4 Hours In …
Saigon, as it’s still commonly known, has metamorphosed into a thoroughly modern metropolis of nigh on 10 million souls.
Ho Chi Minh City
1 SOPHIE’S ART TOUR
Once known as the Paris of the Orient, today’s Ho Chi Minh City is changing at a pace that would shame the most reckless of motorcycle taxi drivers. Business towers, office blocks, glitzy shopping malls, high-end real-estate developments, urban regeneration projects, visually stunning new bridges… you name it, Ho Chi Minh City has got it and is about to get much more of it.
To put all this dizzying progress in perspective, English émigré Sophie Hughes devised Sophie’s Art Tour which looks at Vietnam’s tumultuous recent history through the eyes of its artists. The timeline of colonialism, war, Communism, then breakneck free-market development is familiar to most visitors to the country, but the art it inspired is generally not. Hughes spent nearly a year researching the tour, interviewing experts, artists and collectors, and the result is at once a fascinating introduction to Vietnamese art and a compelling, if not inspirational, history lesson. Tel +84 121 830 3742; sophiesarttour.com
2 DAI NAM PARK
Often the Vietnamese are big fans of the “throw lots of stuff at the wall and see what sticks” approach to creating family entertainment. Nowhere is this ethos more evident than at this massive theme park about an hour north of Ho Chi Minh City. Here you can ride go-karts, stumble around in a haunted house, float in a giant artificial lagoon on rubber rings and check out one of Vietnam’s better zoos, all in a single day’s activity. And if you can’t bear to leave the place, there’s the option of bedding down for the night in the theme park’s hotel, which is housed inside a replica-sized slice of the Great Wall of China. Tel +84 650 351 2660, laccanhdainamvanhien.vn
3 CU CHI TUNNELS
Despite the freewheeling image of Vietnam today, for some the images of the conflict of a half-century ago are still etched deep. A reminder is located just outside Ho Chi Minh City at Cu Chi. Here an intricate network of tunnels – stretching for over 150 miles in Cu Chi District alone – enabled Viet Cong fighters to exert their influence over a huge rural area deep in the heart of US/South Vietnamese-
controlled territory. Today the depleted tunnel complex is one of Vietnam’s top tourist attractions. Although tunnels have been expanded to accommodate the larger size of Westerners, it remains a claustrophobic experience and one essential to comprehending the futility of the conflict. Vietnamtourism.com
A breath of sophisticated fresh air near Saigon’s backpacker district, Monsoon is a welcome addition to the city’s dining scene. While the airy setting and immaculate interior design give it the feel of a top-end venue, the restaurant stays true to the Asian street dining ethos of great food at low prices. With Cambodian, Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai and Laotian offerings all present, it’s the only place in town where diners can mix and match a banquet from across mainland Southeast Asia. Top picks include a sweet pork curry from Myanmar and a flawless take on Khmer fish amok. 1 Cao Ba Nha, District 1, tel +84 8 6290 8899
5 SAIGON AFTER DARK
Saigon is a city that rewards those who choose to dig a little deeper. Off the beaten track you’ll find hidden music venues, buzzing enclaves rarely visited by Westerners, and of course the city’s pièce de résistance, its amazing array of Vietnamese eating options. Saigon After Dark encompasses most of these unsung draws. Guests are driven around the city’s streets on the back of vintage Vespas in a voyage of discovery that steers well clear of the usual tourist brochure fodder. Zoom Café, 169a De Tham, District 1, tel +84 122 299 3585, vietnamvespaadventures.com
6 CHILL SKYBAR
Saigon’s most opulent skybar wasted no time in establishing itself as one of the hottest spots in the city after opening in October 2011. Designed by DWP Thailand, the firm behind the world renowned Sirocco in Bangkok, the bar justifies its lofty reputation with great cocktails and good food. The A-list Vietnamese celebrities and models who have made this their watering hole of choice may beg to differ, but the real star of the show is the stunning view over Saigon, which is utterly breathtaking. Tower, 76A Le Lai, District 1, tel +84 8 3827 2372, chillsaigon.com BT