Vietnam’s largest city has finally grabbed the economic reins from Hanoi, and you don’t have to look far to see the result: cranes scattered throughout town, omnipresent Western brands and a growing number of cars—especially in the luxury category. And the trend is only pointing up: some forecast the population of almost 8 million to triple by 2020. Yet the former Saigon is still a city in transition, more developed than neighboring metropolis Phnom Penh yet lacking the infrastructure of, say, Bangkok. And it’s easy to find traces of the past in the War Remnants Museum, as well as in the still-standing French architecture and the occasional wafting scent of croissants, which today mixes with exhaust fumes from motorbikes.
What to See
Start with a taste of French culture in this former colony at the ornate Opera House, the dual-spired Notre Dame Cathedral and the neoclassical Central Post Office (designed by one Gustave Eiffel). Get a different taste of history at the War Remnants Museum, full of historical artifacts and propaganda-heavy descriptions. Then look down on it all from the city’s tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower, from either the Skydeck or café, both more than 50 stories high. It’s a favorite place for Elizabeth Avery, founder of the private equity firm Kalorama Capital and the Internet startup SoloTrekker4U.com. If you have some extra time, take a day trip to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, an underground operations hub for the Viet Cong during the war, or explore the floating towns and markets of the Mekong Delta. Back in town, take in one of the events at the Saigon Exhibition and Convention Center, close to the city center. Then tour the crowded streets and sidewalks with experts: Go for a walk with Historic Vietnam or check out the food and culture scene like a local—on a motor scooter—with XO Tours.
Navigating the Culture
Vietnam isn’t like other Asian cultures, says Tim Russell, director of sales and marketing for tour operator Remote Lands and a 10-year resident of HCMC. “The Vietnamese are very thick-skinned, and it is virtually impossible to cause offense,” he says. “If you commit a cultural faux pas, they’ll usually just realize it’s because you’re a foreigner and laugh it off.” Still, keep in mind that the concept of “face” (a combination of one’s dignity and honor) is very important—”losing face” can scuttle deals. And have patience. “Doing business is slow and requires several meetings,” says Russell, “often conducted over dinner and lots of beer drinking.”
Where to Entertain
For upscale Vietnamese cuisine, Russell recommends the highly rated Hoa Tuc and CỤc Gạch Quán. If you’re missing good ol’ American barbecue, head to the riverside restaurant Quán Ụt Ụt, what he calls “the hottest place in town right now,” despite having a name that translates as Café Oink Oink. But don’t miss out on the city’s famous street food vendors, especially in Bến Thành Market or Nguyễn Văn Trỗi Market, where you can find some of the city’s best pho, or noodle soup. For drinks, Morgan Downey, CEO of Money.net, recommends the Saigon Bar atop the Caravelle Hotel, which has been a local fixture since 1959. From there, says Downey, you can look down on the Opera House and marvel at the crush of traffic. To get closer to the action, watch for the opening of The Long @ Times Square later this year, a dramatic street-level bar at the new Reverie Saigon hotel.
Know Before You Go
By Barbara Fairchild
A downtown location in District 1 is most convenient for business. But that doesn't mean that you have to forego French colonial charm since you can book a suite at the Hotel Majestic. The hotel retains a sense of historic Saigon in décor and atmosphere. You can enjoy breakfast at the rooftop restaurant overlooking the Saigon River.
Relax and enjoy—put yourself in the very capable hands of chef Thierry Mounon and his team at La Villa. The tasting menu is the way to go here, although a la carte options are available. In this lovely colonial-style French mansion, there's also outdoor dining. The impressive wine list skews French, of course.
A great martini may not be all that Vietnamese, but a perfectly chilled one at the Martini Bar at the Caravelle Hotel is a lovely way to start an evening on the town.
Nguyen Frères is right across from the Majestic, so you will have plenty of time to explore this highly regarded shop filled with clothing, home accents and so much more. There's no question that you'll find something here for you—and for those waiting back home.
HCMC (as it's known) is generally considered one of the top spots for street food in the world. The Saigon Street Eats tour company will help you find the best; they offer walking tours and others done on motorbikes. If you prefer something a little less "authentic," take afternoon tea British style at Villa Royale Antiques & Tea Room.