Saigon – The Elegant Lady of Indochina
If cities had a gender and personality, Saigon would be rather feminine and Hanoi rather masculine. Hanoi, Vietnam’s administrative capital, can be characterized as a grumpy old man in favor of keeping conservative morals with Vietnam’s conservative government, and also characterized by it’s tired teachers with foggy glasses, in the city renowned for learning and keeping traditions.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly named Saigon until 1976, is a racier younger lady; a very elegant, social one, located some 1,100 kilometers away from her cold ‘husband,’ Hanoi. The largest city in Vietnam, Saigon is a thriving ‘lady’, bursting with energy and has much to offer with something new popping up every month: bars and craft beer houses, industrial style or well-hidden galleries, hipster hostels and renovated luxury hotels.
Vietnam has opened up to the world significantly following the Doi Moi policy and economy reforms, which started in 1986. Vietnam’s globalization increased further following its entry into the World Trade Organization in January 2007. After years of trade, embargoes, and marginalization, the country is finally reconnecting to the world. This is largely thanks to the growing population of people using the Internet. And it’s perfect timing, as Saigon is nurturing a creative, freethinking young generation that has designs for its future. Meanwhile Viet Keu (Vietnamese who lived overseas), are returning, bringing in money, ideas and skills much needed in the new economy.
After a smooth luxury Mercedes car transfer from the airport, head to District 1, the obvious choice due to its central location and stylish boutiques lining Dong Khoi Street. Check in at Park Hyatt Saigon, a colonial-style hotel, an elegant French ‘lady’ if you will. A sanctuary of peace in the middle of frenzy dynamic Saigon, and more like a ‘home away from home.’
After the completion of extensive renovations during the summer of 2015, Park Hyatt reopened recently with a fresh new look that accentuates its personalised, urban, luxury experience. While the hotel maintained its signature French-colonial feel, a palette of white and ivory now brightens the public areas and elegant Park Lounge. Numerous crystal chandeliers have been added, reflecting the sunlight that streams in through the ceiling-to-floor windows. The hotel’s 245 rooms and suites have been completely renovated, refreshed with lighter tones, handcrafted furniture, Vietnamese textiles, and local artwork. Technological upgrades include in-room iPads, Nespresso machines, and lighting system with sensors. The Park Lounge is the rendezvous place to meet and connect discerning travelers with the local Vietnamese haute-society. http://www.saigon.park.hyatt.com
Start the day with a stroll down the wide boulevards of the city’s main commercial thoroughfare, and admire the heady mix of old and new. Afterwards, walk down Dong Khoi towards the Saigon Opera House; an example of flamboyant French architecture and home to a number of cultural performances. Only a cab ride away stands the 130-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral, featuring classic neo-Romanesque architecture with its red brick façade and stained glass windows. Opposite the ancient basilica is the Saigon Post Office. Though it functions as a modern post office, the magnificent colonial French architecture, both inside and out, will transport you back to French Indochina. Interspersed with these historic marvels are plenty of high-end shopping malls, boutique outlets, a street dedicated entirely to books and, of course, numerous cafés (khafe) brewing aromatic Vietnamese coffee and food stalls offering up the iconic Vietnamese baguettes (banh mie) and steaming bowls of pho.
Stylish ladies like to shop for gifts to bring back home, and Authentique home offers a wide selection of fine handcrafted furniture, ceramics and textiles spread across three floors on 113 Le Thanh Ton (D1). www.authentiquehome.com
For ladies who prefer teas and antiques, Villa Royale comes highly recommended and offers a wide TWG tea selection during lunch or high tea to be enjoyed along with fresh pastries and delights on the menu. While enjoying chit-chat over tea, guests can browse through the luxurious vintage collection, antique furnishings and the bric-a-brac displayed thoroughly all over the restaurant, in the hallway, in the semi-private salon (even in the bathrooms.) www.villaroyaletreasures.com
Art enthusiasts can continue on Dong Khoy Street and head to Galerie Quynh, for a moment of respite. The spacious gallery is housed in a former industrial factory and regularly hosts rotating exhibits from Vietnam’s up-and-coming talent as well as international artists. Admission is free, open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-7pm. www.galeriequynh.com
For an afternoon chocolate stop, head to Marou, a world-renowned Vietnamese chocolate company, where you can indulge in all their guilty pleasures. Take home some of their award-winning Vietnamese chocolates. Their eclair and chocolate mousse cake is another must try. http://www.marouchocolate.com
The best opportunity to take a short-break is during a long weekend holiday. Try to stay over until Sunday with a late check-out, and book the not-to-be-missed acclaimed Brunch Club ‘Above Saigon’ at Hotel des Arts Saigon – M gallery collection. With an excellent selection of cooked a-la-minute seafood, three kinds of freshly shucked oysters, free-flow champagne and three cocktails suggestions, the vibes are festive and entertaining from 12pm to 3pm with a DJ spinning chill lounge tunes overlooking the cityscape. http://www.hoteldesartssaigon.com/offers/sunday-brunch
While ladies will indulge with French champagne and fine food, leave some space for the cheese buffet and a range of delicious desserts. Why not stay over amongst friends or on a date in a Grand Deluxe room, with its spacious 30 sqm, all natural rosewood flooring, setting the stage for a regal king-size bed with pure Egyptian cotton sheets? Continue the pampering with an aroma therapeutic massage at Le Spa des Artistes, specialized in using only 100% natural ingredients. Recommended is Garden of Deep Calm 75 minute body massage. Expert therapist combined the healing effects of Thai and Swedish techniques with Ytsara French products.
After a relaxing and rejuvenating afternoon, head for dinner to one of the best Cantonese restaurant at The Royal Pavilion, where signature à la carte dishes offer a lavish culinary journey through China’s most popular cuisines, emphasizing on Cantonese delicacies such as bird’s nest, fin sharks, and abalones amongst others. www.thereveriesaigon.com/restaurants-bars/the-royal-pavilion
One of the most luxurious hotel in Vietnam, The Reverie Saigon is a palatial sky-high retreat with opulent interiors and top class hospitality. All the rooms and the lobby are decorated with works by some of Italy’s most acclaimed brands, brought together to present an eclectic selection of rooms with designs that cater to a wide range of luxurious tastes. The entire hotel is a true celebration of the exceptional skill and beauty behind Italian artistry and craftsmanship. www.thereveriesaigon.com
Ladies may not feel like eating Chinese tonight? Another alternative for the evening, Café Cardinal offers a fine dining affair, with à la carte and prix-fixe menus featuring dishes leaning towards fine French cuisine. Wine dinners are regularly organized with winemakers coming from all over the world. On Sundays, the brunch is sumptuous with the opportunity to pair a wide range of seafood with Dom Perignon champagne, which may further tempt you to stay longer and relax on the lounge chairs by the outdoor pool. http://www.thereveriesaigon.com/restaurants-bars/cafe-cardinal
Under the moonlight, the most romantic views are available from one of the rooftop bar options in the city. SHRI delivers all with its unobstructed view and a vertiginous sky bridge linking Centec Tower and the famed Social Club (23F Hotel des Art – M gallery). An institution in the city’s ever-growing culinary scene, Shri is famed for its contemporary Spanish menu created by executive chef Javier Gomez. Highly recommended is the sharing Paella Valenciana coming in the original Paella cooking pan. For more privacy or secret rendezvous, ask to be seated at the Whisky Library, tucked away behind a sliding door. Enjoy crafted cocktails from the inventive menu created by acclaimed British mixologist Richie Fawcett. Overlooking all the operations, Richie, a self-proclaimed ‘bartist’ has invented a new dimension of drinking artistry which tantalizes all the senses for the perfect Instagram moment. In his book ‘Cocktail Art of Saigon’ that replace old fashion menus, forty-one original recipes are all available to be tried out (in no particular order). Each recipe is accompanied by his own cocktail illustrations, with fine-art street scenes of the capital and fascinating stories of the city’s history. http://www.shri.vn
Next morning, escape the city for a day and get on a bicycle alone or with a couple of friends with Grasshopper adventures, to visit either the Mekong Delta (full day tour – approx. 25kms ride in total) or ‘Bike the Cu Chi Tunnels’ (full day tour – approx. 30kms ride in total) with scenic roads along rice fields or rubber plantations, local markets, rice paper factory or cocoa beans plantations, eat lunch at family farms or homemade food at a local home. Ferry back on a small wooden boat along the Mekong river with new friends from all over the world. http://www.grasshopperadventures.com
Another institution to stay for one or two nights, located along the embassy tree-lined Le Duan Boulevard, Sofitel Plaza Saigon is ideally located just minutes away from the Reunification Palace, numerous Embassies and deluxe shopping malls. Book a Superior Room with Club Sofitel access to enjoy complimentary teas in the afternoon and evening cocktails and wine selection while meeting fellow travelers in a cozy lounge overlooking the city lights. Designed by the architect Pierre Maciag, who brought a flair of French-ness combined with the best of Vietnamese elements, the hotel opened in 1998 and went under several renovations to stay up-to-date. With its 286 rooms and suites in the middle of an environmental friendly surrounding, the interiors blend graceful Asian textures with modern-classic style, showcasing marble floors in the bathrooms with Lanvin amenities, hardwood furnishings and floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows that look out to breath taking views of the city or the Saigon River. Overlooking the city, the rooftop swimming-pool is a quiet and relaxing place to enjoy a drink with the best night views over Saigon. http://www.sofitel.com/en/hotel-2077-sofitel-saigon-plaza
Other top five Sunday brunch address, Mezz is an interactive restaurant which provides guests with new culinary discoveries, offering international dishes, Vietnamese food stations and Asian specialties, along with imported products from France. The homemade pates are to die for and the oysters are fresh out of the sea. Open daily – Breakfast: 6:00am – 10:30am / Lunch: 11:30am – 2:30pm / Dinner: 6:30pm – 10:30pm
The second preferred cuisine in Indochina, French cuisine can be tasted at L’Olivier. The restaurant was named from its Mediterranean origins and is well-known in the city for the quarterly Michelin star chef promotions. Seating up to eighty patrons, the restaurant emulates the ambience of Southern Europe.Open daily – Lunch: 11:30 am – 2:30 pm / Dinner: 6:30 pm – 10:30 pm
Drinking options are countless but standing out and offering the best martinis in a stylish bar, 2 LAM SON at Park Hyatt, is a meeting playground for Saigon movers and shakers, offering an innovative assortments of signature cocktails. Dramatic wood, steel and glass interior with subdued lighting add to the vibrant setting of the bar enhanced by the resident DJ mixing old school, electro and deep house music during weekends. Watch Saigon’s nightlife unfolding at the ground level or enjoy the view perched above in one of the intimate booth. http://www.saigon.park.hyattrestaurants.com/lamSon/
Next day, get a complimentary shuttle bus pick up from anywhere in the city to check in at Windsor Plaza hotel. Also part of the WMC group (which owns The Reverie), this business hotel is the ideal location for day tours of Cholon historic Chinatown and intense fashion wholesale shopping. District 5 is considered as the heritage quarter of old Saigon.
Start your shopping spree at the adjacent An Dong shopping plaza or get dropped off at one of the fashion streets for retail therapy. Complimentary daily shuttle busses get you to city landmarks and restaurants (owned by WMC group) or take the hop on/hop off shuttle bus to visit Cholon (nicknamed Chinatown) multiple herbal medicine shops, cheap art-filled streets, coffee beans retailers, and wholesale markets. The hotel dining options are diverse and range from Chinese at Ngan Dinh restaurant to an international buffet (specialized in live seafood) at Café Central An Dong, or dining with a stunning view at TOTT (Top of the Town bar & restaurant) with its spectacular 360-degree views of the cosmopolitan city. Overlooking the rooftop pool and two Jacuzzi, the open air terrace brings a welcoming breeze and makes it hard to leave this stylish lady of Saigon. http://www.windsorplazahotel.com
Words and Photos by Vincent Sung (www.lefluxasia.com)