Vietnam’s largest city is still commonly known by Vietnamese and foreigners by its pre-1976 name: Saigon. Once a Khmer fishing port, it was conquered by the Vietnamese towards the end of their drive southward in 1698. Under Vietnamese rule, Saigon grew into a major port and it’s population began to grow rapidly. By the time of the French invasion, it had already become one of the country’s most important centers.
The French occupation made a significant mark on the city’s appearance, with plenty of grand, colonial-style buildings appearing in the central district – most of which still stand today. These days, part of Saigon’s charm lies in its blend of French villas, Vietnamese pagodas and supermodern skyscrapers. Following the capitulation of American forces, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon in 1975, and the following year the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Today it stands as the economic powerhouse driving the phenomenal growth in Vietnam’s economy. The city is responsible for one-third of the nation’s industrial output and also one-third of its shipping. As Saigon’s metropolitan population is expected to reach 20 million people in the coming years, the former fishing village has truly taken its place among the world’s greatest cities.
Most visitors arrive at Tan Son Nhat Airport – the city’s international hub, which is around an hour away from the central district. Air conditioned buses leave at 20-minute intervals all day long, and provide the first-time visitor with a more relaxed journey into the city, as opposed to taking one of the many taxis. Saigon is also a major hub for bus and rail travel, and you won’t have any trouble finding connections from any major town in Vietnam or the surrounding countries.
Getting around Saigon, you also have a wide range of options, although perhaps the most important thing to remember at this point is to keep your wits about you. Whether you explore the city on foot, by bicycle or on a motorbike, you should be aware of the extreme driving skills of the Saigonese, who have a ‘me-first’ attitude to seemingly everything once they are behind the wheel. Take extra caution when in traffic, crossing roads and at junctions. Taxis are unregulated and first time visitors are highly likely to be overcharged. If you really need to take a taxi, try to get a local Vietnamese friend to negotiate the fare in advance, and note it down in front of the driver. Failing this, plan in advance, make sure you know where you want to go and roughly how much the fare should be. To get a real feel for the city and the lifestyle of its citizens, get yourself a map of the city’s bus routes and hop on. The fares are cheap and, due to the heavy traffic, bus journey are often just as quick as taxi rides anyway.
Saigonese cuisine has been heavily influenced by that of their former colonial masters, the French. Thus, you will find menus offering cheese dishes and baguettes, alongside pho and other typically Vietnamese dishes. Banh Xeo are Saigonese omelets often filled with locally grown ingredients such as bamboo shoots. You are spoiled for choice with places to eat, from the most basic street food, to the most opulent upscale restaurants, Saigon has too many options to get through in a lifetime.
Saigon: The Main Sights
The first place you’ll probably want to see is the magnificent Reunification Palace. It is by no means the grandest or most beautiful building to have been called a palace – its architecture is distinctly 1960s kitsch in some respects, but its attraction actually has little to do with the architecture. As you approach the building, you’ll see a replica tank, which commemorates the moment a North Vietnamese tank smashed through the gate of the building in 1975, signaling the final downfall of the US-backed capitalist forces. The interior of the building is also an authentic throwback to the 1960s, with some rooms left just as they were when Communist forces took over the building – complete with old phones, maps and radios.
A stone’s throw from the Reunification Palace is the War Remnants Museum. This attraction is particularly popular with American tourists, as well as those from the rest of the world, who can see real American war material – some spent, some captured by the victorious Vietnamese forces – in a series of exhibits. This military hardware includes American tanks, airplanes, bombs, rifles, uniforms and grenades. There are also numerous opportunities to learn about the horrors of the American campaign in the country and the devastation and suffering caused by the use of illegal weapons such as napalm and Agent Orange.
For a further insight into the Party’s view of the country and its history, take a look at the Ho Chi Minh museum, which documents and celebrates the life of the mercurial leader. The museum itself is housed in one of the city’s many beautiful French colonial buildings, while the interior and contents are just the way the Party would like the world to view its most famous champion.
For a taste of modern Saigon, head over to the imposing Bitexco Financial Tower. This building stands at 68 floors tall and has a Skydeck, from where you can gaze past the other skyscrapers that adorn the central district, to the colonial and traditional buildings of the past. This view is best appreciated around sunset, when you will see the city transform into a sea of shimmering lights. If you’re looking for somewhere to start off the night, there is something of a swanky bar on the 50th floor – be sure to dress to impress.
There is also an endless list of activities for you to take part in when you’re in Saigon. Perhaps one of the most appealing is to take a personal guided tour with a local. Rather than struggling with maps and transport on your own, let a Saigonese native take you to the places the locals go to eat, enjoy the parks and walks where they get away from the tourists, see a real Vietnamese home and soak up their stories of life and love in exotic Saigon.
The Ao show at Saigon Opera House is also a great way to start off an evening. Don’t be put off by the idea of watching a circus in an opera house – this is strictly modern circus, with an enthralling display of agility and finesse by some of the country’s top athletes, set to a backdrop representing Vietnam’s colorful culture and heritage. It’s also a winner for music lovers, who will be treated to a soundtrack which wonderfully fuses traditional elements of Vietnamese music with more modern influences.
Dam Sem Park is a great place to cool off from the sticky heat of the city. Here you’ll find an assortment of water slides to please children and adults alike. There is also a collection of moving dinosaurs to captivate the kids’ imaginations as they dry off.
The Chu Chi tunnels are well worth a visit. Originally over 150 miles in length, they were used by the local resistance fighters – the Viet Cong, to plan and stage operations against the US aggression. Military strategists agree that these tunnels played a key role in the liberation of Saigon – so much so that US military top brass declared them a free-fire zone – a place for pilots to drop unused ordnance indiscriminately in the hope of damaging them. Today tourists are shown what life was like in the tunnels for the freedom fighters – enduring harsh and dangerous conditions in their struggle to overthrow the oppressor.
If you’re hoping to make local friends, head over to 23rd September Park on a late afternoon. There are plenty of groups playing games and taking part in activities, from traditional games to badminton. Many people come here simply to chat, relax and enjoy the sunset before embarking on a night out in the city. It is particularly popular with university students. As soon as these students become aware that you’re not local, there will be no shortage of people hoping to make friends with you – partly to satisfy their inquisitiveness about the world outside their country, and perhaps to practice and hone their English skills on you. Either way, it’s a great way to make new friends and get an insider’s viewpoint on Vietnamese and Saigonese life.
Saigon is a huge city, so if you find yourself looking for less exotic comforts and activities, there are plenty of theaters, restaurants, cinemas, live music, nightclubs, bars, gyms, markets, libraries, art galleries and the whole host of attractions that you can find in any big city. These are great places to meet regular locals who are just relaxing on their day off or after work. In Saigon, you’re far more likely to meet people who can speak English, French, Mandarin and Japanese than in the rest of Vietnam, and the chances are that they will be eager to practice their language skills with you.