It's my first ever morning in Vietnam and I wake up in my elevated hotel room to a dizzying and dazzling sight. I'd heard Ho Chi Minh City pulsated to a loud, relentless beat, but I hadn't expected the country's capital of commerce and culture to be quite so ... huge.
Up here, 21st century skyscrapers compete for attention all the way to the horizon and beyond. The brown Saigon River, peaceful by comparison, snakes among them. Immediately below are colourful concrete buildings that house apartments long and narrow.
But as I look back into my room, I'm just as surprised. I'm not sure I'm in Asia. There are velvet, burgundy curtains with gold tassels, a huge bed with an immense satin, quilted headboard between gold, Queen Anne-style bedside cabinets, and an opulent chandelier dripping with glass beads. I rub my eyes; I feel like I've woken up in a Versace palace.
The five-star Reverie Saigon, which has commanded the upper and lower floors of the 39-storey Times Square building in the heart of HCMC's District One since it opened five years ago, is probably the boldest expression of opulence in Vietnam.
As soon as you enter the Reverie, you're greeted by a double-fronted gold and green clock, an immense purple velvet sofa, towering wall murals of bright flowers, bold floor designs, mosaic tiles from Italy, marble from Bolivia, and gold - lots and lots of it.
Hotel manager Christina Von Wrede, originally from Germany, shows me around.
"This hotel showcases the best in Italian designs and features some of the best craftsmanship and artistry in the world," she says.
Some rooms feel fanciful and sophisticated, others whimsically romantic. There are giant baths set among mosaics, plush maroon sofas in bathrooms, intricate love bird murals on walls. And all 286 guest rooms boast floor-to-ceiling views of that dramatic skyline.
"HCMC is developing so fast," Von Wrede says, "especially in the five-star restaurant and bar scene."
District One is where you'll find many of HCMC's high-end shopping and dining options to satisfy locals and tourists alike (Jetstar now flies direct from Sydney). But stepping out from Reverie's European grandeur is still a shock. Wide footpaths are a frenzy of people and food carts, while a steady stream of motorbikes whirl through the streets.
Ho Chi Minh City is where many international companies are based, where wages are the highest, where young people all over Vietnam flock to kickstart their careers, set up businesses and enjoy the high life. This is a city burgeoning with creativity.
Still, reminders of the past are everywhere. Within walking distance of the Reverie are some of the city's most popular attractions: the French colonial Opera House, the neo-classic Central Post Office, the historic Reunification Palace and Ho Chi Minh City Museum, which houses many personal belongings of the man so loved for booting out the French and leading North Vietnam until his death in 1969.
Keen to understand one of the most momentous events in Vietnam's recent history, I head to the War Remnants Museum. Inside visitors are silenced by horrific photos of Vietnamese affected by US bombing and napalming. There's a lesson they want us to take away: that we should never, ever use toxic warfare again.
I leave the museum shocked and sad, but the biggest surprise during my time in Ho Chi Minh City reveals itself gradually: that the Vietnamese hold no grudges against the Americans, or the other invaders of their past, the French, Chinese and Japanese.
Today's Saigonese are overwhelmingly young. Around 70 per cent of them weren't even alive during the American War and quite simply, they're focused on the future.
"The war is in the past; the Americans were just one in a long line of invaders for us," says Linh Pahn at tour operator Hidden Saigon. Linh was born in the city, grew up in Toronto, Canada and returned 12 years ago. She has been caught up in its excitement and vibrancy ever since.
"There's a lot of innovation happening. And it's spontaneous. I call up friends to meet for food, for coffee, for late night drinks. We jump on our motorbikes and we make it happen."
This afternoon we focus on food - Linh wants to prove there is so much more to Vietnamese food than the beloved rice-noodle soup, pho.
At cosy, bright food stalls down hidden alleyways we slurp rice noodle soup with snails, crab and tomato with pungent shrimp paste, a fragrant lemongrass soup, steamed rice cakes made with mung bean paste and dried shrimp and glutinous rice dumplings. It's fresh, punchy, full of herbs and delicious.
The next day I wander through the market, among sea snails, choral-coloured dried shrimps and salted fish, through cashew nut brittle and rice paper roll candies, and piles of green herbs and banana flowers.
Well-dressed locals dart through traffic on their phones, hip young things sip tea with friends on street corners, while motorbikes loop the city, often with whole families on the back!
Suddenly the striking colour of the Reverie seems to accurately reflect the bold vibe on the streets. Ho Chi Minh is in a golden era, its people determined after all their struggles to drive the city and their country forward.
It's dazzling to see.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE:Jetstar operates three flights per week between Sydney and Ho Chi Minh City, from $A279 one way (conditions apply). Jetstar Pacific operates domestic flights within Vietnam. For more info, www.jetstar.com
STAYING THERE: Rooms at The Reverie Saigon start from $A335. For more info, www.thereveriesaigon.com
PLAYING THERE: Linh Phan offers bespoke tours of modern Ho Chi Minh City. Visit www.hidden-saigon.com for more info.
The writer travelled as a guest of The Reverie Saigon and Jetstar.