Gay Vietnam may seem like an oxymoron given the violent, fractured nature of the country's history. But the opening up of the nation to the outside world in 1986 (and the lifting of the US economic embargo in 1994) has seen it adopt free market principles similar to Communist comrade China, sparking unprecedented economic growth, increased affluence and desire for change, writes OutUK correspondent Robin Newbold.

FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD

One of the best things about Vietnam is not only the graciousness of its people but the greatness and diversity of its cuisine.
There are said to be 500 traditional dishes, with each region bringing its own wonderful diversity to the dinner table, along with the influences of colonialism and other foreign tastes. Of course there's pho, the ubiquitous rice noodles, and fresh spring rolls, but they're a microscopic part of this nation's exquisite palate.

The abundance of fruit and vegetables from the Mekhong Delta region add a wonderful zest to many dishes, as do the variety of dips and sauces - the most famous being nuoc mam, aka fish sauce. It's an almost essential accompaniment for any meal!

As with the variety of dishes, in Saigon there are myriad restaurants and eateries to choose from, from the humble street cart to five-star elegance. The latter being fuelled by increased affluence and the boom in tourism.

A great introduction to Vietnamese food is the Mandarin restaurant, frequented by middle-class Vietnamese. Situated in fashionable District One, it's set in a colonial-style house, staff are in national dress and traditional music plays, all creating a fine ambience. Dishes are an example of southern, central and northern cooking styles. By Saigon's standards it's expensive (about US$40 per head) but the food is so flavoursome and the service so attentive, that it's one of the best meals this correspondent has ever experienced.

Right in the city centre is Lemon Grass, similar to Mandarin in its old world setting but slightly more down-at-heel, this restaurant serves delicious Vietnamese food at reasonable prices (about US$25 per head) and while it's popular with tourists, the food doesn't seem to be "blanded out" for Westerners.

In terms of street food, and if you're feeling brave, there is an open-air eating area at Ben Thanh Market that's very lively in the evening and a great place to people watch after the heat of the day as you feast on fresh spring rolls and snails (or maybe not!), washed down with the local brew, Saigon 333, or "ba, ba, ba" in Vietnamese.

BRIGHT LIGHTS

Vietnam's economic growth has gone hand in hand with the demand for the young and affluent to see and be seen. In Saigon there's a mix of old and new, traditional and modern, East meets West, which is part of the unique attraction. Unlike somewhere like Bangkok, for instance, there's a rich seam of history that remains untouched by the bulldozers and a lot of bars and cafes are set in colonial-style buildings not faceless shopping malls like those that blight other Asian cities.

One of these hotspots, and indicative of the rise of café society, is the Coffee Club. Just a short goose step from the Reunification Palace, nestling under tall trees, this is a great hangout by day and by night. Funky lanterns adorn this French-built villa, which has a bar and restaurant inside, but more sought-after are the tables outside that spill directly onto the pavement and are a great vantage point to watch the comings and goings of the young lovers frequenting the "twin parks" (there's no official name for this leafy common ground facing the palace!) opposite. It's a popular venue with the local gay community, serves crepes (funnily enough), smoothies and a full range of alcoholic drinks.

Another interesting spot is the more established Paloma Café, which is based on Saigon's trendiest street - Dong Khoi - that often sees the city's more colourful characters sashaying up and down and is as good a cruising spot as any. Paloma is a dark, smoky, wood-pannelled bar popular with local businessmen and features a live band playing Vietnamese and international jazz evoking a pleasingly bygone-era feel, as do the whisky sodas and cigars (sold on premises).

In terms of a surefire way to meet a local mate to accompany you for the evening, the appropriately named Apocalypse Now is a bar/disco that is an odd mix of whisky-fuelled Vietnamese and goggle-eyed Westerners. The dance floor is at the front of the venue, while there's a large area at the back serving food, showing live football (!) and sporting tables and chairs, so you can actually sit down and talk to someone under the charming red lanterns. It's quite a commercial scene, so beware of those pronouncing "love you long time"! But it's fun, while it lasts …

GET LAID

As with most Asian cities, there are a daunting number of hotels and guesthouses to choose from, running the gamut from palatial to grim fleapit. The recently opened Park Hyatt Saigon comes into the first category and from it's shimmering whitewashed classical façade it evokes neo-colonial charm, which is only lavishly expanded on in a sumptuous interior of potted plants, whirring ceiling fans and classic Asian furniture. The finely appointed rooms and the central location make this an excellent choice. Though some may balk at rates beginning at US$220 per night, this is pure class.

A more practical choice may be the Bong Sen Hotel, which is slap bang in the middle of the Dhong Khoi area and is a pleasantly enough appointed accommodation. Rooms have balconies, too and the competitive rates begin at US$40 per night.

For travellers on a real budget, Saigon has a considerable number of bargains and most of these are concentrated in the city's answer to Bangkok's Khao San Road, Pham Ngu Lao. A bed can be had in a dorm for as little as US$6 per night, while rates in the profusion of "minihotels" range from US$10-20. Just a short cab ride from the city centre, this is a good place to stay if you want to meet other travellers and also for arranging onward trips anywhere in Vietnam as there are any number of travel agents situated here. Personal city guides can also be arranged.

GETTING THERE

There are flights from London to Saigon on British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Thai but all involve a change at Hong Kong, Singapore or Bangkok. We have a great selection of hotels in Saigon at special online rates through our partners Bookings.

LITTLE BLACK BOOK

Apocalypse Now, 2C D Thi Sach
Ben Thanh Market, DL Tran Hung Dao
Bong Sen Hotel, 117-123 Dong Khoi St (Website)
Coffee Club, 5 Han Thuyen
Continental Hotel, D Dong Khoi (Website)
Hotel de Ville, DL Nguyen Hue
Lemon Grass, 4 Nguyen Thiep St
Main post office, 2 Cong Xa Paris
Mandarin Restaurant, 11A Ngo Van Nam St
Municipal Theatre, Lam Son Sq
Notre Dame Cathedral, D Han Thuyen
Paloma Café, 26 Dong Khoi St
Park Hyatt Saigon, 2 Lam Son Sq (Website)
Reunification Palace, 106 D Nguyen Du
Rex Hotel, 141 DL Nguyen Hue (Website)
War Remnants Museum, 28 D Vo Van Tan

Robin Newbold is a London-based writer whose debut novel, Vacuum-Packed, is available from Amazon.co.uk

Revised September 2019.
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