Ho Chi Minh City – or Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh, to give it its full Vietnamese title – is Vietnam’s centre of commerce and the country’s biggest city, though not its administrative capital – an honour that rests with Hanoi. As a result of the sweeping economic changes wrought by doi moi in 1986, this effervescent city, perched on the banks of the Saigon River and still known as Saigon to its eight million or so inhabitants, has changed its image from that of a war-torn city to one of a thriving metropolis, challenging Singapore, Bangkok and the other traditional Southeast Asian powerhouses. All the accoutrements of economic success – fine restaurants, flash hotels, glitzy bars and clubs, and shops selling imported luxury goods – are here, adding a glossy veneer to the city’s hotchpotch landscape of French stones of empire, venerable pagodas and austere, Soviet-style housing blocks.
Sadly, however, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is still full of people for whom economic progress has not yet translated into food, housing and jobs. Street children roam the tourist enclaves hawking books, postcards, lottery tickets and cigarette lighters; limbless mendicants haul themselves about on crude trolleys; and watchful pickpockets prowl crowded streets on the lookout for unguarded wallets. Though the number of beggars is gradually declining, tourists must quickly come to accept them as a hassle that goes with the territory. In addition, the arrival, en masse, of wealthy Westerners has lured many women into prostitution, for which the go-go bars of Dong Khoi became famous during the American War.
If Hanoi is a city of romance and mellow charms, then Ho Chi Minh City is its antithesis, a fury of sights and sounds, and the crucible in which Vietnam’s rallying fortunes are boiling. Few corners of the city afford respite from the cacophony of construction work casting up new office blocks and hotels with logic-defying speed. An increasing number of cars and minibuses jostle with an organic mass of state-of-the-art Honda SUVs, choking the tree-lined streets and boulevards. Amid this melee, the local people go about their daily life: smartly dressed schoolkids wander past streetside baguette-sellers; women shoppers ride motorbikes clad in gangster-style bandanas to protect their skin from the sun and dust; while teenagers in designer jeans chirrup into mobile phones. Much of the fun of being in Ho Chi Minh City derives from the simple pleasure of absorbing its flurry of activity – something best done from the seat of a cyclo or a roadside café. To blink is to miss some new and singular sight, be it a motorbike stacked high with piglets bound for the market, or a boy on a bicycle rapping out a staccato tattoo on pieces of bamboo to advertise noodles for sale.
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 ChiMinh 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.
The best time to visit tropical Ho Chi Minh City is in the dry season, which runs from December through to April. During the wet season, May to November, there are frequent tropical storms, though these won’t disrupt your travels too much. Average temperatures, year-round, hover between 26°C and 29°C; March, April and May are the hottest months.