A weekend in Ho Chi Minh City
WHILE Hanoi in the north is very proud of being Vietnam's capital, Ho Chi Minh City in the South is more than happy to be recognised as the unofficial capital of hedonism.
Nestled along the Saigon River, the city that was once known as Prey Nokor, an important Khmer sea port before becoming Saigon, was renamed Ho Chi Minh after the revolutionary hero in 1976.
As full of energy as of contradictions, Ho Chi Minh City is a heady blend of French colonialism, American engagement and local orientation. Here, you can slurp a bowl of pho noodles at a street stall before rubbing shoulders with beautiful Vietnamese party animals at a rooftop bar, or drink in the timeless beauty of the French colonial buildings before exploring Saigon's coffee culture.
Ho Chi Minh City promises the visitor a sensational weekend. Here are some suggestions for a great break.
Hidden along a small path off Mac Thi Buoi Street, Quan An does not look like the sort of place you would want to spend your lunchtime, assuming you can even find it behind the cluster of motorbikes, shoe-shine stalls and street hawkers.
But once you have passed through the wooden gate, you will fall in love with its traditional beauty. The restaurant is noted for its exquisite presentation of traditional Vietnamese food, most of it served wrap-and-roll style.
Try the roasted pork roll-up with sticky rice, steamed snail stuffed with meat, clam soup, grilled shrimp on sugarcane and the spring rolls. The food is fresh and delicious.
Four wheels bad, two wheels good: 2pm
Billed as the capital of motorcycles, Ho Chi Minh City has more than four million bikes and another 1,500 are added each year. The Vietnamese believe they can carry everything and go everywhere on their mopeds.
The bike is of course the fastest mode of travel around traffic-clogged Ho Chi Minh City and ideal for visitors wanting to get a sense of the place.
Buffalo Tours can arrange both short and long rides around the city on a vintage scooter, allowing you to visit the sights and stop off for street food in between. Visit www.buffalotours.com.
Into the madding crowd: 5pm
Nguyen Hue Street in District 1 is a pedestrian strip and a pleasant respite from Ho Chi Minh City's traffic. Off limits to both motorbikes and hawkers, it is popular with kids on skateboards and Vietnamese of every age who enjoy the "dancing" fountains that perform a mini-show every hour.
At one end is the elegant colonial building of Ho Chi Minh City Hall and at the other, the river.
Vietnamese fusion: 7pm
At an easy walking distance from Nguyen Hue Street, Quan Bui restaurant is where local hipsters and expatriates dine.
This stylish restaurant, with black and white prints on the walls and an impressive collection of pottery, serves delicious Vietnamese contemporary and fusion food prepared with organic and monosodium glutamate-free ingredients.
I particularly liked the seafood salad with pomelo and the fish dishes. Quan Bui also has a vegetarian menu. Visit www.quan-bui.com.
Good morning Vietnam:
Get up early and explore Ho Chi Minh City's food market, especially if it is within walking distance of your hotel. Like most South-east Asian markets, it is bustling, atmospheric and noisy.
After admiring the fare, head to Nhu Lan - the roadside restaurant opposite Bitexco Financial Tower - and tuck into a breakfast of banh mi (a Vietnamese baguette) and wash it down with sweet local coffee.
French connection: 10am
When the French seized control of Saigon in the 19th century, they built the Rue Catinat and named it after a French warship.
The 2km strip, now known as Dong Khoi Street, is home to a number of French colonial buildings, among them Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, Saigon Central Post Office, Gia Long Palace, the Municipal Theatre and the Hotel Continental.
The street is also well known to Americans of a certain age as it was here, on April 29, 1975, one day before the fall of Saigon, that Dutch photographer Hubert van Es captured the very last scenes of the Vietnam War, when the Americans ran to the rooftop of 22 Ly Tu Trong Street for the final evacuation. Forty years later, the building is still standing though it is off-limits to tourists.
The French introduced coffee to Vietnam in the 19th century and the former tea drinkers took to it like ducks to water; so much so that the city is now famous for its coffee culture.
Among the places to enjoy your java juice is The Workshop on Ngo Duc Ke Street. Located in an old building with a beautiful staircase, the cafe offers a view of the French colonial buildings through its glass wall.
Water puppets: 5pm
The water puppet is unique to Vietnamese show business, and this cute performance shows how the Vietnamese deal with water issues.
Originating in the sodden rice paddies of the Red River Delta in North Vietnam, the most popular place to see a water puppet show in Ho Chi Minh City is at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre.
The show depicts the culture, traditions and folklore of Vietnamese life.
Classic french onion soup:
Opium, money and onion soup are interwoven on the corner of Hai Ba Trung Street, home to an opium refinery back in colonial days. The colonial building is still here, but the opium has given way to hearty French cuisine at The Refinery restaurant.
This fashionable bistro-and-wine bar is a favourite hangout with expats and its onion soup and free-range duck confit with rosemary apples and potato mash are the most popular dishes. The restaurant is opposite Park Hyatt Saigon.
Top it up:
9pm until late
Ho Chi Minh City is more beautiful from the top when night falls. Journalists and CIA agents used to hang out on the rooftop of Rex Hotel during the Vietnam War and the Rex bar is still there, though probably more for the war junkie than the average tourist.
Today, Ho Chi Minh City's hipsters go to Chill Skybar on top of AB Tower to flash their cash. The view is breathtaking. The city glows in the dark as you repaint Ho Chi Minh City's skyline with vodka.
Ho Chi Minh City's art scene:
A number of heritage buildings have been converted into museums and it is here that you can learn about the city in times of war and peace.
The Fine Arts Museum, on Pho Duc Chinh Street, has an impressive collection of art works - old and new - varying from Funan-era sculptures of Vishnu to modern paintings.
Galerie Quynh Contemporary Art on Dong Khoi Street has a small collection of modern art that helps you explore the landscape of Vietnam's art scene.
Game of bargains:
Established in 1912 in true French colonial style, Ben Thanh Market is the "mother" of the city's trading places. Slippers, straw hats, meat, clothing, coffee beans and scorpion cocktails are among the goodies for sale.
The vendors are energetic and the prices are higher than elsewhere, so bargain vigorously.
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK