The Asian Ruby Hotel (2), a comfy mid-range option in a good location at 26 Thi Sach (00 84 8 3827 2839; asianrubyhotel.com), has doubles from V$1,176,000 (£35), room only.
The Grand Hotel (3), an elegant French colonial relic of 1930 at 8 Dong Khoi (00 84 8 3915 5555; grandsaigonhotel.com) has doubles from US$106 (£68), with breakfast.
The Caravelle Hotel (4), a five-star landmark dating to 1959 at 19-23 Lam Son Square (00 84 8 3823 4999; caravellehotel.com), offers doubles from US$182 (£115), room only.
Take a hike
Begin outside the Reunification Palace (5) at 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia (00 84 8 3822 3652; dinhdoclap.gov.vn). This concrete giant, the former presidential palace of South Vietnam, witnessed the symbolic end of the war on 30 April 1975 when a phalanx of North Vietnamese tanks smashed down its gates. It is now a museum (open daily 7.30-11am and 1-4pm; tours V$30,000/90p). Its echoing interior is all Cold War phones, map rooms and reinforced bomb shelters.
From here, stroll two blocks north-east along Le Duan, a leafy colonial boulevard. Turn right into Cong Xa Paris square and pass the red-brick cathedral of Notre-Dame de Saigon (6) before entering (at No 2) the Central Post Office (7), another splendid French leftover (open daily 6am-10pm).
If you leave the square at its south-east end, you arrive on to Dong Khoi, one of the city's key drags. Among the jewellery and fashion stores, you'll find the mega-mall of Parkson Plaza (8), just off the avenue at 41-45 Le Thanh Ton (00 84 8 3827 7636; parkson.com.vn). Diamond Plaza (9), at 34 Le Duan (00 84 8 3825 7750; diamond plaza.com.vn), does similar retail modernity, but there's a far more traditional vibe to Ben Thanh Market (10), a cluttered pocket of stalls, where you can buy everything from fruit to T-shirts.
Lunch on the run
Pop into Pho 24 (11) at 71-73 Dong Khoi (00 84 8 3825 7505; pho24.com.vn) where pho bo (the national dish of beef with noodles) is V$49,000 (£1.50).
The War Remnants Museum (12) at 28 Vo Van Tan, traces what happened to Vietnam during its turbulent 20th century (00 84 8 3930 6325; daily 7.30am-noon and 1.30-5pm; V$15,000/45p). Perspective is unsurprisingly one-eyed, but the bleakness cuts through the bias. US tanks and helicopters are lined up outside.
Next to the river at 1 Nguyen Tat Thanh, the Ho Chi Minh Museum (13) focuses on the man whose vision helped wrest Vietnam from foreign control. Open daily except Monday, 8-11.30am and 2-5pm (V$10,000/30p), it has a limited collection of personal artefacts.
For more depth, try the Vietnam History Museum (14) at 2 Nguyen Binh Khiem (00 84 8 3829 8146; daily except Monday, 8-11am and 1.30-5pm; V$15,000/45p), which dissects Vietnam's rich heritage back to the ancient Cham civilisation.
Stylishly metropolitan, ZanZbar (15) (00 84 8 3822 7375; zanzbar.com) at 41 Dong Du, serves cocktails such as the Zan-Z-Tini – mandarin vodka and cointreau, V$150,000 (£4.50).
Dining with the locals
Lemongrass (16), a colourful Vietnamese option at 4 Nguyen Thiep (00 84 8 3822 0496), puts the emphasis on seafood, with mains from V$100,000 (£3). Le Jardin (17) dreams of the French era with steaks in a garden setting at 31 Thai Van Lung (00 84 8 3825 8465). Meanwhile, Xu (18) at 71-75 Hai Ba Trung (00 84 8 3824 8468; xusaigon.com), pushes local cuisine into the 21st century.
Sunday morning: go to church
Notre-Dame de Saigon (6) (00 84 8 3822 0477) is so French that during its construction (1863-1880), every stone slab was came from Marseille. Open daily 8am-5pm (Sunday mass at 9.30am), it provides a calm presence at 1 Cong Xa Paris, its twin towers rear 58m above the square.
Of course, Vietnam is largely Buddhist, and the city provides another major religious site in the Xa Loi Pagoda (19). There is no special beauty to this compound at 89 Ba Huyen Thanh Quan (00 84 8 3930 7605; open daily 6-11.30am and 2-9pm), aside from its six-tier bell tower and the shrine to Thich Quang Duc, a monk whose suicide protest by self-immolation was captured by news cameras and became one of the 20th-century's most striking images. It took place four blocks south of the pagoda at Cach Mang Thang Tam and Nguyen Dinh Chieu (20).
A walk in the park
North of the immediate centre, the Botanical Gardens (21) at 2b Nguyen Binh Khiem were another French gift. Part of the Saigon Zoo complex (00 84 8 3829 3728; saigonzoo.net), this verdant space is open daily 7am-7pm, admission V$12,000 (35p). Dating to 1864, its tree-shaded lanes, where young couples stroll, could almost be Paris but for the tropical foliage and chirp of insects.
Out to brunch
A reflection of the city's increasingly international make-up, The Sushi Bar (22) at 2 Le Thanh Ton (00 84 8 3823 8042; sushibar-vn.com) deals in fresh Japanese fare.
Take a view
The city's future as a business hot spot is most discernible in the 263m Bitexco Financial Tower (23), near the waterfront at 2 Hai Trieu. This vision in glass looks like a fragment of Dubai. Its 49th-floor observation deck (00 84 8 3915 6156; saigonskydeck.com) opens 9.30am-9.30pm except Friday and Saturday, 10am-10pm, entry V$200,000 (£6). The view highlights the fast-evolving metropolis west of the river and the predominantly undeveloped east bank.
Icing on the cake
The Rex Hotel (24) at 141 Nguyen Hue (00 84 8 3829 2185; rexhotelvietnam.com), was the site of regular press briefings as the war turned against the United States. Weary reporters came to know these dispatches – infused with a growing self-denial – as "Five O'Clock Follies". These words now flash in neon above the hotel's fifth-floor Rooftop Garden bar – where you can enjoy a ginger mojito for V$160,000 (£4.75) and absorb the city's ceaseless ebb and flow from an outdoor seat.
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