At home in Vietnam


At the Equatorial Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, you get a bit of home in a foreign land.

YOU know the famous bull run of Pamplona in Spain? There, you have to risk life and limb to outrun the bulls just for the fun of it. Well, in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam, you also risk life and limb on the streets and face deadly horns – but of a different sort.

It’s the honking and tooting of the thousands of motorcycles that crisscross this city in the south of Vietnam.

The journey from the Tan Son Nhat Airport to my hotel, the Equatorial, in District 5 takes about 20 minutes or more, depending on traffic. What makes the journey a bit longer, though, and a bit scary, too, are those thousands of motorbikes that rush at you from all directions.

The red light and traffic rules don’t appear to apply on the streets of Ho Chi Minh, so it can feel like you’ve been caught in the eye of a storm when you’re out on foot. But in fact, there is an underlying order to the madness, as I eventually discovered when I gingerly attempted to cross the road.

Here’s the secret: You take a deep breath and just walk out in the direction you need to, and the bikes will avoid you. Simple. But don’t – I repeat, don’t – change your mind or hesitate.

It was with a sense of relief that I finally arrived at my hotel, right on the fringe of Ho Chi Minh’s sprawling Chinatown. Also called Cholon (pronounced jahlung, which literally means “big market”), Chinatown straddles District 5 and the adjacent District 6. The wholesale Binh Tay Market is popular with the locals and tourists who are in the know. It’s where the best bargains are to be had.

Other less-informed tourists go to Ben Thanh Market, a tourist trap in District 1, for their souvenirs and local craft and produce.

The Equatorial Hotel management was very happy to point out that the hotel sits in the heart of HCMC as it also borders the three other main districts in Saigon (the pre-war name of the city), namely District 3, District 10 and District 1. This is where the financial, retail and tourist heart of the city is located.

Taxis are relatively low, so you can get to any place from here quite easily and affordably. But make sure you only take cabs marked Vinasun or Mailinh or you risk being ripped off. Or worse.

One of the nice things about the Hotel Equatorial is that it is in a part of town that is still relatively languid. Also, as it is a Malaysian-run establishment, you will feel right at home amidst the Malaysian accent, decor, Baju Melayu and a few familiar dishes served during breakfast.

There are two main F&B outlets here. Chit Chat at the Cafe is where you partake of your buffet breakfast (quite a selection here) and, if it so pleases you, lunch and dinner too. Or you could opt to have your last two meals at the much-lauded Orientica Seafood Restaurant & Bar.

It has a teppanyaki bar (one of the few in the city), an open kitchen and bar area for drinks. Plus, there are also private rooms where you can wine and dine away from prying eyes. Funnily enough, the menu features mainly Chinese and Thai dishes. Apparently, the restaurant is popular with the locals as it gives them something different.

But don’t despair. There are a few Vietnamese dishes on the menu too. There’s the Viet-style Hot Pot (known as Lao), the Vietnamese Grilled Squid with Ginger Fish Sauce (Merk nung) and the more familiar Vietnamese Stir-fried Beef (Luc luc).

We ordered the latter two and were glad we did as the squid was exceptional. The other dishes that we tried were also pretty good. I even managed to squeeze in dessert on the recommendation of executive chef Vincent Tan, a jovial Malaysian. The Chilled Sea Coconut with lemon honey accompanied by durian tempura was truly to die for, the perfect end to a perfect meal.

Speaking of rounding off a meal, I must point out that Vietnamese iced-coffee is a must-try. Truly divine — but only if you have a sweet tooth. Yes, the Vietnamese like it really, really sweet.

Stuffed, I looked forward to a bit of “couch potato” time back in my room, an executive deluxe room that came with all the mod-cons. There is WiFi access (but additional charges apply), loads of channels on the TV, a big and very comfortable bed and a pleasant view out the window, so no complaints.

The hotel also has a well-equipped gym that comes complete with sauna and steam room. In addition, one of the biggest pools in the city is located on the floor above the gym. They also have a spa cum beauty parlour in the house.

Well, you can’t keep me away from a nice massage. I opted for a two-hour fusion experience of Hong Kong, Shiatsu and Vietnamese. A miracle happened – I slept. It was that good.

The masseur happily told me I was snoring. That truly capped a wonderful stay in a trés magnifique accommodation.

> Special rates are offered to members of Orient Rewards, which is a lifestyle membership that allows members access to 10,000 worldwide hotels and resorts with 60% discount on rack rates and up to 50% discount on culinary delights. Visit www.orientrewards.net or call (03) 2380 9808 for more information.


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