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Some might call Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) crowded. There are more motorbikes, more people — and, yes, more people per motorbike than perhaps anywhere else in Vietnam.
Many folks live their lives on the street in this metropolis of 12 million people — passing time by lying back on their bikes, eyes closed, feet resting over the handlebars; chatting with friends while hunched over a steaming bowl of noodles; or reading a newspaper while smoking a cigarette.
It’s the kind of place that might be hard for a pair of time-strapped outsiders (such as my partner and me) to figure out and navigate efficiently, which is why I was thankful to be in the care of one of the most capable and time-bending tour operators in the country.
When my partner and I arrived at the airport, a representative for Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) expedited our visa papers and helped us with our luggage. From there, we were handed off to our charismatic and quirky English-speaking personal guide, Duc (“rhymes with ‘kook,’” he told us), for our three-night Luxury Tailor Made Journey in HCMC.
I immediately knew this wasn’t just a repackaged group trip itinerary when our first destination was Hum, a hip vegetarian restaurant complete with a plant wall. Vegetarian and — I like to think — somewhat hip ourselves, my partner and I loved eating meat- and fish-free versions of Vietnamese specialties among the forward-thinking and globally minded millennials that are a large part of HCMC’s makeup.
This is not a city fixated on its colonial past. Another sign that we weren’t in Hanoi — or another more traditionally Vietnamese town — was our hotel, The Reverie Saigon.
Opened in 2015, The Reverie Saigon is a good reflection of Ho Chi Minh City’s development.Credit: 2018 The Reverie Saigon
The property features 286 guestrooms and suites featuring Italian design.Credit: 2018 The Reverie Saigon
All 11 suite categories receive access to the Reverie Lounge, where guests can enjoy breakfast, afternoon tea and evening cocktails and canapes.Credit: 2018 The Reverie Saigon
The property is located in the Times Square 40-story building in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City.Credit: 2018 The Reverie Saigon
R&J, an Italian restaurant, is one of several dining establishments at The Reverie Saigon.Credit: 2018 The Reverie Saigon
After a long day of sightseeing, a visit to The Reverie’s spa is a must.Credit: 2018 The Reverie Saigon
A skyscraper filled with as many gilded and whimsical details as a palazzo (or a Las Vegas version of one), The Reverie was the perfect fit for our stay over New Year’s Eve. Perhaps because we were booked through A&K, our room was upgraded to an over-the-top suite on the 39th floor of the hotel overlooking a Times Square-like celebration, featuring all-night music with special guest rapper Apl.de.ap from The Black Eyed Peas.
After a long day of travel, and a week in Vietnam already, we loved that we could crack open our complimentary welcome wine and dig into room service while watching the celebration below — taking breaks to shimmy in our bathrobes, of course.
We were also taking it easy because the next two days were scheduled — upon request — to the brim.
During that time, we experienced some of HCMC’s main attractions — such as the War Remnants Museum and the Cirque-de-Soleil-like Dar Show — and took day trips to the Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels.
While travelers could research the area’s top attractions and tackle them on their own, there is absolutely no way they would travel as effortlessly as we did. A&K handled our itinerary like a symphony: Disparate elements were orchestrated seamlessly and synchronously.
Our Morning Melodies tour of HCMC is the perfect example of this. At 6 a.m., our fearless conductor, Duc, appeared with an entourage of three cyclo (rickshaw) drivers, who escorted us on a giggle-inducing ride to Notre Dame Cathedral, and then to Tao Dan Park, where we watched the city come alive with coordinated dancing and stretching. The next adrenaline boost came via Vietnamese coffee at an outdoor cafe filled with older men and their caged birds.
When it was time to move on to the next leg of our journey, three smiling Vespa drivers appeared. Our individual escorts whisked us away to a secret weapons bunker that we had all to ourselves. Then we darted past Ho Thi Ky Flower Market en route to an inconspicuous but delicious pho cafe. Duc ensured our soup was vegetarian — but he already knew, because he visited or called all itinerary stops ahead of our arrival as part of his thorough due diligence.
After a quick stop at the hotel, we were off to Cu Chi Tunnels where, again, we traveled in style. Most folks enter the underground complex — where Viet Cong outmaneuvered U.S. soldiers and their sophisticated weapons — by bus or car, but we traveled by private motorboat, equipped with a basket of mandarins, bananas and dragon fruit. After returning to the boat, we were given wet wipes, ice-cold water and massive croissants from Pat’a Chou bakery.
Unlike a car ride, sailing the Saigon River was peaceful, cooling and stress-free, not to mention unique. Watching the water hyacinths float in patches atop the green water, which is lined by brighter green trees and shrubs, I drifted off — until we arrived at An Lam Riverside Resort for one of the many dreamy multicourse meals we enjoyed during our visit.
That evening, we hopped into one of the city’s only sidecars and got a feel for HCMC’s eclectic nightlife on a street food tour that culminated in a visit to Carmen, a cavernous club known for its Flamenco guitarists, passionate singing and sangria.
The day before couldn’t have been more different: After arriving in Ben Tre, one of the provinces that comprises the Mekong Delta, we boarded a xe loi (a cart attached to a motorbike) to the Mekong River. Clunking along a dirt road in the open-air vehicle, we quickly forgot about the city and absorbed our rural surroundings.
Again, we experienced our destination in various ways. On a private boat along the river, we stopped to watch shirtless men hack vigorously at coconuts; and on bikes, we cycled away from other visitors and marveled at the greenery that characterizes this swampy region.
Perhaps my favorite mode of transport was the sampan (a wooden flat-bottomed boat) we took to travel along the canal’s narrow passageways. Ducking under low-hanging coconut palms, I was seeing the image of Vietnam I had in my head come to life. Best of all, I had no hand in the planning. And, like everything else we experienced, it hit the perfect note.
The DetailsAbercrombie & Kent www.abercrombiekent.com