Es­cape Ho Chi Minh City

Sip cock­tails at rooftop bars, feast on ex­quis­ite cui­sine , tour grand boule­vards and colo­nial buildlings. Wel­come to HCMC

Sunday Territorian - - FRONTIER - STORY JOHANNA LEGGATT

Ho Chi Minh City is the per­fect ex­am­ple of a des­ti­na­tion that has found its sweet spot. It’s de­vel­oped enough to be ex­plored, but is not so over­run with tourists as to be de­nuded of all charm. It of­fers con­ces­sions to com­fort and luxury, but re­mains chaotic and fas­ci­nat­ing in equal mea­sure.

Sure, there are the big chain ho­tels, but they are evenly matched by the colo­nial stal­warts: Rex Ho­tel, The Con­ti­nen­tal, The Ma­jes­tic and Grand Ho­tel, all dis­play­ing their his­toric birth­dates on their brass plaques.

There are plenty of tourists and ex­pats, too, but they are still greatly out­num­bered by lo­cals on mo­tor­bikes, who give scant at­ten­tion to road rules and mount the side­walk with im­punity.

It’s also a city on the move. A metro sys­tem is be­ing built to ease traf­fic prob­lems and there are plans to cre­ate a “Lit­tle Sin­ga­pore” food area in Dis­trict One — the city’s cen­tral ur­ban dis­trict — to sup­port lo­cal traders.

Fur­ther­more, Jet­star and Sin­ga­pore Air­lines fly from Dar­win to Ho Chi Minh City via Sin­ga­pore, pro­vid­ing plenty of flight op­tions for Top En­ders.

Here are some of the best rea­sons to visit: THE AR­CHI­TEC­TURE The wide boule­vards and the old gov­ern­ment build­ings, painted in dis­tinc­tive man­darin and white, are old-school Saigon, and stand as the last ves­tiges of the city’s French colo­nial days. With­out these grand build­ings, Ho Chi Minh City would feel in­dis­tinct from any num­ber of Asian cap­i­tals.

At the heart of Dis­trict One is The Ho­tel Con­ti­nen­tal, which dates back to 1880, and rou­tinely housed writer Gra­ham Greene in room 214. There is a won­der­ful side­walk cafe where you can en­joy a drink while look­ing out onto the old Saigon Opera House, which is ex­actly what scores of cor­re­spon­dents and politi­cians did dur­ing the war years.

The nearby Cen­tral Post Of­fice is per­haps the grand­est colo­nial-era build­ing of them all, with its gothic and Re­nais­sance over­tones, and it is right next to the stately Notre-Dame Basil­ica, built en­tirely of ma­te­ri­als im­ported from France.

Also worth a look is the at­trac­tive In­de­pen­dence Palace, where the first Com­mu­nist tanks ar­rived in Saigon in 1975 by crash­ing through the gates. It’s also a beau­ti­ful ex­am­ple of 1960s ar­chi­tec­ture. THE FOOD It should come as no sur­prise that the food in Ho Chi Minh City is full of flavour and abun­dant, with lots of fresh herbs (you will never see so much Thai basil), sprin­kled on or stuffed in pan­cakes, pho and Viet­namese baguettes, known as banh mi. Many trav­ellers rave about Pho Hoa, on Pas­teur St in Dis­trict One, which is a slightly more up-mar­ket ver­sion of street hawker grub, so a safer bet for trav­ellers.

If you’re af­ter a mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Viet­namese cui­sine, head to Pro­pa­ganda Café, be­hind the Notre-Dame Basil­ica, where de­li­cious banh mi, rice dishes, sal­ads and spring rolls dom­i­nate.

Ngoc Chau Gar­den Home Cooked Viet­namese Res­tau­rant is a pop­u­lar choice among both lo­cals and trav­ellers, but be pre­pared to queue at peak times. Ho Chi Minh City is also home to some great Thai and Malaysian dishes.

Head to Nha Hang Lac Thai and The Golden Ele­phant, both in Dis­trict One, for some rea­son­ably priced cur­ries. The Pe­nang curry at The Golden Ele­phant is ex­cep­tion­ally good. THE MASSAGES One of the first things you no­tice when you step out­side of your ho­tel is the num­ber of mas­sage par­lours, em­ploy­ing the mod­ern moniker of “well­ness spas”. In fact, ex­pect to be en­ticed on street corners by hawk­ers invit­ing you up for a hot stone mas­sage/ pedi­cure/man­i­cure or some mind-bog­gling com­bi­na­tion of all three.

You would be mad not to en­joy a bit of pam­per­ing, but it pays to do some re­search first be­cause — if in­censed Google re­views are any­thing to go by — not all mas­sage treat­ments are of a high stan­dard.

If you want to play it safe, head to the fives­tar Car­avelle Ho­tel, which of­fers fab­u­lous massages, but they are among the most ex­pen­sive in the city: a 45-minute pam­per­ing will cost roughly $65. Or head to the im­mac­u­late Soi Spa, off the Nguyen Hue thor­ough­fare, which is staffed by a pro­fes­sional group of well-trained pum­mel­ers. They of­fer two types of massages: foot or a head and neck, and both are in­cred­i­ble. Each mas­sage starts at around $12 for 45 min­utes, and man­i­cures and pedi­cures are also avail­able. THE COCK­TAILS It’s easy to for­get what an at­trac­tive place Ho Chi Minh City is when you’re com­pet­ing for kerb space with mo­tor­bikes and the damp heat makes you want to es­cape into the near­est air-con­di­tioned shop­ping cen­tre. Which is why, come sun­down, the best place to be is at one of the city’s rooftop bars, en­joy­ing the evening breeze and ex­ten­sive cock­tail lists.

By far the best is the Saigon, Saigon rooftop bar at Car­avelle Ho­tel, which has a two-for-one happy hour from 4pm to 7pm, and was the meet­ing point for war cor­re­spon­dents in the 1960s. The stand­out cock­tail is the ly­chee mar­tini, but, re­ally, you can’t go wrong here.

If it’s a view of the Saigon River you’re af­ter, head to the wa­ter­front Ma­jes­tic Ho­tel, which does a de­cent Sin­ga­pore sling, while a more mod­ern rooftop bar can be found at EON 51 Heli Bar in the Bi­texco Fi­nan­cial Tower.

Other great rooftop bars are found at The Rex, The Grand, and The Sher­a­ton Saigon Ho­tel and Tow­ers. The cock­tails are not cheap by Viet­namese stan­dards (about $11 each), but still half the price of what you would pay in Aus­tralia.

Saigon, Saigon Rooftop Bar sits atop the Car­avelle Ho­tel Pic­ture: @CAR­AVELLE SAIGON/FACE­BOOK

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