If a city’s fortunes can be judged by the number of cranes dotting its landscape, Ho Chi Minh City has high hopes. Posters stuck to construction sites advertise lavish apartment blocks and landscaped shopping malls under development. A metro system, currently being built, promises comprehensive public transport at last. Change is in the air—and the city’s exceptionally youthful population, over half of whom are younger than 35, are leading the way.
Yet despite rapid growth, Ho Chi Minh City—still known by locals and expats alike as Saigon—retains an old-world charm. Alongside the visible signs of new wealth—imported cars, chic restaurants, and gated mansions with lavish, Italianate exteriors—sits the Saigon of old. Bare-chested men take naps in hammocks, hens peck in rubble on the roadside, and food stalls ladle up steaming bowls of pho to boisterous groups of friends sat at plastic tables. Nicknamed the “Pearl of the Orient” during its period as a French colony, Vietnam’s largest city boasts gracious tree-lined boulevards and picturesque parks designed by their occupiers. This winning fusion of historic French architecture and vibrant Vietnamese culture, set along the seductive curve of the Saigon River, remains just as captivating today.Divided into 24 districts, each neighborhood in Ho Chi Minh City is numbered in a stroke of utilitarian urban planning. District 1, the financial and commercial hub, offers a slew of the most noteworthy tourist attractions, as well as a concentration of five-star hotels and luxury fashion boutiques. Nearby, District 3 is also worth exploring, with colonial villas, a handful of museums, and places to eat on every corner. District 2, an enclave east of the city’s center, is an alluring hodgepodge of sleepy side streets with lush foliage and jaw-dropping private homes. Offering an intriguing insight into how the city’s most moneyed live, a number of cafés, boutiques, and gourmet supermarkets mean it’s a leisurely area to while away an afternoon.
What to do
Tick art off your “to do” list with Sophie’s Art Tour, an engaging four-hour insight into Vietnam’s history through the eyes of its artists. Sophie, a British expat who moved to Southeast Asia in 2009, started exploring Vietnam’s art history as a personal research project. Soon her interest had expanded into a successful business. Stop by Galerie Quynh, a contemporary gallery hidden away in a former factory that showcases work by Vietnamese and international artists. A small, elegant space, it also runs a number of educational programs and lectures. Better yet, it’s just one flight of stairs to L’Usine, a striking industrial space that has carved out a name for itself as a lifestyle brand. Order a Vietnamese coffee—a smoky, syrupy blast of caffeine and sugar—from L’Usine’s chic café, then peruse the curated selection of stylish clothes, brightly colored textiles, and homeware goods in the boutique next door. More treats can be found at Kokoïs, a renovated warehouse with a bustling café on the ground floor and a selection of fashion pieces and home goods upstairs.
When your suitcase won’t permit any more shopping, the 1st and 3rd Districts offer a large number of historic attractions within walking distance. Of particular note is the eerie ’60s architecture at the Reunification Palace, memorably photographed with tanks bursting through its gates during the fall of Saigon in 1975. The War Remnants Museum—formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes—offers another glimpse into Vietnam’s turbulent past. Prepare to be shocked—a number of photography exhibitions display the effects of U.S. military action, including the enduring legacy of napalm on Vietnam’s population, in unflinching detail. Less disturbing relics of foreign occupation can be seen at the Saigon Opera House and Saigon Central Post Office, just two stately instances of the French colonial architecture that dots the city’s landscape.
Where to eat and drink
Come to Ho Chi Minh City prepared to eat well and to eat often. From the slapdash street stalls to fine dining establishments, it’s a city with a voracious appetite. Cuc Gach Quan is a firm favorite for its outstanding Vietnamese cooking, served up in the atmospheric surroundings of a restored colonial mansion. For those easing their way into local flavors, The Racha Room serves Pan-Asian cuisine in a cavernous space with exposed brickwork. Order the lamb dumplings, a flaky mess of buttery-soft meat and pastry, accompanied by a Hot and Stormy cocktail that adds chili spice to the well-known rum classic. Pizza 4P’s is another popular restaurant with innovative ideas on the menu. A Japanese-owned joint with a wood-fired oven, the usual selection is supplemented with Asian-influenced options like the teriyaki chicken pizza. Book ahead—it’s always packed to the beams. 2 Lam Son Bar, a sleek martini spot housed in the Park Hyatt, mixes cocktails for a well-heeled crowd that offers excellent people-watching opportunities. A few drinks later, relocate to Last Call, a fabulously retro bar with disco-inspired decor. Vietnamese hipsters party among the zebra-printed cushions, abundance of mirrors, and a slowly spinning disco ball that casts its sparkle across the snug space. With strong cocktails and cool tunes, it’s not surprising that the night often ends in tabletop dancing.
Where to sleep
On the banks of the Saigon River, Villa Sông Saigon is a tranquil boutique hotel in a creamy color colonial building. Meals can be enjoyed under the shade of a palm tree on the riverbank, while a regular boat service helpfully shuttles guests into the city center. For those seeking an unforgettable experience, check in to The Reverie Saigon, one of the latest additions to Ho Chi Minh’s luxury hotel scene. It’s a Liberace-esque cacophony of gilded furniture, marble, and gaudy color palettes. Suspend good taste and soak it up.