HO CHI MINH CITY (HCMC for short), still known as Saigon to its seven million or so inhabitants, is Vietnam's centre of commerce and the country's biggest city by far, though not its administrative capital – an honour that rests with Hanoi. Fuelled by the sweeping economic changes wrought by doi moi in 1986, this effervescent city, perched on the west bank of the Saigon River, is in the throes of a programme of re-invention shaking it to its French-built foundations. Years of rubbing shoulders with the consumer-oriented Americans made the Saigonese wise to how to coin a profit. Now they are pressing old, near-forgotten skills back into service, as the market economy shifts into gear again, challenging Singapore, Bangkok and the other traditional Southeast Asian powerhouses.
All the accoutrements of economic revival – fine restaurants, flash hotels, glitzy bars and clubs, and shops selling imported luxury goods – are here, adding a glossy veneer to the city's hotch-potch landscape of French stones of empire, venerable pagodas and austere, Soviet-style housing blocks. The city's architecture has been termed "tropical Baroque" – an apt description of the once-grand but now weather-beaten buildings scattered through the city. Sadly, Ho Chi Minh City is still full to bursting with people for whom economic progress has not yet translated into food, housing and jobs. Street children range through tourist enclaves hawking books, postcards, lottery tickets and cigarette lighters; limbless mendicants haul themselves about on crude trolleys; and watchful pickpockets prowl Dong Khoi on the lookout for unguarded wallets. Indeed, begging is now of such epidemic proportions in Ho Chi Minh City that tourists must quickly come to accept it as a hassle that goes with the territory. In addition, the arrival, en masse, of wealthy Westerners has lured many women into prostitution, for which the go-go bars of Dong Khoi became famous during the American War.
If Hanoi is a city of romance and mellow charms, then Ho Chi Minh is its antithesis, a fury of sights and sounds, and the crucible in which Vietnam's rallying fortunes are boiling. Few corners of the city afford respite from the cacophony of construction work casting up new office blocks and hotels with logic-defying speed. An increasing number of cars and minibuses jostle with an organic mass of state-of-the-art jeeps, landcruisers, Hondas and cyclo, choking the tree-lined streets and boulevards. Amid this melee, the local people go about their daily life: schoolgirls clad in the traditional silk ao dai glide past streetside baguette-sellers; women shoppers ride Hondas clad in gangster-style bandanas and shoulder-length gloves to protect their skin from the sun and dust; moneyed teenagers in designer jeans chirrup into mobile phones; and Buddhist monks walk with measured pace from shopfront to shopfront in search of alms. Adding a cosmopolitan dash to the mix is the influx of Western tourists and expats in the last decade or so, many of them French and American. Much of the fun of being in Ho Chi Minh City derives from the simple pleasure of absorbing its flurry of activity – something best done from the safety of a roadside café. To blink is to miss some new and singular sight, be it a cyclo piled high with wicker baskets of fruit, or a boy rapping out a staccato tattoo on pieces of bamboo to advertise noodles for sale.
It's one of Ho Chi Minh City's many charms that once you've exhausted, or been exhausted by, all it has to offer, paddy fields, beaches and wide-open countryside are not far away. The most popular trip out of the city is to the Cu Chi tunnels, where villagers dug themselves out of the range of American shelling. The tunnels are normally twinned with a tour around the fanciful Great Temple of the indigenous Cao Dai religion at Tay Ninh. A brief taster of the Mekong Delta at My Tho or a dip in the South China Sea at Mui Ne are also eminently possible in a long day's excursion.
The best time to visit tropical Ho Chi Minh City is in the dry season, which runs from December through to April. During the wet season, May to November, there are frequent tropical storms, though these won't disrupt your travels too much. Average temperatures, year-round, hover between 26 and 29°C; March, April and May are the hottest months.
Nowhere does one feel the dynamic changes occurring in Vietnam more than in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. This city rightfully exists in most people's minds as an exciting, exotic part of the lure of Southeast Asia. The reality of Vietnam's largest city is not disappointing!
Despite an estimated seven million residents when all of the transients are counted, the central urban districts will give you the feeling of a small, intimate city. However, in the nearby rural districts that make up approximately 90 percent of the nearly 2,000 square miles covered by the city, rice paddies and the tranquility of the timeless countryside surround you.
The myriad rivers, canals and ditches that cross the city not only add charm but also contribute to the extensive traffic jams in the endless flow of motorcycles, bicycles, and other vehicles. While the traffic can be intimidating to visitors it is a sight never to be forgotten.
The center of the city with many of the tourist attractions is known as District 1. Stretching away from the promenade overlooking the river with its numerous ferries and ocean-going ships are several of the wide boulevards that put most of the major attractions within an easy walk or cyclo ride from the major hotels in this area ( Rex Hotel , Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon and the Saigon Prince Hotel). Many of the more interesting museums are nearby, including the former Presidential Palace, now known as Reunification Palace and famous for the 1975 pictures of the tanks crashing through the gates. Across the street is the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City which along with the History Museum near the City Zoo will entertain you with the unique art form of Vietnamese water puppets.
Among the new large office buildings of this area you will find upscale modern shopping ( Diamond Department Store and Saigon Center ). Tourists will delight in browsing on Dong Khoi Street, running from the Saigon River to the famous and beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral , completed in 1883. Nearby is one of the city's most beautiful buildings, the French colonial-style General Post Office. Dong Khoi and the adjoining small streets are where you can wander through the many shops offering local handicrafts, find Western books ( Bookazine ) or relax in the many fine restaurants featuring Vietnamese traditional fare or cuisine from around the world.
Nguyen Hue Boulevard
Nguyen Hue Boulevard runs from the riverfront to the classic European-style City Hall that today is the HCM People's Committee Building for the city administration. Where Dong Khoi Street meets Le Loi Boulevard sits the beautiful Municipal Theatre , the classic opera house built in 1900, where frequently you will see wedding couples posing for photos. Moving east past the shops along the broad boulevard of Le Loi you will come to the Ben Thanh Market , one of the most popular and large markets in the city, where you can find almost anything available in Vietnam and have the opportunity to try your bargaining skills.
Passing the New World Hotel Saigon takes you into the area frequented by backpackers. This is centered on De Tham Street and many budget hotels ( Hai Duong Hotel and Hai Ha Guesthouse , for example) and restaurants (such as Kim Cafe and Cappuccino ) can be found here.
Districts 1, 3 & 5
District 5 is the former town of Cholon (big market) and is the center of the Chinese community. The Binh Tay market covers much of the district and here you will find everything from traditional Chinese herbs and medicines to whatever you could imagine needing for sewing and tailoring. Nearby is the Cha Tam Church where President Diem took temporary refuge after being toppled from power in 1963.
Adjacent to District 1 is the quieter District 3 with many beautiful French architectural-style homes. Visit the War Remnants Museum and some of the most beautiful and interesting pagodas, including Xa Loi Pagoda and Chua Vinh Nghiem.
Ho Chi Minh City is a major seaport with ships coming 70 miles up the Saigon River from the sea. Immediately across the bridge from the riverfront area of District 1 is the main port area, which also features the Ho Chi Minh Museum in an historical customs house with many of the late leaders artifacts.
North of the city is the large district of Cu Chi, much of which was totally devastated during the American War in a vain attempt to eliminate the guerillas living in tunnels beneath the ground. Today the vegetation and agriculture has returned and there are fascinating tours offered of some of the Cu Chi Tunnels that have been preserved. Continue north and you will arrive at the town of Tay Ninh and the very interesting Cao Dai Temple , home to the religion of the All-Seeing Eye and its colorful daily ceremonies.
So many cultures have entered and influenced Ho Chi Minh City, you are likely to find something to suit virtually every taste here. There are European restaurants ( Givral ), headed by some of the finest French food in Southeast Asia ( Cordon Bleu and Mekong ) and followed by fine representatives of Italian cuisine ( Venezia and Terrazzo ). Vietnam's neighbors, Thailand ( Chao Thai ) and China ( Saigon Square Shopping Center ) have left their culinary marks, as have Japan (Sushi Bar) and even India ( Tandoor ).
Not surprisingly, perhaps, America's presence is also readily apparent. Amigo Steak House , Cafe Mogambo and Wild Horse Saloon are just a few of the US-style spots you may want to visit during your stay. But no trip to this gastronomic enclave would be complete without a healthy sampling of the city's domestic specialties, and there are plenty of restaurants waiting to serve you with the finest dining experiences the country has to offer.
Vietnamese cuisine is probably not as widely known as many of its Southeast Asian counterparts. It may even be mistaken for Thai or Chinese, since the ingredients it employs are quite similar. The defining qualities are a prevailing lightness (little fat or oil is used), blending of complementary textures (peanuts with noodles, for example), and the ubiquitous use of a pungent, salty sauce made of fermented anchovies called nuoc mam. Indeed, nuoc mam-based fish sauce is to meals in Ho Chi Minh City what soy sauce is to dining in Beijing or Kyoto.
Among the city's many representatives of local cuisine are the very traditional Nam An , down-home Com Nieu Sai Gon and country-style Huong Dong . The cost per person of your lunch should run you no more than a couple of bucks. Dinners depend somewhat on your hunger, but a budget of USD5-USD10 should be quite reasonable for your evening repast. Perhaps the only problem you will have when ordering a meal in a local restaurant will be “eyes bigger than your stomach.” There is so much choice and it is so inexpensive! But the Vietnamese are fond of dining in large groups, so you would be wise to join one in order to have access to a wide range of dishes at a single sitting.
Start with some mon an choi (appetizers) like chao tom (barbequed shrimp on sugar cane) or banh cuon (steamed ravioli). Follow up with a tasty soup, such as the spicy and sour Vietnamese bouillabaisse called canh chua tom or one made of crab meat and asparagus known as mang tay nau cua. For your main course, select two or more entrees of fish, meat or fowl to complement your mood and tastes, from vit nuong roast duck to sweet-and-sour fish ca rang chua ngot and pork simmered in caramel sauce thit kho. Another option is to order a Vietnamese fondue, such as bo nhung giam—vegetables, noodles and beef sliced paper-thin, all dipped in a delicious, steaming vinegar broth. Such fondue is often the starting dish in a seven-course all-beef dinner served at celebrations. For dessert, try fried banana or pineapple flamed with rice wine, or else a traditional coconut pudding called che.
If you are fortunate enough to be visiting the city during Lunar New Year ( Tet Festival ), be sure to sample some of the festive foods prepared for this occasion. These include cha gio (fried spring rolls), banh trung (banana-leaf-wrapped glutinous rice cakes filled with beans/meat) and mut (candied fruits). Abalone and shark's fin soups are often served at this special time of year, too.
To accompany your meal, there are more than a few beverages to choose from. Locals prefer tea, but there are always plenty of Asian beers and indigenous soft drinks on hand, including sugar cane juice, sweet soy milk and iced soda sua hot ga, combining club soda with milk and egg yolks! French coffee, hot or cold, is offered almost everywhere, but it may surprise you a bit—the blend is commonly served in water glasses, not cups, and often with a heavy dose of sweet condensed milk in place of cream and sugar.
For serious drinking with or after your meal, beer halls known as bia hois make en masse seating easy, with their adjoining tables, large menus and low prices. Among the best in town is meaty Tay Nam Bo. Another fine brew house is the sports-themed Blue Gecko . You may also want to try out the local pub scene, with Chu Bar , Saigon Saigon Bar , and Allez Boo among the many watering holes you can visit on your way to the wee hours of the morning.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is actually not an ancient city, having been created by the French in the 1800s from numerous small trading villages in the area. Despite its relatively short history, the city contains a wealth of interesting museums and historical sites. Many tours are available by coach or private car, but there are also fascinating tours by foot or in the famous cyclo, a three-wheeled bicycle rickshaw, or even by boat. Perhaps the ideal is to try all of them!
Although Ho Chi Minh City covers almost 2,000 square miles, many of the most remarkable sites are concentrated in the central part of the city in what is known as District 1. This is the logical place to start a walking or cyclo tour, where you will see many fine examples of French architecture and experience the beautiful wide boulevards that are the legacy of the French colonial days. Take time to enjoy the many fine shopping opportunities ( Diamond Department Store , Saigon Square Shopping Center and the Saigon Center ) and perhaps an art gallery ( Duc Minh Art Gallery ). You must keep in mind as you are touring that at some point between 11.30am and 1.30pm many museums and other attractions will close for what the Vietnamese people call “sleep and eat time,” so plan accordingly. This would be an ideal time to stop and enjoy the city's fantastic variety of cafes (Bo Gia, Cafe Latin ).
One of the strongest memories of Ho Chi Minh City that all visitors have is of the constant roar and movement of traffic, which is both intimidating and indeed frightening at times. Just remember that the secret when crossing the street is to move at a steady, slow pace and to never do anything sudden or unexpected, such as stopping. Despite appearances, there is a logic to the flow of traffic: it operates under "big dog rules," which means that whoever is bigger has the right of way, and pedestrians are at the bottom of that list.
A logical starting point for your tour is on the Saigon River promenade along Ton Duc Thang Street where you can watch the ocean freighters and passenger ferries all busy at work. Here you can book a dinner cruise for later in the evening or perhaps plan an interesting one-day tour upriver by speedboat with several stops, including the Binh Quoi Tourist Village .
Looking away from the river and up the wide boulevard of Nguyen Hue past the Saigon Prince Hotel, you can see to the former city hall of the French era, now known as the Ho Chi Minh City People's Committee Building. West of here past the Hotel Majestic is Dong Khoi Street, famous for many shopping opportunities ( Bookazine , Bao Nghi , Quoc Dung Co. and Khai Silk ). After you have passed the first few blocks of interesting shops and cafes you will come to the square between the Caravelle Hotel and the Hotel Continental. Dominating the intersection is the Municipal Theatre , a beautifully restored opera house built by the French. If you continue up Dong Khoi Street you will pass the Saigon Tourist office, where the friendly staff are available to help you plan longer tours and excursions. Soon you will enter another large square dominated by the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral . To your right you will see the General Post Office, with its beautiful interior well worth visiting. If you have the energy in the constant heat and humidity of the city you can travel to the east a few blocks to the City Zoo and the History Museum .
One block to the west you will find Pasteur Street, one of only two streets in Ho Chi Minh City that have retained their French names (the other is Alexandre de Rhodes Street named after the 17th century missionary who devised the Latin-based phonetic alphabet used in Vietnam today). On this street you will pass the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, and you are very likely to see couples having their wedding photos taken on the beautiful grounds. Travel south from here and you reach the wide boulevard of Le Loi, with its many tourist shops where you can see fascinating local handicrafts and even the making of snake wine (yes, it is a real snake in the bottle). This beautiful wide boulevard ends in a traffic circle around the large statue of Tran Ngyuen Han, and it is dominated by the Ben Thanh Market , a huge indoor market where you can lose yourself browsing through the incredible variety of products, both food and other.
Heading north of here will bring you to the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace . If you continue east past the market, you will pass the New World Hotel Saigon and enter the area frequented by backpackers.
For those who like to dine while touring, there are several ships that have dinner cruises on the Saigon River at night. One of the more interesting has lights at night to make it appear as a giant fish! Your cruise will take you along the river front giving you a beautiful view of the city lights.
Wonderful one-day tours are also available, of which the most interesting is a trip to the outskirts of the city to the Cu Chi Tunnels , made famous during the conflicts with the French and the Americans. Learning about and exploring part of the 600 kilometers of tunnels where people lived for years is truly fascinating. A little farther down the road is the town of Tay Ninh, site of the Cao Dai Temple , the Holy See of the Cao Dai religion, a unique combination of Eastern and Western religions with colorful ceremonies that are unique to observe. If you have the time to spare, there are longer adventure tours available, particularly two- to four-night trips into the Mekong Delta region.
HappyDays Travel offers a Full-Day Ho Chi Minh City Tour complete with an English-speaking guide and air-conditioned vehicle. The tour will take you to the former Presidential Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral , Old Saigon Post Office, History Museum , a lacquerware factory, Thien Hau Pagoda, and Binh Tay Market in the city's bustling Chinatown.
HappyDays also offers a guided Day Trip out to the province of Tay Ninh to visit two important sites: the Cao Dai Great Temple and the famous Cu Chi Tunnels , created by Vietnamese freedom fighters during their quest for independence.
Another option is Con Dao island, the latest hot destination for people on vacation. The island is just a 50-min. airplane ride from Ho Chi Minh City, with flights available three days a week. Formerly a notorious jail island, Con Dao has reinvented itself as a previous nature reserve. Vistors might spy some Ducula bicolar, a rare specie of bird found only on the island, or a Nicoba dove. Sea-lovers can take a boat out to admire dolphins and dugong, or go diving to see coral and sea fish. If you visit in July and August, you'll have the opportunity to watch sea turtles lay their eggs. For those interested in the history of the island, a small museum is open for tours.