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Hello, Saigon: an exotic blend of Europe and Asia, old and new to delight all

ON a mid-November evening, the sun has set. Well-dressed Europeans and locals sipped champagne and ate exquisite Italian cuisine at The Reverie Saigon’s R&J lounge while enjoying the jazz performance.

This Italian-inspired setting, with glittery wall-to-wall mosaics and marble floors, is the place to be seen and offers a glimpse of the city’s high life that would probably surprise those who know little about the historic city other than the prewar scenes depicted in Marguerite Duras’ novel, “The Lover.”

French colonization and Vietnamese culture made Saigon the “Pearl of the Orient.”

Now, investors and designers hope to do the same with the city’s architecture, from restoring colonial landmarks to creating modern marvels. The city is proving itself as a modern, welcoming destination that delivers easy affordable luxury balanced with authentic cultural experiences and fabulous regional food.

Saigon — or Ho Chi Minh City — is Vietnam’s engine and its largest city. The country was recently named one of the world’s fastest-growing economies by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The Reverie Saigon set in the heart of the city is a shining example of the city’s booming economy and wealth. Massive investment has been poured into building this lavish, extravagant hotel crafted to perfection.

The master creations from Colombostile, Provasi, Giorgetti, Venini and Visionnaire have been generously displayed and used throughout the hotel. Giulio Cappellini, art director of the Milan-based Poltrona Frau Group and an iconic trendsetter in the industry, said of the hotel: “I can’t think of any other property anywhere in the world that has brought together so many of Italy’s leading furnishing design brands. Except perhaps a museum.”

Anyone stepping into this luxurious venue would change their idea of Vietnam being a backpackers’ destination. Here is a city in transition.

The subway is under construction and scheduled to operate in 2019. The sprawling city has much to offer today: an opulent lifestyle, stunning architecture with layers of history, designer boutiques and a buzzing nightlife.

I simply followed The Reverie Saigon concierge’s tips and started to discover the city from District 1, where The Reverie Saigon is located. District 1 in old Saigon has many living monuments to the past, showcasing the “joie de vivre” that the French left in the city.

Walking along the tree-lined boulevards, I was struck by the unique blend of modern and old, colonial-era buildings and modern-day highrises. The landmark cathedral, post office and opera house sit close to glittering luxury boutiques and office towers.

Harmony and chaos blend scenes of locals lounging at streetside cafes with the chaos of the frenetic motorcycles constantly on the move.

Although the sprawling city has rapidly developed into the modern commercial center of the country, there are remnants of its past visible in the historic landmarks dotted throughout District 1, such as Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Central Post Office.

Built in 1877 with materials imported from France, the brick, neo-Romanesque church with 40 meter-high square towers tipped with iron spires is an architectural marvel. Local newlyweds often have their wedding photos taken in front of the cathedral.

Next to the Cathedral is the striking Saigon Central Post Office that was designed by renowned French architect Gustave Eiffel, built between 1886 and 1891. The fascinating building features an impressive vaulted roof and arched windows, reminiscent of early European railway stations with a huge clock displayed on the front.

Still a working post office today, it is a must-see for any tourist. The famous in-house letter-writer and translator, Duong Van Ngo has worked here more than 65 years and is willing to show anyone the historic pictures and chat about the past.

I continued my “historical route” along Dong Khoi Street, known as Rue Catinat during the French colonial days, and Tu Do in the 1960s. It is now an avenue of boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops.

Dong Khoi is one of the city’s two main commercial centers with classic French architecture that typifies the heart of Saigon and District 1.

The Saigon Opera House is another prominent landmark along Dong Khoi, built in 1897 by French architect Eugene Ferret. In 1955, it was transformed into South Vietnam’s Assembly House and has since undergone several refurbishments.

After the historic walk, it is recommended sip a glass of wine at one of the rooftop venues in District 1 during sunset and breathe in the nostalgic air mixed with the chaotic motorcycle traffic.

But if you would like to experience the real Saigon lifestyle, Vietnam Vespa Adventures’ Saigon After Dark tour is a must-try. The Reverie Saigon highly recommends Vespa Adventures to any hotel guest who is wiling to get out of their comfort zone and on to a vintage Vespa, ready for a thrilling experience zooming around Ho Chi Minh City.

Anyone who has seen the traffic in the city when thousands of motorcycles pour along the highways and streets, would have concerns about perching on the back of a Vespa and letting the local driver take you wherever in a “fast and furious” way.

But I trusted the hotel’s recommendation and my own four-hour night excursion on a Vespa turned out to be most memorable.

Founder Steve Mueller started collecting vintage Vespas left behind after World War II in the 1990s and turned his fleet of 200 Vespas from the 1950s to the 1970s into a cool business that now includes tours in Saigon on a daily basis, as well as multi-day trips from Ho Chi Minh to Mui Ne and Nha Trang.

My tour started at The Reverie Saigon, where I jumped on the back of a chic vintage Vespa scooter with an experienced driver who fitted me with a helmet.

The first stop was Vespa Adventures headquarters at Zoom Café where I met my “local friend” Minh, who explained to me the evening’s program over a nice bottle of local beer and snacks.

Minh understood my curiosity and willingness to try the very authentic local food, so he told me: “I will show you what Saigon is like and what we local people love to eat after dark.”

After a 20-minute cool and breezy ride, I reached an authentic roadside seafood café where people sit on the street around the long table sampling the local staples from crab in salt and chili, fish sauce fried frog legs to char-grilled mussels and Thai basil and chives.

Another cool stop hidden inside the alleys of District 4 was to sample the local favorite snack: Southern Vietnamese-style pancake made on a blazing fire.

I was also taken to a “secret” bar hidden inside a normal building for a cozy vibe and soft Vietnamese melodies as well as rock ’n’ roll music. Like it or not, it was not possible to find such a local treat without the help of Vespa Adventures.

The city has its rough, adventurous side, the charm of the by-gone days and it also offers some of the best indulgent, luxurious services any discerning traveller looks for. Nothing beats a spa pampering at The Reverie Saigon after an intensive tour day.

How to get there

Vietnam Airlines operates daily A350 Airbus flight between Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City. The departure time from Pudong International Airport is at 3:25pm and arrives in Ho Chi Minh City at 6:35pm.

Where to stay

• The Reverie Saigon (22-36 Nguyen Hue Blvd, District 1)

Opened just over a year after a seven-year renovation, the newest luxury hotel belonging to a local wealthy family is the highest in the metropolis and the only six-star in the country.

From the first encounter on the ground floor to its check-in lobby, opulent dining venues and guest rooms, every single corner oozes an in-your-face luxury.

My personal experience staying at The Reverie Saigon proved that a wiser, mindful hotelier has supreme ability to incorporate Vietnamese attributes of courtesy and friendliness into their guest services at the same time as providing the very best modern European comforts and amenities. It also offers the right guidance for any leisure traveler to experience the city as a local.

The best among the best Italian interior designers furnished The Reverie Saigon’s 286 rooms and suites and function spaces. Vibrant mosaics by Sicis of Italy, reminiscent of those found in grand Venetian palazzos, can be found throughout the hotel, from the towering walls of flowers adorning the seventh floor lobby to the white-and-gold mosaic which lines the winding staircase of The Spa.

A grandiose, 5-meter sofa from Colombostile’s Baroque-meets-Rococo “Esmeralda” line, custom-made with purple ostrich leather and a gilded trim and bejeweled by a singular, precious amethyst stone draw much attention at the lobby.

A Bachestein grand piano, dating to 1895, that has been reinterpreted by Baldi as art is on display outside the La Scala ballroom. Guests can choose from the 12 types of opulent a suites and rooms. The all-day dining venue Café Cardinal delivers such an amazing breakfast for in-house guests and is one of the top venues in the city for its classical French cuisine, albeit with artful, contemporary aesthetics.

Where to eat

• The Royal Pavilion (4/F, 22-36 Nguyen Hue Blvd)

Even in a city with a great deal to offer in local Vietnamese cuisine, The Royal Pavilion is worth checking out as an alternative option for fine food. The arrival of The Royal Pavilion has raised the bar of Chinese cuisine in Saigon with its exquisite presentations and well-executed preparation. The best ingredients are imported from China including delicacies such as abalone, sea cucumber and bird’s nest. Other must-haves include dim sum, Peking duck and suckling pig. The decoration and service are equally impressive.

 

• Cuc Gach Quan (10 Dang Tat, Ward Tan Dinh, District 1)

This is a Vietnamese family-style restaurant inside a French colonial house with a menu based on fresh countryside vegetables, grilled meat with natural marinade, six-month rice from farmers who don’t know how to use fertilizers, soybean porridge cooked with palm sugar without taking out the bean shells and country-style banana ice cream. Some of the best traditional Vietnamese meals are served here, along with French wine as they share their concept with guests: “Eat green, live healthy and taste the past.”

 

• The Workshop Coffee (3/F, 27 Ngo Duc Ke, District 1)

The Workshop is an artisanal coffee house, whose baristas have won awards in recent competitions in Vietnam. The lofty venue hidden inside a typical streetside old building is occupied by the city’s cool crowd and young professionals. The venue serves serious coffee with the knowledgeable baristas guiding you through a coffee journey if you are willing to experience it. It proves the city has a budding and increasingly sophisticated coffee culture. The demonstration will include a tasting of the coffee brewed including some of the available local coffee.

Where to shop

• L’Usine (151/1 Dong Khoi St, District 1)

L’Usine is the city’s most-loved lifestyle venue that brings together a range of well-selected designer products, ideas and trends under one roof. It’s a must-see boutique/café that one can easily spend half day in, eating and drinking to shopping among some of the fun objects to bring home.

 

• Saigon Crafts (74 Dong Khoi St, District 1)

Everyone who visits Saigon would love to bring home some of the country’s well-known lacquerware.

Saigon Crafts, right opposite L’Usine, specializes in high-quality lacquerware in different forms from wearable accessories to home decor item. Their extensive range of lacquerware is covered by 15 lacquer layers and often takes three months to complete.

 

• Sadec District (3A Ton Duc Thang, District 1)

Sadec District is probably the most impressive homeware boutique in the city, offering contemporary Vietnamese pottery. From a wide range of artisan ceramic table ware, handweaved baskets, wooden chopping boards, rattan table mats to larger home accessories are delicately displayed on three floors. The design is elegant and contemporary with a Southeast Asian twist.


 

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