Vietnam travel: Discover the character, culture and cuisine of Ho Chi Minh City – New Zealand Herald


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There's never a dull moment on the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo / 123rf
From edgy bars to retro subterranean bunkers, there’s plenty to discover in vibrant Ho Chi Minh City, writes Brett Atkinson.
Start the day at the Old Compass Cafe, concealed off busy Pasteur St via a labyrinth of staircases. Fuel up on Vietnamese coffee and banh mi op la, a hearty local dish combining a warm baguette with fried eggs and pate. Co-founder Mark Bowyer also runs Rusty Compass, an excellent Vietnam-focused travel website.
Journey by motorbike taxi 2km north to the War Remnants Museum. The building’s galleries showcase powerful exhibitions about the Vietnam War, with anti-war posters from many countries–including New Zealand–featuring alongside challenging images of the conflict. Visiting is both confronting and essential for travellers to Vietnam.
Hum Vegetarian Cafe & Restaurant offers a serene space after visiting the museum. Highlights include refreshing papaya and pomelo salads and mushroom and banana flower curries. Leave room for dessert of mango and sticky rice.
From the restaurant, it’s a 500m walk to the Reunification Palace. Fascinating highlights of the building informed by retro 1960s design include a subterranean network of war situation rooms and communications bunkers, and the iconic balcony where a lone North Vietnamese soldier unfurled a conquerors’ flag on April 30, 1975, to signify the fall of Saigon.
Around 15 minutes’ walk south to Calmette St, experience a thoroughly modern gourmet version of Vietnam. Artisan chocolate is crafted from local fair-trade cacao at Maison Saigon Marou – try an iced chocolate with cinnamon and chilli – while blends and single origin coffees from Vietnam’s Central Highlands are served nearby at La Caph’s stylish tasting workshop.
Ho Chi Minh City is also one of Asia’s best destinations for travelling craft beer fans. Around 2km northeast of Marou’s chocolate heaven, try a tasting flight at the Heart of Darkness brewery. Core beers include the hoppy Kurtz’s Insane IPA, while the Futile Purpose Pilsner is infused with a refreshing dash of cucumber.
It’s a five-minute stroll from Heart of Darkness to Quan Bui, a stylish bistro enlivened with heritage Indochinese design and serving food inspired by the robust cuisine of northern Vietnam. Try the claypot pork ribs in a caramelised sauce or the Haiphong-style
deep-fried seafood rolls. Excellent Vietnamese inspired cocktails, too.
Search out Ho Chi Minh City’s most interesting cafe scene amid a raffish 1960s apartment block along the pedestrians-only Nguyen Hue Boulevard. The nine-storey building at number 42 used to house American military officers during the Vietnam War but is now a ramshackle collection of cafes and edgy fashion retailers. It’s an ever-changing scene, so just follow the crowds up faded staircases. On the third floor, Dosh Doughnuts combines seasonal flavours like longan and rambutan with city views.
Spend the morning around the leafy Da Kao neighbourhood, home to many beautiful buildings dating from Vietnam’s French colonial period. Infused with wafting clouds of incense, the Jade Emperor Pagoda features superb wood carvings and fantastical statues of Taoist deities, while the city’s excellent History Museum is housed in a 1929 mansion blending Chinese and French styles.
Nearby options for lunch include Banh Xeo 46A – for Vietnamese egg pancakes crammed with pork and shrimp – or a hearty bowl of pho bo (beef noodle soup) at Pho Hoa. Essential side dishes include an overflowing plate of fresh herbs, gio chao quay
(Chinese-style fried bread) and cha lua (pork sausage wrapped in banana leaves).
En route back to riverfront accommodation, check out two of Ho Chi Minh City’s most loved French colonial buildings. Wedding photography shoots are perennially popular around the red brick towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, completed between 1877 and 1883, and the nearby Central Post Office was built around a decade later. Sneak a look inside for glorious period maps of southern Vietnam and the city formerly known as Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City is at its most exciting after dark, especially when coursing through neon-lit streets on the back of a Vespa scooter. Four- to five-hour experiences with Vespa Adventures include the Saigon After Dark itinerary, packed with great street food and live music, and a special craft-beer tour taking in four different venues in southeast Asia’s hoppiest beer hotspot.
Getting There
Transiting at Changi Airport with Singapore Airlines is the most straightforward way for New Zealand travellers to reach Vietnam. Recently-launched low-cost airline Bamboo Airways has direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City from Melbourne and Sydney.
Getting Around
Load your smartphone with a local Viettel SIM card and use the Grab and Gojek rideshare apps for cheap car and motorbike taxis around the city.
Where to stay
Vintage Indochinese style and hints of 1930s Art Deco design combine at The Myst Dong Khoi, a centrally located stay near the riverfront. There’s a rooftop lap pool with sprawling Saigon views.
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