TPG contributor Katharine Gammon is a science writer for publications including WIRED, Popular Science and Los Angeles Magazine. She also happens to be an experienced globetrotter who visited Southeast Asia for a month last year during her honeymoon. For today’s Destination of the Week, she shares her insider tips on Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, in one of the world’s up-and-coming jetsetter destinations, Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon, is one of the wonderfully bustling cities in Southeast Asia. It’s a great place for culture, food and nightlife – and happens to be full of American history.
A note on the name: while Ho Chi Minh City is the official name, Saigon is commonly used to refer to the old city and the tourist areas. The city took on its new name after it fell to communist forces in 1975.
WHAT TO DO
Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam, a fast-moving metropolis of commerce and culture that has driven the whole country forward with its youthful energy. The city center is situated on the banks of the Saigon River, 37 miles from the South China Sea and 1,090 miles south of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. Already filled with 9 million inhabitants, the city’s numbers are expected to swell to 13.9 million by 2025. Fortunately for visitors, the tourist area is easily accessed by foot (if you can handle crossing the streets!) or in a taxi.
For history buffs, the Reunification Palace is the site that marks the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975. It was from here that the president of South Vietnam fled as the North Vietnamese army came crashing through the front gates. The palace is, well, palatial with interesting war rooms and early 1970s relics of technology. For a flip-side to the war stories we Americans often hear a visit to the War Remnants Museum near the palace is a must. It has a neat – if dusty – collection of aircrafts, unexploded ordinances and war memorabilia. The tone is definitely pro-Vietnam and somewhat anti-America; it’s an interesting place for an afternoon of reflection.
If the run through of war atrocities starts to get too much, Saigon is a magnificent place to get a massage. Many small shops offer different massages – from foot to full-body hot stone rub-downs for a few dollars an hour. Nicer ones run about $10 per hour. Many hotels have full-service spas, but they will cost a bit more.
Just a short drive from Saigon are the Cu Chi tunnels, a marvel of human ingenuity. Dug with simple tools and bare hands during the French occupation in the 1940s, the tiered network of tunnels was expanded during the Vietnam War in the 1960s to provide refuge and a defensive advantage over the American soldiers. Despite all the bombings in their town, the Cu Chi people were able to continue their lives beneath the soil, where they slept, ate, planned attacks, healed their sick, and taught their young. Some even wed and gave birth underground, but over 10,000 lost their lives here. It’s set up so that you’ll need a guide to go, and a myriad of travel companies and private tour operators are ready to take people. Part of the tour involves going underground and stooping through the tunnels, which is not for the faint of heart!
Taking a motorbike taxi around the city can be a thrill. Thousands of these noisy motos crowd the streets every day. My husband and I had a game where we would try to spot the bike with the most number of people on it (winner: 6 people, in Cambodia) as they whizzed by. Motorbike taxis are a largely unregulated and helmet-less affair, though that’s slowly changing.
A cooking class is a great way to get into the culture, sights and sounds of Vietnam. The class goes with a chef to the market in the morning where you’ll learn about herbs that literally don’t have names in English. Then returning to the restaurant, you’ll prepare a three-course lunch from the morning’s ingredients.
The Thien Hau Temple is dedicated to a sea goddess who left two giant turtles to keep an eye on things in her absence. A festival is held in her honor on the 23rd day of the March lunar month. Don’t miss the gorgeous sculptures in the walls of the courtyard outside the temple.
Shopping at Ben Thanh Market is a riot. Hundreds of stalls sell everything from squirrel-digested coffee beans to beautiful silk clothing. It can be kind of a tourist trap, but a fun one. As with any crowded public place, watch your valuables. Around the corner from the market is one of the city’s best pho shops (and one of the only with vegetarian options), Pho 2000. The menu is clear, the place is clean and the food is delicious – and the workers will gleefully tell you the story of Bill Clinton eating here in 2000.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) is the largest airport in Vietnam, and is located around 4 miles from Saigon. The airport operates from two terminal buildings – Domestic Terminal 1 and International Terminal 2, and has a total capacity of 15-17 million passengers each year. A new airport, with the capacity to handle the A380, is planned to be opened by 2020.
You’ll find flights here in every alliance on carriers including Vietnam Airlines and Air France in SkyTeam; Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Air and Qatar Airways in Oneworld; and Lufthansa, United, Air China, Singapore, and Asiana, in the Star Alliance. Flights are all connecting in Asia; total travel time is about 17 hours from the West Coast, 22 hours from Chicago and 20 hours from the East Coast of the US. Most flights from North America route through Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong.
The airport is a major hub for other Southeast Asia destinations, including Laos, Cambodia, Thai islands and other parts of Vietnam. Vietnam Airlines, part of SkyTeam, flies to most of those destinations.
To get to the city center from the airport, travelers have several options. One option is to catch a taxi from the international arrivals, but as with much of the developing world, scams do exist. The best taxi companies are Mai Linh and Vinasun. A one-way trip to the tourist hotels in Saigon costs about $10 and takes around half an hour, depending on traffic. Most hotels offer airport pickup services, which are convenient.
Visitors can also catch a bus to the center of the city. The No. 152 non-air-conditioned airport bus goes straight to the Ben Thanh Market area for 8,000 dong (about 40 cents). The bus runs until 6pm.
While there are no properties in Saigon, there are two Hilton properties in Hanoi. There is the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel which is a Category 4 requiring 30,000 Hilton HHonors points, and the Hilton Garden Inn Hanoi which is a Category 3 requiring 25,000 Hilton HHonors points – just in case your itinerary includes a more extensive trip around the country.
The Park Hyatt Saigon: This property is a beautiful new and modern hotel near the center of the city. Travelers say that this is the best business hotel in the city, with 244 well-appointed rooms. Each of its rooms features a marble bathroom with rain shower, a multi-channel LCD TV, WiFi access, and a high-speed internet connection. Executive suites come with a spacious living and dining room area and a kitchenette stocked with a full set of flatware and dishes. For those into luxury, the Hyatt also has complimentary butler service and a large spa. The rooms start at $250 for a double; $600 for a suite. This is a Category 4 property and requires 15,000 Gold Passport points for a free-night redemption (23,000 points for a suite). This is a member of Fine Hotels & Resorts where Amex Platinum cardholders will receive complimentary dinner for up to two people per room, excluding alcoholic beverages, taxes and gratuities, once during your stay. You’ll also get free breakfast, early check-in, late check-out and a room upgrade. The hotel is also part of the Visa Signature Hotel collection, and benefits include a room upgrade upon arrival, free in-room Internet or valet parking, complimentary continental breakfast, late check-out, when available, VIP Guest status and a $25 food or beverage voucher.
Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon: With panoramic views of the Saigon river, this 319-room hotel stretches 21 stories in the air. The rooftop pool and spa is a great place to relax from the stickiness of the city below. Every Friday and Saturday night when the weather is nice, the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon hosts a weekend BBQ at the rooftop outdoor pool for guests, serving BBQ items with Asian flavors. Rates in December begin at $125 a night. This is a Marriott Category 4 property, and requires 20,000 Marriott Rewards Points (15,000 with PointSavers) for a free-night redemption.
Intercontinental Asiana Saigon: The 305-room property is located just steps from the Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Opera House. Travelers say their breakfast is one of the best anywhere, and the full gym and 20-meter rooftop lap pool will help burn away any excess danishes. Three different restaurants prepare eastern (Cantonese), western (Italian) and fusion cuisine, and there are two bars as well. The spa offers a green tea exfoliation and silk wrap package for ultimate relaxation. Rates in December start at $150 per night or 30,000 Priority Club points. There are also Intercontinental residences.
Sheraton Saigon Hotel and Towers: The 470 rooms at this Starwood hotel are spread over 25 floors. The wine bar on Level 23 is often voted as one of the top places to get drinks in Saigon – and a great place to watch a stunning sunset over the city while enjoying a world-class wine list. All rooms come with turndown service, 37-inch LCD televisions, and iPod docking stations. Some rooms feature floor-to-ceiling marble bathrooms and massage-style Vichy showers, complemented by overhead and mid-level water jets. Rates in December start at $150 dollars per night or 10,000 Starpoints, as it is a Category 4 hotel.
Opening in June 2013, there will be another Starwood option in Saigon, the Le Meridien Saigon. The category hasn’t been disclosed yet.