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October 10, 2017, Vietnam

Bang for the buck

Nicholas Tse enjoys a three-day getaway to Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City for under $500

Nicholas Tse

THIS former French colony, also known as Saigon, offers colonial charms, amazing food at hawker prices and a lively nightlife.

Don’t miss the action

Get into the thick of it and stay at District 1. Not only is it the focal point of Ho Chi Minh City, it is also close to major landmarks.

If hotels are too pricey, check out alternative accommodation that will fit your budget.

Have a good time

Make sampling traditional Vietnamese fare a priority, starting with pho (noodle soup).

Try Pho 2000 (1-3 Phan Chu Trinh, District 1). This unassuming pho restaurant exploded onto the scene after former American president Bill Clinton paid it a visit. A regular bowl costs VND70,000 (S$4.20).

Lower-priced alternatives include the pho stall at Cocochin Food Court (77 Nguyen Hue, District 1) or the one in Ben Thanh Street Food Market (26-28-30 Thu Khoa Huan, Ben Thanh, District 1).

Another staple that cannot be missed is Vietnamese coffee — sweet and thick, with more than enough kick to jump-start your morning.

My personal favourite is the al fresco styled Café Nguyen Hoang (277E Le Thanh Ton, Ben Thanh, District 1), with coffee starting from VND35,000. This café is popular with both locals and travellers.

Those who want to explore the nightlife should check out the burgeoning rooftop bar trend. A popular choice is Chill Skybar, located on the 26th floor of AB Tower.

A little pricey, the crowd is dressed to impress while the DJ spins infectious beats. From here, head to Glow Skybar, a more laid-back establishment, which is seven minutes away.

Cheaper bars along Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao streets are within walking distance from the sky bars.

Simply pull up a stool and keep the beers coming. A bottle of 333 (local Vietnamese beer) costs VND35,000.

A glimpse into the past

To learn about the Vietnam War, visit the War Remnants Museum or take a half-day tour to the 250km-long Cu Chi Tunnels.

The elaborate network of underground tunnels was used as a hideout by the Viet Cong guerillas when they fought against the American army in the 1960s.

Divided into bunkers, kitchens, field hospitals and command centres, the tunnels are about 1.1m in height, with exit points every 20m for those in need of fresh air. Note: You may feel claustrophobic if you don’t like small spaces.

There is also a firing range for you to practise marksmanship skills using automatic rifles.

Hit the markets

Besides the modern shopping malls, there are also hole-in-the wall fashion boutiques and street markets.

For instance, housed in rundown apartment buildings down Nguyen Hue Street, past Times Square, are hipster cafés and clothing stores selling independent clothing labels, trendy accessories and trinkets.

For souvenirs, head over to Ben Thanh Market at night, where rows of street food share space with wholesale hawkers and stalls selling apparel, souvenirs and Vietnamese coffee.

If that is not enough, you can discover more at its air-conditioned cousin, Saigon Square.

Cost of trip

■ Return flight (Vietjet Air): $120 

■ 3D2N accommodation (boutique hotel in District 1): $130

■ Meals (mostly local fare at markets, casual diners and street eateries): $15 to $18 per day for lunch, tea time and dinner with drinks. Breakfast is included in hotel stay.

■ Transport: $4 to $7 a day 

■ Shopping and entertainment: $120

■ Cu Chi Tunnels tour: $27 

■ Total cost: Below $500 

GUIDELINES

I travelled on low-cost carrier VietJet Air.

■ To keep commuting expenses down, choose private car hire services like Grab over metered taxis.

■ If you are adventurous enough, hop on a Grab Bike ride that costs as low as VND12,000 (S$0.76).

Beware of motorcycle snatch thieves. Refrain from taking pictures by the curb and keep a close eye on your belongings.

Unless it is a government-run stall (where prices are fixed), you can bargain at street shops and markets.

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