by Murray Garrard, The Telegraph, November 30, 2018
Gone are the days when Ho Chi Minh City was synonymous with the war tourism and canonical straw hats. Vietnam’s cultural and metropolitan hub is one of Asia’s fastest growing cities boasting a dynamism that's palpable across the region. North of the Mekong Delta, perched on the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City is the gateway to one of Asia’s most enthralling and epic river cruises.
Cruise port location
Small and midsize vessels sail up the Saigon to berth at one of three ports located on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. Larger ships dock at Phu My, a somewhat unsightly container port 80-kilometres southeast of the city.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Sadly, no. Phu My is a good 90-minute drive to the city (and do drive, the occasionally-operating hydrofoil is both rickety and unreliable). The ports nearer the metropolis will offload you into the industrial outskirts. While parts of the city are easily navigable on foot, getting to the city from the ship requires transport.
Cruise liners, taxis and local tour companies compete to ferry passengers off the ship and into the city. Most passengers opt for the cruise tour, but there are other options. Smile Tours Vietnam offers a range of tailor-made smaller group tours and will meet you at the ship. It is also possible to go it alone, with taxis lining the ranks outside the ports tempted by the tourist fares.
What to see and do
A melting pot of French, Chinese and Vietnamese cultural and architectural influences, most people associate Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) with its war-torn past. And there are plenty of landmarks commemorating the victory of the North Vietnamese. But although the city has a bewildering feast of military memorials, this place firmly faces the future with a dizzying array of haute cuisine and top-notch shopping.
What can I do in four hours or less?
In four hours, it’s best to hit the ground running for a speedy city tour. Start under the spires of one of Asia’s most beautiful cathedrals, the 19th century Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. Next-door is the Saigon Central Post Office, a stellar example of French colonial architecture. Two blocks away is the Independence Palace, formerly the seat of power of the South Vietnamese. On April 30, 1975 a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gates signalling the end of the Vietnam War – the tank in question has been frozen in time on the palace lawn.
Two blocks north west of the palace sits the War Remnants Museum, formerly the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression, a moving if wholly partisan glimpse into the human cost of the conflict.
A few blocks away squats the Bến Thành Market, a tourist staple packed to the rafters with Vietnamese handicrafts, fabrics and shoes.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
If you’re lingering for longer in the city, check out the country’s burgeoning arts scene at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts: the historic façade hides a very contemporary collection. Then it’s atop the iconic 68-storey Bitexco Financial Tower to the Saigon Skydeck with its 360 degree panorama of the city skyline – best at sunset.
If time allows, take a trip to the Củ Chi Tunnels, a remarkable testament to the derring-do of the Viet Cong. This 250km-long network of tunnels no more than 70cm wide, 90cm high and running up to 30m deep between the Cambodian border and Ho Chi Minh City give some indication of the lengths the Vietnamese went to repel America and her allies. Today tourists can visit one of two sites, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc – the former closer to Ho Chi Minh City (60km, a good hour-long drive) but awash with tourists, the latter highly recommended, more authentic, but an additional 20km hop. A great way to visit is by boat with Saigon River Tours .
What can I do with a bit longer?
Let’s face it, from Phu My it’s a trek into town. Many opt to head south to the coast, the first stop being the pleasant provincial town of Ba Ria (40-minute drive) the gateway to Vietnam’s stunning coastline. From there it’s a quick nip to the beaches at Long Hải.
Those with deeper pockets and more time will want to check out the rugged island paradise of the Côn Đảo Archipelago. Deserted beaches, tropical forests, endemic wildlife and some of the best dive sites in South East Asia all only an hour’s flight from Ho Chi Minh City. If you have a stash of cash, then the Six Senses Con Dao is the only place to crash.
Eat and drink
For many people, Vietnamese cuisine needs no introduction: summer rolls, boiling hot phở and bánh xèo (Vietnamese pancakes) have long been familiar to the well-travelled Western palate. And there is plenty of great Vietnamese food to be had in the city, from the decades-old food stalls found amid the throng of Bến Thành Market, to the ubiquitous phở joints that can serve some of the best noodle soups on earth.
District 1, as the city centre is fondly known, is also home to a diverse array of international cuisine – Argentine steakhouses, Lebanese restaurants, and an increasingly vibrant Indian tandoori scene.
Some of the best food, however, can be found in the French-Vietnamese fusion restaurants that are set in quaint colonial courtyards, time capsules that take you back to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
Don’t leave Ho Chi Minh City without…
Shoes! Vietnam is the cordwainer of the world, exporting over a billion pairs of shoes in 2017. Less well known is the booming Vietnamese fabric industry, making it home to some of the best silks, embroidered cotton and ethnographic textiles in Asia.
The city centre is crammed full of tailors and dressmakers, selling both off-the-shelf fashion and offering reasonably priced tailoring. If you are staying overnight, consider getting a suit made, or being kitted out with a traditional Vietnamese áo dài.
Need to know
Vietnam Airlines flies direct from London several times a week. Ho Chi Minh City is a 12-hour flight.
Best time to go
December to April is high season in Ho Chi Minh City, when the days tend to be dry. March to May see the temperatures creep up close to 40°C, breaking only when the rains hit mid-May and which can last until November.
Ho Chi Minh City is generally safe. Like other Southeast Asian cities, pickpockets are rife and commonly pinch from pedestrians from the back of a motorbike. As a general rule of thumb, keep your valuables on the ship, and your wallets close to hand.
According to the World Health Organization, you are eight times more likely to be killed in a road traffic accident in Vietnam than in the UK: avoid travelling by motorcycle.
Ho Chi Minh City never sleeps: tourist attractions are open every day of the week.