I am whizzing along main street Nguyen Hue on the back of a Vespa. It’s the easiest way to get around Vietnam’s biggest and brightest city. (It’s also one of the most soporific: I’m jetlagged, and the purr from the engine is so comforting that at one point I nod off on my driver’s shoulder.)
I’m going at a decent 50 kilometres an hour. It feels like Ho Chi Minh City is changing at twice that speed.
First: nobody calls the city by the official name chosen to commemorate Vietnam’s first leader. Everybody knows it as Saigon, a name you’re expected to use the moment you’re past border control. Second: Saigon’s crude chopping up of the numbered districts inspired the states in dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games. I probably shouldn’t mention that – no city wants to be the inspiration for The Hunger Games. Third: one of the most luxurious hotels in Asia has just opened up on the very same street I’m flying down on the Vespa. It’s so gilded that its opening has led some to tout Ho Chi Minh City as Asia’s ‘next world city’, wrenching the crown away from our very own Hong Kong. But is it the case?
Ho Chi Minh City (sorry, Saigon) has demographics on its side. Its population is set to swell to almost 14 million in fewer than 10 years. More than 40 per cent of the population of increasingly cosmopolitan, fast-gentrifying Vietnam is under 25. Many of them are crowded into the metropolitan cities: Ho Chi Minh City itself is sucking workers in from the nearby Mekong Delta. Then there are the visitors. Vietnam banished its visa regulations for visitors from many Western countries last year in a bid to re-route tourists from neighbouring Thailand.
Hence, The Reverie Saigon. The hotel is good news for Ho Chi Minh City: its owner even called it ‘a gift to the city’. Ho Chi Minh City’s supporters add that it’s the most jaw-dropping property ever to have opened its doors here. Not the kind of place you pull up outside of in a cloud of sweat on the back of a motorbike.
I take the helmet off and look up. You can’t see much beyond a tall black cuboid, criss-crossed at night by rainbow spines of light. Inside: anything but plain modernism. I still can’t decide whether I love or hate it. The whole hotel has dedicated itself to Italian design. Ninety nine per cent of everything you see, eat from, lay on hails from Italy. The result is what has been alternatively described (kindly) as Italian extravagance and (unkindly) as ‘the lovechild of Versace and Liberace’. Walking into the lobby is more like walking into a Disney film or Michael Jackson’s Neverland. Golden wings fly off a curved, mirrored sidetable and a giant gold and purple ostrich-leather sofa, long enough for 12 to sit side by side, ruffles with velvet cushions. They’re both from Italian design house Colombostile, known for its fairytale-esque designs. A fantastical custom-made three-metre-tall Baldi Monumental Clock (it weighs over 1,000 kilograms) stands over the swirled carpet. It’s so thick my feet sink into it when I walk to check in.
The aim of this, the highest hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, is to attract ‘a different kind of clientele’. Not backpackers – unless your backpack is by Hermès, maybe. This different kind of clientele can expect a different kind of design, too. A two-level suite, with interiors designed by Provasi, looks like somewhere Henry VIII would bed down in; another suite is coordinated by maximalist designer Visionnaire; and two others by Giorgetti, a more pared-down Italian designer. The Reverie’s chief architect, Hong Konger Kent Lui, is formerly of Foster + Partners – the firm behind Hong Kong’s HSBC Building and the city’s airport. He argues that the hotel’s ‘extravagance and splendour captivate’ and that it ‘presents a design experience like no other’. That’s putting it mildly.
It fits with the gradual growing up (literally) of District One, the central entertainment district of the city. The hammer and sickle may adorn flags outside the art deco Reunification Palace up the road, but the new glass towers here are anything but Communist-era architecture. The area has traditionally been home to French colonial buildings in birthday cake shades (the banana-yellow post office, the city hall and the Saigon Opera House are three of the more impressive) and wide, cobbled European-style boulevards. But lately the baroque buildings are sharing their space with architecture of the taller, glossier variety. Opposite the Reverie Saigon is the shiny Bitexco Financial Tower, the highest tower in the city, with a helicopter landing pad, nightclub and 49th-floor sky deck. It’s soon to be surpassed by Landmark 81, a mixed-use development due to open in 2018, just outside the District One limit. According to some slick computer-generated imagery, it looks like an upside-down wind chime. The faintly art deco Vietcombank Tower is all staggered glass edges while the Saigon One Tower, still under construction, will also add to the new skyline when it opens on the bank of the Saigon River.
But I’m not here to drool over modernist glass boxes. Kicking off the stand of the Vespa one warm evening, we’re off to eat. (Saigon cooking is now A Thing, even outside the city: Hong Kong recently welcomed its own Saigon brasserie, Le Garçon Saigon, in the hip Star Street neighbourhood of Wan Chai.)
High-end dining is a fringe activity here in Ho Chi Minh City. District One is full of street joints selling cloudy bowls of pho (despite hailing from capital city Hanoi), grilled meats and delicate rice paper rolls. The food market at Ben Thanh, a square market filled with rough-and-ready restaurants, wholesale fabrics and jewellery shops, does more than a decent bowl for pocket change. Or try the colonial Nha Hang Ngon on Pasteur Street, which serves steaming bowls in a pretty, bamboo-fringed yellow courtyard.
But it’s in District Four, near the city port, where the best street feeds are found. My first night, following a jumpy ride through the traffic lights of the city before sailing neatly over the Saigon River, we restaurant-hopped here. Street-side restaurants are made up of little more than red stools, a gas ring sunk into a table and plates of local vegetables thrown onto patterned plastic sheets. Then comes the meat: fried frog legs, raw strips of beef flank. And the soup: lemongrass-scented broth, which everything gets dunked into. Washed down with a Saigon beer, naturally.
The next morning, following a late night chasing bottles of Saigon with, er, more bottles of Saigon, watching Nguyen Hue from above at Broma Not A Bar (a Brooklyn-esque rooftop with filament bulbs strung across brickwork and a playlist of ’90s hip-hop and R’n’B), a guy from Trails of Indochina arrives to drive me to the Mekong Delta. We slide down one of the deep brown tributaries that eventually runs into the South China Sea, ducking our heads under low banana leaves and bamboo trees, passing local communities making everything from bread to bricks, and harvesting rice and exotic fruits. There’s only one thing missing from this scene: me, on the back of a Vespa, flying down the path.
Ho Chi Minh City Hitlist
For more information on the Reverie Saigon, visit reveriesaigon.com
The Saigon After Dark tour and the Insider’s Saigon tour with Vespa Adventures cost US$93 (HK$720) and US$72 (HK$560) respectively. vespaadventures.com
For more information on day trips into the Mekong Delta with Trails of Indochina, visit trailsofindochina.com
Cathay Pacific flies to Ho Chi Minh City from Hong Kong 18 times a week