Laura Millar finds Vietnam’s second city a fast-paced, cultural hotspot, steeped in history and style...
The last time I ventured to Vietnam, five years ago, it was on, shall we say, a bit of a budget. There were a couple of hotels verging on the one-star (yes, okay, they were hostels), making an already frugal holiday even cheaper. Thankfully, eating and drinking was ridiculously low-priced even then, making living off delicious, freshly made pho and summer rolls an absolute joy. These days, I’m a little more affluent and so, apparently, is Vietnam. I’d always wanted to go back and spend a little more time in Saigon, a city I only breezed through, before. I was intrigued by the stamp its colonial and war-torn past had left on it (France ruled the country between 1887 and 1954, after which it plunged into a bitter civil war between North and South involving the USA which lasted until 1975) and also felt it seemed more manageable, somehow, than the sprawling, skyscraper-ridden capital, Hanoi.
Well, how things change; since my last visit, Saigon (I can’t bear to call it Ho Chi Minh City, to which it was changed in 1976 in honour of the communist revolutionary leader who defeated South Vietnam - it sounds so…unromantic) has gained a few skyscrapers of its own. The most impressive is the aeroplane-wing shaped Bitexco Tower, complete with helipad. I have a rather good view of it, and the brown, undulating Saigon River, from my 24th floor room in one of the city’s newest, boldest and bling-iest hotels, The Reverie. ‘My word,’ is my boyfriend’s rather laconic reaction as we walk through the crystal-encrusted lobby to check in, passing oversized purple leather and gilt furniture, a massive gold and malachite clock, and more mosaics than you can shake a selfie-stick at. In fact everything is lacquered, mirrored, mosaicked or mother-of-pearled to within an inch of its life – and I absolutely love it.
Its opening last year heralds a new confidence in the city’s rising fortunes; Saigon wants to be seen as more of a destination for business travellers, and well-heeled visitors, than just backpackers. Aptly, this five star residence seems made for Instagram, featuring endlessly photogenic furniture, wallpaper and tiling by a host of fashionable Italian designers. Some people will find it over the top; I say, go with it. It’s not as if the rest of the city is unstylish, anyway. The French may have a lot to answer for, but they did create some beautiful buildings while they were here.
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We’re staying in the somewhat Hunger Games-sounding District 1 (the city is divided into twelve of them), home to most of the main sights, bars, shops and restaurants. A few minutes’ walk, dodging the relentless hordes of mopeds every time we cross a street, takes us to the city’s Opera House, a cream, statue-studded edifice which wouldn’t look out of place in Paris. Slightly further north is the imposing, 19th century Notre Dame Cathedral. The French were so keen for it to be, well, French, that they imported all the building materials from France. Just across the road is the gloriously elaborate Central Post Office, with a stunning vaulted ceiling – it’s probably one of the coolest places I’ve ever sent a postcard from.
We wander back down to Le Loi street, which should basically be renamed ‘Shopping Heaven’. At one end is the famous Ben Tranh market, piled high with all the souvenir T-shirts, lacquered bowls, posters and fake designer goods you could need. Further along are a host of fabulous independent boutiques; I snap up a set of stylish cushion covers, screen-printed with vintage photos of Chinese women at concept store Ginkgo (gingko-vietnam.com), a lantern-patterned clutch bag made from wetsuit material in Duy Tan, a stylish homeware shop at number 76A, and browse the clothing and accessories at industrial-chic space L’Usine (lusinespace.com), which also boasts a fab café upstairs where we order tasty banh mi sandwiches for £4 each.
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By our second day, we’ve decided that, when it comes to the hair-raising mopeds (the concierge’s main tip for crossing the road was simply: ‘don’t hesitate’), if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and book a vintage Vespa tour (vespaadventures.com). From the back of one of those, we get the chance to truly marvel at the seemingly chaotic, unco-ordinated road ballet which somehow never results in anyone being knocked over. It’s a hot, sunny day - the rainy season ended in November and warm weather beckons until April – and our guide points out significant and interesting sights, such as the fragrant flower market, and, more soberingly, the statue commemorating the monk, Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the Prime Minister of South Vietnam in 1963. Later, we visit the War Remnants museum (warremnantsmuseum.com) which gives an often harrowing, if somewhat one-sided, picture of what the citizens of Vietnam went through during their protracted, bloody and expensive civil war, detailing America’s involvement, and home to some iconic wartime images, including that of a little girl fleeing a napalm attack.
Feeling in need of a stiff drink that evening, we head to the Temple Club (templeclub.com.vn), a retro, 1920s Indochinese-style drinking den decorated with vintage posters and hung with atmospheric red lanterns. Then we head for another at the pleasantly breezy rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel (rexhotelvietnam.com), on Nguyen Hue street. This is where the foreign war reporters would gather to hear the press briefings every day, known as the ‘Five O’Clock Follies’, as the truth was apparently in short supply…The prices in this picture-perfect city are, happily, still the same. Thankfully, it just means I can afford to buy more cocktails (and cushion covers) now.
Prices start from £240 per night; thereveriesaigon.com