Ho Chi Minh Destination Guide
To the locals, this is still Saigon. Renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, this is the largest city in Vietnam. The city centre has wide boulevards and historic Westernised buildings as a legacy from its French colonialism but the metropolis of today is a buzzing one (literally, the motorbikes roar in their thousands) with an unrelenting push towards modernity. There are glass skyscrapers, wartime tunnels, boutique hotels, ancient pagodas, thriving markets and former GI hotels all bundled together in this tropical city. Its first impression may be a mixed one but if you grab a flight to Ho Chi Minh City and stay a while, it might reveal itself in unexpected ways.
Of all the things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, visiting the Cu Chi tunnels is one of the highlights. The history of the tunnels' use by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War is explained and experiencing the dark, cramped conditions first hand brings another perspective to the conflict. Continuing this theme, Reunification Palace was the former South Vietnam's presidential palace, and is now a restored 5-floor time warp with 1960s paraphernalia, virtually untouched since 1975. On another cultural note, the Fine Arts Museum boasts beautifully-tiled floors and an insight into an array of contemporary, abstract and traditional arts. Ho Chi Minh City also gives visitors the chance to indulge in the cheapest quality hair cut, manicure and pedicure you're likely to find.
Given this is the business heart of Vietnam and it has a significant expatriate population, Ho Chi Minh's bars and restaurants cater to a broad range of local and global tastes. A handful of the city's top establishments include Blanchy's Tash; Restaurant Bobby Chinn Saigon; and you can enjoy the high life at Chill Skybar, on the 26th and 27th floors of the new AB skyscraper. For classic Vietnamese in an old wooden house in the centre of the city, try Hoi An. If you've a hankering for Italian, try the very trendy Qucina, then you're already next to the famous nightspot, Q Bar. Lovers of baked goods will appreciate the lingering French influence – you'll find really good baguettes at the bakery. And Vietnam is one of the largest coffee exporters in the world.
Where to Stay
There's a concentration of Ho Chi Minh City accommodation in District 1. Generally, high-end hotels are east of here and the more budget-oriented properties are to the west of District 1. The Dong Khoi area is the place to go for a selection of the city's top hotels, bars and restaurants. Formerly a hotel for wartime correspondents, Caravelle Hotel is now a stylish top-notch establishment. Not far away is the mid-range Rex Hotel – a slightly kitsch but clean and characterful property – also known for its rooftop bar. Note many high end hotels will offer day passes for their pools but if you want to swim with the locals, there's a French-built pool just behind Reunification Palace on Thi Minh Khai Street.
Take local currency when shopping in Ho Chi Minh City so you can easily bargain at the markets. Get set to haggle if you head to the main market places: Ben Thanh – a tourist hotspot where the vendors will quote their highest price at the outset; Saigon Square – like Ben Thanh but air conditioned. You'll get a more authentic feel at the Cho Binh Tay markets in Chinatown. Overall, there are oodles of Vietnamese souvenirs sold in the central tourist district but generally the best, and more expensive, items can be found on Dong Khoi. If shopping for electronics be very selective as counterfeits abound. If you're seeking fine textiles, the flagship of the city's silk stores is Khai Silk.
Ho Chi Minh like a Local
Make like a local and join the traffic mayhem on a scooter tour. Don't panic, you get to take the back of a vintage Italian Vespa, driven by a local, if you take up a Vietnam Vespa Adventure. If a motorbike driven by a female professional guide sounds more appealing, check out XO Tours. Whether you're on a scooter or not, don't assume traffic will stop when you're crossing the road – watch when locals cross and take their lead. Don't be too rushed, whatever you're up to, this is a city that takes some getting used to but your patience will be rewarded.