DANIEL ALLEN samples the treasures of Vietnam’s Pearl of the Orient.
At night, from the helipad of Ho Chi Minh City’s soaring Bitexco Financial Tower, the urban landscape is a shimmering sea of light. An incessant flow of traffic streams through the recently opened Saigon River Tunnel, only to reemerge in the Thu Thiem New Urban Area, soon to be populated with more shiny skyscrapers. While stories of Vietnam’s economic problems abound, there’s little evidence of stagnation in this vibrant, bustling metropolis.
“It might be a cliché, but Ho Chi Minh City truly never sleeps,” says expat Brit Craig Derbyshire, in town to oversee the imminent opening of a swanky five-story cocktail bar and eatery high up in the high-tech Bitexco edifice. “People here work hard and they play hard. Saigon residents certainly don’t need any lesson on how to let their hair down.”
Ho Chi Minh City, still commonly known by its former, colonial-era name of Saigon, is the southern epicenter of Vietnam and the country’s business capital. After the ravages of the Vietnam War, Saigon lay in the doldrums for years, but in the 1990s it gradually returned to life, and is now considered one of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic cities. Today, the one-time “Pearl of the Orient” has more than regained its luster.
Modern Saigon is a shopper’s paradise. Prices are higher than elsewhere in Vietnam, but the selection is far more sophisticated. The city’s cosmopolitan atmosphere makes it easier to shop, meaning that shop owners, especially in more upscale boutiques, aren’t immediately pressuring browsers for sales.
A stroll along central Saigon’s Dong Khoi Street takes visitors past colonial-era landmarks and dozens of interesting new boutiques. Plunge into the covered Ben Thanh Market, where vendors offer everything from fruit and fresh-cut flowers to traditional handicrafts to imported electronics and cosmetics. Or head for Cholon—the city’s ancient Chinatown—and dive into the thriving rabbit warren of narrow lanes, bustling markets, and flamboyantly colorful Chinese pagodas.
Dong Khoi is Saigon’s premier shopping street. The best blocks are the last two heading toward the river, but the whole area is overloaded with opportunities for retail therapy. With the city’s glut of Japanese tourists, Japanese-style zakka shops packed with jewelry, accessories, and shoes are rapidly multiplying here, and you’ll also find a range of fascinating little watch shops and old camera vendors.
Those seeking stylish clothing in Saigon are now finding that they get better value if they seek out local and regional designers whose increasingly impressive collections are starting to be shown overseas.
“A decade ago there was nothing here except small tailors and tourist stores,” says French-born Valerie Gregori McKenzie, who has lived in Saigon for over 15 years and owns the high-end label Song. “While these remain, you now have a lot of new designers that use Vietnamese craft as an inspiration, mixing Vietnamese heritage and Western influence.”
McKenzie founded her label, which offers ecofriendly clothes, homeware, and kitchenware, in 1997. Song products are sold in luxury resorts and in McKenzie’s shop on 76D Le Than Ton, District 1.
“If shoppers look further than Saigon’s tourist streets, they can often find fabulous things to bring back and actually use,” adds McKenzie. “Most creations by local designers are hand-made and this is something that you rarely find in other countries.”
There’s a saying in Vietnam that while Hanoi is the country’s head, Saigon is its belly. Anatomical associations aside, Saigon now offers gourmands and adventurous tourists a mind-boggling array of dining options, offering everything from streetside sweet-and-sour soup and soft-shelled crabs to the finest international cuisine. The only problem is finding enough meals to sample everything.
The area around Dong Khoi Street is home to many fine-dining choices, but ask local residents where to eat and likely as not they’ll point you in the direction of the al fresco stalls in the open market area adjacent to Ben Thanh Market, or to a small neighborhood storefront. This is where most of the locals hang out each night, quaffing bia hoi (draft beer) and snacking on tasty treats such as mien ga (vermicelli, chicken, and mushrooms in a delicate soup), lau hai san (a tangy seafood soup with mustard greens), and the ever-present, ever-delicious pho (noodle soup).
“Whenever I’m back in Saigon after a long trip, I always head to Ben Thanh Market early in the morning,” says thirtysomething business manager Hoang Cong Tuan. “There’s no better way to tap the pulse of Saigon, and the food stalls are a paradise. Vietnam’s best food really is in the street and on the sidewalks. You can rarely go wrong. If it looks good, smells good, and there are locals eating it, it’s generally worth trying.”
When you need a break from Saigon’s shops, restaurants, and manic traffic, a little personal pampering can help recharge your batteries. While the city has plenty of places that offer relaxation, one little-known yet highly rated retreat is the Thao Dien Village (www.thaodienvillage.com/spa.php). A short taxi ride from the city center, this spa and wellness resort is a hidden oasis perched beside the waters of the Saigon River. Offering an eclectic range of Western and Vietnamese treatments, a few hours here can put a spring back in the step of even the most jaded traveler.
Contemporary Saigon is all about color and movement. Vendors pushing carts piled high with conical hats; processions of ao dai-clad schoolgirls on bicycles; cranes spinning overhead as workers put the finishing touches to newly risen skyscrapers. With the city’s youthful exuberance and joie de vivre as infectious as ever, there’s never been a better time to really explore the Pearl of the Orient.