Ho Chi Minh City: Chic amid chaos

The Workshop Coffee serves up serious third-wave brews.
The Workshop Coffee serves up serious third-wave brews. Photo Credit: TW photo by MIchelle Baran
It's the antithesis to any Mekong River sailing, where days are spent completely detached from society, meandering among peaceful and remote river villages. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City can either feel like a rude awakening or a welcome return to civilization (likely a bit of both) after experiencing the seclusion of the Mekong.

But amid the incessant honking of car horns and weaving armies of motorbikes, Vietnam's largest city (also known as Saigon) offers a choice selection of hip eateries, chic shops and urban indulgences that showcase Southeast Asia's more metropolitan side.

As far as the taste buds are concerned, there is no shortage of good Vietnamese and Asian cuisine in this buzzing big city. If you're looking for a crash course in pan-Asian food, including regional Vietnamese specialties, Quan An Ngon in District 2 is a good starting point to the backdrop of an extremely charming multistory setting (think eating-in-a-temple vibes).

For a nontraditional meal in a nontraditional space, head to L’Usine, part cafe, part bistro, part shop.
For a nontraditional meal in a nontraditional space, head to L’Usine, part cafe, part bistro, part shop. Photo Credit: TW photo by MIchelle Baran

For those who are looking for a break from Southeast Asian fare, there are myriad cosmopolitan options, too. L'Usine offers Italian-influenced small plates, salads and entrees in a casual cafe setting and has an adjacent shop for browsing pre- or post-bites. Cafe-Restaurant is run by a Dutch team and features American and European standards to the backdrop of a decked-out grand cafe-style space featuring soaring ceilings and windows overlooking Quach Thi Trang Square.

From there it's a short stroll to the bustling Ben Thanh Market, a treasure trove of trinkets and souvenirs. The food market portion of this indoor marketplace is a feast for the senses, where Vietnam's colorful local cuisine comes to life. For more upscale shopping, the storefronts nearby along Dong Khoi do not disappoint.

There is no shortage of coffee shops in Ho Chi Minh City, ranging from standard global names such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to local chains and smaller, cozy coffee nooks. Serious third-wave coffee connoisseurs shouldn't pass up The Workshop Coffee. Tucked into a bright and airy walk-up space on the fourth floor, getting there is half the adventure, and on hot days the Workshop's cold brew latte is a perfectly refreshing pick-me-up.

For sightseeing, the War Remnants Museum, with exhibits featuring photographs and other artifacts from the Vietnam War, is often included in the excursion options offered by river cruise lines. Aficionados of midcentury modern design should not skip a visit to the Independence Palace (aka Reunification Palace), where time has virtually stood still since the 1970s when the North Vietnamese defeated the South.

To get a fun overview of the city and to truly get a sense of its frenetic energy, rent a scooter for an hour or two or take a tour aboard a cyclo (a cycle rickshaw).

You'll be ready for a drink after that experience, and thankfully Ho Chi Minh City has a pretty hoppin' nightlife scene, something that will also feel a bit unexpected after those quiet and serene nights out on the Mekong.

There are hotels and accommodations for every taste and budget. For luxe travelers, the Reverie Saigon, which opened in 2015, brings European-style elegance to the city's center (rates start at $240 per night).

All told, Ho Chi Minh City isn't for everyone. For some, the swarm of scooters alone is enough to make a simple sightseeing stroll seem stressful and life-threatening. For others, the city is a fun and exciting stop that makes the overall Mekong River experience all the more dynamic.

Most Mekong River cruises either start or end in Ho Chi Minh City, and the transfer is about a 90-minute drive from the port most commonly used by river cruise lines. Many river cruise companies also offer pre- or post-cruise options in Ho Chi Minh City for those who choose to explore the city even more.

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