Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest city and the center for tourism in the region. It is better known by its former name of Saigon, which, in fact, is still used by almost everyone.
It lies on the right bank of the Saigon River, a tributary of the Dong Nai, on the edge of the Mekong Delta, approximately 60 km inland from the South China Sea. The city’s metropolis is the most populous area in Vietnam, as well as in the neighboring areas of Laos and Cambodia.
The city has the biggest port and is the commercial, scientific, technological, and industrial center of Vietnam. It has a major airport and is also the hub of other infrastructures, such as motorways, railroads and the Mekong Delta waterways.
Even though the city is noisy and polluted, it is also energetic, cosmopolitan and provides a characteristic glimpse into the history of the nation. It is relatively modern but has preserved its Asian character. The legacy of the French colonial era can still be seen in the wide boulevards, chic villas and many sidewalk cafés. Ho Chi Minh is a great base for exploring the amazing Mekong Delta, which is among Vietnam's most popular attractions.
Ho Chi Minh has a tropical climate and has two seasons – rainy and dry. It is warm all year round, with average temperature 28°C. The highest temperatures reach up to 39°C in April and lowest around 16°C in December.
During the dry season - December to April - temperatures are slightly lower. The rainy season lasts from May to November with rains growing heavier from June to August, but the showers are short and sudden. From June to November there is the danger that a typhoon can hit.
January average temperature 26 deg Celsius 15 mm rainfall February average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 3 mm rainfall March average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 10 mm rainfall April average temperature 30 deg Celsius, 51 mm rainfall May average temperature 30 deg Celsius, 231 mm rainfall June average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 310 mm rainfall July average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 295 mm rainfall August average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 272 mm rainfall September average temperature 28 deg Celsius, 343 mm rainfall October average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 262 mm rainfall November average temperature 27 deg Celsius, 119 mm rainfall December average temperature 26 deg Celsius, 46 mm rainfall
Tan Son Nhat is Vietnam’s largest international airport, located 7 km from Ho Chi Minh City, and has two terminals: international and domestic.
Bus: Bus line no. 152 is air-conditioned and offers the cheapest transfer to the city. Services operate until 7:00 pm. Taxi: during the off-peak hours (9:00 am-11:00 am & 2:00 pm-4:00 pm) a taxi is an acceptable option. The ride downtown at these times takes around 15 minutes but otherwise it may take too long and cost a lot.
Taxis are widely available and can be either hailed on the street or ordered by telephone. They are the most comfortable way of getting around the city and are not expensive by Western standards.
A Cyclo is a three-wheeled bike where the passenger sits in front. It is a great way of exploring the city. Be cautious however, you must agree on the price beforehand and bargain hard, and be clear about your destination as some drivers may change the price, demand exorbitant amounts at the end of the ride or take you to as many shops as they can for the kickback they receive. Also note that motorbike purse-snatchers operate throughout the city.
Motorcycle taxis are the quickest and cheapest way of getting around the city; they can be hired almost everywhere but can sometimes be a little scary.
Boats can be hired from $7 to $20 per hour, depending on the size, and are a good way of exploring the Saigon River.
The city is full of cyclists and bike rentals are available for around $1 per day, and even less for longer-term rentals. Maneuvering in the chaotic traffic requires a concentrated effort but it is a fun, if slow, way to explore the city. Park your bike in one of the supervised bike parks.
The public buses are colored green and have 150 bus routes. They are cheap and safe, but tend to be confusing.
Be careful when crossing any street. The best advice is to follow the locals or ask a police officer for help.
CAR / MOTORBIKE RENTAL
Motorcycles can be rented from hotels, travelers' cafes and small tour agencies. Rental cost is around $6 to $8 per day. It is especially useful for traveling outside the city but it is advisable to be an experienced motorcyclist. Cars can be rented through all tour agencies. Cars are useful for day trips outside the city as well. They generally cost $30 per day and the price includes the cost of the driver.
Just two hours’ drive from Ho Chi Minh City, the land dissolves into a watery maze of rice fields, canals and sleepy villages. The fertile Mekong Delta produces enough rice to feed the entire country.
Visitors can explore the river-island orchards, rice paddies, shrimp farms, quaint villages, and observe rare birds at numerous bird sanctuaries. Can Tho, located on the south bank of the Bassac River, is the region’s main city and hub of the waterborne trade. Just 6 km to the east lays the biggest floating market in the Delta, where you can cruise along the canals and see the locals trading boat to boat or tending their vegetable gardens.
MUI NE BEACH RESORT
Mui Ne is a popular beach resort in southeastern Vietnam, with a great tropical beach. Due to ever present strong breezes, it is also a popular kite flying and windsurfing destination. The resort can be easily reached by a 4 to 6 hour bus ride.
The Cu Chi tunnels were a lifeline to the Vietnamese soldiers during the civil war and lie 40 km northwest of Saigon. They are part of an immense network of underground tunnels that underlie a large portion of Vietnam.
The tunnel-complex at Cu Chi is 121 km (75-miles) long and was preserved by the Vietnamese government as a war memorial park. The original tunnels were only 45 cm wide and 75 cm tall but were later enlarged. The tunnels were used as communication and supply routes; they featured hospitals, food and weapon storages, and were also dwellings for the guerilla fighters. The tunnels provided stealthy access via trapdoors to lay booby traps and ambush patrols. 10 meters below ground there were hideout lairs that could withstand B52 strikes.
Daytrips are available at most tourist agencies in the city.
This is the former Presidential Palace of South Vietnam, which was designed in the old Soviet style. The building became famous when, on April 30, 1975 a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates – an event marking the fall of Saigon. The tank is still parked on the lawn. Visitors can see the rooms exactly as they were in 1975, and also see some of the president’s private rooms. The most interesting feature is the system of underground tunnels that were used as a telecommunications center.
WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM
Address: 28 Vo Van Tan St, District 3 Phone: (08) 829 5587 Open: daily from 7:30 am – 12:00 am & 1:30 pm – 5:00 pm
The museum lies in the vicinity of the Reunification Palace and is a chilling reminder of the horrors of Vietnam War. It was previously named the Exhibition House of American War Crimes but the name was changed so as not to offend American visitors, although its stance remains anti-American. It features numerous horrifying photographs of wounded and killed people, and jars of deformed fetuses caused by Agent Orange. Outside there is a collection of helicopters, tanks and other armaments. The museum is too disturbing for to visit with children.
BEN THANH MARKET
Location: at the intersection of Le Loi, Ham Nghi, Tran Hung Dao, and Le Lai streets Open: daily from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm
This lively market offers a selection of everything imaginable, from clothes and flip-flops, to spices, local food and alcohol and anything in between. It is a great place to buy silk and authentic products like cobra wine. Bargaining is expected. The market has been around for centuries, and at the current location since 1912. The outdoor night market goes on long after the indoor stalls close down at 6:00pm.
PHAM NGU LAU
Location: along De Tham, Pham Ngu Lau and Bui Vien streets, District 1
Pham Ngu Lau is an area, similar to the Khao San road of Bangkok and is a favorite expatriate haunt. It features numerous bars which stay open late, all kinds of shops, guesthouses and small travel agencies where one can easily organize trips to the Mekong Delta or other parts of Vietnam.
CHOLON / CHINATOWN
Address: District 5
Cholon is a maze of narrow streets where the majority of Vietnam’s Chinese live. Chinese merchants started to settle here as early as 1770s. Today it is a lively place, bustling with people. Within the Cholon the Thien Hau Pagoda is a definite must-see. It is dedicated to the goddess Thien Hau, protector of the sea. The interior is lavishly decorated with the statues of the goddess. The pagoda is very popular with worshippers and holds regular festivals.
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL
Address: Dong Khoi, District 1
The cathedral has two towers and has been the city’s landmark since the 1880s. In terms of French cathedrals, this one is rather plain, without any stained glass windows, but nevertheless worth a visit. The cathedral garden features a small statue of the Virgin Mary.
Ho Chi Minh City offers the biggest selection of both Vietnamese and international food in the country. These range from the most simple street-side food stalls to the sophisticated restaurants and exquisite menus offering not only Vietnamese but also French, Indian, Mexican, Italian, Japanese, Thai and Chinese food.
Vietnamese staple foods are noodles and vegetables. A meal usually consists of noodles or rice, a meat or seafood dish, a vegetable dish, soup, and fish sauce for dipping. The best known Vietnamese dishes are spring rolls and bread rolls. Fish sauce is a favorite condiment, but in the north soy sauce is prevalent. A strong French influence can also be felt so roast pork, patés and baguettes are very popular. Vietnamese cuisine, however, is famous for its exotic taste in different types of meat: in some parts of the country you can still get dog, turtle and snake.
The cheapest meals can be found at the food stalls, for example, in the Ben Thanh market. The most common drink is green tea. Local beers include Saigon Export and Saigon Lager. Imported beers are also widely available but at double the price of the local varieties. Vietnamese rice wine is called Ruou. Bottles of Ruou often include pickled snake, which is believed to have medicinal properties. There are also many fruit wines available, made from apricots, oranges or lemons. Soft drinks are made of numerous tropical fruits available. Drink bottled water but remember to check if the cap and seal is original and intact.
Date: celebrated between 19 January and 20 February
This is the most popular and important festival is the Vietnamese New Year, and is derived from the Chinese New Year festival. It is celebrated from the first day of the first lunar month (late January or early February) until at least the third day. The celebrations include decorating bamboo sticks with lucky charms and other objects, visiting family cleaning house.
Date: May (date varies in the Western calendar) Location: Ho Chi Minh City
Buddha’s Birthday is a very important festival traditionally celebrated in East Asia on the eighth day of the fourth month in the Chinese lunar calendar. It celebrates the day when Prince Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and falls on the same date as his birthday.
Date: late September or early October
It is an important festival, celebrated on the autumnal equinox of the solar calendar, when the moon is supposed to be fullest and roundest. Traditionally, mooncakes and pomelos are eaten under the full moon and lanterns are lit up.
Date: September Location: Throughout the city
This festival celebrates the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam which was proclaimed in 1945. It also commemorates the anniversary of Ho Chi Minh’s death.
HO CHI MINH'S BIRTHDAY
Date: May Location: Throughout the city
The former president’s birthday is celebrated as a national holiday.
Date: April Location: Throughout the city
On Liberation Day celebrations are held to commemorate the end of the American War.
Ho Chi Minh is becoming a modern city with numerous places for entertainment. However, a new law requires all activity ceases at midnight, and this is generally adhered to. This does not, of course, reduce the amount of entertainment to be found.
Water Puppet Theatre
You can admire the traditional Vietnamese Water Puppet shows at the Golden Dragon Water Puppetry Theatre, 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai (phone: (08) 827 2653; web: www.goldendragonwaterpuppet.com/Programme.asp) Performances daily at 6:30 pm and 8:00 pm. Water puppetry has a long tradition in Vietnam dating back to the 11th century. It originated in the Red River Delta area in the northern part of the country. Performances are held in a waist-deep pool of water with wooden puppets attached to rods.
Bars, Pubs, Clubs
There are also many clubs and bars, with possibly the best known being the Apocalypse Now club, the Hard Rock café and the Guns ‘N’ Roses bar. Most hotels have lounge bars and these can be an option for those wishing to party nearer to where they are staying.
Most Vietnamese gather in the evening along the large boulevards, sitting on or near their motorbikes.
Fine dining is available in the city or another option is to take a dinner cruise.
Ho Chi Minh City’s beginnings can be traced back to Prey Nokor, a small fishing village in the swampland, inhabited by the Khmer people. In 1623 the area (at that time a part of Cambodia) saw an influx of Vietnamese refugees who fled war. Soon they started moving here in growing numbers, leaving the Khmer people a minority in the delta, cut off from their nation. With an ever growing influx of Vietnamese, the area eventually became part of Vietnam and named Saigon.
In 1859 France colonized Vietnam and under French rule Saigon developed from a small town into a modern city. Wide boulevards were constructed, and elegant buildings erected. Its beauty and cosmopolitan atmosphere gained the city nicknames like "the Pearl of the Far East" and "Paris in the Orient". The city became the capital of the French colony of Cochin-china and from 1887 to 1902 the capital of the Union of Indochina.
MODERN (20TH CENTURY)
In the early years of the 20th century a movement had started in the north to liberate the country from French colonization. It was led by the revolutionary Ho Chi Minh who had been trained in Russia. During World War II, Saigon came under Japanese occupation but this had little impact as the French still held the government. After the war, the Japanese surrendered and Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam. Riots broke out but the French regained control and the first Indochina war ensued.
After the 1954 Geneva agreement the country was divided into north and south zones and Saigon became the capital of South Vietnam. The city started filling up with refugees from the north, and the USA feared that South Vietnam would also adopt Communism and thus started to take political interest in the area.
The election of 1956 that was meant to unite the country was called off by President Diem and ushered in further instability. Soon after, President Diem was assassinated. The northern combatants, the Viet Cong, were advancing further south and the USA increased its military presence in the area. By 1966 there were over 385,000 US soldiers stationed in Vietnam, and Saigon became the military headquarters for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. The city suffered much damage during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Millions of refugees poured in from the north and the city faced serious problems with overcrowding and lack of housing. In 1975 Saigon finally surrendered. In 1976 Vietnam was united as Communist Socialist republic Vietnam. Saigon lost its status as the capital city and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to honor the deceased North Vietnamese leader.
During the early years of the new regime the city faced many difficulties and refused foreign investment, but in the 1980s and ‘90s the city gradually opened up to a more relaxed economic policy. At the same time, the city saw the rapid construction of high-rise buildings that meddled with the city’s previously elegant colonial charm.
Today, the city continues to grow as an industrial base, becoming home to appliance, clothing, shoes and car assembly manufacturers. The downside of the city’s rapid development and growth are pollution, noise, overcrowding and traffic jams.
Vietnam is generally a safe destination. Although pick-pocketing abounds, violent crime is very rare. Drive-by purse snatching is very common in Ho Chi Minh City, especially in the Dong Khoi area and along the Saigon riverfront. As a general rule it is best not to display anything of value in public. Keep your valuables in a money belt tucked under your shirt, and do not leave anything valuable in a hotel room, especially if you are staying at a budget hotel.
It is important to negotiate the price of a ride with cyclo drivers in advance as some demand exorbitant amounts once the trip is complete. Generally 100, 000d is enough for a half-day tour and 200, 000d for a full day.
Tipping: round up the bill for taxi drivers and hotel porters also expect a small tip. Restaurants and hotels usually add a 5 to 10% service charge to the bill. Tipping a hired driver is also in order. Although tipping is not generally expected, some small change for most services is appreciated.
Health: Avoid contact with live poultry and do not eat raw or undercooked poultry, due to the risk of bird flu and food poisoning. Vietnam health risks also include Hepatitis A and E, typhoid, Japanese encephalitis, bilharzias, plague, cholera, diarrhea and HIV/AIDS. When traveling outside the main cities and to the regions of the Red Delta and north of Nha Trang, it is recommended to obtain a preventative for Malaria. Avoid Dengue fever and protect yourself from mosquito bites during the day, especially just after dawn and just before dusk, this especially applies when traveling in the southern Mekong Delta. Invest in proper health insurance before the trip.
Natural perils: The Mekong Delta and Central Region are prone to devastating and deadly floods and typhoons during the rainy season.
Emergency Phone Numbers
Police: 113 Ambulance: 115 Fire: 114
Not all operators speak English so sometimes it is easier to call the hospital directly or take a taxi there. Two hospitals you can visit are: SOS International (65 Nguyen Du St, phone: (08) 829 8424); Family Medical Practice (Diamond Plaza, 34 Le Duan Street, phone: (08) 822 7848). If you run into problems with authorities contact your national consulate immediately. In pharmacies prescriptions are generally not needed, just give the generic name of the medicine you need.