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City break: Ho Chi Minh City

This Vietnamese gem – like a warming bowl of pho – offers spice, satisfaction, and a desire for more

Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City is an effervescent metropolis that in recent years has established itself as one of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic and friendly destinations.

Dominating the southern end of Vietnam’s boomerang in much the way the more chilled-out capital, Hanoi, does in the north, Ho Chi Minh City has grown from a once humble Cambodian fishing village perched on the wide banks of the Saigon River to become a hub for international commerce. En route it was once the capital of French Cochinchina, which has resulted in a smattering of mansard roofing, Romanesque cathedrals, and leafy boulevards rubbing shoulders with pagodas and skyscrapers.

The place to ease yourself in is Dong Khoi Street in the central District One – home to this fashion-conscious city’s premium shopping experiences. There are boutiques aplenty, but stop into Thuy Design House for bold fashion in silk and organza, or Galerie Quynh for a peek at some of Vietnam’s leading contemporary artists.

As with its spiritual cousin Bangkok, skyscraper bars have become a bit of a thing here, and perfect for post-retail aperitifs while admiring the tangle of scooter and taxi headlights below. A Saigon Mai Tai mixed at the rooftop Chill Skybar comes with a view from the 26th floor of the AB Tower. Stay put for one of the city’s best parties, or move on to an even more vertigo-inducing experience over at the EON Heli Bar on the riverfront Bitexco Financial Tower’s 52nd floor.

Back on terra firma, charge your batteries with a dose of the local syrup-thick coffee at a branch of Trung Nguyen; practise haggling at Ben Thanh Market; or make your way through the helter-skelter of the streets to hunt out the elaborate Jade Emperor Pagoda.

And when your legs tire, take a water taxi along the slow-moving Saigon, admiring bustling river traffic as the sky caramelises with the sunset. 

Where to stay

An Lâm Saigon River, a serene riverside boutique, offers respite from the city’s sensory rush. A speedboat whisks you 15 minutes upriver from to the hotel’s private pier enclosed by lush tropical vegetation, where three Saigon river-view villas come equipped with private pools and terraces. There’s also a large central pool ensconced in vivid pink bougainvillea, a spa and yoga classes. Luc Binh, the superb in-house restaurant, serves Vietnamese fusion made with local organic ingredients.

Where to eat

Cuc Gach Quán is a homely epicurean’s paradise tucked away in District One, and its lengthy menu is a wonderful way to explore the sour and spice and all things nice in Vietnam’s delicious cuisine. For some modern Asian fusion and one of the city’s best wine lists, take a 15-minute boat – book their private speedboat as water taxis can get lost – from the city centre to the upscale riverside surrounds of The Deck. Reserve a waterfront table well in advance, and celebrate the stunning views with a cocktail.

Luxury London recommends

On message with the rest of Southeast Asia, Ho Chi Minh City’s traffic is a pulsating Gordian knot of scooter-born lunacy. But it’s from the back of a retro Vespa that its charged urban spaces are most thrillingly experienced. Book Vietnam Vespa Adventures’ Saigon After Dark tour for a greatest hits whirlwind of food, culture and nightlife. If you’d rather remain stationary while the kinetic happens before you, buy tickets to see the AO Show at the Saigon Opera House. The performance blends Vietnamese culture with acrobatics in a Cirque de Soleil-style spectacular.