Sitting on the bend of the Sai Gon River, the vibrant Ho Chi Minh City is full of contrasts of the old and the new. Evidence of a turbulent past remain, but an overriding air of optimism and excitement prevails: old struggles are met with new opportunities, as ancient and contemporary architecture jostle for attention in harmonious juxtaposition.
Ho Chi Minh City was formerly known as Saigon, and was the capital of Cochinchina (a French colony), before becoming the capital of South Vietnam. In 1976, Saigon was merged with its surrounding province, Gia Dinh, and renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. Today, the city is known by its full name, or shortened to HCMC, although some areas (Districts 1 and 3) are still frequently referred to as Saigon. On your trip to HCMC, you will instantly enter a whirl of lights, sounds and smells. The city has a unique buzz that draws you in, tossing you from one incredible experience to the next. Don’t be overawed by the intense energy of this city, just brace yourself for a high-energy whirlwind of ancient temples, staggering skyscrapers, gritty street stalls and chic designer boutiques.
Direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City will bring you to Vietnam’s largest airport, Tan Son Nhat International Airport, four miles north of District 1 (about 20 minutes and $6 by taxi).
Like its neighbours, Vietnam is hot, or hot and wet. During rainy season, heavy downpours can offer relief from the high temperatures, but come with high humidity. The best time to take a trip to Ho Chi Minh City is between January and March, when there is little chance of rain and the temperatures remain in the low to mid-thirties. If you are looking for cheap flights to Ho Chi Minh City, plan your trip outside the school holidays; if you don’t mind the rain, you will find great deals from September to November.
While the facts of the past can be distressing, it is important to gain a good understanding of the trials of the last century, to fully appreciate the vibrancy of the city today. A trip to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, and the more graphic War Remnants Museum will acquaint you with the country’s difficult history; a series of exhibitions display artefacts, photographs and memorabilia, some of which can be difficult to behold. At Reunification Palace, you can see the spot that changed Vietnam’s fate. Initially the home of South Vietnam’s President during the Vietnam War (known as the American War to locals), the palace was called Independence Palace. However, after an assassination attempt, the original palace was destroyed and replaced. On April 30th, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks stormed the gates of the palace, bringing about Saigon’s surrender. Much of the building remains as it was in the 1970s. Reunification Palace is a stunning example of 1960s architecture, and the interior is interesting, with an eery silence which makes it feel as though it was abandoned and has remained untouched since 1975. However, perhaps the most spectacular sight is the gardens, which still contain one of the tanks from that fateful day.
Vietnam has had a turbulent past, and its architecture is representative of French, American and Chinese influences. However, running through every structure is an air that is undeniably Vietnamese. The Jade Emperor Pagoda was built in the early 20th Century by Buddhists and Taoists and the huge, multi-coloured structure is considered the most spectacular of HCMC’s many temples. The pagoda was built to honour the Jade Emperor, also known as the King of haven, Ngoc Hoang, and teems with intricate depictions of heroes and gods. Take your time as you wander through the series of chambers and halls so that you can take in the countless carvings and statues, and soak up the atmosphere. In the city’s government centre, you will be faced with exquisite examples of 19th Century architecture: Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the late 1870s and early 1880s, rises majestically from the square, facing the Central Post Office, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel and constructed in the late 1880s. The walls of the interior are adorned with murals of historic maps of the area, presided over by a mosaic of Ho Chi Minh.
On your trip to Ho Chi Minh City, you will find food to suit all budgets, appetites and tastes. As you amble through the city taking in market stalls, architecture and art galleries, you will seldom be far from stalls purveying typical Vietnamese snacks, such as pho (noodle soup) or pork rolls. These are cheap and delicious, so don’t be afraid to try a little bit of everything! Due to the influx of overseas business people, there has been a surge in higher-market (and higher cost) restaurants, offering everything from traditional Vietnamese, to Mexican and Chinese. If you are looking for a genuine taste of Ho Chi Minh City, avoid restaurants favoured by tourists and expats, and opt for smaller, more authentic, family-run establishments patronised by locals. Head for Dinh Cong Trang Street, where you will encounter hundreds of people eating banh xeo (pancakes) al fresco around an open kitchen. Don’t concern yourself with a menu unless you particularly want to; just look at what others are eating and point to it. It is advisable to order one dish at a time until you are full! As one might expect, there are some less mainstream eating options in Vietnam. Fertilised duck eggs are popular, as are scorpion wine and snake dishes. It is your choice what you choose to eat, but perhaps a good idea to avoid restaurants that kill the snake at the table and proffer the customer its still-beating heart. Once you experience the delicate flavours of Vietnamese cooking, you are likely to be hooked! Why not take a cookery class so that, on your return home, you can invoke memories of your incredible trip to HCMC with authentic cuisine? There are a host of cookery classes on offer, some more formal than others. Many hotels offer a more formal cookery school, while another option is to learn in a smaller group, in the home of your Vietnamese teacher. During the more informal cookery classes, you will be taken to a bustling Vietnamese market to buy your ingredients before learning to cook a classic dish; fantastic for showing off your culinary skills on your return home! Like most Asian cities, Ho Chi Minh City provides a tantalising array of shops and market stalls, selling everything one can imagine. Take your time as you browse, and don’t be afraid to barter, but if you see something you really love, buy it; you may never find it again! Don’t let war films and propaganda dissuade you from taking a trip to Ho Chi Minh City. Although the turbulent past is still fresh in everyone’s memories, the city’s inhabitants have moved on at an alarming pace. Most shreds of bitterness have dissipated among the kaleidoscope of temples and stalls, shattered by the modern buildings which are shooting up from the city’s skyline, portentous of a bright future. If you would like to discover the dizzying delights of Vietnam, Travangelo can help you to find cheap flights to Ho Chi Minh City.