Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam travel guide and things to do: Nine must-do highlights


Saigon, or officially Ho Chi Minh City, is divided into a series of districts with District One the main hotel, dining and retail area where visitors inevitably congregate. But to experience a literally different side of the city, cross the Saigon River to the Seminyak-like District Two, the city's hippest new neighbourhood packed with cool restaurants, cafes, bars and boutiques.


Think of Sadec District as "Home Chi Minh", a lifestyle store selling quality, handcrafted and affordable ceramics, textiles, lighting, bags and much more. All of its authentic wares are drawn not just from Vietnam but from the "Mekong subregion", which includes countries such as Cambodia and Laos. You'll find branches of this refined retailer in both Districts One and Two. See sadecdistrict.com


Vietnam is a major coffee producer and it's no surprise that the Vietnamese enjoy their coffee. So can you, in considerable style, at a District One branch of L'Usine. Take your pick of the L'Usine cafe above a covered laneway off busy Le Loi Street or another inside an elegant art deco space on Le Thanh Ton Street. Each café includes a boutique stocked with fashion, accessories, homewares and books. See lusinespace.com


The Refinery, opposite the Park Hyatt in District One, borrows its seemingly innocuous name from "La Manufacture d'Opium", a former opium factory in which it operates. Built in 1881 by the French colonialists seeking to exploit the illicit trade, nowadays much of the original signage is still visible on what remains of the 19th-century entrance with alcohol the drug of choice inside the atmospheric, old world bar. See therefinerysaigon.com


Although there are plenty of restaurants to tempt visitors in District One, The Deck, a stylish riverside diner in District Two frequented by cluey expats and tourists, is hard to surpass for both its tranquil location and excellent food. Opt for its menu's pan-Asian delights as you sit back and watch the world (as well as the odd clump of water-hyacinth) drift by against a near semi-rural backdrop. See thedecksaigon.com


The once-neglected Saigon River is experiencing a revival with a fledgling and nifty public ferry service designed for locals also perfect for sightseeing visitors. The ferry provides an excellent and inexpensive way to see Saigon from an entirely different perspective, as well as a fine way to witness its phenomenal, mainly upwards growth. See saigonwaterbus.vn


If the new ferry ride inspires further exploration of the river, take a sunset speedboat tour with Les Rives. The tour of the waterway includes a visit to the 18th-century Mieu Noi mid-river floating temple, as well as glimpses of life along the river such as a wholesale market where coconuts are delivered by creaky old barges direct from the Mekong Delta. See lesrivesexperience.com


Although you may be staying in one of the newer and grander five-stars, it's worth paying homage to the Caravelle, a remnant of the Vietnam War era, slap-bang in the middle of District One. At dusk, head to the rooftop Saigon Saigon Bar – a haunt of wartime journos in the 1960s – for amazing views of the feverish, still motorcycle-dominated, avenues below. See caravellehotel.com


Visit Saigon's Independence Palace not just to gain a sense of the building's role in the Vietnam War, but also because of its wonderfully retro exterior and interior. A mix of traditional and modernist styles, right down to its furnishings, throughout, it was here that at 10.45am on April 30, 1975, tank 843 of the conquering North Vietnamese smashed through the palace gate (even though it reputedly wasn't actually locked). See dinhdoclap.gov.vn/en/



There are plenty of day and half-day tours designed to coax you away from Saigon itself but if you're here for just a few days, consider devoting all of your time to the city as these days it has much to offer the visitor.

Anthony Dennis visited Saigon as a guest of Scenic on its all-inclusive 13-day Treasures of the Mekong cruise and land tour from Saigon to Siem Reap. Prices start from $7695 per person. See scenic.com.au