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A Saigon Landmark
Seventh-Floor Swimming
The Perfect Rendez-Vous
Drinks at Sunset
Best Beds in Town

About the author

Caravelle HotelSince early 2007, John Gardner has been general manager of the Caravelle. A Kiwi from Christchurch, his career includes years of general management in China, as well as stints in Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Singapore and Australia. Saigon is his best post yet.

Seven Spots for Great Vietnamese Gifts

Post by John Gardner, General Manager, the Caravelle Hotel

In Hotel, Travel, Spa 

 | On 27-08-2014

There are few better ways to end a great holiday than by finding a memento that encapsulates the spirit of the destination – a gift that calls up memories of far-away lands long after you find yourself back on familiar shores.

When I arrived in Vietnam seven years ago, it seemed the country had a monopoly on the cliché souvenir market. Ben Thanh market did a roaring trade in lacquer-ware vases and silk pyjamas. There were the standard-issue Saigon Beer and iPho t-shirts, there werenon la hats crumpled in the overhead bins of every flight leaving Tan Son Nhat and of course, there were those miniature replica ships, which could easily also be enormous replica ships if you succumbed to the sellers on Lam Son Square.

In short, there were few useful or stylish souvenirs travelers could buy that didn’t scream, “I’ve just returned from a chopstick-wielding, rice-growing, dragon-loving tropical country.” Which, in Asia, is not very specific.

I’m happy to report that in recent years a whole slew of small businesses have sprung up, each one offering something uniquely Vietnamese that wasn’t available to travellers before. Whether you’re looking for a thoughtful gift or a keepsake for yourself, there’s something for everyone among these seven shops for great Saigon souvenirs:

Gingko – Gingko is a perfect one-stop shop when you need to pick up lot of gifts for the folks back home. The concept store on De Tham sells a range of Vietnam-themed accessories, cute baby Buddha statues, delicious homemade tropical fruit jams made in Saigon by Le Petite Epicerie and beautiful photo prints just waiting to be framed.

Villa Royale Antiques and Tea Room – For the traveller who has everything, Villa Royale will offer something with the added allure of its own history. Antiques from all over Vietnam and beyond are strewn about the showroom of this gorgeous villa in District 2.

Saigon Kitsch – The young at heart will find something to please them at the newly renovated Saigon Kitsch shop on Ton That Thiep. Vietnam-themed mouse pads, laptop covers, propaganda posters and coasters are just a few of the affordable items on offer.

Hatvala – Caffeine addicts can now take home a real taste of Vietnam. Hatvala specialises in finding the best teas and coffees from around the country and selling them directly to customers at their bistro-café on Nguyen Hue. A free tea tasting is an enjoyable way to choose a leaf that suits your palate, and the café’s excellent and extremely well-priced Arabica and Robusta blends are ground on the spot after you order to ensure freshness.

Artbook – If you failed to pick up some light reading before starting your holiday, Artbook will fix you right up. With several locations downtown, Artbook stocks short classics that fit the destination, such as ‘The Quiet American’, and ‘Dumb Luck’; as well as a range of non-fiction from fighters on both sides of the war, plus Vietnamese pocket-cookbooks, children’s activity books and stationery.

Tara & Kys – Tucked into a quiet nook on Dong Du street, Tara & Kys Art Gallery showcases pieces by two French artists. Travellers will recognise the contrasting urgency and tranquillity of Vietnam in the gallery’s compelling sketches, silk screens, paintings and etchings. Art lovers may enjoy owning a panoramic sketch of Old Saigon, or a delicate serigraph of the karsts of Halong Bay.
L’Usine – An upmarket boutique connected to one of the city’s chicest cafes, the entrance to L’Usine is hidden in the Art Arcade just opposite the Caravelle Hotel. Stop in for a sniff of their lovely candles, browse collections by up-and-coming Vietnamese fashion designers, and re-imagine your living room with elegant black-and-white throw-pillow covers depicting Saigon in the 1920s.

From Boston to Vietnam

Post by John Gardner, General Manager, the Caravelle Hotel

In History, Hotel, Travel 

 | On 31-07-2014

Greetings from Boston, where - a few hours from now - I’ll be at a Red Sox game, watching the Olde Towne Team struggle against the Chicago White Sox. I don’t know the States all that well, and I myself am from another former English colony, but I can tell you there’s a huge atmospheric difference between a settled city like Boston (or my home in Christchurch) and a city on the make like Ho Chi Minh City.

Many of you reading this letter know as much already, having parachuted in for a holiday or for business. But I’m sometimes surprised at the difference between a place where business and leisure are as established as they are in Boston, and in a place where everything is in flux, where tomorrow looks so little like yesterday, and where anything can happen. Don’t get me wrong. I like what I’m experiencing of Boston. Even its drivers look proper compared to our zany free-wheelers!

But I have to admit I am somewhat homesick. There was a palliative in the paper this morning. On the cover of North America’s top travel-trade newspaper, Travel Weekly, there was a story this week on Vietnam, headlined ‘Vietnam Now.’

The story details a trip up and down the country by a renowned photographer. His stop in Ho Chi Minh City, I’m happy to say, is all about the Caravelle. This summer it will be 50 years since the Tonkin Gulf Incident, and the precipitation of war between the United States and Vietnam. No doubt, we’re going to see a lot of long looks back to Vietnam from North America in the coming year - long looks like the one I’m having now, and perhaps even with a bit more angst. In the meantime, go Sox!

Reflections in Reflections

Post by John Gardner, General Manager, the Caravelle Hotel

In Hotel, Travel, Spa 

 | On 17-06-2014

I was at dinner with the hotel’s new director of sales and marketing, Carl Sladen, on the Friday night of his first full week at work. We were sitting in Reflections, before a bank of windows that looks out over Lam Son Square. The Opera House was lit. The troupers for the A O Show were making their way inside. And the square was abuzz with motorbikes.

It was then that I realized something I can lose sight of from time to time: That Reflections has got to be the finest dining venue in all Saigon. I’m not even going to trumpet the food, which that night, as every night, was fantastic. That’s what you get when you have a man like Chef Timo Reuss at the helm in the kitchen.

 

Instead, I’m talking about the experience of sitting in a place with a view of the iconic Opera House, and the tremendous surge of adrenaline in the streets below our third floor balcony on the square. If you come to Saigon, you’ve got to experience this, and if you haven’t, then I hope I might have inspired you to make a reservation this evening.

If you need any more prodding, consider the heritage of the space.

“Is it true?” Carl asked. “What they say about this place?”

“It is true,” I answered. Though I wasn’t quite sure what he was asking, I feel enough pride in Reflections to believe all the best.

“CBS News had its bureau here during the war,” Carl went on.

“They did,” I said. “Walter Cronkite. Morley Safer. John Laurence.”

“It was all happening here,” Carl said.

Chef came to check on our food, and I looked down to the plate, and out to the Opera House. “It still is,” I told him.

A Morning Stroll Through Old Saigon

Post by John Gardner, General Manager, the Caravelle Hotel

In Hotel, Travel, Spa 

 | On 27-04-2014

It’s 8:30 in the morning on a Tuesday, and over a cup of iced coffee in downtown Saigon, historian Tim Doling is explaining that to my right, over 200 years ago, stood Saigon’s first citadel. It was an enormous citadel, judging from Doling’s maps, built with the help of French engineers, and not a stone remains.

It’s a fascinating tidbit of information; one of many our group will absorb this morning on Doling’s newly launched Saigon Hertiage walking tour.

In recent years, a handful of in-depth tours have debuted in culturally and historically rich Saigon. Among them, none reveal as much great detail about the city’s physical and aesthetic progression as Doling’s four-hour tours of Old Saigon and Cholon. Doling, an author and medieval historian who’s worked for cultural sectors in Asia, Africa and Europe, has lived in Vietnam since 1990.

Caravelle Hotel circa 1960

Today, our tour begins promptly at 7:50 in the lobby of the Caravelle Hotel, itself something of an icon, known for housing numerous journalist and media offices during the war. After a cup of potent local robusta and a brief overview of the city’s history, we strike out on foot. Doling leads us both on and off the beaten tourist path. We see the sights of Lam Son Square, the Reunification Palace, and the Notre Dame Cathedral; but also get to pound the pavement of lesser-known streets such as Vo Van Kiet, Ham Nghi and Ton Duc Thang.

Mercifully, in the tropical heat, we are also allowed to take in a few key streets and buildings from the comfort of an air-conditioned van. Circling Nguyen Hue, we observe the site where the city’s first Catholic cathedral was founded and later destroyed -- not by time, but termites. We are let in on the surprising fact that the boulevard in front of the church once served as a public execution yard.

We stroll to the junction where the Saigon River meets the Ben Nghe canal, site of the city’s first tramway stop, and see on the opposite bank the wharf where boatloads of travelers disembarked after long voyages from Europe. The connection between Saigon and international enterprise seems to go a long way back. Doling explains how Chinese merchants, helped by a system of canals that connected Saigon with the river and beyond, established the city’s earliest roots as a centre for trade and business. Missionaries brought education, healthcare and religion, and the riverside settlement flourished.

As Doling expounds on the structures we pass, it’s becomes clear that few if any of the colonial-era buildings retain their original purpose or design. A building may come to life as a private home, transform into a hotel and then reopen as a government office. If Saigon is undergoing rapid development today, through the lens of Doling’s research, we understand this is only the most recent and revolutionary edition in a series of revisions.

We note that before the Caravelle Hotel occupied the corner of Le Loi and Dong Khoi, the land was home to the city’s first theatre; while the famed wet market Ben Thanh is actually on its third incarnation (it began on Ton That Dam, then was relocated to what was called the Grand Canal, now Nguyen Hue, before being built again on Le Loi). We even stop to admire the portico of the erstwhile opium factory on Hai Ba Trung St., now a courtyard and collection of restaurants coyly named, ‘The Refinery’.

There is very little here that appears on the regular city tours, a few of which we encounter at well known attractions. Many of the features Doling references are gone altogether. Even as a long-time resident of Saigon, I found myself walking some stretches of sidewalk for the first time, led on by Doling’s stories into an era when these were nuclei of the city, rather than those we think of today.

With the help of Doling’s personal research, historical photographs, maps and a little imagination, I am able to glimpse a different Saigon -- a Saigon in a quieter time, before the city became synonymous with war and later on made a dynamic return to prosperity. It’s a Saigon that’s worth examining; and certainly, considering how much appeal it still holds, it’s a Saigon worth preserving.

For more information about Tim Doling’s walking tours, and his new book, ‘Exploring Ho Chi Minh City’, visit: www.historicvietnam.com

Pick Up Your Teacup

Post by John Gardner, General Manager, the Caravelle Hotel

In Hotel, Travel, Spa 

 | On 27-03-2014

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea,” wrote Henry James in his 1881 novel, ‘The Portrait of a Lady’. As long as I’ve been general manager at the Caravelle Hotel, I can’t remember a time when we didn’t offer afternoon tea in the Lobby Lounge.

If you’ve never been to the Lobby Lounge, it’s an airy space on the hotel’s ground level, flooded with natural light from floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The tables and armchairs look out over the nexus of Old Saigon, where a continuous stream of traffic flows around the majestic Opera House just outside, and under the bougainvillea-laden balconies of the Continental Hotel across Lam Son Square.

Lobby Lounge High Tea


In this setting, from noon to 5pm each day, the Lobby Lounge offers afternoon tea to hotel guests and outsiders. However you take it, afternoon tea at the Caravelle is a standing invitation to slow down, socialise and savour life’s simple pleasures.

Tea on its own is said to have the power to cheer or calm, warm or cool the drinker; but when it comes to afternoon tea, many other elements also make an appearance. Ladies especially appreciate the little luxurious details of tiered trays, tiny milk pitchers, sugar tongs and cubes and delicate tea sets.

Yet according to history, there was no pomp or presentation of this kind in 1840, when the 7th Duchess of Bedford began ordering a pot of tea and snacks served in the mid-afternoon in her boudoir. As tea was then a newly fashionable drink, the Duchess soon invited other ladies to these mini-meals, designed to stave off hunger and afternoon doldrums. Afternoon tea took off in the Victorian Era, when 200-person tea receptions were held, and it became popular to enjoy an afternoon tea at 4pm followed by a stroll along the promenade of Hyde Park.

It’s not hard to see why a walk could be needed after one of these scrumptious but decadent indulgences, which at the Lobby Lounge, feature no less than ten sweet and savoury nibbles.

Just this month, we’ve revamped all our tea menus, writing an all-new menu for vegetarians, adding updates where needed and putting a little twist on tired classics. For example, our Traditional English Tea features Belgium chocolate scones instead of regular scones, and our smoked salmon sandwiches have chili-spiced cream cheese.

If you’re up for something more exotic, our Vietnamese Specialty Tea is a great way to tick a bunch of local delicacies off your list in one go. Shrimp mousse on lemongrass skewers, banana blossom salad, coconut macaroons and steamed pandan rice cakes with ginger syrup are a few of the temptations in our Vietnamese selection.

I can’t forget to mention that the Lobby Lounge offers a choice of premium loose leaf Ronnefeldt teas together with the goodies above. Enjoy a pot of fragrant, freshly brewed tea all to yourself or with whomever you choose to share your teatime.

As Henry James keenly noted, however busy our days are, there’s always a good reason to stop and smell the Earl Grey.

Beyond Banh Mi: 8 Essential Saigon Eats for Food Enthusiasts

Post by John Gardner, General Manager, the Caravelle Hotel

In Hotel, Travel, Spa 

 | On 26-02-2014

So you’ve just arrived in Saigon and are dying to try all those street eats you’ve heard so much about: the crunchy-soft banh mi, the fragrant pho noodles, the fresh spring rolls.

Good stuff. Maybe great stuff. Yet for some, it’s not enough.

For food lovers looking to do more than just scratch the surface of this vast culinary landscape, the 8 experiences below are your shortcut to Saigon’s most satisfying gastronomic delights. Grab your maps, prepare your small change, and don’t worry: you won’t leave disappointed.

Vietnamese wonton noodle soup

 

Tamarind Crab – Fans of Ba Chi tamarind crab usually struggle finding words to describe how tasty this dish is. Instead, their eyes bulge and they repeat the words, ‘It’s amazing’, over and over. The crabs are chosen fresh, and cooked in a wok over extremely high heat with pork belly bits, lots of garlic, pepper and tamarind. The syrupy sauce is scooped up with crusty bread as you wait for the crabs to cool down enough to tackled with your bare hands.

Ba Chi Restaurant, 13 Pho Co Dieu, District 5

Lunch Lady – Made (more) famous by Anthony Bourdain’s TV show, No Reservations, the Lunch Lady of Hoang Sa is a favourite among locals working in offices along the canal that separates District 1 and Binh Thanh. Her heavenly noodles and complex broths are rotated from day to day, but whatever she serves is quickly devoured by legions of loyal diners, so show up early.

Near 23 Hoang Sa, District 1

Banh Xeo – Banh Xeo takes its name from the sizzling sound the batter makes as it hits the pan. Saigon’s version of these crispy yellow pancakes is made from turmeric, rice flour and coconut milk, and is much larger than those served in Hanoi. Stuffed inside are more textural treats: beansprouts, mushrooms, slices of pork, mung beans, and a few shrimps. Take a bit of the banh xeo with its filling, wrap it with some mint and basil in a fresh lettuce leaf, dunk in mild fish sauce, and you have one of Vietnam’s most vibrant snacks.

No Name, 1 Bac Hai St., District 10

Cuc Gach Quan – Also known as the architect’s house, this restaurant occupies a beautifully preserved Vietnamese villa, and serves flavourful country delicacies and family-style shared dishes in an relaxed, atmospheric setting. The menu is long, consistently outstanding; and its humble presentation only adds to the appeal. Cuc Gach Quan’s just-squeezed fruit juices are especially good, as is the grilled pork with pickled cabbage, the tofu with lemongrass and the stir-fried pumpkin flowers with garlic.

10 Dang Tat, District 1

Cha Ca – You don’t have to go to Hanoi to sample this 100-year-old secret recipe: the capital’s famous Cha Ca La Vong institution has a southern counterpart nestled in Saigon’s central district. Be warned: it’s all too easy to become addicted to this dish. Here’s what we know: fatty catfish are marinated in turmeric, pepper and galangal and grilled before being pan-fried with butter, shallots and heaps of fresh dill and green onions. Cooked over an open flame at your table, a squeeze of lemon and a few slices of chilli enhance the dish as it comes together. (It’s all right to send back the fermented mam tom and request the lighter nuoc mam instead.) In your bowl, combine the cold ingredients--fresh herbs, vermicelli noodles, crunchy peanuts—and top it all with the grilled fish and wilted dill from the pan. Magic!

Cha Ca La Vong, 36 Ton That Thiep, District 1

Vietnamese High Tea – A traditional pastime with a Vietnamese twist, the Lobby Lounge at the Caravelle Hotel is one of the few places in Saigon where you can sit back with a view of historic Lam Son Square, and sample sweet and savoury nibbles from all around the country. Every afternoon the hotel offers a Vietnamese Tea loaded with local goodies and your choice of coffee or tea. On the savoury side there are fish cakes, shrimp mousse on lemongrass skewers, banana blossom salad and grilled beef in la lot leaves. From the sweet selection: steamed pandan rice cakes with ginger syrup and sweet lotus seed soup.

Caravelle Hotel, 19 Lam Son Square, District 1

Lau Hot Pot – Saigon’s hotpot offerings are no less enticing, varied and delicious than the more well-known versions served in the cooler cities up north. A bright sweet and sour seafood hotpot and a light red snapper and vegetable hotpot are the two types you’ll find most often on the tables of locals in the restaurants that open in the evenings just outside Binh Thanh market. The fun is in the preparation: dunking your chosen morsels and leaves into the bubbling broth, waiting for everything to get blanched or cooked through, and then slurping up the fruits of your labours with bites of soft bun noodles.

Restaurants near Ben Thanh Market, or try Papaya, 68 Pham Viet Chanh, Binh Thanh District

Tying the Knot with a Vietnamese Twist

Post by John Gardner, General Manager, the Caravelle Hotel

In Hotel, Travel, Spa 

 | On 23-01-2014

After several years in Vietnam, I’ve noted a few experiences that travellers should never miss. Up at the top of this list -- along with eating tamarind crab, receiving long head massages and biking Hai Van Pass --is this little piece of advice: Never pass on an invitation to a Vietnamese wedding.

An act in several parts, the Vietnamese wedding is not a joining of two people as much as it is collaboration between two families. Every member is needed to play a supporting role in the multi-day ceremony, which follows carefully prescribed rituals.

A recent addition to these rituals is the pre-wedding photo session. Modern couples throw themselves enthusiastically into these photo shoots, which often involve several costume changes and a photographer who happily lies prostrate in the street in order to achieve the best angle.

Weddings at the Caravelle

 

As general manager of the Caravelle Hotel on Lam Son Square, I’m not sure I can recall a day when I’ve not seen couples primping for the camera, in full wedding regalia, on the steps of the neighboring, French-built Opera House. I’m always surprised at how unabashed these couples are, the women especially, as comfortable as seasoned models, everyone fully committed to these 15 Minutes of Fame.

Marriage used to be a less public affair. In the days of arranged marriages, when a bride would sometimes flee her parents’ home to avoid an unwanted union, the groom would visit the bride’s parents with a gift of betel leaves the day before the wedding. The acceptance of the groom’s gift was a tacit way for the bride’s family to confirm the wedding was still on.

On the wedding day, the groom, clad in blue, and a procession of gift-bearing friends and family make their way to the bride’s parents’ house. Rather than knife sets and coffee makers, the groom offers areca nuts, betel leaves, jewellery, fruits and roast pork to represent the wealth the union will bring to the bride’s family.

The bride, dressed in a pink or red ao dai, is presented by her mother, and the couple is married by their parents in front of the family altar. The exchange of rings only occurs after the bride and groom have requested the permission of the bride’s ancestors, thanked their parents for a good upbringing, and bowed to each other to show their respect. The ring exchange is followed by the only formal tea ceremony widely practiced in Vietnamese culture.

Traditionally, the bride would be taken via procession to the groom’s home where the altar ceremony would be replicated, and the couple shown their matrimonial bed before joining a banquet with their guests in the groom’s house.

In 2014, most couples prefer a large reception in a restaurant venue or prominent hotel, which is how the Caravelle comes to welcome dozens of newlyweds every year. At every Vietnamese reception you can look forward to heaps of delicious food served by courses, a free flow of alcohol and non-stop rounds of informal toasts, plus a live band and general high spirits. Tables compete to see who can cheer the loudest and the new couple goes round, greeting guests, collecting gifts and taking pictures.The reception is when you’ll find the Vietnamese utterly welcoming, warm and friendly; however, the betrothal ceremony is one of the most poignant, dearly held traditions in Vietnamese society and one truly worth witnessing.

Brides and grooms who book and guarantee their weddings at the Caravelle within the first half of 2014 and six months in advance will receive a 20% discount off wedding reception menus. In a separate offer, couples tying the knot at the hotel before June 30, 2014 with a party of up to 200 guests will enjoy a complimentary two-night stay in the Caravelle’s most coveted suite, as well as a couples’ spa package at Kara Salon & Spa.

A Year of Giving from the Caravelle

Post by John Gardner, General Manager, the Caravelle Hotel

In Hotel, Travel, Spa 

 | On 22-12-2013

In many ways, the Caravelle Hotel has had a great year in 2013. Our chefs have brought home international trophies, we’ve surpassed our environmental goals, and we’ve acted as temporary home to thousands of happy visitors passing through Ho Chi Minh City.

But what really makes this a standout year for us, is that we’ve managed to fulfill not only our role as a leading hotel, but also as an active and compassionate member of the community.

The Caravelle Christmas Tree in 2013


One of the charities we’ve partnered closely with throughout 2013 is Heartbeat Vietnam, a program run by the Vina Capital Foundation. Since 2006, Heartbeat Vietnam has funded more than 3,000 life-saving surgeries for children all across the country. The program also supports the improvement of cardiac care with training, equipment donations and support for pediatric centres.

At the Caravelle we’ve brought this issue to the attention of our guests with flyers in 335 of our guestrooms and a donation box in our lobby. In September, we happily signed up for our fourth year of sponsorship for Heartbeat Vietnam’s main annual fundraising event, ‘Scar of Life’.

We even hosted our own fundraiser in the hotel to raise more support for the program. On October 4 we organized a Charity Gala Dinner at Reflections Restaurant together with Ms. Global 2013 and her entourage. In one evening we were able to collect more than VND 61,500,000, which we donated to the CEO of Vina Capital Foundation during a visit to Tam Duc Heart Hospital.

Our efforts to contribute positively to the city’s neediest communities led us to donate funds and supplies to the Psychiatric Nursing Centre in Binh Duong province and the Thi Nghe Orphanage in Binh Thanh. We even got the chance to strap on our sneakers for charity as sponsors of the British Business Group Vietnam (BBGV) Fun Run for charity, and the Terry Fox Run for cancer research.

To cap all this off, we’ll be welcoming a choir from the Christina Noble Foundation to sing Christmas carols in the Caravelle Lobby from December 23 to 25. The foundation does amazing work providing education and healthcare to some of Vietnam’s neediest children. We’re featuring a few of their handmade products in our boutique--the proceeds of which will go the foundation’s worthy projects in Vietnam.

I’ve often thought that there can be no greatness without compassion. When I look back over everything the Caravelle has accomplished in 2013, I feel I can truly say it’s been a great year.

Sailing Away on the Saigon River

Post by John Gardner, General Manager, the Caravelle Hotel

In Hotel, Travel, Spa 

 | On 26-11-2013

If you exit the Caravelle Hotel and walk down Dong Khoi St., within less than five minutes you’ll come to the edge of the Saigon River.

Long ago, the most desirable way to visit Saigon was to sail into one of its ports. Indeed, the protection afforded by the location’s watery environs is why Saigon was settled in the first place. French colonists, braving a long voyage to seek fortune and a new way of life, came over by the boatloads. Today, the travelers who arrive by water are on luxury cruises, or on a hydrofoil up from the Mekong Delta.

Saigon River

But of course, most visitors arrive by air, carrying similar guidebooks or near-identical lists of attractions to see. That’s alright if it’s your first time here, but once you’ve covered what’s on land, why not try another way to see Saigon? Why not get out on the water?

For a short geography lesson, the Saigon River (it’s name unchanged by the provisional government that renamed the city) begins in southeast Cambodia and flows for about 225 kilometres. The Saigon river is joined by the Dong Nai River before meeting the Nha Be River that in turn empties into the East Sea. I’m happy to report that the banks of the river and its canals have recently been spruced up by city authorities, creating numerous green spaces ideal for walking, talking, sipping coffee and apparently, fishing.

Those who enjoy the water have several options to get up close with the Saigon River. The most obvious is to take a dinner cruise, easily organized by the Caravelle’s concierge, on one of the traditional heritage junks, taking in the city at night along with a buffet menu and some light entertainment. That’s all nice and good, but I think the real pleasure of a cruise is just finding your feet on the boat’s deck, a Tom Collins in hand, casting away from the shore at sunset. If you want an even more unique experience, ask our concierge about Les Rives river tours, which reveal a whole different side of life in Saigon, tucked away in the canals and waterways around the city.

Many people are unaware that there’s an island in Ho Chi Minh City. That’s right, Thanh Da Island is one of the quieter, less developed hamlets residents often escape to on weekends. Binh An Village in particular is set in a lovely garden right on the water, and is a hidden oasis, perfect for a lazy afternoon with a book or lingering over a Vietnamese lunch. Thanh Da has numerous restaurants and tourism ‘centres’ on the water, but for a romantic dinner, superb sundowners or a leisurely breakfast, head to The Deck in Thao Dien where you can enjoy fabulous fusion cuisine while the river life floats by a few feet away.

These are just a few ideas, but there are many more. I’ve often thought Saigon’s ever-changing waterway the most scenic aspect of the city. Aside from a great view, the water offers a continual breeze that cools this fast-paced city, its banks are shared by lovers, loners, the youth and the elderly, and its currents connect us with others up the river and across the seas.

Best of Saigon for First-timers

Post by John Gardner, General Manager, the Caravelle Hotel

In Hotel, Travel, Spa 

 | On 28-10-2013

Like many good things in life, getting to know Saigon takes time. Obscure alleyways, hidden cafes, out-of-sight bars—are all part of what makes Saigon such a fascinating--and sometimes perplexing—destination. Most of the Caravelle's guests don't have the time to explore Saigon the way they'd like, which is why, with the help of our concierge, we've put together a list of where to go for best experiences in this city. Feel free to use the recommendations below as your insider guide to a great Saigon adventure. 

Lam Son Square


Best experiences

Saigon holds a wealth of treasures for culture-seekers, foodies, history-lovers and shopaholics. Art lovers should join Sophie’s Art Tour, visit the Fine Arts Museum or catch the AO Show at the Saigon Opera House. History buffs can sign up for Tim Doling’s excellent walking tour, with loads of fascinating insight into old Saigon. Budding cooks can ride with Vietnam Vespa Adventures to sample Saigon’s street food scene, or join a cooking class that includes a visit to a local wet market. Visit the emotionally-charged War Remnants Museum or the Cu Chi Tunnels outside the city to get a glimpse of this period of Vietnam’s history. Shop the boutiques, galleries, tailors and malls on Dong Khoi, or dust off your bargaining skills at Saigon Square on Pasteur.

Best place to observe the locals

Saigon’s parks are communal gardens, sport and dance clubs shared by the city’s old and young. It’s easy to strike up a conversation, join in a match, buy snacks from roving vendors, or just people watch from a park bench. A few lively parks to check out are 23-9 Park along Pham Ngu Lao, Tao Dan Park near the Reunification Palace, and 30-4 Park near the Notre Dame Cathedral.

If parks aren’t your thing, pull up a stool at one of the city’s many sidewalk cafes and watch life go by over a mug of ca phe sua da.

Best street food stop

Nha Hang Ngon at 160 Pasteur St. offers safe, scrumptious street food from every corner of Vietnam in a beautiful setting, at affordable prices. Or try a bowl of Saigon’s most talked-about noodles from the Lunch Lady, made famous by Anthony Bourdain of TLC fame. Her stall is located in a quiet alley off Hoang Sa in District 1 (you can find the exact spot pinpointed on Google Maps.)
                                                                                                                                                                                          
Best Vietnamese restaurant

Two establishments lead the way in terms of authentic Vietnamese home cooking served in atmospheric villas-turned-restaurants. These are Cuc Gach Quan at 10 Dang Tat, and May at 3 / 5 Hoang Sa. Be sure to call ahead to book a table.

Best market

Saigon’s enormous landmark market, Ben Thanh, boasts the lowest prices in town for produce, souvenirs, clothes, cosmetics and more. If you fancy some really fresh Vietnamese fare, Ben Thanh is also a great place for lunch or dinner enjoyed in the market’s lively atmosphere.

Best venues for nightlife

Upscale watering holes Xu and Blanchy’s Tash feature DJ performances and are favorites of the Vietnamese and expat crowd. High above the busy streets, Alto and Chill are known for dazzling panoramic views of Saigon’s District 1 and beyond. For something in the middle, check out La Fenetre Soleil for French bohemian charm, La Habana for live acoustic performances, and Pacharan for Latin music and wine. One of Saigon’s largest nightlife venues, Cargo Bar in District 4, features visiting bands and DJ performances on most weekends. If you want a night on the town with the locals, head to Acoustic Bar in District 3 for some of the best live music in the city.

Best spot for sundowners

Saigon Saigon Bar is a rare combination of Vietnamese heritage, prime location and top-notch service. Not much has changed from the days when this handsome watering hole was the gathering point for war correspondents. The bar’s 10th-floor views of the city centre are especially enjoyable at sunset, when a light breeze sweeps over the city, and the drinks are on happy hour prices.
 
Best table in town

If you’d like to splurge on a three-course dinner or perhaps set up a romantic date, book a table at Reflections Restaurant on the third floor of the Caravelle Hotel. Reflections’ one-of-a-kind views overlook the historic Saigon Opera House and bustling Lam Son Square. Around the corner at Ciao Bella on Dong Du St., you’d find a great little bistro with genuine Italian food at reasonable prices.

Best advice for first-timers

For peace of mind about your fare, stick with Vinasun, Mai Linh and SaigonTourist taxis. Stay alert on the sidewalks and don’t forget to look both ways before launching into any street or alley.

Don't leave HCMC and Hanoi without doing this…

Hit up the spa. From riverside wellness and fitness clubs, to Indochine-inspired day spas, to downtown spa-salons, Saigon is brimming with wellness options at every price point. Soothing head and shoulder massages, foot massages and herbal compress massages are favourites among tired travelers. Kara Salon & Spa at the Caravelle offers spa-goers prime views of leafy Lam Son Square and the use of a private free-form swimming pool.