HO CHI MINH CITY
The largest city in Vietnam and one of the most vibrant and bustling urban areas in South-East Asia, Ho Chi Minh City has had a long and colorful history during which it has undergone several name changes.
Known as Prey Nokor in Khmer, it was Cambodia's main port before the Vietnamese annexed it in the 17th century. In 1859 the French took over the city and under the name Saigon it later became the capital of the French colony of Cochinchina, and eventually the capital of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) from 1956 to 1975. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. However, many South Vietnamese still prefer the old name Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC as it is often abbreviated, consists of 16 districts, with the vast majority of tourist sites, hotels, restaurants, and bars located in District 1. To the uninitiated, the city is a mind blowing vortex of energy, bursting with people, traffic, shops, street vendors, and crumbling old houses next to modern high rise buildings. But it also offers lovely tree shaded boulevards, colonial architecture, fascinating markets, and atmospheric temples. It is a complex city where old and new, and rich and poor co-exist side by side, where traditional meets modern, and anything goes.
Places to See - Top Picks
This large centrally located indoor market was built by the French in 1914 and is a fantastic place for browsing and shopping alike. Hundreds of stalls sell everything from silk ao dais (traditional Vietnamese dress) to scarves, hand bags, ceramics, paintings, wood carvings, household goods, flowers, spices, fruit, vegetables, meat - you name it. Prices for souvenirs and tourist items are generally overpriced compared to other places in Vietnam, but it is still worth coming here just to experience the atmosphere. There are also cheap food stalls that sell a variety of dishes, including the ever popular pho (noodle soup with beef and herbs).
Step back in time at South Vietnam's Presidential Palace, as it was formerly known. Here is where in a dramatic scene on the morning of April 30, 1975, tanks from the communist North Vietnamese army broke through the front gate and soldiers flew the Viet Cong flag from the building. Everything inside the building has been preserved just like it was on that fateful day. There are lots of interesting artifacts, such as old communication devices, maps, and original furniture, plus you can watch a video about the history of Vietnam. Don't be taken aback by the biased view of events though. Remember, this is the very place where the Communists officially took over. Make sure to visit the basement and its maze of secret underground tunnels.
People's Committee Hall
The iconic town hall of HCMC was finished in 1908 and originally home to the Hotel de Ville. The building features an elegant and richly decorated pale yellow exterior with well manicured front lawns and lost of flower beds. The building is off-limits to the public, but there is a big statue of Ho Chi Minh (or "Uncle Ho", as he is referred to in Vietnam) in front of the building, which makes for a great photo opportunity.
War Remnants Museum
Formerly know as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, this disturbing museum features a gruesome collection of photos, weapons, and torture devices, and is not for the faint of heart. The American War, as it is called in Vietnam, is told here strictly from the side of the North Vietnamese, hence the many references to counter-revolutionaries (i.e., South Vietnamese) and their war crimes. All the horrors of the war are on display here, from the effects of napalm bombings to torture and the massacres of innocent civilians. Visitors may be put off by the bias and propaganda, but it is one place to see history from a different, non-Western point of view. Due to the very graphic nature of the museum's exhibits, it is not recommended for children.
This pretty neo-Romanesque Catholic cathedral was erected by the French in the late 19th century. There's a statue of the Virgin Mary outside the church.
Cholon, HCMC's Chinatown is home to a number of richly decorated and very atmospheric pagodas filled with statues, altars, clouds of incense smoke, and elaborate wood carvings that were founded by Fujian, Cantonese, and Chaozhou congregations. Top picks include Quan Am Pagoda (the most active one in Cholon), Phuoc An Hoi Pagoda (richly decorated), Phung Son Pagoda (featuring numerous exquisite statues), Thien Hau Pagoda (another very active temple), and Khanh Van Nam Vien Pagoda (a Taoist temple).
Founded by Dr. Le Khac Tam and located in a traditional Vietnamese house, this delightful museum features thousands of ancient artifacts tracing the history of traditional medicine in Vietnam. The artifacts, all of which were collected by Dr. Tam, are on display in 18 beautifully decorated rooms. They include priceless antiques such as apothecary mortars, root slicers, water pots, ancient coins, scales for weighing plants and herbs, prescription tablets, rare medical books, as well as antique paintings and prints. The unique museum with its fascinating exhibits is an absolute must! Guided tours are available.
HCMC offers everything from cheap souvenir trinkets to international designer shops. Ben Thanh Market (see above) and the surrounding streets are good places to start browsing. It is important to bargain though, as the prices you will be quoted are always too high. HCMC's upscale shopping area is on and around Dong Khoi in District 1. There's everything from Gucci to lovely ethnic handicrafts, lacquer ware, silk clothing, hand bags, ceramics, home decor, jewelry, and art galleries. Items here are more expensive, but also of considerably better quality.
For recommended hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, click here: Ho Chi Minh City Hotels.
HCMC has a tropical climate with high humidity and temperature throughout the year. There are two distinctive seasons. The rainy season lasts from May to October, while the dry season lasts from November to April.
Notes From the Field
“Whenever we travel to Vietnam we arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, and every time we're struck by the tremendous energy of the place. It's an incredible city, with life spilling out of houses and shops, onto the sidewalks, and into the streets. When arriving from the US or Europe it can be a little overwhelming at first! But after a day or two to adjust to the pace of the action, Ho Chi Minh City is a lot of fun.
We've stayed in a number of different areas, but our preference now is Dong Khoi...the 1st District. While there are interesting sites and places to visit outside of Dong Khoi, we prefer it due to the abundance of interesting shops, great restaurants, sites, and the Ben Thanh Market.
Tip: There are plenty of cafes all over Saigon (as the locals call HCMC), but one of our favorite's is the Trung Nguyen Cafe on Le Loi. They serve Vietnamese coffee from the Central Highlands, and they serve it Vietnamese style...iced with condensed milk. It's not in a French Colonial building or filled with tourists, but we think they make the best coffee in town!”
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