Big, bold and brash, Ho Chi Minh City has a creative side to offer those who choose to linger longer.
Held within the snaking embrace of the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City is on the move. Its once low-rise skyline now pierced by the 258-meter Bitexco Financial Tower and super-tall 461-meter Landmark 81 signal lofty ambitions. Visitors to the city are often surprised by its modernity. Yes, colonial-era gems from the early 1900s such as the Central Post Office, the imposing People’s Committee Building (formerly the Hôtel de Ville) and Notre Dame Cathedral still stand and continue to draw crowds. There are also hidden apartment buildings such as 14 Ton That Dam, earmarked for demolition but, thanks to the city’s young artsy crowd, given a new, albeit temporary, lease of life by retro-style cafés and quirky boutiques. However, this is not a city that cares much for nostalgia. As the economic powerhouse of the country, the metropolis has long acted as a magnet, pulling in workers from around the country. The populations’ disconnect has clearly worked in Ho Chi Minh City’s favour and there is a willingness to accept change and move boldly forward.
The migrant population has influenced the food of HCMC and it is said you can find all Vietnam’s diverse regional dishes here. Wander down alleyways or hems in districts such as Dien Bien Phu and you will discover colourful markets and open-fronted restaurants. While traditional dishes served street-side such as banh mi baguettes, sizzling ban xeo stuffed crepes and the ubiquitous pho beef noodle soup abound, the scene today is much more cosmopolitan than in the staid capital of culture, Hanoi.
One local chef breaking new ground is Peter Cuong Franklin. Less than two years ago, after success in New York, London and Hong Kong, Peter returned to his native Vietnam to open Anan, a distinctly modern restaurant located on Ton That Dam Street in the heart of one of the city’s oldest markets. Here, Peter serves up Cuisine Mới, or New Vietnamese Cuisine; creative interpretations of classics such as fresh and vibrant banh xeo tacos filled with pork, shrimp, vermicelli, fresh herbs and peanut sauce, Saigon shaking beef, an enticing mix of succulent Australian tenderloin, tomato, watercress, bell peppers and shallots, and Dalat pizza with a unique rice paper crust liberally sprinkled with local herbs. While respectful of his rich food heritage, Peter is a culinary catalyst for change in Ho Chi Minh City and an inspiration for a new wave that will undoubtedly follow in his wake. Anan translates as ‘eat, eat’. That’s sound advice in this cool and creative restaurant.
Into the Heart of Darkness.
Few cities in Southeast Asia have embraced the craft beer trend more enthusiastically than HCMC. In recent years, a number of local and expat brewers have started microbreweries. One of the most popular is Heart of Darkness. Founder John Pemberton and his team brew a wide selection of draft beers for a core range and limited releases which are served in an intimate bar setting at 31D Ly Lu Trong in District 1. Heart of Darkness also supplies other venues with draft and bottled beers that carry distinctive labels and quirky names such as Loose Rivet New England IPA, Futile Purpose Cucumber Pilsner, and Sacred Fire Golden Ale. For the once enthusiastic homebrewer, it’s been a remarkable success story. Heart of Darkness beers are already available countrywide and there are plans to extend the reach through the region.
Within the city, BiaCraft have several great venues where you can discover the incredible variety of local and imported ales. Other craft beer brewers in the city include Pasteur Street Brewing and East West Brewing Company.
Where to Stay
One of the city’s most refined hotels is 5-star Hôtel des Arts Saigon. A member of MGallery by Sofitel, a collection of hotels that reflect the locale and culture through art, food and luxurious rooms, the Hôtel des Arts Saigon is located a short distance from stately colonial era buildings, parks and many other sights and attractions. Although a new-build hotel, the interiors recreate the elegance of 1930s Ho Chi Minh City and décor includes the owner’s private art collection. Spacious rooms and suites blend French and Vietnamese style, while facilities include a tranquil spa, a choice of dining options, and a rooftop bar and infinity swimming pool were guests can sip, dip and soak up the panoramic city view. For those in search of a little weekend indulgence, the Social Club on the hotel’s 25th floor has a well-deserved reputation for serving one of the best Sunday brunches in town, so be advised, advance booking is a must. Diners can feast from a spectacular spread local highlights as well as lobster, grilled black Angus beef, and Hokkaido scallops. The Social Club brunch is every Sunday from 12 – 3 p.m. and is available as food only or with free flow Champagne. The venue is also open daily from 5.30 p.m. – 1 p.m. Hôtel des Arts Saigon, 76 – 78 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Visit hoteldesartssaigon.com
For budget conscious travellers Ho Chi Minh City offers incredible choice and value for 2 and 3-star accommodation. Options include Asian Ruby Center Point and its sister hotel, Asian Ruby Select. Visit asianrubycenterpointhotel.com
Ho Chi Minh City’s traffic is notoriously chaotic with swarms of motorcycles darting in all directions and cars bumper to bumper at rush hour or during a heavy downpour of rain. Thankfully a much-needed metro system is currently under construction, although the first phase is not scheduled to be completed until at least 2020. In the meantime, the city’s savior is GrabTaxi. Download the app and you can quickly get a price and book a taxi or motorcycle which will arrive in minutes. There’s also Go-Viet, although it only offers a motorcycle taxi service. When arriving at the airport, opt for a metered Vinasun taxi outside the main terminal. Despite the traffic mayhem, Ho Chi Minh City’s broad avenues and narrow alleyways make it an extremely walkable city. Rise early and head out the hotel door. Exploration awaits.
Getting there: Lao Airlines offers three flights per week
from Vientiane and Pakse to Ho Chi Minh City.
Text and Photographs by MICK SHIPPEN