Vietnam’s largest city, Ho Chi Minh City, evokes a feeling of exotic lands and old world charms. The city is still referred to by its old name Saigon, and even physically you can see the blend of the old with the new; the city streets are lined with high-rise corporate offices amongst charming French colonial architecture, where you will find the dynamic population going about their business alongside the placid saffron-robed monks collecting alms. Although the city is bustling with international business activity, it has managed to retain its distinct Asian feel.
It used to be a hamlet of Cambodia called Prey Nokor before being taken over by the Vietnamese. Later on it was named Saigon and became the capital of the French colony of Cochin-China. Its current official name, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), is in tribute to its communist leader Nguyen Tat Thanh, better known as Ho Chi Minh.
The metropolitan and surrounding towns have a population of over 9 million making it the largest in Vietnam and Indochina region. During the French rule, the city was renovated with broad streets and colonial architecture that are still around today.
Saigon is a melting pot of different cultures, not only Vietnamese but people originally from other countries. Ho Chi Minh City is not far from major shipping routes and is at an international crossroads. Among the first to arrive here were the Chinese from the coastal parts of China, and helped in establishing the city.
On the banks of the Saigon River, 60 km from the South China Sea, near the Mekong delta, is the enigmatic Ho Chi Minh City. It is situated approximately 1,760 km from the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. The city is roughly 2,094 sq km in area and is an important junction of international maritime routes, being the center of the Southeast Asia region. It is a major transport hub of this region and has the largest port system and airport in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City was originally a small fishing village in Cambodia and was called Prey Nokor. The swampland was inhabited by the Khmer people for centuries before the Vietnamese took over. The land was, till then, deserted and covered by dense forests and marshes, with the inhabitants dwelling sparsely on higher ground.
Around 1623, the then king of Cambodia had allowed Vietnamese refugees fleeing civil war in their country to settle here and set up a custom house. This started a flow of more Vietnamese settlers coming here. The migrants started to cultivate the land which was fertile, had plenty of water and suitable weather conditions.
A few decades later, the Nguyen rulers of Vietnam sent their army commander Nguyen Huu Canh, to establish Vietnamese structures in the area. A citadel, Gia Dinh, was built, but was later destroyed by the French. The Cambodian government, weakened due to its war with Thailand, could not stop the infiltration, and Prey Nokor gradually came under Vietnam and was renamed Saigon. Nguyen Huu Canh is credited for the city’s expansion.
Nguyen Huu Canh was much respected at the time and temples were built to honor him. In fact there’s one such temple even in Phnom Penh, in Cambodia.
Some of the early settlers were Chinese migrants, from the coastal regions of China, fleeing from their war-torn country. In 1679 around 3000 people migrated here and the city of Cholon was established with the contribution of the Chinese migrants as they integrated themselves into the local communities.
Then in 1859, France captured this flourishing town and during its occupation transformed the city’s whole look. They broadened the roads and lined them with colonial architecture. Saigon became the capital of the French colony of Cochin-China and came to be known as the ‘Pearl of the Far East’ or the ‘Paris of the Orient’. Even today you can see wide elegant boulevards, and some of the buildings and structures from that era that gives you a glimpse in the city’s colonial past.
The French didn’t last long here either. In 1954 they were defeated by the communist Viet Minh and had to withdraw from the country. But they didn’t recognize the new government and supported the government established by Emperor Bao Dai who had set up Saigon as his capital in 1950. At the time Saigon and the city of Cholon was one administrative unit called the Capital of Saigon, primarily inhabited by Vietnamese Chinese.
Vietnam was officially divided into North Vietnam called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and South Vietnam or the Republic of Vietnam which retained Saigon as its capital. At the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the city came under the Vietnam People’s Army.
A year later when the communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam was established, Saigon and nearby provinces of Cholon, Gia Dinh and two suburban districts were combined to create Ho Chi Minh City in honor of the communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
In 1998, HCMC celebrated its 300th anniversary and today stands prepared to become one of Asia’s great cities.
The city has a tropical humid climate with an average humidity of 75 %. It has two distinct seasons – rainy season from May to November, and the dry months of December to April. The dry season is the best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City when the humidity levels are relatively lower. The average year-round temperature is 28 degrees Celsius. The Tet Festival around late January or early February attracts many tourists from within the country and outside as well, so if you plan to be here around this time, plan in advance.
To See & Do
There are many things you can do in and around the city even on a short trip. The History Museum, for example, houses a huge collection of artifacts from the country’s two thousand years of recorded history. It also has a water puppet theatre and one of the best gift shops in the city. Another museum, although a bit more morbid, is the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Exhibition House of American War Crimes. It has a disturbing collection of gruesome photographs from the Vietnam War, an actual guillotine and jars of deformed fetuses…definitely not for the weak hearted!
One place that you must visit is the Reunification Palace. It was the presidential palace occupied by Nguyen Van Thieu, and has been left virtually untouched, apart from some restoration work, from the day the city fell to the north. Maps hanging in the underground military operations room, the huge party room, a gambling room, a private movie theater, and lavish reception halls and office take you back when the palace would have been alive with activity.
Around the city you will find many pagodas but one of the most lavish ones here is the Nghia An Hoi Quan Pagoda and is not to be missed. Giac Lam Pagoda is another interesting one with portraits of several revered monks. The Jade Pagoda has many gilded figurines and papier-mâché statues of Buddhist and Taoist divinities.
Originally called Hotel de Ville, the City Hall, or the People’s Committee Hall is a striking example of the French colonial architecture and the statue of Ho Chi Minh in the front is a popular place for taking pictures.
Another place you could visit in the city is the Notre Dame Cathedral, and then take a stroll along the banks of the Saigon River. Then as night falls on a Sunday night, get yourself a two-wheeled vehicle and join the throngs of di choi, which is basically a party on wheels where everyone rides through the streets till the wee hours of the morning.
If the heat is getting you down, there are several water parks you can go to cool off a bit. Close to the city center is the Dam Sen Water Park, others include Saigon Water Park, Water World, Ocean Water Park and the Dai The Gioi Water Park. So you have no reason to complain about the heat now!
If you are a shopaholic, then you have come to the right place. You can pick up everything from beautiful and intricate hand crafted items to tacky tourist souvenirs. Your bargaining skills will come in handy at most places except department stores and major tourist areas. There are several streets that are good for shopping, like the Dong Khai and Le Thanh Ton. Here they sell jewelry, amber, ceramics, antiques, furniture and silk. Lacquer ware made here is considered one of the best in the world. Rosewood boxes and bowls also make great gifts and mementos. And if you love coffee, buy it in bulk since Vietnamese coffees are among the best in the world and relatively inexpensive still.
Make the Ben Thanh Market your next stop where you will find practically everything except automobiles and real estate! Wandering along the tiny lanes packed with stalls will give you an insight of the lives of the people here. The food court offers scrumptious local delicacies, which you can savor between shopping spurts. The Cholon area is the city’s Chinatown, one of the oldest and most mysterious areas of the city. The name literally mean ‘big market’ and it will not disappoint you.
The city is serviced by the Tan Son Nhat airport, Vietnam’s largest international airport. However, immigration rules are very strict and clearing it can take long, so be prepared. From the airport, the recently introduced bus No. 152 air conditioned bus is the cheapest way into the city. You could also hire a taxi, but make sure the fare meter is down when you get on, or just buy a prepaid ‘taxi coupon’ near the airport exit to avoid being swindled.
If you are coming by train, you will arrive at the Cach Mang Thang Tam station and is a short distance away from the city center.
Around the city, taxis are the most comfortable way to get around and are easily available at any time. You could also go on a motorbike taxi. They are in plenty, much cheaper, and can easily zip through traffic-clogged streets. But fix the price before you get on and if you feel it is going too fast, don’t hesitate to ask the rider to slow down. If you would rather explore the city on your own, you have the option of renting your own motorbike.
The public buses have recently been revamped and the bright green buses can be seen everywhere. They are a cheaper and safer way to commute if you can figure out the bus routes.
Room and Board
Vietnamese cuisine is known for its lavish use of fish sauce, soy sauce and hoisin sauce. The recipes mainly use fresh vegetables, herbs and spices like lemon grass and kaffir lime. If you want to taste some authentic cuisine forget about the restaurants and dine like the locals at the street stalls. You will find a variety of dishes including seafood, and some unusual dishes like sparrows, wild deer and steamed silk worms.
One thing you must absolutely try is one of the banh xeo (pancake) places on Dinh Cong Trang Street, which is one of the more unusual eating experiences you will have in the city with hundreds of people eating outdoors around an open-air kitchen. If you don’t know what’s on the menu, just point to what the others are having around you!
You will find a good and wide range of accommodation choices in the city with prices ranging from cheap to very expensive.
The Renaissance Riverside Hotel, located in the heart of the city overlooks the Saigon River and offers fantastic views. The Omni is one of the finest hotels in the city and was built in the shell of the former CIA headquarters. Its walls are so thick that cellular phones don’t work inside! The food on offer here is superb and even if you don’t stay here, come here for a meal or Sunday brunch.
Another top-of-the-line hotel is the Caravelle Hotel in the city center. Its roof top open air bar offers a 360 degree view of the city.