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It’s a place where ruddy-cheeked children prance fearlessly around tourists and wield their makeshift toys in the air instead of navigating small fingers around iPad games. Families pile onto their motorbikes instead of their seven-seater MPVs, and weave the jam-packed streets like expert in-line skaters. Horns rule the roads, and a resounding bleep is all you need to get your way. Watch out pedestrians, because zebra crossings don’t mean a thing – they’re simply decorations on the road – and crossing the road is an art. It’s a cacophony of chaos, but in the midst of the frenzied madness is a city which holds a world of old-school charm, mouth-watering food, a long-standing history and a flavourful burst of culture.
Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, where one day promises to fill your mind with dizzying memories of a lifetime. In this 24-hour city guide, we advise you to hold on to your valuables, watch out for traffic and enjoy the ride.
The Cu Chi Tunnels is a must-go for the history buff or anyone who wants to savour a pocket from the past. This massive network of connecting underground tunnels is part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country, with low, narrow holes stretching up to 200km. It was an ingenious way for the Viet Cong to hide during combat, and as communication and supply routes. Now a popular tourist attraction, some of the tunnels have been widened for visitors to crawl through. Claustrophobics beware, because these tunnels are not for those afraid of enclosed spaces or dark places.
These tours usually run as a half-day tour, and they start at the break of dawn because it’s a two-hour bus ride to the Cu Chi district. Grab a banh mi kep thit (a French baguette served with cold cuts) by the roadside and savour it on the journey. There are tonnes of pushcarts selling these, and their baguette, unlike the ones we get here, are light and crispy, and the slices of pork, mixed with mayonnaise, vegetables and cheese, melt in a blend of juices in your mouth. They look nondescript, but believe me, looks are deceiving.
Book a tour with The Sinh Tourist (246 - 248 De Tham Street, District 1), which provide half-day tours to the Cu Chi Tunnels for SGD$6.50.
Pho is probably the only type of Vietnamese food you’re familiar with, but I’m sure you’ll never forget the taste of pho in Ho Chi Minh City because it is nothing like what they have in Singapore (but I must say, we have awful Vietnamese food here). Pho 2000 (1-3 D Phan Chu Trinh, District 1) is well-known because Bill Clinton had eaten at their restaurant previously, and his face is plastered all over the walls as evidence of that fact. The food didn’t disappoint though, because when I tucked into my steaming bowl of pho bo (essentially thin kway teow noodles in a light broth, with beef, fresh herbs and bean sprouts), I was almost ready to declare it the best meal I’d ever had. Don’t forget to order a plate of cha gio (fried spring rolls) and a glass of ca phe sua da (iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk) because the combination is absolutely divine.
The Ben Thanh Market (Intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi and Tran Hung Dao Avenues and Le Lai Street) was formally established by the French colonial powers in 1859 before it was destroyed by fire in 1870, and rebuilt to become Ho Chi Minh City’s largest market. Now one of the symbols of the city, and one of the earliest surviving structures, the market teems with tourists and locals alike, and is packed full with stalls selling local handicrafts, textiles, souvenirs, spices, fruit, watches and jewellery. It’s a shopping haven for those who want to bring back with them a little bit of Vietnam, but you must bargain it down to slightly less than half of the quoted price.
Ho Chi Minh City is littered with a string of pampering and grooming shops, from spas to massage parlours to nail boutiques for the ladies. There are also many hair salons, but to avoid the risk of a dodgy one, go to Kim Hair Salon (52 Le Thanh Ton, District 1), a reputable and clean establishment which offers an excellent one-hour scalp massage, face massage and hair wash for about 95,000 dong (SGD$6). You’ll be tempted to return every day of your trip after.
This open-air restaurant is housed in a two-storey mansion and offers a smorgasbord of food choices, from traditional delights to street food. The ground floor operates Marche-style, where diners can walk around to the different “stalls” to see the food being prepared, and order whatever they want. For a lazier dining experience, proceed to the second floor, where you can have a slow dinner and enjoy the view of the bustling streets from the window while a waiter takes your order. You must try the bun bo hue here, a dish which originated in the old imperial capital of Central Vietnam known as Hue. The soup noodle dish has a predominant lemongrass flavour, and the broth can range from mildly spicy to very spicy. Slurp up the mixture of marinated beef shank, oxtail and pork served up with bean sprouts, raw onions, lime and cilantro sprigs for all its worth, because good bun bo hue is hard to come by. I had two bowls all by myself, and that says a lot.
It’s best to visit Quan An Ngon (138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1) in a big group because the side dishes are a delectable accompaniment to your bun bo hue. Try their banh beo (tiny round rice flour pancakes which tastes like chwee kueh) and bi cuon (rice paper rolls with thinly shredded pork) for a deliciously authentic Vietnamese meal.
Finish your day at snazzy Mojo (88 Dong Khoi, District 1), a modern street-side café and bar at the Sheraton Hotel, Saigon. This is the place you’d want to be seen at in Ho Chi Minh City, as you sip languorously on your wine and people watch. The best part? You can enter in whatever garb you’re wearing (as long as you have the money to pay after), and you don’t have to worry about looking underdressed. Xin Chao, Saigon!
Getting to Ho Chi Minh City: Singapore Airlines flies directly to Ho Chi Minh City. Other airlines are Vietnam Airlines, Tiger Airways and Jetstar Asia.
All photos taken by the writer with a Canon G11.
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