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When Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American in 1955 from his room at the Hotel Continental overlooking the center of Saigon, he described a city torn by war and afflicted by the well-intentioned who caused more harm than good.
If he were to sit at his typewriter in room 214 today, he would describe quite a different scene. Saigon has been reborn as Ho Chi Minh City, and while it hasn’t completely eschewed its charm as a former French colony, it has fled its wartime past for a future of riches and prosperity.
Bicycles have given way to millions of noisy motorbikes that ferry Vietnam’s young, ambitious population to work. The median age of the country’s population is 26 years old, so most hold no memory of the controversial war waged by the U.S.—and even still are quick to assure visitors all is forgotten. Now reproductions of propaganda posters that carry translated messages such as “Vietnam wins all conquering,” and “Let’s protect our nation, land and youth” are sold for $10 in tourist shops. Bootleg copies of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s mea culpa, In Retrospect, can be had from street vendors for $3.
Forget politics. The new obsession here is making money. Even tourist brochures boast the country’s gross domestic product, foreign direct investment and exports and imports.
The old colonialist saw, “The Vietnamese grow the rice, the Cambodians watch the rice grow, the Lao listen to the rice grow and the Thai sell the rice,” may indeed hold some truth in Vietnam beyond the stereotypes.
There aren’t enough people to fill all the jobs, and villages are emptying out as the cities fill with job seekers. Cranes tower over the city’s skyline, slums have been bulldozed to make way for wider highways and investors from around the world are pouring money into the industrial zones ringing Ho Chi Minh City and sprouting throughout the country.
“Vietnamese who go to Hanoi always return home, but if they come to Ho Chi Minh City, they never leave,” says Dang Tu Anh, the area marketing manager for Gucci and Milano. “This has been a trading center for more than 100 years, and business is in our blood. The Vietnamese like to make money, but we like to spend money, too.”
Vietnam is touting its cultural, environmental and economic bounty to the world and is expecting four million tourists this year, says Le Tuan Anh, director of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism in Hanoi, adding the country seeks to reap almost $1 billion in profits this year through foreign visitors.
Almost half of Vietnam’s tourists are from Asia, and trips from the region have increased as vacationers shun Thailand because of political uncertainty, Anh says. Some 30 percent of Vietnam’s visitors are from Europe, she adds.
High season is December through February, and low season is when the monsoons roar, from March through August.
“The Vietnamese people are so friendly,” says Kim Chi, public relations coordinator at the Park Hyatt Saigon. “Investors and travelers feel safe here. We are their new destination.”
WHERE TO STAY AND SHOP
The tourist center of shops, tailors and hotels borders Dong Khoi Street. The area is anchored by the Municipal Theatre, which in Greene’s day was the National Assembly and the epicenter for official wartime news bulletins. Just across the street is the Hotel Continental, which was home to journalists during both World War II and the Vietnam War. It was built by a French industrialist in 1880 and is still housing guests. Now a four-star past its prime, the Hotel Continental has 83 rooms that can be had from $100 for a superior double to $170 for a double executive suite. Across the square on one of the busiest corners in Ho Chi Minh City is Louis Vuitton.
The Park Hyatt Saigon is the best stay in town with its atmosphere of colonialism paired with Asian influence. Located on Lam Son Square, the hotel has a lounge, two restaurants and the Xuan Spa (meaning “Spring Spa” in English). The Park Lounge has floor-to-ceiling louvered French windows, teak floors and Indochine furniture. The 252 guest rooms range from $230 to $666. Opened in July 2005 just behind the Hotel Continental and across from the Municipal Theatre, the Park Hyatt entertains mostly businessmen from the U.S. or Hong Kong, Chi says.
Another five-star hotel is the nearby Caravelle Hotel tower with 335 rooms and suites from $230 to $1,200. In addition to two restaurants and a lounge, the hotel has a Las Vegas–style casino. Just around the corner is the Sheraton Saigon Hotel & Towers, with 374 rooms. Its shopping arcade features Milano and Gucci, where, as marketing director Anh says, “business is quite good” despite the stacks of counterfeit bags in street stalls everywhere. The biggest sellers in the stores are handbags, wallets and casualwear, she says, adding that prices are less than in Japan and the U.S. “If you have that Gucci bag in your hand,” she says, “you believe in the brand. Counterfeits have mistakes, but the harmonious combination of style and material in a Gucci—you can’t go wrong with that.”
The possibilities for high-end retailing in Ho Chi Minh City are endless, Anh predicts. “In the next few years, we’ll have a boom.”
For travelers on a budget but smart enough to stay in the town center, there is the three-star Bong Sen Hotel, across the street from Milano. Rooms range from $69 to $159 and, while offering nothing beyond the basics, service is excellent and it’s a five-star location.
A remaining piece of early 20th-century French architecture is the four-sided clock tower at the Ben Thanh Market, where bargaining reigns for sequined flip-flops, Vietnamese silk or hand-embroidered purses.
Other sites for French architecture include the Notre Dame Cathedral on Cong Xa Paris Square in District 1; the office of the Ho Chi Minh City Council and People’s Committee, at 86 Le Thanh Ton Street in District 1, and the Ho Chi Minh Museum, 1 Nguyen Tat Thanh Street in District 4.
To get a feel for the country and its culture, there is the War Remnants Museum, which features old anti-American displays; the Fine Arts Museum of Ho Chi Minh City with its stash of propaganda posters, and Reunification Palace, the former palace of the South Vietnamese government.
WHERE TO EAT
The Ristorante Venezia at the Hotel Continental, while shirking its Francophile roots, offers homemade pasta, red-checked tablecloths and a picture-window view of Dong Khoi Street, where families of four race past on motorbikes. The most expensive entrée on the menu is the Tournedos de Boeuf for about $15.
On the other end of Dong Khoi is the Vietnam House, with its transom windows, piano player and a towering banana plant in the center of the dining room. The menu is in English, French and Japanese, and the set menu ranges from $12 to $27 a person.
For those who get high on mushrooms—the legal kind—there
is Ashima, a hot pot restaurant that serves mushrooms from South Korea, China and every corner of Southeast Asia, along with chicken, salmon or beef.
For a taste of Quang Nam food from central Vietnam, grab a Vietnamese speaker and head to Do Do Restaurant. Situated over a garage on a lane behind a maternity hospital, the restaurant offers rice crackers, fried and baked; rice paste; rice desserts; rice noodles, and rice paper. Not a word of English is spoken, but lunch is standing-room only and worth the hunt.