Ho Chi Minh City

Introducing Ho Chi Minh City

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Once dearly called Diamond of the Far-east with the luxury level overriding that of Hongkong or Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City is now the most populated city in Vietnam. Modern office skyscrapers, amidst Oriental style pagodas and food stalls along the street, create a dynamic urban area in very special sense. It is not oddly tidy like in Singapore, nor is urban slumps omnipresent like in India.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is Vietnam's commercial headquarters -- brash and busy -- with a keen sense of its own importance as Vietnam emerges from years of austerity to claim a place in the "Asian Tiger" economic slugfest. Located on the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's major port and largest city, with an estimated population of over eight million people, most of whom cruise the town's clogged arteries on an estimated three million motorbikes. True to its reputation, the city is noisy, crowded, and dirty, but the central business district is rapidly developing in steel-and-glass precision to rival any city on the globe. The old Saigon still survives in wide downtown avenues flanked by pristine colonials. Hectic and eclectic, Ho Chi Minh City has an attitude all its own.

But what are you supposed to call it? Is it Istanbul or Constantinople? Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon? After North Vietnamese victory in 1975, the first piece of legislation at the first National Assembly in 1976 saw the name change to honor the country's greatest nationalist leader. Foreign visitors, especially folks who knew the city of old or during the war years, have a hard time making the change to Ho Chi Minh City, and you'll notice that most Vietnamese people, apart from crusty cadres, usually use the old name: Saigon. To set the record straight, "Ho Chi Minh City" refers to the larger metropolitan area comprised of some 19 districts of sprawl, while "Saigon" is the name of the main commercial center -- districts 1, 3, and 5 -- and people still refer to the town as such -- like referring to New York as Manhattan.

Saigon is a relatively young Asian city, founded in the 18th century, but its history tells the story of Vietnam's recent struggles. Settled mainly by civil-war refugees from north Vietnam along with Chinese merchants, Saigon quickly became a major commercial center in the late 1800s. With a very convenient protected port along the Saigon River, the city became a confluence in Indochina for goods passing from China and India to Europe. Places like today's popular tourist stop Ben Thanh Market were abuzz with activity. When the French took over the region about that time -- in the 1880s -- they called the south "Cochin China," Annam being central Vietnam and Tonkin the north. Saigon became the capital. We owe the wide boulevards and grand colonial facades of central District 1 to years of French control and influence. After the French left in 1954, Saigon remained the capital of South Vietnam until reunification in 1975.

As the logistical base for American operations during the Vietnam War time, the city is all too familiar to the many American servicemen and women who spent time in Vietnam. Saigon is perhaps best known for its "fall," a pell-mell evacuation from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy and the desperate last-ditch efforts of helicopter pilots to get just one more person out to the offshore U.S. carriers. The stories of that day, of divided families and the ones left behind, are heart-wrenching.

The years that followed were even bleaker, with a country feeding itself on ideology, not rice, but the progressive Doi Moi economic reforms, which opened Vietnam to foreign investment, aid, and cooperation, set the town on its feet. The city boomed for a little while in the 1990s until foreign investors were choked and bullied by bureaucracy -- many companies pulling out lock, stock, and barrel -- but FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) is returning, led mostly by Asian investors (from Japan, Korea, and China). Now the future looks bright for this burgeoning Tiger capital.

There are two distinct seasons in Saigon: The always hot (average 82°F/28°C) and rainy season lasts from May to November, the dry season from December to April.

HCMC is divided into 24 districts, though tourists rarely travel beyond districts One, Three and Five. In addition, an increasing number of expats reside in Phu My Hung, aka South Saigon, in district Seven – a squeaky-clean suburb that wouldn’t look out of place in Singapore, making quite a contrast to the rest of this seething metropolis. The city proper hugs the west bank of the Saigon River, and its central area, District One, nestles in the hinge formed by the confluence of the river with the Ben Nghe Channel; traditionally the French Quarter of the city, this area is still widely known as Saigon. Dong Khoi is its delicate backbone, and around the T-shape it forms with Le Duan Boulevard are located several of the city’s museums and colonial remnants. However, many of the city’s other sights are scattered further afield, so visitors have to effect a dot-to-dot of the sights that appeal most. These invariably include one or more of the museums that pander to the West’s fixation with the American War, the pick of the bunch being the War Remnants Museum and Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

For some visitors, the war is their primary frame of reference and such historical hot spots as the Reunification Palace rank highly on their itineraries. Yet the city pre-dates American involvement by several centuries, and not all of its sights revolve around planes, tanks and rusting ordnance. Ostentatious reminders of French rule abound, among them such memorable buildings as Notre Dame Cathedral and the grandiose Hotel de Ville – but even these look spanking-new when compared to gloriously musty edifices like Quan Am Pagoda and the Jade Emperor Pagoda, just a couple of the many captivating places of worship across the city. And if the chaos becomes too much, you can escape to the relative calm of the Botanical Gardens – also home to the city’s History Museum.

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 often 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 Ho Coc are also eminently possible in a long day’s excursion.

Some of Saigon's tourism highlights include the Vietnam History Museum; the grisly War Remnants Museum; and Cholon, the Chinese District, with its pagodas and exotic stores. Dong Khoi Street -- formerly fashionable Rue Catinat during the French era and Tu Do, or Freedom Street, during the Vietnam War -- is once again a strip of grand hotels, some dating from the colonial era, new chic shops and boutiques, and lots of fine dining and cafes. Saigon's food is some of the best Vietnam has to offer, its nightlife sparkles, and the shopping here is fast and furious. The city is also a logical jumping-off point for excursions to southern destinations, including the Mekong Delta, the Cu Chi Tunnels, and Phan Thiet beach.

See more Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) travel guide at here.

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