Quaint cafes serving baguettes and croissants, wide tree-lined boulevards, majestic colonial French architecture, colourfully rich pagodas, beautiful lakes, serene parks, delicious Vietnamese cuisine and the friendly locals combine to give the Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) a charismatic, old-world, European charm while maintaining their distinctly Asian feel and appeal.
None of this is surprising when you consider the diverse history of this nation, with its decades-old Chinese influences (hence the temples and pagodas), its rich history of French colonialism (noticeable in the grandiose architecture and almost romantic feel of the boulevards), the Soviet legacy of communism (some areas of Hanoi truly resemble parts of East Berlin in the 60s), the unmistakable American stamp of consumerism and capitalism (evident by the chain of Pizza Huts, KFCs and international brands), and of course the Vietnamese vibe conveyed through the people and its food.
It’s no wonder that a few days in Vietnam feel like the best of Asia, Europe and America combined in one easy package – a feat not many countries can attest to!
Vietnam is a truly versatile destination; not only culturally, but also in its ability to cater to both family holidays and fun getaways without kids in tow. Now is a better time than ever to visit this fascinating country and witness its journey from a troubled past to a more optimistic future.
Here are some tips and recommendations for things to do and places to stay in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City based on my own travels.
Where to stay: Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, Hanoi for an incredible colonial-inspired feel, right in the centre of Hanoi’s French Quarter. It is the perfect place to revel in the contrasting old and new feel of the city.
Where to shop: Vietnam is rightly famous for its art, and if you intend to pick up a few pieces, check out one of the numerous art galleries in the bustling lanes immediately west of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake, on the fringe of the Old Town, such as on Hang Trong Street. These places showcase their best pieces right on the sidewalk, and they rub shoulders with handicraft boutiques and French-style cafes, giving the whole precinct a bohemian and artistic feel. Even if you do not end up buying anything, browsing around and soaking up the atmosphere is an experience in itself. South of the lake, Trang Tien Street is a major thoroughfare lined with upmarket art galleries and foreign language bookstores, inviting a leisurely stroll towards the Opera house.
Where to eat: Le Beaulieu, Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, for classic French cuisine and a great Sunday brunch.
What not to miss: The Temple of Literature. This historically rich temple is dedicated to Confucius and when it was first built Vietnam’s first university adjoined the temple grounds. The place is brimming with tourists and local students for whom a visit promises good fortune and good grades.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Where to stay: The InterContinental Hotel, right in the centre of the city, walking distance from the Opera House.
Where to shop: Saigon’s District 1 boast outlets of all the big-name designers, which only adds to the area’s Parisian-style atmosphere. In fact, you can find quite a bargain here as compared to Singapore. If you need to escape the Saigon midday heat and indulge in some retail therapy, Diamond Plaza (adjacent to the Notre Dame Cathedral) and the Vincom Centre (next to the City Hall) are the places where fashionable locals and tourists like to see and be seen.
Where to eat: For a wonderfully authentic and traditional Vietnamese experience, book a table at the SH Garden Restaurant (98 Nguyen Hue). The entrance is via an old, unique wooden elevator that takes you to the top terrace where memories of a romantic old Saigon transport you back in time, as you enjoy fantastic city views and authentic Vietnamese food.
What not to miss: A visit to one of Vietnam’s unique Water Puppet shows is an entertaining way to get closer to the country’s heritage and culture, and it guarantees a fun afternoon for the kids. The art form is said to take its inspiration from the regular flooding of the lowlands and rice paddies. Catch a show at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre near the Reunification Palace; daily performances go for 50 minutes.
If you only go to one restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, go to Nha Hang Ngon, housed in a beautiful yellow heritage building at 160 Pasteur Street – and introduced to us by some American friends who live in HCMC. You can wander around to see the different types of Vietnamese food being prepared, and then pick whatever appeals. For such a beautiful restaurant, the prices are still very reasonable and it’s not packed full of tourists.
Check out more snaps from around Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh in the gallery below…