FOUNDED ONLY IN THE 18TH CENTURY AS SAIGON, HO CHI MINH CITY (HCMC) IS A NEWCOMER AMONG CITIES BY ASIAN STANDARDS.
Yet it has packed plenty into a short time: it quickly became a major commercial and trading centre, the capital of French Indochina, and infamous during the Vietnam War.
The country’s biggest city, with some eight million inhabitants, HCMC today is in the midst of a pulsating economic revival that makes it one of southwest Asia’s most exciting cities. Brash and busy, its new luxury hotels and office blocks sprout like mushrooms, sophisticated bars and fashion boutiques fling open their doors, and the streets are a never-ending parade of honking traffic, frenetic shoppers, street hawkers, and trendy teenagers giggling into mobile phones.
The old Saigon is still there too, however: French-style bakeries and tree-lined avenues, ladies in silk Ao Dai dresses, old neighbourhood temples where incense drifts, and an impressive array of colonial architecture described as ‘tropical Baroque’ in its grandeur.
NIGHT OWLS WILL HAVE TO HEAD TO DE THAM STREET and its alleyways through an otherwise quiet city. Bars and cafes are simple but relaxed in this lively backpacker district.
FIND EARLY MORNING TRANQUILLITY AMONG THE MANY TEMPLES OF CHOLON, HCMC’S CHINATOWN. This soon gives way to bustle as bird sellers, street barbers, noodle vendors, and restaurant owners compete for business.
IT’S CONFRONTATIONAL, BUT THE WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM – the city’s most popular tourist attraction – bears witness to the horrors of the Vietnam War in its photography, artefacts, and searing exhibits.
STROLL AROUND CENTRAL HCMC FOR A LOOK AT REUNIFICATION PALACE, where the Vietnam War was ended with a tank crashing through the front gate, the colonial Notre Dame cathedral and the elegant Post Office building before heading up Le Duan Boulevard, with its graceful villas.
PRESIDED OVER BY A CLOCK TOWER, BEN THANH MARKET OFFERS SOUVENIRS AND KNOCK-OFF FASHIONS GALORE. You can have banh khoai (pancakes) or pho (noodles) for lunch, accompanied by pitchers of beer.
REFRESH YOUR SPIRIT AT THE JADE EMPEROR PAGODA, an always-buzzing Cantonese temple with elaborate roofs sporting dragons and birds, carved woodwork, and a crowd of colourful gods and goddesses.
HEAD OVER TO BITEXCO FINANCIAL TOWER, and get the best view in town from the 49th floor. With ticket cost around $10, it’s definitely worth the visit.
TIME FOR A SUNDOWNER AT A RIVERSIDE BAR BEFORE A MEAL AT THE ROMANTIC TEMPLE CLUB (29 Ton That Thiep). Housed in an old Chinese temple, both decor and Vietnamese seafood are delightful.
HEAD TO SI HOANG THEATRE (36 Ly Tu Trong), where traditional Vietnamese xylophone and bamboo flute music combine with a fashion show highlighting the rich textiles of various ethnic groups.
DON’T LEAVE IT TOO LATE FOR YOUR EVENING OUT; MOST OF HCMC SHUTS DOWN AFTER MIDNIGHT. Dong Khoi area hosts everything from pubs to sleek bars and nightclubs: something for everyone.
Self-drive cars are not advisable in HCMC’s hectic streets. A day’s rental with driver will cost about US$30 per day.
There is no urban rail network in HCMC. Trains to the north depart from Ga Saigon station in District 3.
A limited network, and best used for visiting Cholon district. Ben Thanh bus station is the central hub. Long-distance coaches operate to Cambodia and other neighbouring regions.
The city sprawls, but many of its tourist attractions lie close together, making exploration on foot a viable option. Crossing roads can be quite an experience, as scooters take up every inch of tarmac.
Nothing says Vietnam like the hordes of motor scooters that buzz along its streets. The brave can join the motorised throng – and get a quintessential HCMC experience – by renting a motorbike for just US$5 per day from hotels or the shops along Pham Ngu Lao. (Technically you need a motorcycle license, though nobody asks.) The less confident can hire a motorcycle taxi for under a dollar. Keep your knees in tight. You’ll end up with white knuckles, a grimy face, and a feeling of crazy exhilaration.