Ho Chi Minh City embraces me in heat, wrapping me in a blanket of humidity and constant summer. Sweat drizzles down my neck as I wobble on a plastic stool on the kerb. I put my back to the street but can’t ignore the blasts of hot air coming off passing motorbikes. This is really too close to traffic, my melting brain suggests. Maybe I should go.
Then my glass arrives, cubes of ice swimming in coffee and condensed milk. The cold is sharp in my hand, sweet in my mouth. It’s not just the coffee that wins me but this dovetailing of place and moment: Ho Chi Minh City just after sunrise.
I am generally opposed to mornings on the grounds that they start too early but Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) pulls me out of bed at first light. I’ve never had a place get under my skin quite like this. It’s vibrant, gritty, jostling, mesmerising. And it wakes up like a boxer to a bell.
HCMC – known interchangeably as Saigon – is the southern anchor of tropical Vietnam. The sprawling city has 24 districts, 12 of which are numbered and 12 named. District 1 is the geographic and administrative centre and also holds the sights: the French Colonial opera house, Independence Palace, a skyscraper Skydeck. It’s a beautiful, museum-quality neighbourhood displaying the city’s history and modern prosperity in a glance.
But mornings in the outer districts let you feel the city. It doesn’t matter which direction you choose – maybe south into the underworld memories of District 4 or west to Chinatown. My favourite is north across the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal where the grid plan breaks down and the streets meander off in all directions. I hit Binh Thanh District bleary from sleep but business hours have already begun. Even the roosters get to work before dawn, trying, like everyone else, to head off the heat.
Already the pavements are crowded with obstacles. I slide across a carpet of coconut husks and sidestep a taxi on a smoke break: cigarettes for the driver, incense for the car. I stumble – a zing of adrenaline, heart fluttering – on an inexplicably placed box of live snakes. Nearby, a barber is setting up his folding chair beneath a tree so today’s customers can enjoy a bit of shade with their haircut. Motorbikes brush past, mounting the sidewalk to grab takeaway breakfast from the open-fronted shops.
My priority is caffeine. Vietnam produces more coffee than any other country except Brazil and brews it one cup at a time through metal drip filters. It’s addictive and I stop again and again at elegant cafés with hammock chairs and sidewalk carts with tiny toy stools until I’m buzzing.
Ordering ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk) maxes out my vocabulary but I wish I could converse with the two old men setting up their wooden co tuong (Chinese chess) board. They don’t seem to notice as I crane to follow the game. Life in high-density cities fosters a mental sense of privacy to compensate for the lack of physical space. And anyway, I’m just passing through.
That doesn’t mean I’m invisible. Xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers tug my sleeve. The fishmonger on the corner teases me with an enormous, floppy carp. Crossing the train tracks, I’m detained by a pair of railway guards on a coffee break. They want to practise their English and offer me a sun-warmed plastic chair while they brew a cuppa. What’s one more?
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By now my stomach is clamouring for breakfast. The streets are a kaleidoscope of food options; I settle on pho. The temperature is already in the low 30s and the metal table sizzling hot. My soup arrives boiling.
Different cultures approach heat differently. I’ve had Koreans try to convince me to tackle hot weather with hot food. In Vietnam certain ingredients are deemed intrinsically hot or cold regardless of the temperature they’re served at. I come from an ice-cream and lemonade tradition but pho makes me reconsider my heritage. The steaming bowl creates a mini sauna at the table. My muscles melt in the ambient warmth. I tear in a handful of culantro and Thai basil from the basket on the table and squeeze in some lime juice. A crusty baguette supplements my spoon.
With a bit of time to spare, I head to the leafy grandeur of Gia Dinh Park, its meandering paths full of joggers. Through the trees I catch strains of The Blue Danube waltz and I follow them to the back of the park where a gazebo swirls with couples in tracksuits. Ballroom dancing is a French colonial legacy like Indochine architecture and great bread. Although it was banned in the years following the Second Indochina War, its resurgence led to an unselfconscious custom of foxtrotting in public spaces. Of all the sights in HCMC, this is my favourite. Every morning the city dances.
My arms are around the waist of Mrs Cuc, a woman twice my age and half my size. We’re not on the dance floor but the back of her motorbike, which she kindly wheeled out of her living room to give me a lift (after showing me pictures of the grandkids on her iPad). Xe om means “hugging vehicle” in Vietnamese but I’m unsure of the etiquette: is it appropriate to grasp one’s granny chauffeur like a life preserver as she weaves through rush-hour traffic? I compromise by clinging to the slippery rayon of her blouse. My ankle feels the searing heat from the exhaust pipe as we lean into the turns. As of 2016 there were reportedly more motorbikes in HCMC than residents, an estimated 8.5 million, and it seems every one of them is on the road with us now. The other passengers look relaxed, like they’re lounging on a sofa. I see people balancing ladders, birdcages, enormous bouquets of balloons. Beside us, a small girl reads a picture book as her father drives her to school. I tense as the light turns green; she yawns and turns the page.
To me, Ho Chi Minh City feels like it’s rushing to keep up with its own momentum. Everything is on the rise here: quality of life, sea levels and tourist numbers. Mrs Cuc, who came to the city as a teenager, has witnessed a constant flow of change: war into the 1970s, waves of urban migration in the late ’80s and ’90s and the subsequent blossoming of commerce. Even today she sees her neighbourhood continually moving forward (except for that traffic snarl on the main road by her house – apparently that’s going nowhere).
For someone unused to the variability and pace, it’s intimidating, like balancing on two wheels through unpredictable traffic. I realise I’m holding on tighter than I mean to.Mrs Cuc is laughing when she deposits me on the kerb. “Were you scared?”
“Let’s say exhilarated.” It’s only half a lie.
After the chaos of Binh Thanh, District 1 feels serene, with broad, empty pavements beneath towering golden oaks. The roads are confidently straight, as if certain they’ll lead directly to wherever you’re going. Doors are swinging open at the museums and information centres and it’s time I got down to the serious work of being a tourist. Today’s checklist is ambitious: numerous historical sites, a street food tour, souvenir browsing and a rooftop sunset.
But first, maybe just one more coffee.
Where to stay
Boutique hotel The Myst Dong Khoi offers a unique escape in the centre of District 1. The modern exterior conceals an elegant design echoing the old shophouses and alleyways of Ho Chi Minh City. All 108 rooms include a private spa bath on a garden-shrouded balcony. Indulge in a massage or unwind with a drink beside the rooftop pool.
Where to eat
Missing pho in Ho Chi Minh City would be like skipping the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Southern-style pho is savoury-sweet with fresh herbs. For authentic taste, try Pho Hoa Pasteur (260C Pasteur, Ward 8, District 3; +84 8 3829 7943; pictured above), a longstanding institution with 12 varieties on the menu.
At the other end of the spectrum, Anan Saigon (pictured below) offers a special US$100 (about $143) pho. This fine-dining hotspot serves modern cuisine inspired by traditional street flavours. The specialty pho must be requested ahead but tasting menus are always available, plus cocktails at the rooftop bar.
Slow down at The Deck Saigon, a riverfront establishment in District 2. Choose between the airy restaurant and a sunny patio on the Saigon River. The wide menu includes a formidable wine list. Chill over weekend brunch or go full-on romantic and arrive by private boat.
Where to drink
Ho Chi Minh City’s infatuation with speakeasies is epitomised by Firkin Bar (20 Mac Thi Buoi Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1; +84 9 3131 2723), a high-end whisky and cocktail bar. The space is intimate but the selection immense, with more than 400 bottles in its gallery of spirits.
Twenty-four floors up, the Social Club Rooftop Bar sparkles at sunset. Located atop Hotel Des Arts Saigon, it’s the place for signature drinks, sweeping views and nightly DJ sets.