48 hours in SAIGON
Ho Chi Minh City — to give it its official name — is the place to visit if Vietnam is on your holiday schedule. By Helen Coffey
WHY GO NOW?
With the pound being buffeted about by an ever more turbulent political landscape, Brits are fast running out of destinations where they can get bang for their buck.
Vietnam is still gratifyingly cheap — even the most luxury five-star hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, formally known as Saigon, can be bagged for around £125, while a private room at a clean, serviceable hostel costs in the region of £20 a night.
A three-course meal at a high-end restaurant comes in at under £15; a filling bowl of traditional pho costs no more than £3. All this comes in a hot, noisy, dynamic city that rarely sleeps, with a complex history and plenty of culture to soak up.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Ho Chi Minh City, on the south coast of Vietnam, is split into 19 districts, with the Saigon River curling its way across the middle. Much of the action takes place in District 1, which boasts most of the trendy restaurants and bars, plus the major market, Ben Thanh. North of 1, District 3 also has a buzz about it, while District 5, south of 1, is home to Ho Chi Minh’s Chinatown. Don’t be surprised (or disappointed) if you spend most of your time in District 1 — it’s undeniably where the party’s at. The Tourist Information Centre (0084 38226033) is here too, on the northeast corner of the roundabout at the intersection of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue.
TAKE A VIEW
Head for the Bitex- co Financial Tower, otherwise known as the Saigon Skydeck (0084839156156, bi-t ex co financial tower. com), in District 1 for 360-degree views of the city from 230m. Opt to visit the bar on the 50th floor — it’s free, and you can grab a drink for roughly the same price as entry to the Skydeck while enjoying the panoramic views in plusher surroundings. Entry to the Skydeck is 200,000VND (£7); cocktails start from 220,000VND (£7.60) at Eon Heli Bar.
TAKE A HIKE
Start at Tao Dan Park in District 1. Take a stroll through this tree-filled wonder, stopping to admire a mini bridge and Buddhist-style temple. Cross over Truong Dinh and carry on walking down the unnamed path opposite; you’ll quickly reach the grounds of the Independence Palace (0084 838 223 652, dinhdoclap.gov.vn). An instrumental building during the Vietnam War, the palace is now open to the public daily from 7.30am-11am and 1pm-4pm; 40,000VND (£1.40). From here, continue in the same direction up Le Duan, which runs through 30/4 Park (the name in honour of the date that Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon in 1975, signalling the end of the Vietnam War). At the end of the park, take a right onto Cong xa Paris; to your left you’ll see the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral (0084 8 3822 0477, giothanhle. net/gio-le/nha-tho-ducba-sai-gon), built by French colonialists in the 1880s. Open daily from 5.30am-5pm.
Ben Thanh (0084 8 3829 9274, chobenthanh.org.vn) is Ho Chi Minh’s biggest and best market. Open 24/7, it’s the perfect place to pick up traditional Vietnamese souvenirs, such as lanterns, decorative chopsticks, or ‘lucky’ cats that move one arm up and down.
Head to Snuffbox (0084 126 387 2603) if you’re in the mood for classic cocktails in Gatsby-esque surroundings. This upmarket speakeasy is suitably hidden away down a back alley and up some stairs in a dingy-looking residential block — the only indication of its existence is a large disco ball visible from the street. Try a Bee’s Knees — gin, lime juice and honey syrup — for 150,000VND (£5.20).
If you’re in more of a malt mood, East West Brewing Co (0084 91 306 07 28, eastwestbrewing.vn) is Ho Chi Minh’s hippest craft beer joint, channelling the urban cool of Brooklyn with its exposed brick and huge copper stills. Order a set of four tasting beers for 175,000VND (£6).
DINE WITH THE LOCALS
One of Ho Chi Minh’s more decadent eateries is Hum Cafe (0084 28 3930 3819, humvietnam.com) in District 3, a highly-rated vegetarian restaurant so popular that a sibling, Hum Lounge, has also opened up in District 1.
Dine at the original Hum for an intimate vibe, attentive staff and pretty fairy lights twinkling in the trees outside.
The meat-free menu is so extensive that even carnivores should find something they fancy. Start with the fresh spring roll (85,000VND; £3) followed by the pineapple rice (130,000VND; £4.50).
OUT TO BRUNCH
Vietnam isn’t fully on board with the whole brunch thing yet, but l’Usine (0084 8 3521 0703, lusinespace.com) is all over the concept. This ultra-stylish boutique shop-cum-gallerycum-cafe boasts an all-day European-style brunch menu, served to you by suitably hipster waiters.
It has two branches now, L’Usine Dong Khoi and L’Usine Le Loi, both in District 1. Start the day right with the banana bread and cinnamon mascarpone (95,000VND; £3.30), or plump for a pork, potato and pumpkin hash with a fried egg (140,000VND; £4.85).
Don’t abandon the East entirely though —do as the locals do and wash it down with a Vietnamese coffee.
It’s best served cold with condensed milk for a smooth, sweet finish.
TWENTY-FOUR SEVEN: Saigon zoo and (right) a night time view of the city that rarely sleeps