Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) is Vietnam at its most dazzling and, with Miss Saigon marking its 25th anniversary, is finally getting the attention it deserves says Kaye Holland
Miss Saigon is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary having been translated into 15 languages and performed in 29 countries – if not Vietnam, largely because the blockbuster show doesn’t exactly portray Saigon in a flattering light. (Based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the smash-hit musical that’s set in 1975 during the final days of the American occupation of Saigon depicts the city as a seedy playground for US troops who sought refuge in the city’s brothels.)
Ho Chi Minh – known as Saigon until the end of the Vietnam War when it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the country’s first communist leader – is an extraordinary city where communism still reigns (good luck trying to access social media sites such as Facebook, Youtube and Reddit), even if consumerism is king. Shopping is an obsession and subsequently the city is punctuated with glittering mega malls and markets, selling a slice of Saigon life.
It’s this contrast between the traditional and the urban, that makes Saigon such a fascinating place. Modern skyscrapers sit alongside temples fronted by food stalls serving Vietnamese banh mi, a crunchy French baguette bursting with pork, pate and an array of fresh vegetables that’s arguably the world’s best sandwich, against the backdrop of a chorus of motorbikes (Ho Chi Minh City has an incredible 7.43 million motorbikes!)
Make no mistake: Saigon is noisy. Chaotic. Crowded. However, it’s also spectacular and may just be TNT’s favourite Asian city… So don’t waste your remaining annual leave slumped on the sofa in front of Netflix. Pack the t-shirt and sunnies and explore and enjoy Saigon yourself…
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
The Reunification Palace (www.dinhdoclap.gov.vn) should be the first stop on any sightseeing itinerary. The abandoned presidential pad – the headquarters of the puppet generals installed as presidents of South Vietnam by the Americans – shot to fame in 1975 when dramatic images of communist tanks crashing through the wrought iron gates, were transmitted around the world. Time seems to have stood still since 30 April 1975, with much of the building’s interior and exterior reminiscent of sixties and seventies kitsch.
For more insights into the Vietnam War – and the devastating death and destruction inflicted on the Vietnamese – make your way to the Vietnam War Remnants Museum (www.warremnantsmuseum.com) before taking some time out at the Jade Emperor Pagoda (73 Ð Mai Thi Luu), where Buddhists and Taoists offer incense, food and prayers.
Next up is the Notre Dame Cathedral. Built in the late 1880s by French colonists (who were also behind Saigon’s sweeping boulevards, cute coffee shops and opera house), it’s an architectural marvel situated right in the heart of Saigon.
Within easy day tripping distance lies Saigon’s most famous attraction: take a bow the Viet Cong Tunnels (www.diadaocuchi.com.vn). Also known as the Cu Chi Tunnels, this is where the Viet Cong guerrillas hid and fought in a labyrinth of 75-mile hand dug passages. Intrepid travellers can go underground and see how the Viet Cong miraculously managed to evade the US marines in 50cm wide tunnels. It’s not for the squeamish though: expect to see ingenious if barbaric weapons – think hidden pits filled with sharpened bamboo sticks – which the Viet Cong used to torture the enemy.
After visiting the Viet Cong Tunnels, chances are you’ll be in need of a stiff drink. And fortunately for you, dear reader, we have the perfect spot. Head to the 20th floor of the Saigon Grand (www.grandhotel.vn/dining.php ) where you can sip expertly made cocktails on the terrace for 100,000 dong. The number may sound enormous but it’s actually only £5 (and cheaper if you visit during happy hour, which runs from 3-5pm).Of course all that drinking will make you hungry, but the good news is that Ho Chi Minh City is without a doubt a foodie’s paradise and it’s hard, nay impossible, to go hungry. For local vibes, head to the downtown hawker centre, a ubiquitous part of the food landscape, and indulge in authentic Vietnamese flavours – step forward fresh spring rolls, squid pies, steaming plates of pho (pronounced “fuh”), banh cam (sesame balls) and che (delectable desserts) – for peanut prices.
TOP OF THE SHOPS
If there’s something Saigon citizens love more than food, it’s shopping. The southern Vietnamese city is truly a shopaholic’s paradise offering everything from colossal centres to colourful night markets. When it comes to the latter, TNT recommends checking out Ky Hoa Night Market – a photographer’s dream – over on Cao Thang Road, where wily vendors will happily test your conscience with knock-off designer goods and dirt cheap DVDs of brand new Hollywood blockbusters. Saigon is also a top spot to design your own wardrobe: having clothes custom made faster and a thousand times cheaper than on Saville Row, is a not to be missed experience.
Vietnam airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) flies daily from London to Ho Chi Minh City.
Miss Saigon the anniversary performance is available now on DVD