Vary the pace with tranquil calm and buzzy energy in Saigon Writer Catharine Nicol.
I’m at Villa Song in Ho Chi Minh City. This beautiful residence turned hotel, turns all my expectations of the southern city on its head. My river-facing balcony overlooks the villa’s beckoning pool and al fresco restaurant, and a pier sporting a sleek, white speedboat. And all I have to do for the next hour is have an invigorating dip and eat a leisurely breakfast. Heaven.
I am keen to head into the city. As the speedboat gets closer to downtown, I step onto dry land and into District 1 of the country’s young, dynamic, can-do city. I walk past Cong Ca Phé, a small space with a communal table, book-lined wall and lots of café sua da (iced coffee). The rich, crazy sweet drink is the best jolt of energy I know.
It’s worth visiting the chaotic Ben Thanh Market as much for its 1914 era French architecture as for the ceramics, clothes, spices and lanterns it sells. Less exhausting are the tiny, designer, arty shops street side like Shimmer for silver jewellery, Dogma for propaganda art and urban-style T-shirts, Mystere for Indochina handicrafts. Local fashion designer names to look out for are Do Manh Cuong and his formal line DMC, Minh Hanh and her colourful Vietnam-inspired pieces and Nguyen Cong Tri of London Fashion Week fame. One of the city’s must-see start-up successes is L’Usine. The high-ceilinged shop curates a stunning collection of fashion, accessories, homeware and funky items.
Pho, not brunch, is the order of the day. I muscle in to find a table below the walls full of eclectic framed prints at the renowned Pho Hua on Pasteur Street, not far from Ben Thanh Market. The bone broth, freshly stretched noodles, wafer-thin raw beef and greens make this a dish that hydrates, strengthens and comforts as it fills.
I try not to stuff myself too full as I have a spa appointment at the Times Square skyscraper on the Nguyen Hue Boulevard, of which floors 27 to 39 are The Reverie Saigon. The Spa’s champagne-hued lobby leads to pools, fitness, hydrotherapy and six treatment rooms for therapies that are created by UK-based skincare brands Ila and Voya. I go for the relatively modest Aromatherapy of supremely therapeutic massage with hot jade stones. It’s the perfect pick-me-up for more exploring energy.
The ultimate contrast, I leave The Reverie’s extravagant interiors and hop on the nearest motorbike taxi towards the Notre-Dame Basilica. The French built the cathedral in the late 19th century and it’s a grand sight from the street, red bricks imported from France and two bell towers reaching up 60 metres behind the statue of the Virgin Mary. I head to the Saigon Central Post Office, a breathtakingly ornate yet functional space with beautiful floor tiles, old maps on the walls and a picture of Uncle Ho looking down from on high beneath the arched ceiling. Outside again, I stroll up the book cafe street Nguyen Van Binh.
From one French colonial work of art to another, I jump on a motorbike taxi to the Park Hyatt Saigon where my poolside suite means I have a little terrace to hang out in before I walk barefoot out to the pool and dive straight in. Newly renovated, the hotel is freshly elegant and absolutely luxurious. Don’t miss the towers of afternoon tea that have you rubbing shoulders with the tai-tais of the town.
My dinner tonight is at Sorae where chef and restaurateur Asif Mehrudeen has created a modern, stylish take on Japanese influenced open kitchens. There are three open kitchens and four bars. I’m escorted round and there’s the yakitori, sushi and hot and cold kitchens, the sake, wine, whisky and beer bars and nooks and crannies that create intimate spaces to cosy up in for the evening. A modern-day pick-and-mix I try the three kinds of salmon skin, the signature tartare made of sashimi according to what’s fresh today and a mix of chicken, pork and tofu mushroom skewers.
And finally I swap the dynamic buzzy city for my classic room. I end the day the same way I began it; listening to the welcome silence, no city buzz. My mind idly reviews the day and drifts towards tomorrow’s events. I starfish luxuriously in the expanse of crisp, cool sheets. And molecule by molecule, I feel myself falling asleep.
• Try a zip to the beach at Mui Ne where the Anantara Mui Ne is the place to stay. Join the kite surfing and dune safaris by day, fun nightlife as the sun goes down.
• Motorbike tours of the city are all the rage. Let the driver negotiate the traffic as you soak up all the historic information. Go foodie with street food tours with backofthebiketours.com or xotours.vn.
• Elevate your appreciation of Vietnamese art at Galerie Quynh, where contemporary fine art, sculpture, video and installations by emerging and established artists mixes with international pieces.
OPPOSITE PAGE: Join a motorbike tour to get to know the city; the Ben Thanh Market is worth visiting. THIS PAGE: Ho Chi Minh City at sunset; a delicious bowl of beef pho