With Vietnam becoming a resort holiday choice to rival Thailand, many travellers are using Ho Chi Minh City as a stopover rather than as a key destination.
Vietnam’s largest city is certainly worth adding to your itinerary even if it just for a night to avoid spending several hours between flights at the airport.
Also known by its pre-reunification name of Saigon, it is rapidly transforming itself into a 21st century Asian metropolis though there is still plenty of old-fashioned charm here not least at the luxury Rex Hotel.
While there’s heaps of great accommodation options in Saigon, it seemed a no-brainer to stay at Rex, which for a five-star hotel provided incredible value.
THE REX HOTEL. PICTURE: ISTOCK
For just $US165 we had an executive suite and access to the Executive Lounge for free afternoon tea and evening cocktails, free use of the hotel pool and gymnasium and buffet breakfast – try seeing what you get for that in Sydney!
The Rex is a Saigon institution, made famous during the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam) a base for US military and foreign journalists.
It’s rooftop bar hosted military press briefings, which became known as the Five O’Clock Follies, and the name is used today for happy hour. This was a great spot to spend an evening in Saigon, with excellent food and entertainment, which included a great guitar band playing old standards.
Take a walk
In the morning we took advantage of the hotel’s free buffet breakfast before hitting the footpath to see the sights.
A lot of Saigon’s main attractions are within walking distance of each other even in the heat of summer.
Starting at the Rex we chose a walking route that took in some of the sites including the nearby Saigon Opera House and the stunning Central Post Office.
NOTRE-DAME BASILICA. PICTURE: DAVID BONNICI
Designed by Gustave Eiffel and completed in 1891 during French colonial rule, the grand building includes the central main hall that is still a busy working post office.
There are plenty of reminders of a not too distance past before email and mass communication including the old wooden telephones boxes where you’d be patched through to foreign destinations. These still have clocks on top of them showing the times in different parts of the world.
Adjacent the post office is another example of stunning French-colonial architecture in the form of the Notre-Dame Basilica.
Constructed between 1863 and 1880 it resembles its Parisian namesake with two bell towers, albeit with spires, and a large round leadlight window under the central gable.
A couple of city blocks to the south-east, through lush park land, is one of my favourite historical attractions in Vietnam if not the world – the Independence Palace.
Also known as the Reunification Palace, this is where the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, The American War) ended when two North Vietnamese Army tanks crashed through the gates during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The tanks are still there, preserved for prosperity, as is the building, which is now a time capsule from the era.
ONE OF THE TANKS THAT ENDED THE VIETNAM WAR. PICTURE: DAVID BONNICI
Built in 1966 it was the meant to be residency of the South Vietnamese president, but never housed a democratically elected president. During the war it was the domain of General Nguyen Van Thieu, who was the head of the military junta.
Today you can see the swanky conference rooms, cabinet chambers and ball rooms which hosted world leaders and ambassadors. Less glamorous but no less interesting are the war rooms in the basement filled with old communications equipment and maps.
The access is excellent and you can book organised tours or go around at your own pace with using the leaflet that comes with the entry fee.
The leafy gardens behind the palace have an outdoor café that’s excellent pit stop on a typically hot day.
Not too far away from the palace is the hectic Ben Thanh market.
This is a tourist trap with plenty of souvenirs and ‘original fake’ watches but it’s historical significance to the city makes it a must see.
The food area is more for locals and it’s fascinating to watch people go about their day even if sometimes you do cringe at the site of giant frogs or eels being chopped up alive.
VIEW FROM THE SAIGON SKYDECK. THE BUILDING WITH THE RED ROOF IS THE BEN TANH MARKET. PICTURE: DAVID BONNICI
Outside the market is a giant roundabout with several lanes of traffic, mostly motor scooters. Crossing one of the zebra crossings there is an event in itself as traffic doesn’t stop, it just goes around you – though you don’t want to test this theory on any vehicle with four wheels.
Enjoy the view
One of HCMC’s newest attractions, the Saigon Sky Deck, on in the landmark Bitexo Financial Tower that was completed in 2010. Such is the growth of Saigon in recent years, the 68-storey skyscraper only held the mantel of the Vietnam’s tallest building for a few months.
The Skydeck on the 49th floor affords incredible views of the city and surrounding areas including the busy Mekong River. It was fantastic to see all the landmarks we had just visited from up high and watching the manic Saigon traffic swarm like ant trails in all directions.
To die pho
For lunch we hopped in to a taxi for a highly recommended pho restaurant called Pho Hung, a few kilometres form the centre of town.
There’s a few stories with this name in Saigon, including a separate chain – this store is at 10 Nguyen Thi Nghia, Q.1, Ho Chi Minh City (there is another one).
We went on a recommendation of a Vietnamese Australian who makes a beeline for this place whenever he’s in town.
The tables were full of locals and was flat out busy, which is always a good sign.
The pho menu is substantial. I settled for stock standard pho bo (beef) which had a lot more meat than most other serving elsewhere.
The place is certainly not tight with the fresh herbs and condiments and the service was very friendly – despite our lack of Vietnamese the waiter patiently helped us with our order and tactfully showed us how to eat pho like a local.
Needless to say it was delicious and with a cold can of 333 beer (pronounced Ba Ba Ba) was the perfect refresher after a long morning of sightseeing in the tropical heat.
After that it was back to the Rex Hotel to take advantage of the 4pm check out before getting the taxi to the airport.