After a half-century marred by war and economic stagnation, Ho Chi Minh City-a.k.a. Saigon-has come into its own with a tireless energy few places can match. (Just watch out for those scooters.)
AUTHOR MATTHEW THOMPSON PHOTOGRAPHS MICHAEL TUREK
LIKE VIETNAM’S FAMOUS high-octane coffee, Ho Chi Minh City is a jolt to the system. Between the chaotic dance of the motor scooters hurtling through the streets, the businessmen in bespoke suits downing bowls of pho, the old women shouldering pots of coconuts on balanced poles, and the ubiquitous vendors peddling an irresistible array of Vietnamese street food, the sheer energy of the place is intoxicating.
Though long a major port of call for the Mekong Delta’s rice trade, a recent warming of relations with the West has led Ho Chi Minh City out of its postwar doldrums into a blooming economic renaissance. Now the city (call it Saigon-most natives do) is transforming its skyline and streetscape with a puzzlework of new high-rises and luxe shops. An average day in modern Saigon might involve sipping artisanal beer at a Czech brewpub, haggling over the price of silk scarves at a market and white-knuckling it on a crosstown scooter-taxi ride en route to April 30 Park-all punctuated with regular doses of sweet iced coffee. You’ll need the kick to keep up with the pace of life in this frenetic city.
Image – Michael Turek
DAY ONE Waking in the Caravelle Hotel (1)-a favorite hangout of reporters during the Vietnam War-you can practically feel history seeping from the walls. Sitting by your room’s high, north-facing window, you feast on complimentary rambutans and look down on the Saigon Opera House, a pink and white French Colonial cream puff of a building. Now put your shoes on; it’s time for a stroll.
Exiting the Caravelle, walk toward City Hall, a dramatic mini-Versailles. Beyond it is Pasteur, a street that will lead you to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum (2), a gray mansion with a vintage American fighter jet out front. Though not Saigon’s most famous repository of history (that honor goes to the War Remnants Museum), the City Museum is the best, offering extensive exhibits featuring traditional instruments and costumes, along with a collection of war memorabilia that places special emphasis on the personal items the soldiers carried. Who knew the Viet Cong had accordions?
For lunch, head up Pasteur to Quan An Ngon (3), a restaurant that assembles a dozen of the finest local food vendors under one roof, with each chef serving one or two signature dishes. Grab a table on the patio and order the flaky banh xeo-savory pancakes stuffed with fatty pork and shrimp.
Done eating, you continue up Pasteur to Cong Vien 30-4 (4). There, past the crowds of chatting teenagers and old men playing xiangqi-a board game similar to chess-you’ll see the strikingly modern façade of the Reunification Palace (5). During the 1960s and ’70s, it served as the seat of the South Vietnamese government. Today it’s a time capsule of and a monument to the Communists’ victory. Join a tour of the ’60s-era green-carpeted meeting rooms on the main floor and the mazelike warren of high command offices in the basement, eerily kept exactly as they were when the North Vietnamese tanks smashed through the gates in 1975.
Ho Chi Minh
Image – Michael Turek
By now, Vietnam’s tropical heat and humidity have left you feeling poached. Regain your cool at Soi Da Café (6), a two-story coffee house with rattan couches, bamboo gardens and koi ponds. Order a café sua da (iced espresso with milk) and relax for a bit. When your drink arrives, leave the stainless steel drip filter atop your espresso cup for five minutes and then pour it over the provided glass of ice. Stir briefly and enjoy.
For dinner, head to Tú Xuong and try out Com Nieu Sai Gon (7). A local favorite, Com Nieu has gone upscale in recent years, adding dark wood furniture and a plant-entwined entryway. Order their specialty, com dap, a rice cake cooked in a sealed clay pot that must be smashed open to serve. Don’t be surprised when the waiter tosses yours into the air; that’s just a way to make sure there are no shards left in it. Order the xiu mai-a delicious stew of pork meatballs, tomatoes, onions and cilantro-to go with it.
After dinner, walk off a few calories heading south on Le Quy Don to the Centec Tower and the bar/restaurant Shri (8), whose rooftop terrace provides a panoramic view of the city. Over a red wine nightcap, let the distant blur of traffic hypnotize you until your eyes get heavy. It’s time to turn in.