Vibrant and happily chaotic, Vietnam’s commercial capital is not all about making money. Chris Canty wanders around some quiet spaces like a mosque and the Botanical Gardens
Eat soul food
It’s hard to believe that just off one of the most touristy areas in this city is a relatively unknown and hidden street kitchen that has been in existence for the last 30 years. Located behind the Indian Jamia Muslim Mosque, this no-frills, no-name eatery is packed with devotees and workers from the nearby offices each lunchtime. Regardless of religion, everyone is welcome to try their range of excellent Halal curries.
To find it, walk behind the Mosque following the path on the right for 30m until you reach a cobblestone courtyard with blue shuttered windows and aqua walls. There are nine curries to choose from daily (we highly recommend the squid, which is excellent), and it’s a simple matter of strolling up to the stove, and pointing to the pot that takes your fancy. Prices are a steal ranging from US$1 to US$2.50. 66 Dong Du Street, District 1. Open lunchtime only.
Put some romance in your life
Traffic in HCMC is a war zone where pedestrians have no right of way and red lights (where traffic lights exist that is) are more of a recommendation rather than a rule. So thank God, just one kilometre from the main centre of town a place like the Botanical Gardens exist where a slice of tranquility can be savored.
Established in 1864, the large grounds are sprinkled with fauna, bonsai trees, pets and interlocking couples. Look for the series of photographers (Vietnam’s version of the paparazzi), who lurk in the background ready to pounce on those who want to capture their affections on film. Come early to watch the locals do their daily tai chi exercises, or if with the family, a small amusement park is a great place to keep the kids occupied.
A sip of coconut juice or an ice cream at one of the cafes is the perfect accompaniment to watching the sun go down. Open daily from 0700-2200.
Rise above the noise
Feel like lashing out? Situated high above the chaos, on the 10th floor of the five-star Caravelle Hotel, the Saigon Saigon Bar exudes history and sophistication.
Dating back to 1956, the original bar and ceiling fans are still in use today and help give it a colonial aura of opulence. Yet many come due to it reputation during the Vietnam War, when the rooftop garden bar became the unofficial headquarters for news correspondents and high-ranking military. Today, tourists, hotel guests and wealthy locals, sit outside and sip cocktails such as Good Cyclo Driver, Good Morning Vietnam, Miss Saigon and the Saigon-Saigon Slammer, which cost around US$6. Caravelle Hotel, 19 Lamson Square, District 1. Saigon Saigon Bar is open from 1100-late.
Visit the Doc
The Chinese ghetto, known as Cholon (meaning Big Market) and just west of the city centre, is a clustered maze of streets that hold an assortment of chaos, colour and confusion. Dodge the animal sellers, the street barbers, and the lunch crowd eating beside the gutter and head for the Chinese medicine stores where those that work inside fill prescriptions by combining items never before seen by western eyes.
Got a headache? Then why not rub some kind of jelly on your forehead that smells so bad, you’ll forget about the headache. When all else fails, visit one of the many peaceful temples, where the flickering shadows and the soothing smells of the essence sticks, makes the madness of the outside seem a world a way.
Take to the water…park
Want to escape the heat? HCMC only has one season (summer), so it’s no surprise that the locals flock to the Saigon Water Park every weekend. Situated 8km north of the city and covering an area of five hectares, the park has an array of rides such as the “River Rapids” for thrill seekers or the “Lazy River” for the less inclined.
The giant size of the “white water” slide can be seen from a kilometre away, and is the source of most of the gurgling screams of laughter that echo through the property. With stage shows, restaurants and even a first aid room (rare for Vietnam), the Saigon Water Park is an ideal place to cool off. Entrance fee: US$5 for adults and US$2 for children. Open Monday to Saturday, 0900-1700, Sunday and holidays, 0830-1630, www.saigonwaterpark.com.