Also known as Saigon, Vietnam’s former capital of Ho Chi Minh City is a buzzy, adrenaline-fuelled metropolis with endless sights and tastes to discover.
Ho Chi Minh City is the commercial hub of modern Vietnam and home to wide boulevards, French colonial buildings and a booming creative scene — all framed by a moving river of traffic. Visitors here find themselves being hauled along for an exciting ride: one can weave through the knotted rows of narrow streets and pay respect in incense-laden temples before finding themselves in dizzying modern skyscrapers, all in within a couple of hours.
It’s easy to get caught up with the energy of this high-octane city. To help you along with your next trip here, we’ve put together a guide of the comfiest beds in town, together with some recommendations on what to see and where to dine in Ho Chi Minh City.
What to do
Admire the French colonial architecture
Vietnam was once part of French Indochina (1887 to 1954), a colonial possession that included neighbouring countries of Laos and Cambodia. Even now, almost 70 years later, it’s easy to find French influences throughout the region.
In Ho Chi Minh City, it’s easy to find examples of French architecture, with all of its high arches, balconies and columns, scattered around the city. Some notable buildings include the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, and the National Theatre.
The influence of French architectural style plays a part in the city even in present day. Wealthy Vietnamese lean towards incorporating French designs and styles in their home and these can be seen in the many villas and mansions in the hills surrounding Dalat.
Learn about its history
It’s hard to separate Ho Chi Minh City with the Vietnam War. Ho Chi Minh City was originally named Saigon, but was renamed after merging with the surrounding province to celebrate the reunification of north and south at the end of the Vietnam War.
The city got its namesake from Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader who was credited for uniting the country. To get a deeper dive into the city’s history, one location to visit is the War Remnants Museum. It is not a light-hearted experience for sure, as exhibits serve as a reminder of the atrocious acts and dreadful effects that result from the war.
Another important landmark in the city is the Independence museum, the former home of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. For locals, it is considered as a symbol of Vietnam’s national independence — it was the site of a dramatic finish to the Vietnam War as tanks crashed through its main gate on 30 April 1975.
Check out some modern art
Ho Chi Minh City may have borne witness to the darkness of Vietnam’s history, but the city’s youth are stepping up to create history of their own. Enter San Art, an artist-initiated, non-profit art gallery that promotes the local creative scene in the city.
The two-storey space is fitted with an intimate gallery on its second floor that features a series of rotating exhibitions throughout the year. On the first floor, find a mini library and a communal space designated for artists to learn and nurture their creativity whilst being surrounded by other artists. The community-driven space is also home to special events throughout the year, so make sure to keep an eye out for those before you visit.
Best restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City
EON51, known as the highest fine-dining restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, is located on the 51st floor of Bitexco Financial Tower. The restaurant is outfitted with grand floor-to-ceiling windows that look out to stunning panoramic views of the city, as well as a warm, cosy ambience perfect for romantic nights out. The restaurant serves up a range of international cuisine, including a spectacular roasted codfish fillet, complete with a generous drizzle of black olive tapenade and a warm prawn and potato salad.
Modern Vietnamese cuisine is brought to the table at Xu Restaurant. Here, the upscale venue takes traditional Vietnamese dishes and elevates them with contemporary methods and presentations. Signature dishes include the Rice Cracker Banh He Beef and the Bun Bo Hue, but if you cannot decide, opt for the four or five-course tasting menu. The tasting menu comes with cocktails as well as a decent range of wines to pair each dish with.
Cuc Gach Quan
Cuc Gach Quan finds itself on the bucket list of many who come to Ho Chi Minh City. The former super couple Brangelina was also been seen dining here when they visited Vietnam in 2011, which propelled the crowd-favourite restaurant to an even bigger crowd. This cosy establishment finds itself in a restored French colonial house, tastefully fashioned with antiques and quirky, fun decor. The cuisine here has been described almost exclusively as ‘gourmet Vietnamese’, highlighting fresh ingredients with no preservatives or other flavour enhancers. Before you get stunned by the inch-thick menu they provide, note that the knowledgeable wait staff here are known to patiently recommend you some dishes according to your dietary preferences.
Where to stay
The Reverie Saigon
The Reverie Saigon is a luxurious and stylish accommodation located in the buzzing District One. Be warned, this establishment is not for those who prefer an understated sort of luxury: this ostentatious space is best for those who indulge in luxury and want to exhibit it too. Each of its 286 opulent rooms are lavishly decorated with plush beddings and modern amenities, some fashioned with a profuse amount of wallpaper and prints to bring out a sense of maximalist artistic flair. After a long day of exploring the city, take refuge at the hotel’s two-storeyed spa, complete with an extensive treatment menu and plenty of sauna and steam room space.
A contemporary option for modern holidaymakers would be a night at Intercontinental Saigon. Its central location makes it fantastic for many visitors of Ho Chi Minh: the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon and the War Remnants Museum are only short walking distance away. Spend the night in any one of their 305 rooms and suites, each featuring stellar views of Ho Chi Minh’s cityscape.
The hotel also offers five different dining options which include restaurants offering Vietnamese, Italian and Chinese cuisine, as well as a swanky bar for the perfect nightcap to end the day with. Fancy a workout? The 24-hour fitness centre is adjacent to the property’s expansive outdoor pool, complete with deck chairs for lounging and an attendant on staff for drinks and small bites.
Hotel des Arts Saigon
Hotel des Arts Saigon is a stylish option for fashionable guests. The gorgeous accommodation features a harmonious blend of French colonial style and contemporary Vietnamese designs in every part of the hotel: from its lobby to its rooms and even the spa. Each of its 168 rooms and suites features rounded mirrors that frame the views beautifully, as well as an effortlessly stylish ceiling design that completes the look. The dark-wood furniture comes handcrafted from local artisans, and the plush, Egyptian cotton beddings make it a feather-soft oasis in the bustling city of Ho Chi Minh.
This article first appeared on Lifestyle Asia Singapore.