Author Cain Nunns Photography Christian Berg
DAY ONE | If anything sums up the transformation of Ho Chi Minh City, it’s the Reverie Saigon. The hotel, which opened this year, occupies the upper 13 floors of a 39-story glassy block in District 1, an area where the French Colonial architecture is rapidly being overshadowed by a huddle of high-concept skyscrapers and shopping malls.
The Reverie’s interior, contrived by a consortium of Italian designers, is an emphatic expression of these changes, an almost surreal clamor of colors, textures and styles. In the florid reception area stands a large gold and emerald clock that the concierge informs me is worth about half a million dollars.
After a bowl of rich Vietnamese beef stew at a poolside table, I head out to find Nguyen Hue, a broad promenade flanked by French Colonial buildings, bars, boutiques and galleries. North of here is Lam Son Square, once the beating heart of French Indochina and now a shopping and selfie destination. It’s noon, the time of day when the city begins to wilt, when the park benches are filled with snoozers and the locals pack the cafés in search of relief.
One of the more notable of these refuges is inside the Hotel Continental, a wicker-and-linen spot that has always drawn a motley crowd, from opium dealers to American journalists to British spies. Graham Greene was a regular there and used it as a backdrop for his novel The Quiet American. But I’ve opted instead for a tipple at Broma, a rooftop bar swarming with good-looking locals. Getting up there involves climbing a narrow, twisting staircase, and I’m sweating by the time I reach the top. Considerably more composed is Trinh Dinh Le Minh, a young filmmaker who recently returned from living in Austin, Texas. We sip Old Fashioneds and discuss My Apartment Block, Minh’s documentary set in the building in which his parents live alongside a cast of colorful neighbors. The film found success at U.S. film festivals, but Minh insists that there’s only one place he could have made it. “In America, I couldn’t get 30 families to open up their lives for six months,” he says. “But here, everybody said yes.”
I say goodbye to Minh and head off to take a look at the nearby home of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee, a government building dating from the early 20th century, with elaborate detailing and a multiturreted design that exemplifies the so-called Tropical Baroque style. From here, I make my way deeper into the city, past crumbling villas and sparkling offices, high-end watch shops and a guy selling knockoffs from a bamboo basket, past the pho woman, the xe om (motorcycle taxi) drivers dozing under banyan trees, the chattering money changers, the flower vendors and silk sellers.
I grab a café sua da, an intensely strong iced coffee with condensed milk, and sit on a bench outside Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral, beside a statue of the Virgin Mary. Local lore has it that she once shed tears, luring the faithful from around the world to come experience the miracle. I touch the Holy Mother’s cheek. Not a drop.
Constructed by the French in the 19th century using rose-colored bricks shipped from Marseille, the neo-Romanesque cathedral is the heart of the city’s Catholic community. Today, its twin 200-foot bell towers provide a counterpoint to the city’s bristling office towers and also offers shade to the shoeshine boy and the woman selling Hello Kitty balloons.
I cross the street to the Saigon Central Post Office, entering a wrought-iron barrel-like interior that is unmistakably the work of Gustave Eiffel, whose influence is evident throughout Vietnam. At a long counter, I find Duong Van Ngo, an octogenarian former postal worker who volunteers as a translator, handwriting travelers’ messages in a variety of languages. I hand him a postcard and ask if he’d write “The eagle has landed” in Vietnamese.
“That’s it?” he says, sounding disappointed.
“Um, could you also write it in Russian? And French?”
“There you are, sir,” he says a few seconds later, handing the postcard back to me with a smile.
Next, I head south to Ben Thành Market, a crush of handicraft vendors, souvenir sellers and snack hawkers. Droves of tourists move from stall to stall, haggling badly. The scents of jasmine and lemongrass fill the air. An elderly woman in a conical hat eyes me before I reach her stand. “Fruit?” she chirps, pronouncing it friiiiit?
Saigonese are obsessed with freshness. Two markets occur here daily, one for the lunch crowd, the other for dinner. I try a few perfectly juicy dragon eyes (the lychee-like longan). “Too old!” I say to the woman, clutching my stomach in a parody of pain. “Oi gioi oi! Dien!” (“Oh my God! Crazy!”) she replies, swatting me with a long stick usually used to chase flies away.
I wave goodbye to the chuckling fruit seller and say hello to Duc, a xe om driver, who takes me to Quan An Ngon, a street food–themed restaurant located in a lemon-colored colonial building. I feast on excellent egg, shrimp, pork and bean-sprout pancakes; pounded shrimp hash on sugar cane; and water chestnut for dessert.
Just down the road I find the neoclassical Ho Chi Minh City Museum, a former governor’s residence with grand ballrooms that now contain exhibits detailing Saigon’s history. I wander among the old maps, typewriters used to punch out historical documents and dusty ceramics for a while, then head out to explore a bunch of decommissioned military equipment interspersed with six-foot Frosty the Tiger rubbish bins.
A short stroll west takes me to Independence Palace, a sprawling Brutalist edifice once described by The New York Times (improbably) as the sexiest building in Southeast Asia. The 19th-century residence became the home of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem after the French left in the mid-’50s. In 1962, Diem’s own air force bombed it, and before the palace was rebuilt, the president had been done in by other members of his armed forces.
I tiptoe along the building’s eerily quiet hallways, peering into barren conference halls and reception rooms decked out with shag carpets and horseshoe bars of the kind Sinatra used to lean against. Outside, beyond a rolling lawn, are the gates that were smashed by a North Vietnamese tank during the fall of Saigon, one of the most iconic images of what people here call “The American War.”
At Minh’s suggestion, I’m dining tonight at Pho Ha, in the shadow of the Bitexco Financial Tower. Built to represent a budding lotus—a signifier of purity, faithfulness and awakening, and the national flower of Vietnam—the building symbolizes Saigon’s role as an engine of prosperity. We tuck into large amounts of chicken pho and sticky broken rice, serenaded by a group of young performers. Their leader, sporting a Mad Max hairdo, strums an acoustic guitar. “We are laid-back because Saigon’s sun and rain allows everything to grow,” Minh says, reclining in his chair. “It’s always been an easier life in the south.”