Ho Chi Minh City, also common known as 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 bank of Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh is Vietnam’s biggest port and largest city, with an estimated population of over 8 million, 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 in the world. 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.
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 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 Ho Chi Minh City : The always hot (average 82°F/28°C) and rainy season lasts from May to November, the dry season from December to April.
Some of Ho Chi Minh City’s tourism spots 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. Ho Chi Minh is also a logical jumping off point for excursions to southern destinations, including the Mekong Delta, the Cu Chi Tunnels, Phan Thiet beach and Phu Quoc Island.
Ho Chi Minh city’s attractions:
The Reunification Palace is beautiful in its ugliness, a 1960s monstrosity designed with the help of Soviet architects. Most people will remember the image of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates on 30 April 1975 signifying the fall of Saigon. The tank still graces the front lawn. Rooms open to the public remain exactly as they were in 1975, showing where important meetings were held during the war, as well as some of the private quarters of the president and his family. Most fascinating are a series of underground tunnels housing a telecommunications center.
War Remnants Museum:
Formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, the name has been toned down so as not to offend its US visitors and is now the War Remnants Museum. This is not a museum for the sensitive as it houses instruments of torture and hundreds of photographs of atrocities committed during the 20th century and, in particular, the Vietnam War. Visitors cannot fail to be moved as the exhibits provide a context for a period of history many only know from old newsreels and Hollywood movies. At the front of the museum is a small collection of military hardware and, most interestingly, the mobile guillotine used by the French colonists to dispense justice throughout the country before World War II.
Notre Dame Cathedral:
The twin towers of Notre Dame Cathedral have been a familiar landmark in Ho Chi Minh City since the 1880s. In front of the cathedral in a small garden is a delicate statue of the Virgin Mary. The interior of the cathedral is rather plain, unlike most French cathedrals, with no stained glass but it is a cool escape from the heat outside.
Across from the Notre Dame Cathedral, the vast Post Office was also built in the late 19th century in European style. The interior has hardly been touched since it was built and is dominated by a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh. The building always seems busy but most people are just visitors rather than customers.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum:
Housed in the former building of the Government of Cochinchina, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum (formerly the Revolutionary Museum) contains artefacts, such as weapons, uniforms, medals and old photos, from the period of Communist struggle against the French and the Americans. Unfortunately, the exhibits are only labelled in Vietnamese but some are self-explanatory. Outside the museum is a collection of military hardware including a tank and a helicopter.
Located just inside the entrance to the Botanical Gardens and Zoo, the Historical Museum houses a collection of artefacts covering the last 2000 years of Vietnamese history including items belonging to ancient cultures such as Dong Son, Oc Eo and Cham. The museum was built in 1929 and the collection assembled by the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient.
Cholon is in District 5 and is a maze of narrow streets, bustling with people. Most of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese live here and they are the largest single ethnic minority group in the country. Merchants began to settle in Cholon in the 1770s, although many ethnic Chinese fled the country in 1975.
The Thien Hau Pagoda is one of Cholon’s must-sees. It is dedicated to the goddess Thien Hau, protector of the sea. Photographers are spoilt for choice with the ornate decoration inside the pagoda and the statues of Thien Hau. It is popular with worshippers (the air is always heavy with the smell of incense) and there are regular festivals during the lunar calendar.
Binh Tay Market throngs with people from early morning and the gloomy, narrow walkways are crammed with consumer items and exotic foodstuffs. The sound of bargaining, quite often in Chinese rather than Vietnamese, and the calls of the vendors constantly fill the air. This is one of the best places to see the locals going about their daily lives.