By: Beate Baldry
Where Hanoi oozes French colonial charm, Ho Chi Minh City buzzes with cacophonic chaos; from roads chock-a-block with motorbikes to dishevelled buildings strung together by a sprawl of overhead electricity wires.
What’s in a name? The name Saigon is still used by locals. Officially, it is Ho Chi Minh City; Saigon only refers to District 1.
See: The best way to get a feel for Saigon is to get yourself onto a motorbike like the locals. Not just any bike, mind you – Vietnam Vespa Adventures (vietnamvespaadventures.com) do tours on vintage Vespas. The drivers double as guides, whizzing you round the streets and making pit stops at monuments and markets where you can take photos and hear about the history and local habits. Unlike the sterile confines of an air-conditioned car, this really gives you a flavour of the city, complete with smells and sounds. You’ll stop at traffic lights beside a family of five on a motorbike and the toddler will wave at you, zoom past a street seller barbecuing bananas and the sweet charred smell will get you salivating before your nose is assaulted by the fumes of a passing van and then relieved by the sweet incense being wafted around the sacred Buddha monument of Thich Quang Duc.
Stay: The Intercontinental Asiana Saigon in District 1, fifteen minutes from the airport with good traffic, is a smart choice for a one-night stay. The rooms are neat and smart with lovely views of Notre Dame Cathedral, while Saigon Opera House is within walking distance. After an afternoon scooting the sweaty streets, head up to the rooftop pool for a refreshing dip. For dinner, the concierge will point you in the right direction for restaurants, plenty of which are within walking distance.
Sup: Served in a charmingly rickety shophouse, the food at Cuc Gach Quan (cucgachquan.com.vn) is a true delight, and if the only Vietnamese food you know is fresh spring rolls and pho, then you’re in for a treat. The menu lists numerous vegetables and ways to cook them, so ordering can be daunting. Your best bet is to unabashedly wander through the restaurant, find a table laden with delicious food and point. Try the stir-fried zucchini flowers and pumpkin buds.
Sip: Bottled, not tap water.
Shop: Ben Thanh Market for cheap trinkets and souvenirs. Ask the price, halve it and that’s what you should be paying.
Serious stuff about Saigon:
Advance: You’ll need to apply for a visa before you leave. Visit the Consulate General of Vietnam’s website for details.
Dining: Many restaurants don’t have high chairs or kids’ cutlery. Bring a portable fabric highchair such as a Totseat, which secures your tot to an adult chair, and your own plastic cutlery.
Car safety: Bring your own RideSafer Travel Vest or booster seat for taxis.
Prams: Saigon’s pedestrian pavements can be dicey and narrow, so a baby carrier is easier than a bulky pram.
Roads: Want to cross the road? Take a deep breath, don’t hesitate, just go – drivers will steer to avoid you.
Dress: The Vietnamese dress conservatively. Save beach attire for your resort. Don’t wear low necklines or bare shoulders when visiting temples and pagodas.