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HO CHI MINH CITY | The Old Saigon in New Vietnam

Anyone who has come to Ho Chi Minh City would agree that crossing its streets is a daredevil act with all the scooters and cars that rampage from all directions. This is the new city, unimaginably busy yet endlessly vibrant. Far from where it left as a war torn city a few decades ago, Ho Chi Minh is moving in an unstoppable speed to becoming one of the prime commercial hubs in Asia.


 
 
Named after its pre-eminent communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, the city was once known as Saigon, the capital of the French Cochinchina and South Vietnam from 1860s to 1975. Although the name Saigon is still commonly used today, it mainly refers to District 1 the busiest commercial and tourism district of the city.  
 
 
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest and the most densely populated city in Vietnam. Despite it being one of the cities in Asia with dynamic cosmopolitan vibe, its image of folk culture, colonial history and war memories live to this day. Skyscrapers grow out of the old French and American GI buildings. Posh malls housing the best international brands sell side-by-side with bristling flea markets. At night, glitzy neon billboards eclipse the glittering dragons of the pagodas.
 
 
Discover the stories of Ho Chi Minh through the striking contrasts of its colonial and modern architectures, its laid-back parks amidst the concrete jungle and the chic contemporary lifestyles woven into its thousand years of ways of life.
 
BUDGET SHOPPING
 
Ho Chi Minh is arguably one of the famous shopping destinations in Asia and Ben Thanh Market is THE PLACE in this side of the country. For over a century, Ben Thanh is the center of cheap buys for trendy clothes, fancy accessories, homewares, decors, fine textiles, jewelry, spices, food and what have yous. Huddling is the name of the game here, so be ready with your bargaining skills if you want to go home happy.
 
Other famous shopping stores are Saigon Square, Saigon Center and Zen Plaza that are all located within blocks from each other in District 1. Outside city center, An Dong Market in District 5 is known for textiles.
Please take note that Ho Chi Minh is also one of the hotspots of fake designer label items from bags and watches to shoes and clothes. Be mindful of what you pay for because buying high-end quality fakes can be a nightmare.
 
LUXURY SHOPPING
 
Shopping for the real designer labels abounds in Ho Chi Minh and is delightfully located in the city’s upscale part like Le Loi Street. Just somewhere around the bend are high-end malls like A Street, Parkson and Diamond Plaza.
 
REUNIFICATION PALACE
 
Constructed in the 60s architectural styles, it was originally known as the Presidential Palace to house former President Diem. Heavily bombed in 1962, the building went several reconstructions until its completion in 1966.  
 
HCM POST OFFICE
 
Built in French architectural styles in the early 20th century, the Post Office of Ho Chi Minh is one of the reminders of its colonial history being the capital city of the French Cochinchina.
 
SAIGON NOTRE DAME BASILICA
 
Built for the French colonialists in 1863, the Notre Dame Basilica, constructed in Gothic architecture is one of Ho Chi Minh’s famous landmarks today. Anointed by Pope John Paul XXIII in 1962 as Saigon Chief Cathedral, the Norte Dame Basilica is dedicated to the Our Lady of Immaculate Conception.
 
HOTEL DE VILLE DE SAIGON
 
Built in 1902 in the most ostentatious French design, the former Hotel de Ville is one of the most photographed landmarks of the city. It is also commonly used as the starting point in many walking tours around Ho Chi Minh.
 
SAIGON OPERA HOUSE
 
Influenced by the gaudy architecture of the French, Saigon Opera House was built in 1897 for theater performances. It was used as the Lower House Assembly in 1956 by South Vietnam but in 1975 it was restored to become a theater once more.
 
MUSEUM TOURS
 
Having lived through a long history of war from ancient times to the unforgettable Vietnam Wars and World War II, Ho Chi Minh is a city filled with museums. Among the most famous ones are the War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace Museum, Revolutionary Museum, Ho Chi Minh Museum, History and Fine Arts Museums.
 
PAGODA TOURS
 
Photo Courtesy of tripadvisor.com
Among the most visited pagodas in Ho Chi Minh City is the Jade Emperor Pagoda just close to the Botanical Garden. Built by the Cantonese, this pagoda is referred to as The Entrance to Heaven guarded by the Jade Emperor. Don’t miss the Hall of 10 Hells, showing the 10 layers of hell for sinners to wallow on in the after life. Other notable pagodas are Quan Am Pagoda and Giac Lam Pagoda, the oldest houses of Taoist worship in the city.
 
 
FOOD HUNT
 
Vietnam’s exciting cuisine is one of the things that define its country. Delight your palate with a wide selection of Vietnamese food in almost all street corners of Ho Chi Minh. From spring rolls to pho, from milk tea to hot coffee, they are as abundant as you can imagine. You’ll never go hungry in Ho Chi Minh!
 
 
CHILL OUT IN PARKS
 
 
 
True, Ho Chi Minh City chokes with its bustling city life but there are wonderful breathing spaces around. Get lazy and walk around the Botanical Garden or the park in Pham Ngu Lao. Chitchat with locals or join them in a game of foot shuttlecock (Da Cau).
 
 
Despite Ho Chi Minh’s effort to closely get in line with the steamroller cities in Southeast Asia like Bangkok, Singapore, Manila, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, sadly an undeniable picture of indigence still fill its streets. Tourists need to brace themselves with the onslaught of annoying and aggressive mendicant hawkers, from the young to the old, the extra bodied and limbless, from souvenirs to extra service massage.
 
 
There is no stopping to Ho Chi Minh’s progress. It is a city that breathes on commerce and tourism. Being Vietnam’s gateway to Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh is a popular link among those who the Southeast Asian Swing. While it is a city that chokes on speedy industrialization, Ho Chi Minh keeps its stories of war and colonization, piety to its religious traditions and the grace of its ancestry.
 
TRAVEL TIPS
  • Ho Chi Minh Airport is a major airport in Southeast Asia and all international commercial flights are available going in and out of Vietnam.
  • Always insist to use meter if you hail a taxi from the airport to your hotel.
  • Only Vietnamese Dong is accepted in most transactions. Although, travel agencies & hotels accept US Dollars.
  • From budget to luxury, there is no shortage of hotels around HCM.
  • Budget inns are usually located around Pham Ngu Lao in District 1, most preferred by backpackers. Price range: $12-20; $8 for dorm. Walk inside the small alleys for cheaper hostels.
  • Most budget accommodations in Pham Ngu Lao’s inner alleys do not have elevators nor bellboys. So be ready to carry your huge bag on long flights of stairs. 
  • Boutique hotels and international brand hotel names are around the areas of Dong Khoi and Lam Son Square. Price range: $80-500.
  • Getting around HCM is easy with taxis, motobikes and cyclos. Motorbikes may be rented or you can buy 2nd hand.
  • If you can handle the driving situation in HCM, it is best to move around on motorbikes. Be aware though that traffic rules seem to be SUGGESTIONS only and not necessarily enforced. So leave what you know of the traffic rules in your country!
  • NEVER ride a cyclo for your city tour! They will quote you only 150,000 VnD an hour but after the tour, they will bring out a laminated tariff (which by the way is not approved by the government) showing that you need to pay 1,500,000 VnD. Most of these pedal guys are scammers.
  • Most of the sights in HCM are within walking distance. Take this way instead and if you get tired, you may take a break by sitting in one of those chic French cafes along the way for a cup of coffee.
  • Taxis are conveniently available but make sure you tell the driver to go on meter.
  • Pham Ngu Lao is the happening district where you can find all sorts of souvenir shops, travel and tour agencies, eating and drinking spots. This is usually the convergence zone of most tours kicking off for Mekong, Cu Chi and onward buses to anywhere in Vietnam & Cambodia.
  • HCM is the popular jump off city to do the Mekong River Tour and Cu Chi Tunnel Tour. These are all located outside Saigon (about 3 hours travel time, one way).
  • There are many operators for these tours but there is NO fixed price. Canvass for the lowest price first before agreeing to join any of the tour. Don’t be surprised to see exactly similar tour package with a significant price difference of $20-$30! Be aware of scams, even the best looking tour companies do it.
  • Good walking tour around HCM starts in Hotel de Ville then walk through the nearby blocks where you find the Post Office & Notre Dame Cathedral. Edging Le Loi Street is the Opera House and Ben Tanh Market on the opposite end. 

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