If you only experience one Vietnamese city on your travels, make sure it’s the place formerly known as Saigon. Here’s why…
There are few places left in the world that are so different to the one in which you live that you experience culture shock – or as I prefer to call it, cultural excitement. This, after all, is the reason why travel-lovers get on a plane in the first place: to go somewhere else and experience something completely new. There is nothing quite like being in a foreign country, surrounded by people who speak a different language, sampling food made with different cooking techniques, ingredients and flavours, and shopping in crazily crowded markets with masses of fresh vegies and strange-looking fruit to try, and just taking it all in.
Travel makes you more accepting of other people, question your own assumptions (they are not always correct!), and much more open to adventure. That’s what I love about Vietnam, and, in particular, Ho Chi Minh City.
As a holiday destination, Hi Chi Minh City is not only mind expanding, it’s just plain fun
Here are five reasons why I love Ho Chi Minh City:
1. PHOTO OPPORTUNITIES: Vietnam offers terrific photo opportunities wherever you look, and a trip to Ho Chi Minh will require more than one SD card (to be on the safe side, pack an external hard drive for backups!). The first thing you’re likely to notice is the traffic, which positively throbs with motorbikes, bicycles, cars, small trucks and pedicabs (and you thought Bali was full-on).
While it can be frightening to cross the road at times (our tip is to wait with locals and cross with them – they know what they are doing), street scenes with traffic always look great because they capture the essence of the city through the wide array of vehicles and people, without being too intrusive on their subjects.
Speaking of which, it’s good to know the etiquette of taking photos featuring people. Street vendors, in particular, make for evocative holiday snaps in Ho Chi Minh City. Each vendor usually sells just one thing – wicker baskets, plastic bags full of goldfish, flowers, fruit, anything you can think of – all strung up on their bicycles. Curbside hairdressers look fantastic too. But: please don’t just snap away. While a candid shot from ten feet away may be fine, if you want to take a portrait, please ask if it’s okay first, even in mime.
Most people are okay with photographs – especially kids, who may even ask to have their picture taken.
The proximity of traditional and contemporary buildings can also make for a great shot. For example, the Bitexco Financial Tower is an oddly-shaped glass structure that rises 68 floors above a surrounding landscape of low-rises. Head up to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor to get fantastic 360-degree cityscapes against the Saigon River. The tower is open from 9.30am to 9.30pm daily, so you can capture colourful long-exposure night scenes too. Bitexco Tower > 2 Hai Trieu St, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City; www.bitexcofinancialtower.com
2. THE FOOD: As in most Asian countries, street food is often the best food – and it’s always the cheapest. If you are unsure of where to go, the best idea is to take a food tour. I recommend Saigon Street Eats, which is run by a local couple – Aussie expat Barbara and her Vietnamese partner Vu. Their morning tour sees you eat pho for breakfast, then visit a fresh-food market.
The evening Seafood Trail takes in a night market where sea snails are eaten with a safety pin instead of a fork
The journey ends with a traditional Vietnamese hot pot. There’s also a quick Street Food 101 tour that will familiarise you with local delicacies so you can then go on to choose your own during the rest of your trip. Book online at saigonstreeteats.com
For traditional Vietnamese rice-paper rolls and other simple lunchtime snacks, try Wrap and Roll. While it is a chain restaurant that can be found in multiple locations around Vietnam, the food here is fresh, clean, cheap and delicious. Order the cha gio con tom (shrimp spring rolls) or the banh xeo (crispy fried rice-flour pancakes with savoury filling). 97 Nguyen Trail Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City; wraproll.vnnavi.com.vn/en
For fine dining with fab views, head back to the Bitexco Financial Tower, where Eon51 is located. It’s best to book online well in advance of your trip for this special dining experience. Don’t forget to have a pre-dinner drink at the Heli-Bar on level 52. Level 51, 2 Hai Trieu St, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City; eon51.com
You’re unlikely to crave Western food when there’s so much yummy local fare around, but if you do happen to desire pizza…
Try PizzaFourPs, which stand for “platform of personal pizza for peace”
The margherita is out of this world as it’s made with homemade mozzarella, house-made camembert, gorgonzola, parmesan, fresh cream and olive oil. 8/15 Le Thanh Ton, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City; pizza4ps.com
For a list of the best food markets in Ho Chi Minh, go to vietnamtravel.org/night-markets-saigon
3. THE FASHION: Traditional cultural costuming is just beautiful. The national dress, áo dài (or long garment), is a tight-fitting silk tunic, worn over matching pants. Both men and women wore them from 1744 until the turn of the century, and many modern designers continue to create them in beautiful, colourful fabrics. Ben Thanh Markets sells ready-made áo dài in adults’ and kids’ sizes. There are many tailors in Ho Chi Minh City who will create a custom áo dài for you, using your choice of fabric from their store. Try the fabric stores along Duong D3 (off Dien Bien Phu Hwy). Or browse both traditional and modern áo dài at Vietnamese tailor, Ao Dai Vinh. 39/7 Hoang Du Khuong, Ward 12, District 10, Ho Chi Minh City; aodaivinh.com
4. THE HISTORY: Ho Chi Minh’s History Museum has exhibits on Vietnamese history from prehistoric times, through to the feudal monarchy of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945). There are also interesting examples from other cultures, including Cambodian stone carvings, and antique cannons from the French invasion of Saigon in 1859. 2 Nguyen Binh Khiem, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City; baotanglichsuvn.com
Those more interested in modern military history will be intrigued by the War Remnants Museum. It can be found at 28 Vo Van Tan, in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City; warremnantsmuseum.com
The War Remnants Museum shows the effects of the Vietnam War on the country it was fought in.
5. THE ACCOMMODATION: Hotel Majestic Saigon is an historic boutique hotel that has been operating since 1925, the Hotel Majestic Saigon is located alongside the Saigon River in the heart of Hoi Chi Minh City. As well as beautiful views, it has 175 guest rooms (with balconies), a pool, and six bars and restaurants including the open-air Breeze Sky Bar, which has all-day alfresco dining. If you are inspired by what you eat around town, you can book yourself into a Vietnamese cooking class conducted on site. 1 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. To book, go to Jetstar.com/hotels
NOTE: This story was originally published in Jetstar Australia’s inflight magazine. To book a flight to Vietnam with Jetstar, go to Jetstar.com