Ho Chi Minh City's claim as Vietnam's economic hub is responsible for the city's energetic atmosphere as well as its continuously evolving cityscape. While cranes and property developments are sprouting up on either side of the wide and lazy Saigon river, at street level the city has managed to preserve its charming café's and small family businesses.
When to Go
Ho Chi Minh City is at its finest during dry season, between November and March. Lunar New Year (called Tết in Vietnam), which lands between the end of January and mid-February is a unique time. The city empties out, as everyone travels to home for the holiday, and as a result travelers might be limited by shorter opening hours at shops and restaurants. However, it is a quiet time of year married with magnificent weather.
In the days before Tết, flower traders sail their loaded long boats down river and settle in Binh Dong, District 8, to offload their wares before the holiday. The result is a fragrant frenzy, as traders hustle to sell their delicate apricot blossoms, plump, potted kumquats and fat marigolds as quickly as possible. Walking through the throng you can admire the physics of balancing two to three kumquat trees on the back of a single motorbike.
What to Eat
Pho and summer rolls may be the darlings of traveling TV chefs but Bun Thit Ngong (a rice noodle dish topped with grilled pork, fried spring rolls, fresh herbs and fish sauce) deserves as much love as either. And for vegetarians there's no beating the humble Banh Mi Oopla; a baguette with fried eggs, soy sauce, herbs and lightly pickled carrots.
Souvenir to Take Home
Take a walk down Le Cong Kieu, nicknamed Antique Street in District 1 and pick up a pair of vintage glasses, brass sculptures or other strange tchotchkes. Old, hand-painted propaganda posters from Dogma on Ton That Thiep make for lightweight souvenirs that are both beautiful to look at and provide a context for wartime Vietnamese culture.
Sustainable Travel Tip
If ever there needed to be an excuse to eat chocolate, why not for the sake of sustainability? Marou Chocolate is an ethical and single-origin Vietnamese chocolate company that sources cacao directly from nearby farms and pays double cacao's commodity rates to encourage growers to produce high-quality cacao through sustainable practices. The Marou Café on Rue Calmette is well worth a stop and don't be surprised if you leave with several bars for the trip home. In the name of sustainability, of course.
The Reunification Palace may not be air conditioned, but as photo opportunities go, it's hard to beat. From the ageing military tanks and war planes scattered on the plush grounds to the kitsch 1960's architecture and deserted interiors, it is both glamourous and eerie.