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 (
Among the new large office buildings of this area you will find upscale modern shopping (
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
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
Adjacent to District 1 is the quieter District 3 with many beautiful French architectural-style homes. Visit the
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
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
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, downhome 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 cafés (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.
If you have been traveling in Asia and got used to paying high prices for less than deluxe accommodations, Ho Chi Minh's hotel scene will be a welcome relief. Ever since 1986, under the government's "renovation" policy of doi moi, new lodgings have been springing up one after another. They are not only clean and new, but developed with the needs of foreign visitors in mind, and that means everyone from business travelers on expense accounts to backpacking students.
District 3, with its French-style local architecture and concentration of inexpensive restaurants, tends to attract those who favor Continental surroundings. Whether checking in at the inexpensive Evergreen or the plush International and Epco hotels, French-speaking visitors in particular will feel right at home here. Highly recommended is the Sol Chancery Hotel, which features elegant apartment-style units that make a long business stay a pleasure.
The Cholon area of District 5 claims top choice among the city's Chinese visitors. Hotels like the mid-range Arc en Ciel and the luxury-class Equatorial are apt to be quite full of tourists and merchants from Hong Kong and Taiwan. If you don't mind staying a bit far from the city center, you can find some real bargains here, with the added advantage of Chinatown right at your doorstep. A good choice might be the Metropole Hotel, which is a bit closer to the downtown than the other Cholon mid-class hotels.
By far, however, the most-chosen area for lodgings is District 1, with its budget inns in the west end and its upmarket hotels to the east near Dong Khoi. If you seek convenience and comfort, and couldn't care less about the cost, head straight to the French-influenced Kim Do or the view-encompassing Amara Saigon hotels. Both offer deluxe accommodations at rates that may make you smile.
For equally high-end rooms and even greater value, you might wish to try the Hong Kong-influenced New World Hotel Saigon, frequented by no less luminary guests than American President and Mrs. George Bush (the elder). Alternatively, the Japanese-owned and -operated Saigon Prince Hotel affords Oriental luxury at irresistible rates, while the Hotel Sofitel Plaza Saigon brings European elegance to the district. And for five-star excellence overlooking the Saigon River, your best bet is the Renaissance Riverside Hotel Saigon, with its fine restaurants and close proximity to the city's commercial center.
History abounds in this part of town. Walk in the footsteps of expatriate authors Somerset Maughm and Graham Greene through the Continental Hotel, originally built by French colonialists in 1880. Ride up a 1930's elevator to the elegant suites of the moderately-priced Grand Hotel. Have a drink at the Rex Hotel, a favorite watering hole of American military officers during the Vietnam War. You will begin to realize that this has always been the center of action in the southern metropolis.
For those on a budget, an abundance of guest houses around Pham Ngu Lao make staying in Ho Chi Minh City easy on the pocket. One of the more popular ones is Guest house 127, with its free fruit and coffee served throughout the day by warm-hearted owner Madam Cuc and her family. Private rooms and good strong showers are the norm here, as they are at the equally inexpensive and family-run Minh Chau Guesthouse, which rather recently added email services. Dormitory-style accommodations can be found in the area's many hostels, so even if you feeling the pinch at the end of extended travels, you will have no problem getting a roof over your head.
One option for those staying in Ho Chi Minh City overnight and anticipating an early departure is the Novotel Garden Plaza on the outskirts of downtown just a few minutes' drive from the airport. As with all upscale hotels, advance reservations are recommended, of course, especially during the Lunar New Year (Tet Festival) when rooms command premium prices and the city's hotels can be overbooked.