Saigon Travel Guide

After our first newsletter about Emperial Hue, I would like to head South to Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon and the biggest city in modern Vietnam.

It was the capital of the French protectorate of Cochinchina (1862–1954) and of South Vietnam (1954–75). The city lies along the Saigon River to the north of the Mekong River delta, about 80 km from the South China Sea.

The area now occupied by Ho Chi Minh City was for a long time part of the kingdom of Cambodia. The Vietnamese first gained entry to the region in the 17th century. Relations with France began in the 18th century, when French traders and missionaries settled in the area. In 1859 the town was captured by the French, and in 1862 it was ceded to France by the Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc. As the capital of Cochinchina, Saigon was transformed into a major port city and a metropolitan centre of beautiful villas, imposing public buildings, and well-paved, tree-lined boulevards. Saigon was occupied by the Japanese in 1940, but French colonial authorities continued to administer Vietnam until 1945, when they were interned by the Japanese. Saigon itself was largely unaffected by World War II.

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Vietnamese independence was declared by the Viet Minh organization under Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, but celebrations in Saigon turned into a riot. French troops then seized control of the city, and the First (or French) Indochina War began. The war ended in 1954 with the battle in Dien Bien Phu and a Geneva conference, which divided Vietnam into northern and southern zones. The cultural and political life of Saigon, which became the capital of South Vietnam, was enriched and complicated by an influx of refugees from North Vietnam.

During the Second Indochina War (or Vietnam War) in the 1960s and early ’70s, Saigon was the headquarters of U.S. military operations. Parts of the city were destroyed by fighting in 1968, during the infamous TET Offensive. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, and the city was subsequently renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

We would like to start with some news about Saigon’s most iconic hotel, Caravelle. It is also my favorite place for a magnificiant Sunday Brunch !

General Director John Gardner, The New Lead of Chains Caravelle Hotel Joint Venture Company Ltd.

Caravelle Saigon has recently seen a change in its Executive Management team as John Gardner, former General Manager, takes over from Martyn Davies, who has been with the property for nearly twenty years. Effective from 1st September 2016, John Gardner commenced the position of General Director of Chains Caravelle Hotel Joint Venture Company Limited.

New Zealand native, John Gardner has more than three decades of experience at the helm of leading hotels within the Asia-Pacific region. His long career in hospitality has led him to premier hotels in cities as diverse as Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Auckland, Bangkok, Surabaya, Singapore, Jinan, Chongqing, Phnom Penh, Shenzhen and, for the past ten years, Ho Chi Minh City.

Gardner began his journey in hospitality with the Accor Group in Australia, captaining small hotels around the country before being handpicked to head the launch of the first Accor property in New Zealand in 1993. Gardner spent 18 years with Accor, striking out to the Asian continent with executive posts in Indonesia, Cambodia, China and Thailand. He also spent four years as a General Manager with the 5 star InterContinental Hotels group in China, before relocating to Vietnam in 2007.

Under his direction, Caravelle re-branded its signature restaurant Reflections, and celebrated its 50th anniversary with an event that drew luminaries from its wartime past such as Pulitzer Prize winner Peter Arnett. Most recently, Gardner has shepherded the property through the first stage of a significant enhancement project, which saw the refurbishing of the lobby, acclaimed buffet venue Nineteen and ground-floor lounge Café de l’Opera, along with the newly open Tapas Kitchen and Vietnam’s very first Champagne Corner, in collaboration with Moet Hennessy.

In his new role, Gardner will be overseeing both Caravelle Saigon and Vegas Gaming club, working directly with Hong Kong and Vietnamese Board members on major matters while maintaining a close contact with the Hotel Management. “I am delighted to hand over to John – there is no one more suitable to take on this role. With his strength in leading and managing plus a pool of knowledge and understanding of both Caravelle Saigon and the hospitality industry, I am confident in his ability to successfully lead the hotel to new heights”, said Martyn Davies, former General Director of Chains Caravelle Hotel Joint Venture Company Limited, who has nearly 20 years working entirely as one of the pioneers of this iconic property.

Gardner is an avid sports person both as a participant and a spectator being a regular gym goer, cyclist and scuba diver but also a keen follower of sports especially New Zealand’s national rugby team.

Topic #1 : Hotels : Most iconic hotel in the Heart of Saigon, Caravelle.

In the Heart of Saigon: Caravelle Saigon is amongst Ho Chi Minh City’s leading international 5-star hotels – in the heart of business, shopping and entertainment districts, 8 km from Tan Son Nhat International Airport.

Your night sleep: Caravelle Saigon has 335 superbly appointed rooms, suites, exclusive Signature Floors, Signature Lounge, specially equipped room for the disabled. Complimentary Wi-Fi Internet in-room & throughout the hotel. All rooms and suites are non-smoking.

Wining & Dining: Caravelle Saigon has eight superb wining and dining venues. Restaurant Nineteen presents Ho Chi Minh City’s most popular international buffet including nightly seafood BBQ. Cafe de l’Opera serves light traditional afternoon tea and tapas from the open kitchen called Tapas. Champagne Corner, Saigon’s most luxurious place to meet, is well-known for the world’s finest Champagnes paired with the exquisite offerings from Tapas kitchen. Reflections Restaurant, modern fine dining, serves eclectic fusion cuisine. Martini Bar adjoining Reflections Fine Dining with various combinations of premium spirits and other fresh flavours will figure prominently in the new drink menu. Against the historic backdrop of the Opera House, enjoy refreshing drinks and light snacks beside the Pool Bar. Iconic Saigon Saigon Bar – a birds-eye balcony view of the neighbourhood opens from 11am and with nightly live music.

Interesting Facts:

– Caravelle Saigon opened on Christmas Eve, 1959, and was the city’s premier venue for grand balls and functions. Since then it has welcomed countless dignitaries, politicians and celebrities.

In 1975, it was renamed Doc Lap (Independence) Hotel, commemorating Vietnam’s liberation. The original hotel was closed in the mid-1990s for refurbishment, with the addition of the new 24-storey tower, and re-opened on 8 May, 1998.

– Saigon Saigon Bar, voted the ‘Best Bar’ in the city and Top 10 Exciting Entertainment Venues, dates back to 1959 and retains the original charm of original 10-storey hotel’s rooftop bar. It was once a famous gathering place for war correspondents.

In 2001, Caravelle Saigon hosted the cast and crew filming Graham Greene’s epic novel The Quiet American, starring Sir Michael Caine.

Caravelle Saigon is the most prestigious address in Ho Chi Minh City. Notable VIP guests have included former US President Bill Clinton, Britain’s Princess Anne, movie stars Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser (while filming The Quiet American), award-winning correspondent Brian Barron, fashion accessories and jewelry founder Philippe Charriol, French fashion designer Pierre Cardin, President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki and numerous international ambassadors and senators.

Recent Accolades Caravelle has been honored with numerous awards since its re-opening in 1998 and our most recent include:

– ASEAN Green Hotel Award 2016 – 2018

– EarthCheck Gold Certified 2015

– The Second Best Business Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City by Business Traveler.

– Viet Nam Environmental Award granted by Ministry of Natural Resources & Environment – 2015

– TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence Award from 2011-2016

– TripAdvisor Hall of Fame 2015

– TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice Award 2013-2014

– “40-year contribution to the City’s tourism” awarded by Department of Tourism Ho Chi Minh City

– Top 10 Preferred 5-star Luxury Hotels 2013-2014 awarded by Department of Tourism Ho Chi Minh City

– Top 10 Preferred Tourism Website 2014 awarded by Department of Tourism Ho Chi Minh City

– WorldHotels Best Marketing Engagement Award 2013

Memoirs of Caravelle Saigon

The names of very few hotels evoke such fond, romantic images, and indeed such anticipation, as Caravelle. Its breezy sound recalls its inspiration: the Iberian caravelas, or as the French called them, caravelles fast, light 15th-century sailing ships that explored the world in search of foreign trade, adventure and new horizons.

” The hotel’s modern design – the work of two architects, one French, one Vietnamese – and contemporary facilities soon had foreign embassies, news organisations and businesses moving in en masse. During the 1960s, Caravelle was home to the Australian Embassy, the New Zealand Embassy, and the Saigon bureaus of NBC, ABC and CBS, to name but a few. For the most part, the ambience at Caravelle Saigon was one of relaxed conviviality. The rooftop bar was the centre of operations – both professional and social – for the international media. From their tenth-floor perch, cold beers in hand, journalists could, by the war’s closing days, see the front line from their bar stools. If things got lively enough, they would ride the elevator down to the lobby, take one of the hotel’s swanky American limousines out into the field and be back in time for cocktails and note comparing. By the end of the war journalists claimed that they could cover the action without even leaving their bar stools. The one event that did rather sour Caravelle’s otherwise languorous, laid back atmosphere came on the morning of August 25, 1964. At around 11:30 am a bomb exploded in room 514, on a floor occupied mostly by foreign journalists, who fortunately were all out on assignment. Nine rooms were damaged, windows were blown out of several cars parked in the street, and a number of people were injured. Luckily no-one was killed. Following the Liberation of Saigon in 1975, the hotel was taken over and operated by the government and renamed the Doc Lap (Independence) Hotel. And so it remained until 1998, when Caravelle name was relaunched, and what has once again become widely regarded as the city’s finest hotel was reopened – still, as before, intimate, welcoming and mercifully free of pretence. The original ten-storey building is now adjoined to a smart 24-storey tower that forms the bulk of the new property. Developers with less foresight might have been tempted to tear down the original and start from scratch. But somehow it seems unthinkable that those strikingly curved, balconied corners that have for almost half a century occupied one side of the city’s most picturesque squares, should be lost. The immediate views from that rooftop institution so beloved by foreign correspondents, and now called Saigon Saigon Bar, have changed little since 1959. If you look across the Opera House and the Hotel Continental and up along Dong Khoi Street, you can still see the twin spires of Notre Dame Cathedral. Along this thoroughfare – once called the rue Catinat – in 1975, a Vietnamese tank rolled down to the Place Garnier, now Lam Son Square. Pulling up opposite the Caravelle it is said to have turned turret and taken aim at the hotel’s facade. Why it didn’t fire is anyone’s guess, but rooftop tipplers with an appreciative eye for the heritage of this atmospheric corner of the city  might consider raising a glass or two to whoever was giving the orders on that historic April afternoon.

Topic #2 :Places to visit

Notre Dame Cathedral and Old Post Office: Built between 1877 and 1883 this is one of the best examples of classical French colonial architecture. Remarkably every stone used in its creation was shipped from France to Vietnam. Her two 40m towers, topped with iron spires dominate the city’s skyline. The Old Post Office is another example of French colonial architecture and is also the country’s largest post office.
Then, we move on to see the Reunification Palace.

The Reunification Palace: This is one of the most important buildings in the city. Here on April 30th 1975 the ‘American War’ officially ended when tank number 843 of the North Vietnamese Army crashed through the gates of what was, at the time the residence of the President of the Republic of Vietnam.

War Remnants Museum: Formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, this is a poignant display of the futility of war. Some of the black and white photography in the ‘Requiem’ exhibit is particularly touching, dedicated to both foreign and Vietnamese journalists and photographers who perished during the conflict. The courtyard outside contains the spoils of war, namely rusting jets, tanks and cannons captured from the American military machine.

Giac Lam Pagoda: This is Saigon’s oldest pagoda, dating back to 1744 and one of the finest in Vietnam. Inside 98 pillars and 113 statues and a myriad of mini-Buddha vie for your attention. Don’t miss the amazing Tree of Wandering Souls where people pray for their sick relatives by writing the names of their loved ones on slips of paper and then attaching them to the tree.

Cholon & Thien Hau Pagoda: Cholon actually means Big Market – a claim that is well justified as Vietnam’s largest market, the Binh Tay is situated here. The district is home to the city’s 400,000 Chinese and has many beautiful temples and pagodas.

 Places to go from Saigon :

Cu Chi tunnels , half day tours either by car or speedboat : In order to combat better-supplied American and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War, Communist guerrilla troops known as Viet Cong (VC) dug tens of thousands of miles of tunnels, including an extensive network running underneath the Cu Chi district northwest of Saigon. Soldiers used these underground routes to house troops, transport communications and supplies, lay booby traps and mount surprise attacks, after which they could disappear underground to safety. To combat these guerrilla tactics, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces trained soldiers known as “tunnel rats” to navigate the tunnels in order to detect booby traps and enemy troop presence. Now part of a Vietnam War memorial park in Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi tunnels have become a popular tourist attraction.

Communist forces began digging a network of tunnels under the jungle terrain of South Vietnam in the late 1940s, during their war of independence from French colonial authority. Tunnels were often dug by hand, only a short distance at a time. As the United States increasingly escalated its military presence in Vietnam in support of a non-Communist regime in South Vietnam beginning in the early 1960s, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops gradually expanded the tunnels. At its peak during the Vietnam War, the network of tunnels in the Cu Chi district linked VC support bases over a distance of some 250 kilometers, from the outskirts of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border.

In all, at least 45,000 Vietnamese men and women are said to have died defending the Cu Chi tunnels over the course of the Vietnam War. In the years following the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnamese government preserved the Cu Chi tunnels and included them in a network of war memorial parks around the country.

Visitors to Vietnam can now crawl through some of the safer areas of the tunnels, view command centers and booby traps, fire an AK-47 rifle on a firing range and even eat a meal featuring typical foods that soldiers living in the tunnels would have eaten.

Cai Dai temple of Tay Ninh, possible in combination with the Cu Chi tunnels for a whole day tour :  One of the top-rated things to do would be visiting the Cao Dai Temple. The temple have a “divine eye” at the main entrance that is the official symbol of their religion which is Cao Dai. The worshipers of Cao Dai are suppose to pray at least everyday and everyday there are four sessions that are held in the temple. The three color you see are red which represents Confucianism, yellow which represents Buddhism and lastly blue which represents Taoism.

A mural in the front entry hall depicts the three signatories of the ‘Third Alliance between God and Man’: the Chinese statesman and revolutionary leader Dr Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan; 1866–1925) holds an ink stone, while the Vietnamese poet Nguyen Binh Khiem (1492–1587) and French poet and author Victor Hugo (1802–85) write ‘God and humanity’ and ‘Love and justice’ in Chinese and French (Nguyen Binh Khiem writes with a brush, Victor Hugo uses a quill pen). Nearby signs in English, French and German each give a slightly different version of the fundamentals of Cao Daism.

The Mekong Delta, possible to travel for 1-2-3-4 days and even end with the paradise beaches of Phu Quoc Island : As all deltas, it receives the bounty of the siltation from the upper Mekong, and as such is a very rich and lush area, covered with rice fields. It produces about half of the total of Vietnam’s agricultural output (in fact the delta produces more rice than Korea and Japan altogether), and is the place for timeless sceneries of farmers planting or harvesting rice.

The Mekong splits in Cambodia into two main rivers, the Bassac (Hậu Giang) and the First river (Tiền Giang), then in Vietnam into a more complex system, creating a maze of small canals, rivers and arroyos interspersed with villages and floating markets.

Life in the Mekong Delta revolves much around the river, and all the villages are often accessible by river as well as by road.

The high times of life in the Mekong delta are the lunar new year and the mid-autumn festival , where children will set hundreds of candles on their way on the river on as many tiny skiffs.

If you know how to take your time, or are guided by an able guide, which we can provide you of course, you will certainly enjoy your stay in the Mekong delta.

Rice may be the delta’s staple crop, but coconut palms, fruit orchards and sugar-cane groves also thrive in its nutrient-rich soil, and the sight of conical-hatted farmers tending their land is one of Vietnam’s most enduring images. To the Vietnamese, the region is known as Cuu Long, “Nine Dragons”, a reference to the nine tributaries of the Mekong River, which dovetail across plains fashioned by millennia of flood-borne alluvial sediment.

There are over a dozen towns in the delta with facilities for tourists, though some are rarely visited as they are not on the way to anywhere. My Tho is well geared up for boat trips, and near enough to Ho Chi Minh City to be seen on a day-trip: it affords an appetizing glimpse of the delta’s northernmost tributary, the Tien Giang. From My Tho, laidback Ben Tre and the bounteous fruit orchards besieging it are only a hop and a skip away. Cao Lanh is strictly for bird enthusiasts, but Sa Dec, with its timeless river scenes and riotously colourful flower nurseries, has a more universal appeal, while just down the road, Vinh Long is another jumping-off point for boat trips.

Many visitors spend a day or two in Can Tho, the delta’s biggest settlement, to take advantage of its decent hotels and restaurants and to recharge batteries before venturing out to the floating markets nearby. From Can Tho, there’s something to be said for dropping down to the foot of the delta, where the swampland that surrounds Ca Mau can be explored by boat, and Mui Ca Mau signals journey’s end in Vietnam. Pulling up. Northwest of Can Tho meanwhile, and a stone’s throw from the Cambodian border, is the ebullient town of Chau Doc, south of which Sam Mountain provides a welcome undulation in the surrounding plains. The opening of the border here has brought a steady stream of travellers going on to Phnom Penh by boat, and several of them rest up a few days here before leaving the country.

Ha Tien, a remote border town surrounded by Khmer villages, is the best place to hop on a boat to Phu Quoc. The town has also become popular for its international border crossing, which allows beach bums to slide along the coast from Phu Quoc Island to Sihanoukville in Cambodia or vice versa.


Topic # 3 : Tours in and around Saigon :

Atravelmate also provides daily deluxgrouptours !

  1. Saigon Half day City Tour – click here
  2. Cu Chi Tunnels Half Day Tour – click here
  3. Amazing walking foodie trip – click here
  4. Insight mekong detla – click here
  5. Classic mekong delta group tour – click here

Topic #4 : Most popular local food.

The best Ho Chi Minh City dishes are well regarded as nutritious, savoury, and hearty delights that can be enjoyed at any time of the day. Some of the defining traits in Vietnamese cuisine include rice, noodles, seafood, pork and beef, as well as various fresh herbs and spices, all of which result in robust flavours and unique interpretations. Although the city is evolving into a cosmopolitan landscape with sprawling shopping malls, fine-dining restaurants and luxury hotels, you can still find plenty of roadside eateries, vibrant street market, and street food carts to satisfy your appetite for authentic Vietnamese delicacies.

Banh Mi : Available almost everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City, banh mi is a quintessential Vietnamese dish that you should never miss out on. This baguette sandwich is priced between VND 10,000 and VND 15,000, with pickled vegetables, pate, butter, soy sauce, cilantro, chilies, and hot peppers. Quick and tasty, you can also choose from a variety of meat fillings for your banh mi, including heo quay (roasted pork belly), cha ca (fried fish with turmeric and dill), cha lua (boiled sausages), xiu mai (meatballs), thit ga (boiled chicken), trung op la (fried egg), thit nuong (grilled pork loin), and xa xiu (Chinese barbecued pork).

Pho : Pho is rice noodle that’s served in a flavourful soup with beef, bean sprouts, lime wedges, and greens such as basil, mint, cilantro, and onions with a side of chilli sauce for added spice. A basic bowl contains tai (beef slices), bo vien (beef meatballs) or nam (beef flank), but diners can also opt for more exotic ingredients such as gan (beef tendon), sach (thinly-sliced pig stomach), and ve don (flank with cartilage). This popular breakfast option is priced between VND 20,000 and VND 30,000 at any local restaurant or street market in Ho Chi Minh City.

Oc : Best enjoyed with cold beers, oc refers to platters of Vietnamese shellfish that are prepared in varying methods. Due to its popularity, there are plenty of roadside stalls and inexpensive restaurants with raw snails, blood cockles, clams, shrimps, and crabs displayed out front. After selecting those that strike your fancy, you can enjoy them grilled, sautéed, curried, or steamed. Priced at VND 20,000 onwards, we highly recommend grilled mussels with scallion oil and peanuts (chem chep nuong), blood cockles sautéed in tamarind sauce (so huyet ran me), and clams steamed with lemongrass.

Com Tam : Com tam is actually ‘broken rice’ in Vietnamese, usually served with fried egg, diced green onions, and a variety of meats such as suon nuong (barbecued pork chop), bi (shredded pork skin), and cha trung (steamed pork and egg patty). Diners can also enjoy this dish with a side of pickled vegetables, cucumber slices, and nuoc cham Vietnamese dipping sauce. Com tam can be enjoyed any time of the day as it is relatively inexpensive, with street markets and roadside food stalls selling for about VND 20,000 per bowl.

Goi Cuon : Goi cuon or Vietnamese spring rolls comprise vermicelli noodles, pork slices, shrimp, basil, and lettuce tightly wrapped in translucent banh trang (rice papers). Due to its very subtle flavour, you can dip it in a mix of freshly ground chilli and hoisin-based dipping sauce topped with crushed peanuts. This traditional appetiser is a healthier alternative to cha gio, which is a deep-fried egg roll made with a combination of mung bean noodles, minced pork, and various spices.

Ban Xeo : Ban xeo is a savoury pancake that’s made of rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric, stuffed with ingredients such as pork slices, shrimps, sliced onions, bean sprouts, and button mushrooms. Unlike the ones you find in Nha Trang and Hanoi, ban xeo in Ho Chi Minh City is much smaller in portion as it is usually eaten as a snack or appetiser. The best way to enjoy ban xeo is by wrapping it in mustard leaf, lettuce leaves or rice wrappers, together with mint leaves, basil, herbs, and sweet fermented peanut butter sauce. Lastly, dip it in a sweet and sour fish sauce.

Bun Thit Nuong : A hearty dish in Ho Chi Minh City, bun thit nuong features vermicelli rice noodles with freshly chopped lettuce, sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, pickled daikon and carrot, basil, chopped peanuts, and mint, topped with grilled yet tender pork shoulder. Diners can also opt for bun thit nuong cha gio, which comes with crunchy slices of cha gio (deep-fried eggrolls). As with most Vietnamese dishes, you also get a side of nuoc cham sauce to mix into the bun thit nuong for a flavourful ensemble.

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