Vietnam now offers the traditional attractions of the East alongside modern restaurants, bars and accommodation, as the country bids to become the new Thailand
First impressions of Ho Chi Minh City are of a place boiling with activity. Vietnam’s second city – formerly Saigon – is home to eight million people and a seething mass of two million mopeds. There is a lot of hooting.
People squat on the pavement watching the world go by or sell snacks and soft drinks from small carts.
Women in traditional conical hats and pyjamas carry produce in baskets hung from a pole across their shoulder. Electrical cables are strung like jungle creeper from old wooden poles. The moped riders wear a wonderful mishmash of helmets, some with wide-brimmed sunhats beneath, as well as face masks. Vietnamese law restricts mopeds to carrying two adults and two children but riders manage to move bulky loads including washing machines, cupboards and beds.
The first thing you notice is that there are no pedestrian crossings. The thinking is that you should not inconvenience the many for the benefit of the few. The technique is just to step off the pavement, smiling at the oncoming stampede, and somehow the traffic flows around you. It’s good fun once you get the hang of it.
Although you see a fair number of visitors, tourists are is still a novelty in Vietnam and you find less of the world weariness, cynicism and exploitation that can taint more developed destinations. The Vietnamese are curious about their guests and very helpful. Schoolgirls smile and try out their English with a giggle. Once, when I was enjoying a beer in a patio bar, it started to rain. A policeman ran up and pulled an umbrella from a neighbouring table to shelter me. The handbook at my hotel assured me that “hearty staff will confidentially satisfy guests ever need.”
Ho Chi Minh City, which is well served by international and regional airlines, is a gorgeous mix of east and west, old temples nestling beside French colonial buildings. Near the cathedral is the French colonial post office, a wonderful building with dark wood phone booths and original French maps of the region on the walls under the smiling gaze of “Uncle” Ho Chi Minh in a huge painting at the rear. Vietnamese postage stamps are not adhesive and you are provided with large decorative bowls of thick glue and paintbrushes.
A half-day city tour takes in all the main sites, including Chinatown, the Reunification Palace and the American Embassy where helicopters evacuated the last Americans. The War Remnants Museum tells the story of the Vietnam conflict from the Vietnamese viewpoint with displays of aircraft, tanks and photographs.
The city centre – District 1 – has duty-free shops and malls packed with stalls selling clothes, ornaments, jewellery and beautiful handmade accessories. The food market is worth a visit to see the huge range of oriental fruit and vegetables in so many shapes and colours it looks more like an art installation.
People gather along the Saigon River to make the most of the breeze. Rickety old ships with eyes painted on their bows plough through the swift current as it sweeps tree trunks and greenery downstream.
My half-day city tour ended with the inevitable visit to a souvenir shop. But the Tay Son shop in District 3 stocked a large selection of attractive and beautifully crafted pictures, wood and lacquer boxes and ornaments. Prices were good and there was no pressure to buy so I picked up some unusual gifts for friends and family.
The currency is the dong. A 1,000 dong note is worth about 4p sterling at the time of writing. It pays to take care, as the notes are a mass of zeros and the different denominations look very similar. Many prices are quoted in US dollars.
If you fancy a trip outside the city, one option is a day trip through the jungles and rice paddies of the Mekong Delta. Another popular outing is to the Cu Chi tunnels. This underground labyrinth was used to hide from American bombing during the Vietnam War. It extends for nearly 150 miles and runs down to a depth of 50 feet.
A bush trail leads you to workshops, tailors and a place making shoes from tyres. A kitchen makes rice paper and brews rice wine. The thick rice liquid is rolled on a hotplate, then around a mineral water bottle and laid onto bamboo panels to dry. Another display shows booby traps used against US soldiers. Ironically, many were made from American shrapnel and dud bombs.
The tunnels are not for the claustrophobic, though to cope with the influx of tourists many have been widened and lined with concrete. Those brave enough can penetrate to the darkness of the original tunnels. The complex also includes a firing range for those who want to try out the weapons of the war era, including the infamous AK47.
Home comforts and air con are worth having in your accommodation after the heat and humidity of the day. The Grand is a French colonial hotel built in 1930 that is full of character, or, for the pinnacle of luxury, try the Sheraton Saigon Hotel and Towers. Liberty Hotels is a chain of reasonably priced three-star hotels popular with budget visitors.
Another of Ho Chi Minh city’s delights is the food, which is delicious and cheap. Rice and noodles can accompany a range of meat and fish steamed or stir fried alongside pancake rolls of plump prawns wrapped in rice paper. Lemongrass, at 4 Nguyen Thiep in District 1, is popular and the food is excellent. For a cheap meal, try the Pho 24 chain of Western-style noodle bars.
Most eateries offer air-con comfort but there are a few opportunities to relax outside. The Barbecue Garden near Ben Thanh Market is a pleasant and shady open space dotted with banana trees. Another is the Lion Brewery Restaurant opposite the opera house. As I savoured a German beer brewed on the premises I couldn’t help pondering how big the “fat lady” in Vietnamese opera might be - probably no more than a size 8.