The Rex Bar and the Ben Thanh Market – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

Rooftop R&R and Shopping Therapy in Go-Go Saigon

Nostalgia rules at the Rex Hotel’s rooftop bar, once a home away from home for ex-pats and wartime journalists, who gathered here around the clock to nurse a scotch and swap scoops. Old habits die hard, and the newly redecorated bar continues to be the city’s most popular watering hole, embellished with year-round Christmas lights, singing birds, and topiary shrubs.

There’s a great view of down­town Saigon, where artillery has been replaced by the lights and cacophony of a perpetual traffic jam of bicycles, cars, motor scooters, and three-wheeled cyclos. Posh it isn’t, but the Rex is dripping with history, and few Westerners pass through town without an obligatory tipple. The standard rooms are not the city’s most lux­urious, but fit the bill for visitors in search of the Saigon Experience and must be booked well in advance.

Although it recalls earlier times, the Rex is also the hub of modern-day Saigon. There’s a real international buzz here. You’d never know you’re in a Communist country.

Ditto for your inevitable reaction to the Ben Thanh Market, the French-built muni­cipal marketplace that lies to the west on Le Loi Street. An explosive wave of entrepreneurship has hit Vietnam, and Saigon has become one big selling game, with over forty markets spread around the city.

Ben Thanh, the tradi­tional alternative for vendors who can’t afford the high commercial rents charged elsewhere in town, is the market. Enjoy it: Hundreds of vendors create a narrow maze of stalls touting everything from the latest Japanese gadgets to bolts of silk, cobra wine, and Coca-Cola.

The traditional is stacked up alongside the modern and the fierce haggling is eternal. Go for the color and the exotic chaos, but realize that no matter how honed your negotiating skills, you’re still going to pay twice as much as a local customer.

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