About Ho Chi Minh - Saigon
Washed ashore above the Mekong Delta, some 40km north of the South China Sea, Ho Chi Minh is a city on the march, a boomtown where the rule of the dollar is absolute. Fuelled by the sweeping economic changes wrought by Doi moi, this effervescent city, perched on the west bank of the Saigon River, now boasts fine restaurants, immaculate hotels in Ho Chi Minh, and glitzy bars among its colonial villas, venerable pagodas and austere, Soviet-style housing-blocks. Sadly, Ho Chi Minh City is also full to bursting with people for whom progress hasn't yet translated into food, lodgings and employment, so begging, stealing and prostitution are all facts of life here. Petty crime has increased dramatically in the last few years, particularly bag snatching, and care should be taken at all times with personal belongings whilst walking the streets, or travelling on cyclos and motorbikes – especially after dark and around tourist nightspots.
Ho Chi Minh City started life as a fishing village known as Prei Nokor and, during the Angkor period (until the fifteenth century), it flourished as an entrepôt for Cambodian boats pushing down the Mekong River. By the seventeenth century it boasted a Khmer garrison and a community of Malay, Indian and Chinese traders. During the eighteenth century, Hué's Nguyen dynasty ousted the Khmers, renamed Prei Nokor Saigon, and established a temporary capital here between 1772 and 1802, after which the Emperor Gia Long used it as his regional administrative centre. The French seized Saigon in 1861, and a year later the Treaty of Saigon declared the city the capital of French Cochinchina. They set about a huge public works programme, building roads and draining marshlands, but ruled harshly. After a thirty-year war against the French, Saigon was finally designated the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam by President Diem in 1955, soon becoming both the nerve-centre of the American war effort, and its R&R capital, with a slough of sleazy bars catering to GIs on leave of duty. The American troops withdrew in 1973, and two years later the Ho Chi Minh Campaign rolled through the gates of the presidential palace and the communists were in control. Within a year, Saigon had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Recommended things to do with your Vietnam visa in Saigon
Cu Chi Tunels
A two-hour drive northwest out of Ho Chi Minh City brings you to the area of Cu Chi, famous for its maze of tunnels used by the Viet Cong in the war against the United States. Often little more than one meter high and 80 centimeters across, these tunnels were supply routes, kitchens, hospitals and training facilities. Crawl down a tunnel yourself (if you can fit) or try an AK47 rifle!
Ben Thanh Market
Impossible to miss at one of the key intersections in the city center, Ben Thanh is the city's main market. Inside is a tightly organized grid of aisles, arranged according to product. Clothes, shoes and fabric dominate the front, before giving over to kitchenware, cooked food, fresh vegetables and a somewhat alarming display of seafood and meat (some of it still alive). There is plenty for the visitor to buy, but the main attraction is the way in which the bustling market is still very much part of the city's life and economy.
On April 30, 1975, Communist tanks smashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace, symbol of the South Vietnamese government. Guides at the renamed Reunification Palace now offer daily tours to visitors. The Palace is also noted for its striking 1960s architecture, the creation of Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu. Included on the tour are visits to conference rooms, the Presidential Receiving Room, basement tunnels and war room, telecommunications center and the residential.quarters, as well as a back terrace complete with heliport. A video presentation of Vietnamese history is available in several languages
Notre Dame Cathedral
This is one of the landmarks among the impressive avenues and open spaces north of Dong Khoi. The huge red-brick edifice with twin spires is placed between two streams of traffic and is a clear reminder that the French once ruled this city. Inside, the decor is relatively austere, but the church gets very full and very lively during services. This peaceful place is perfect for quiet contemplation. Sunday Mass is held at 9.30am.
War Crimes Museum
Housed in a former United States administration building, this is one of the most popular and sobering museums in the city. It highlights the suffering of the Vietnamese people at the hands of the French and American forces up to 1975. The photographs of the injured and dead are both haunting and sickening. This is not a politically balanced exhibition, but when you consider the statistics of American versus Vietnamese casualties, that is hardly surprising. This museum is probably too disturbing for children to view.
Water Puppet Theater
Just inside the grounds of the War Crimes Museum is a water puppet theatre. Despite recorded music this 20-minute show is a rare chance to see this traditional Vietnamese art form. Fighting and footballing dragons and dogs as well as life-like people puppets are brought to life with grace, precision and power on the surface of the water. This professional production by highly skilled artists is well worth the USD2 ticket price.
The city's newest and most central bowling centre, with 24 lanes and computerised scoring, is on the fourth floor of a shopping centre. Games cost from USD1.50 in the daytime to USD3 in the evenings and weekends. Hourly lane rates range from USD7 to USD14. Shoe rental costs USD0.40 and socks are USD0.60 a pair. There is also a range of arcade games plus eight pool/snooker tables for hire from USD2 to USD4.50 an hour. And there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken if you get peckish between bowls.
Ho Chi Minh Museum
It was from this old customs house, known as the “dragon house,” in 1911 that Ho Chi Minh set sail for 30 years in exile. Now a museum, the eclectic collection features many of the leader's possessions including the Uncle's sandals and his beloved Zenith radio (ironically made in the United States). Most of the signs are in Vietnamese. The museum can be reached by taking a ferry across the Saigon River from the pier at the end of Ham Nghi Avenue or using the bridge on Nguyen Tat Thanh Street.