Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it’s still referred to locally, was the last stop on our week-long visit to Vietnam. If you want to know what we did for the rest of the week, check out my One Week in Vietnam post.
After a short Uber ride from the airport, we arrived at our city centre hotel in time for a drink at the leafy rooftop pool bar before dinner. We had a reservation at Noir, currently trending on TripAdvisor and a recommendation of friends. It’s a ‘dining in the dark’ restaurant: I’d read about one in London but it was a concept that we’d yet to try. Noir is pricey by Vietnamese standards, but worth a visit if you’ve never experienced dining in pitch darkness and having to guess what you’re eating. We ate from an ‘eastern’ set menu (there was a ‘western’ option too), having declared any allergies beforehand- and as a self-appointed foodie I was amazed (and a little disappointed in myself) at how difficult it was to identify the components of each dish. The food was good, but the experience is really what you pay for.
We were awake early on our first morning in Saigon, thanks to the bright hotel room and the traffic noise that pervades even to the 10th floor. Our plan for the morning was to hit the city’s museums and landmarks, which were easily accessible on foot from our central hotel. Well-trained pedestrians that we are, we stood patiently at zebra crossings before realising that the only way to cross the road is just to step out in a gap between cars, letting the scooters avoid you. It feels a like a game of chicken, but you soon learn to cross at a normal and predictable pace and by the end of the day I was almost comfortable stepping into the oncoming traffic.
It was a hot June day and the air was sticky, but I was amazed to see the lengths that local women go to to keep the sun off their skin. Riding their scooters in the summer heat, they were covered from head to toe – including face masks and gloves. I was melting in shorts and a t-shirt.
The War Remnants Museum was our first call: a harrowing account of the brutality seen in the ‘American War’ of the 1960s and 1970s. Whilst the propaganda was as evident here as in Hanoi’s Military History Museum, this site offered a more balanced and thorough- though no less horrific- perspective of the conflict, through a range of exhibitions and displays including photography, installations, film and contemporary newspaper reporting.
From there we strolled through the park to marvel at the Central Post Office, an impressive Gothic-style hall designed by Gustave Eiffel (of Parisian fame) in the late 19th century and still the principal post office of the city. Across the road is Saigon’s very own Notre-Dame Basilica, another architectural legacy of the French colonialists. We paused for coffee in a café just off Lê Duản avenue, waiting for the Reunification Palace to reopen after the lunch time break. The palace – known previously as Independence Palace- was the home and headquarters of the president of South Vietnam in the Vietnamese War, until its great iron gates were symbolically mowed down by tanks when the South surrendered in April 1975, marking the end of the conflict. It’s an interesting building to wander around, mainly for the immaculate 1960s décor and design.
We enjoyed a late lunch at Propaganda Restaurant, a buzzy café just a stone’s throw from the palace, before taking some time to chill out back at the hotel pool (ahem, bar).
At 5pm our drivers arrived for the evening’s activity: a ‘Saigon by Night’ scooter tour. It had taken a little convincing and a large glass of wine for me to sign up for this- as soon as you see the traffic in the city you’ll understand why. As with crossing the road, driving here is not for the faint hearted: omnipresent scooters weave chaotically in all directions, often loaded high with unwieldy cargo (the best we spotted was a dining table and chairs set)- but amazingly hardly anyone seems to crash. There doesn’t seem to be any concession to right of way, but everyone drives slowly and beeps to alert other motorists. Four-way crossroads and roundabouts are a sight to behold.
But, in a city of 11 million people and a reported 8 million scooters, it really is the best way to get around. Our guides, both graduates with excellent English, navigated their way around the frenzied streets with reassuring confidence. The tour included sundowners at a rooftop bar (not especially ‘Saigonese’ but fun nonetheless) followed by stops at various street food vendors with the opportunity to try our hand at making steamed rice rolls and taste the local sugar cane juice. Between the stops we weaved through backstreets and alleys, residential areas well off the tourist radar, seeing the city come to life as the fading sunlight was replaced by flashing neon signs and streetlights. It was hard not to stare into people’s houses as we zipped along: most of the ground floor apartments are wide open to the street with scooters parked in the front rooms, men watching sport on TV and women preparing food on the steps while children and dogs run around outside. It’s normal for three generations of the family to share these compact 4m wide apartments. The smell reminded me of Bangkok: a mixture of spicy, sweet cooking fragrance and drain odours hanging in think humid air. Far from being contrived and touristy, I really felt like we’d had a glimpse of the ‘real’ Saigon- and it was interesting to chat to the guides about their experiences as young people in Vietnam, discussing how much they felt the burden of the past (not at all) and how they envisaged their nation’s future.
We were dropped back at our hotel at 9pm, and we strolled a few blocks to the next tick on our tourist map: Ho Chi Minh Square, where we enjoyed drinks at the refined Rex Hotel – a colonial relic frequented by the world’s war correspondents during the Vietnam War and home to the infamous ‘five o’ clock follies’. Below us the softly lit pedestrianised square was buzzing with local families and tourists alike, overlooked by the impressive City Hall.
We’d heard the ‘official’ lines on Vietnamese history, we’d chatted to younger people, and the next morning we had an insight into the South Vietnamese version of the story in the form of Jackie, our colourful tour guide for the Cu Chi tunnels. Loyal to the South Vietnamese regime, he’d served as an interpreter for the US Navy during the war, and related his own account of the conflict as he took us around the Cu Chi complex. He never went there during the war- the vast tunnel network was actually used by Vietcong guerrillas in their fight against the South, and is now one of the most popular day trips out of HCMC. The place was interesting enough, though I think a lot of the experience depends on your guide- ours was certainly dynamic, if a little repetitive. Whilst the official visitors’ guides told a tale of how the resilient Cu Chi residents (they weren’t labelled Vietcong, but described as humble villagers) bore their time in the tunnels bravely with smiles and camaraderie, Jackie painted a much blacker picture of gruesome ambushes and unforgiving booby traps.
Visitors have the opportunity to get into the tunnels to truly appreciate the living conditions, but if the idea of that brings you out in a cold sweat like me it’s absolutely fine to stay above ground; there are plenty of displays to keep the visit worthwhile regardless and there is even a shooting range where you can try our hand at firing an AK-47 if that’s your thing. Either way, ladies should consider wearing shorts or trousers and I’d advise everyone to wear comfortable shoes and clothes that you don’t mind getting a bit muddy as most of the tour is outside in woodland.
We chose to upgrade to a ‘limousine tour’ (which basically meant a slightly smaller group in a slightly posher minibus) for the 90 minute drive from the city centre. On the way there we stopped at a workshop where third-generation victims of Agent Orange make decorative tiles and vases by hand; and on the return lunch was included at a quaint family restaurant in the countryside where we were served a meal that was surprisingly decent and substantial.
Sadly that’s all we had time for during our short visit to Ho Chi Minh City, although I feel like we ticked off the main sights. Had we had longer to spend, a visit to the Mekong Delta would have been next on my list.
We stayed at the Silverland Yen Hotel, which was spot on for our needs: the location was perfect for exploring on foot, and features like the rooftop pool (and bar) and complimentary afternoon teas helped bring a touch of luxury to a busy city break.
Silverland Yen Hotel www.silverlandhotels.com/silverland-yen-hotel.html
Noir Restaurant – www.noirdininginthedark.com
‘Saigon by Night’- Saigon Adventure www.saigonadventure.com
Cu Chi Tunnels ‘limousine’- Vietnam Adventure Tours www.vietnamadventuretours.vn