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
Legend has it that Vietnam was born after the children of the union between the beautiful princess, Cochin, and the dragon, Tonkin, finally made peace after years of fighting. It is an apt story for a country that has seen centuries of turmoil and occupation. Human settlement in the region can be dated back half a million years. The Chinese occupied Vietnam for nearly 1,000 years until defeat at the Battle of Bach Dang River in 939. In exchange for independence - effectively the birth of the Vietnamese nation - the country was required to pay tributes to China every three years. Even when the name Viet Nam was adopted in 1802, as a subject nation, permission was needed from the Chinese.
The boundaries that define modern-day Vietnam are relatively recent. For centuries Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh City is still called by many, belonged to the Kingdom of Cambodia. Only in the 17th century did it become part of Vietnam. Factionalism prevailed during the 18th century when the French arrived as traders with a Christian message that was fiercely opposed by a pro-Chinese populace. The official colonization of Vietnam by France began in 1858. The city, then located in what was known as Cochin China, was captured in 1859 and officially ceded to the French by Emperor Tu Duc in 1862. The transformation into "Paris of the East" began with the construction of attractive villas, imposing public buildings and wide tree-lined boulevards. A railway to the north and the development of the port provided important communications and transport infrastructure. Despite the French influence, the Chinese district of Cholon maintained a character which endures today.
During the early years of the 20th century a movement to liberate the country from the French was growing in the north under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, a revolutionary trained in Russia. However life in Saigon remained relatively peaceful and even Japanese occupation in World War II made little impact, with the French continuing to govern. The dying days of the war saw internment of the French, and when the Japanese finally surrendered in 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence. Riots gripped the streets of Saigon; the French once again seized control and the first of the Indochina wars began. A 1954 Geneva agreement led to the division of the country into northern and southern zones. Saigon was reborn as the capital of South Vietnam. Refugees flooded into the city from the north and the United States developed a political interest, fearing that the south would also fall to Communism.
When President Ngo Dinh Diem failed to hold a promised election in 1956, more instability followed. Buddhist monks self-immolated at the Xa Loi Pagoda in protest. Diem was assassinated not long after. Northern combatants, now known as Viet Cong, advanced further south and US involvement in the political situation escalated. By 1966, more than 385,000 combat troops were stationed in Vietnam and Saigon became the heart of the war effort. The Tet Offensive of 1968 hit hard, but the city was held until 1975 when the North Vietnamese army finally infiltrated. A visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels graphically demonstrates the living conditions of the guerillas as they waged relentless warfare against the south and its allies. Key television footage of the 20th century must include the dramatic helicopter evacuation of the last remaining Americans from the roof of the American Embassy on April 30 1975.
Saigon's fall became the birth of Ho Chi Minh City, as the victors proclaimed reunification of the country and honored “Uncle Ho” in the renaming of the city. The Reunification Palace and the Ho Chi Minh Museum are reminders of this recent history. Economic hardship followed and more than half a million people fled the country seeking refuge abroad. After a long period of political unrest, oppression, agricultural collectivization, purges of intellectuals and anti-capitalist campaigns, today's Ho Chi Minh City is once more opening up to the West. Trade links and a growing tourism industry ensure that visitors again have the opportunity to discover the beauty of the countryside and the elegance and charm of this vibrant city.
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.
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.
Cholon & District 1
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.