Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
posted by Stephanie in Gypsetters Guide
Why go: For the electrifying energy in the air, the glorious food, the spectacular Ben Tanh Market where you can get lost for hours… To fill yourself with with lemongrass dreams, chili hot flashes and minty memories… This most definitely is no sleepy town, with ladies in Ao Dai’s riding a top picturesque bicycles… But a vibrant and modern city, where everyone seems to be moving continuously forward and with purpose, zipping through life on their smart looking Vespas or Honda scooters only stopping for but a moment to have an Iced Coffee in a plastic bag on the street next to the Chanel store. It’s a place that embodies contemporary Asia, where the old is just as revered as the new.
What to pack: It can get rather warm in the city and if you plan on walking around, which I highly recommend, bring a comfortable pair of shorts that can be easily dressed up with a light blazer or dressed down. Daytime can be rather casual although by no means is it de rigueur, it is more for comfort as in fact, the Vietnamese ladies and men are rather spiffy in general. Men are often in trousers and shirts. Ladies have a certain feminine elegance about them, never looking sloppy, and while some of the hats, gloves and scarves they wear to protect their skin from the sun may look downright strange, they take pride in being rather soignée. Sundresses work well too and a good cross body bag that’s lightweight. A quick and speedy motorcycle can come and snatch it in a moment’s notice if you are not careful. There is no real need to be in a cocktail dress for evening, although you will find a few ladies of the night dressed to kill. You’re better off wearing some nice skinny jeans and an elegant top with heels and great dangly earrings. Versatility is the name of the game. It’s all about casual chic and relaxed elegance. Looking put-together without being overdone.
Love / Lust: I absolutely adored the street art but would given my right leg to purchase one of the stunning pieces at Apricot Gallery. The Vietnamese have a fantastic contemporary art scene and some of these paintings will stay forever etched in my memory.
Stay: There is no question about it one must stay at the Park Hyatt. The old post office building was renovated and transformed into a luxurious colonial inspired hotel. The rooms are beautiful, the room service is divine, the breakfast buffet is heavenly and it is extremely well located. It also houses what was to me one of the best dining experiences in the city as well as a great cocktail bar.
Eat: If there is one thing you must bring to this city is an empty stomach and an open mind. From high-end joints to grimy market stalls the food in Saigon is superb. Square One – Don’t be fooled by the hotel buffet open kitchen look, the food is rocking. I had never seen soft shell crabs that huge and that soft. None of these tiny ones that get stuck in your teeth, these crabs could walk off my plate. So crispy and fluffy inside with a sour tamarind sauce and bitter watercress. I was happy I didn’t have to share as Jonathan was engrossed with his Spicy Beef Salad that was equally as delicious. The spicy tender pork spare ribs were excellent but even he admitted being envious of my clay pot curry. A bowl of amazingly rich coconut creamy broth with intense lemongrass and fresh turmeric flavors, river prawns swimming in a golden sea rubbing elbows with little logs of soft, spongy eggplant. I found myself in near tears as I drank the sauce with a spoon. A serious moment of soulful enlightenment. Ngoc Suong is the best place for some luscious seafood. Not a very charming place, looking more like a typical laureate seafood Chinese restaurant but the food is worth it. We were two and ordered for eight. The clams are a must try. Poached and served with its spicy poaching broth they were so sexy, plump and juicy it was almost scandalously erotic. The big fat ugly stonefish was like the frog prince kissed with a bit of steam and soy transformed into a thing of beauty with cloud like flesh. Ngoc Suong Seafood Restaurant, 11 Nguyen Van Troi St., Phu Nhuan District, HCMC +84838443861
Ben Tanh Market – Market and street food stalls are extremely clean and fresh. The vegetables and herbs are crisp, there are no strange nor suspicious smells and unless you grew up sheltered in a bubble eating processed and pasteurized food, the risks are rather low. Ben Tanh Market is abuzz with activity and full of amazingly good cheap eats. It’s difficult to decide what you want to eat. I settled on a Bun Thit Cha Gio and a Saigon Beer. My commandant in arms, Jonathan had the Pho Ga. The quality of the ingredients, the flavors were so squeaky clean. My noodle bowl had everything I wanted, fragrant and smoky grilled pork patties, crispy spring rolls, a bit of tang and spice. The chicken pho was intense and clean, the broth devoid of any yellow undertones that come with instant bouillon cubes. This was the real deal made from spices and chicken bones. Oh and it cost us $1.50. For a refreshing “dessert” I had some fresh pressed sugarcane juice on ice. Amazing. It instantly became an obsession. Ben Thanh Market Le Loi Street District 1, HCMC 3T Barbecue Restaurant – Perched on top of touristy Temple Club (a beautiful place worth visiting for perhaps some spring rolls and a cocktail before dinner) is a very local open-air barbecue joint. We arrived late and the feisty lady said “You order now you pay 10:30, we close at 11. Got it?” Grilled five spice pork and lemongrass beef, fragrant white rice, grilled smoky okra and eggplant, draft beer… All for $17?! I couldn’t believe it myself. Definitely a must try. 3T Barbecue Restaurant 29-31 Ton That Thiep Street, District 1, HCMC 2nd Floor, +8488211631
Drink: There is no shortage of bars and nightclubs in Ho Chi Minh, but that doesn’t mean one should go to just any. Let’s just politely say that “extra-curricular nighttime activities” are still quite prominent and you may want to avoid these establishments. Temple Club is extremely touristy and has rather mediocre food but the beautiful old world chinoiserie ambience and comfy lounge area is worth the visit for a nice cocktail and cigar. Xu Bar is where the young and trendy go. A relaxed atmosphere, contemporary communist inspired design and really large generous cocktails. There are quite a few bars alongside of it that you may want to check out but it would all depend on the evening and the crowd. 2 Lam Son of the Park Hyatt is really beautiful with extremely well made cocktails. It’s where the hip upper crust and glitterati hang out but one must catch it on a fun evening. As a hotel bar, on most nights it can be rather slow but still pleasant for a night cap before going up to bed.
Do: Do walk around, be adventurous and get lost. The center is not necessarily beautiful but extremely interesting. Old colonial buildings mixed with modern decrepit ones, jewelry stores piled high with gold, tailors and fabric vendors, people peddling all sorts of paraphernalia. One must visit Apricot Gallery. A tiny door of a narrow building opens up to a museum like gallery of stunning artwork. If you fall in love and have deep pockets, they can ship the piece to anywhere in the world. You could also do a side trip to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, but we preferred to enjoy the city and immerse ourselves in what it has to offer rather than in mud and dirt in cramped holes in the ground. You could also book a Vietnam Vespa Adventure Tour and really get a feel for the city as you ride behind experience drivers on top of vintage Vespas, snaking through the chaotic traffic. Exhilirating!
Shop: Ben Tanh Market has some amazing finds. From the gorgeous engraved chopsticks to the blue and white porcelain, I wanted an Ao Dai, pajamas, coffee, herbs, an opium pipe, artichokes… Most of the items are really well made. I purchased some beautiful silks and some wonderful hand made traditional bowls. There are iPho t-shirts, kitschy souvenirs and some truly special items. Make sure to haggle. And when you’re happy with the price, haggle some more.
OST: Most definitely Schonburg and Boublil’s “Miss Saigon” soundtrack. “the heat is on in Saigon, the girls are hotter than hell, one of these girls here will be Miss Saigon…” Or some great seventies rock from the “Apocalypse Now” soundtrack. You will however hear loads of music while walking around the city from their contemporary pop stars to vintage Vietnamese crooners and the occasional international techno-pop mashups.
Reading Material: Read Anthony Grey’s historical novel “Saigon” and follow 15-year old Joseph Sherman as he discovers French colonial Saigon in 1925 and falls in love with a Vietnamese mandarin’s daughter and over five decades becomes deeply intertwined in the country’s turbulent history.
Season: The city is worth the easy weekend visit anytime but try to avoid rainy season at the end of May till early November which really dampens the fun of walking around the city and exploring. Yes pun intended.
In the know: There are tons of taxis in HCM but make sure you get the metered ones. There are lots of ghost taxis that will easily rob you blind. Look out for the reliable fleets like Mai Linh or Vinasun. Beware as there are also taxi knock offs that resemble these cabs like Mei Linh or Vinason that have really fast meters.
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We are two friends who were former magazine editors. Having moved onto other things, we both realized that the creative flow the publishing world used to offer us was missing from our lives. Armed with a common love of travel to the exotic and familiar, a penchant for the bohemian, an obsession with food and a lust for writing, we decided to collaborate our unique and fashionable journeys through life together in one passion project.
We are The Gypsetters.