• Change
MENU
Based on 10376 reviews on Trustpilot
CALL US
020·7962·9933
x

The city of crazy extremes

Fabulous food, exciting transport and even super shopping… John McEntee finds it all in the whirl of Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon until the end of the Vietnam War, is a vast contradiction.  Despite communist rule, its teeming residents are enthusiastic capitalists offering an Aladdin's cave of goods from tumbledown shops.

Whole families work night and day preparing mouth-watering food in thousands of impromptu pavement restaurants, providing the most delicious street food in the world.


Impromptu street stalls selling fresh fruit and delicious food


As it happens, the last days of the city under its former name was recently highlighted in Britain, when Miss Saigon the musical celebrated its 25th anniversary with a nationwide cinema performance of the West End show.

In Ho Chi Minh City there is a wonderful range when it comes to choosing where to stay. Not-withstanding its ramshackle appearance, anarchic traffic and jumbled shops, the city has benefited hugely from investment in hotels from the former enemy America.

The colonial Saigon Grand Hotel has added a 20-storey new wing but I was happy to stay in the old part, for the atmosphere.


The grand entrance to the Grand Hotel Saigon


Similarly, one's spoilt for choice as far as eating and drinking is concerned. A good start is to whizz to the 20th floor of the Saigon Grand and get an outside table at the Terrace Café. Here you can enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail for 100,000 dong (about £3.50) and admire the view of the Saigon River far below.

For a sublime Vietnamese meal, you can do a lot worse than to book a table at Maxims in Dong Khoi Street, where you will feel more of a native. The trendy Vietnamese younger set congregate at The Deck on the west bank of the river.

Night markets
The city turned out to be some-thing of a shopping heaven too. A visit to the My Hoa Night Market on Cao Thang Road is an essential part of the itinerary. With 250 stalls lining the street there is an amazing range of cheap designer goods. But don't forget, you must haggle - even if you're a committed non-haggler, this is one time you must be brave and put on a good show.

A friend and I decided a pincer movement was the best tactic, so we joined forces to bring down the cost of three Mulberry purses to 2.2 million dong - that's £25 each. It was a fearsome display of no-nonsense negotiating.

Were the purses genuine Mulberry? What do you think? But they were certainly genuine bargains.

There are some unusual options available for getting about. One of them is to take a tour aboard a former U.S. military Jeep. The powerful vehicle seemed to scythe effortlessly through the extraordinary suicidal stew of motorcyclists.


Offering incense at the Jade Emperor Pagoda


Near the top of the list of what to see are the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Re-Unification Palace, built by the French. The latter became the HQ of the country's beleaguered puppet presidents that were installed by the Americans.

Nearby is the former U.S. Embassy, where thousands of terrified Saigon residents shook the gates, begging for entry as the last U.S. helicopters fled in 1975. The world looked on in fascinated horror at the images of desperate people attempting to scale the walls and fences of the embassy compound, as communist forces closed in on the city.

U.S. Marines held back the terrified crowds as helicopters took Americans and many Vietnamese who feared reprisals from the communist forces first to the airport and later to ships of America's Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea. 

The capture of the city on April 30 was preceded by the evacuation of almost all the American civilian and military personnel in Saigon, along with tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians associated with the southern regime. The evacuation culminated in Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation in history.

The contrast now in some parts of the city with those frantic days is poignant in the extreme. For calm and peace you should make your way to the Jade Emperor pagoda, where Buddhists offer incense, food and prayers.

And close by is the Vietnam War Remnants Museum, which provides a harrowing chronicle of the death and destruction inflicted on the Vietnamese.


The harrowing War Remnants Museum


Cu Chi Tunnels
It's possible, although those who suffer from claustrophobia should be warned, to explore the Viet Cong's tunnels. Viet Cong guerrillas hid and fought in a warren of tunnels just outside the city.

You can go underground and see how they evaded the might of the U.S. Marines. On display are the horrific man traps used to kill the enemy, including hidden pits filled with razor sharp pointed bamboo sticks. You can also indulge, if you wish, in target practice with M60 carbines and machine guns used in the war.

This is a city that has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence. But it is right that, while celebrating its vibrancy and warmth, its traumatic recent past should never be forgotten.


First published in the Daily Mail - February 2017

More articles below...

For more inspiration, read what travel writers have to say...

Japan's Shrines

The spiritual Kansai region of holy sites is attracting attention
00:30
The spiritual Kansai region of holy sites is attracting attention

Cambodia's temples

How Mark Palmer was allowed an audience with the hidden Buddha
00:30
How Mark Palmer was allowed an audience with the hidden Buddha

Converted to Bali

Fashion designer Julien Macdonald is stunned by the island's beauty
00:30
Fashion designer Julien Macdonald is stunned by the island's beauty

Partying in Phuket

Olivia Grant heads to Thailand with pure intentions
00:30
Olivia Grant heads to Thailand with pure intentions

Beautiful Burma

A once closed country that is catching up with the modern world, says Tamara Cohen
00:30
A once closed country that is catching up with the modern world, says Tamara Cohen

Loving Langkawi

The Datai is heaven on Earth, says Max Hastings
00:30
The Datai is heaven on Earth, says Max Hastings

Thailand with a toddler

Julian Robinson and his wife enjoy an adventure holiday with their 20-month-old daughter
00:30
Julian Robinson and his wife enjoy an adventure holiday with their 20-month-old daughter

Perfect Phuket

Jo Gardner guides you through the many faces of Phuket
00:30
Jo Gardner guides you through the many faces of Phuket

Langkawi in luxury

Harriet Walker is delighted by the wildlife and stunning scenery
00:30
Harriet Walker is delighted by the wildlife and stunning scenery

Slick Singapore

Jeremy Clarke is amazed by the phenomenon that is Singapore
00:30
Jeremy Clarke is amazed by the phenomenon that is Singapore

Raffles Returns

Mark Porter is delighted to report the re-opening of one of the most famous hotels in the world
00:30
Mark Porter is delighted to report the re-opening of one of the most famous hotels in the world

Nature in Malaysia

Renowned British naturalist David Bellamy returns to a stunning old haunt
00:30
Renowned British naturalist David Bellamy returns to a stunning old haunt

Vibrant Vietnam

Simon Heptinstall loves the glamour, the traditional and the exotic
00:30
Simon Heptinstall loves the glamour, the traditional and the exotic

Forever Hong Kong

China may be in charge but this city shines brightly, as Max Hastings discovers
00:30
China may be in charge but this city shines brightly, as Max Hastings discovers

Beautiful Bali

This tropical island makes Alice Hart-Davis's spirits soar
00:30
This tropical island makes Alice Hart-Davis's spirits soar

Vivid Vietnam

From vibrant street markets to havens of tranquility, Harriet Mallinson loved the contrast
00:30
From vibrant street markets to havens of tranquility, Harriet Mallinson loved the contrast

A foodie love affair

Chef Raymond Blanc rekindles his devotion to the country that he says has some of the finest, and healthiest, food in the world
00:30
Chef Raymond Blanc rekindles his devotion to the country that he says has some of the finest, and healthiest, food in the world

Double-O-Heaven

In a land with a licence to enchant and to thrill, Frank Barrett finds the inspiration for both James Bond and The Night Manager
00:30
In a land with a licence to enchant and to thrill, Frank Barrett finds the inspiration for both James Bond and The Night Manager

Thailand forecast

TV weather presenter Lucy Verasamy goes island-hopping and finds the warmest of welcomes
00:30
TV weather presenter Lucy Verasamy goes island-hopping and finds the warmest of welcomes

A taste for Bangkok

More than just a stopover, as Isabelle King discovers on a culinary tour
00:30
More than just a stopover, as Isabelle King discovers on a culinary tour

The luxury side of Thailand

Ashley Pearson reports on three of the country's most hedonistic hotels
00:30
Ashley Pearson reports on three of the country's most hedonistic hotels

Pulsating Hong Kong

Twenty years on, Siobhan Warwicker discovers that life on this island remains electric
00:30
Twenty years on, Siobhan Warwicker discovers that life on this island remains electric

Not quite what you're looking for?
We can easily customise an offer to suit your exact requirements

x