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Ho Chi Minh City Overview

Initially Vietnam’s largest city might appear a little daunting, but it is a far easier city to get around than at first seems the case. Although the exploding population has led to the city expanding into the former countryside nearby, most points of interest and nightlife are contained within District 1. Really, apart from visiting Chinatown (Cho Lon) there is little point in leaving the downtown area.

While Hanoi is the administrative and to a certain extent artistic centres of the country, Ho Chi Minh City is commercial heart. Although this means that some of the old has made way for the new, it also gives the city a buzz that cannot be found elsewhere in Vietnam. Fashion boutiques, elegant restaurants and vibrant night clubs create a sense of a new Vietnam trying to break free from the shackles of the past.

However, unlike other major Asian cities, the old can be found nestling beside the new. You can still eat a bowl of “Pho” or “Bun” noodles by the side of the street or find some solace in a pagoda. Nowhere in the country typifies the juncture that Vietnam discovers itself at the start of the second decade in the twenty first century better than Ho Chi Minh City.

Ho Chi Minh City Tours

Main backpacker street Pham Ngu Lao is chock full of tour companies offering half-day trips around the city. Often starting at the central Ben Thanh Market, these tend to involve the main tourists attractions of La Son Square, Notre Dame Cathedral and the old post office, the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. Although all these attractions are essential places to visit on your stay in Ho Chi Minh City, you can always cover them on foot easily enough yourself.

The other tours offered by bucket shops are to the Cu Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta.

A short drive out of town, the Cu Chi tunnels at Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc were constructed by  the Viet Cong forces to protect themselves from the Americans during the war. Parts of the tunnels have been expanded so that westerners can crawl along them, but they are still claustrophobic.

Further afield, a trip to the Mekong Delta is a highlight for many travelers to the country. Formed by nine tributaries of the mighty Mekong, the delta is a patchwork quilt of waterways and paddy fields, where the relaxed atmosphere is a million miles away from the throb of Ho Chi Minh City. Asia Travel Service offer trips ranging from two to four days, either by bus or boat tour.

Ho Chi Minh City Flights

In the past, Ho Chi Minh City’s airport was rather a cramped affair, unbefitting the biggest city in the country. The opening of the new international terminal in 2007 has changed all this. Now passengers can sit in comfort while waiting for their ongoing flights. The old international has become the new domestic terminal.

Located on the outskirts of the city, Tan Son Nhat International Airport is only a 30-minutes taxi ride from the centre, although it can take an hour during rush hours. Seemingly unregulated taxi companies lie in wait for unsuspecting tourists at taxi rank outside the main terminal, so it is advisable to buy a ticket from inside the terminal itself.

In addition to having flights throughout the country, Tan Son Nhat has good connections to major cities throughout the region as well as long haul flights to Paris, Helsinki, Darwin, Sydney, Melbourne, Doha, San Francisco, Frankfurt and Moscow.

Ho Chi Minh City Transportation

The streets of southern Vietnam’s major city seem less chaotic than in Hanoi. While motorbikes still rule the roost in the north, taxis are kings of the road down south. Generally clean, air-conditioned and comfortable, these are also cheep with most fares within the main tourist centre of Zone 1 costing between U$1 and U$3.

Although there are city buses, and for the more adventurous motorbike taxis (xe om), these really is no need to take these due to the quality of the taxi service. The only snag is the level of English of most drivers so it’s best to have a clear idea of where you are going, preferably written in Vietnamese, before you set out.

If possible try to avoid traveling during rush hour as the streets can become gridlocked. Alternatively you can always walk. The main streets of city are wide, and most attractions are close to each other.

Ho Chi Minh City Travel tips

Ho Chi Minh City really is an extremely safe city for travelers. There seems less hassle from street traders and xe om (motor bike taxi) drivers than elsewhere in the country.

During the day you can walk perfectly safely around the center of town, and at night take a taxi to dine in style.

Only those travelers out late at night drinking around the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao might find themselves in a spot of trouble, and even then it is probably because they have drunk a few too many themselves.

The biggest nuisance you are likely to encounter is at the airport where the taxi drivers run a number of scams. It’s probably best to pay US$ for an airport taxi inside the terminal rather than play Russian roulette as to whether you get an honest driver at rank outside.

Ho Chi Minh City Top Things to Do

Start tunneling

The Cu Chi tunnels were built with the idea of keeping American servicemen out, so it is somewhat ironic that they are the number one tourist attraction around Ho Chi Minh City, especially with returning servicemen.

Try some reunification

Ho Chi Minh City’s standout building is more striking from the outside than within, but the Reunification Palace provides invaluable insight into the conclusion of that war.

Take a history lesson

Not for those with a queasy disposition or those with small children, nevertheless the War Remnants Museum has some graphic reminders of the folly of war.

Dine in style

Whether you like Spanish tapas, French haute cuisine, Japanese teriyaki or the finest Vietnamese cuisine, Ho Chi Minh City has it all. This is the one city in the country where splashing out really does make sense.

Ho Chi Minh City History Festivals and Events

The origins of the first settlement on the site of current day Ho Chi Minh City are unclear, but it is thought to have been settled between the first and sixth centuries AD, under the Funan Empire.

Over the centuries the area of southern Vietnam became part of the Chen la and then Champa empires. Called Prei Nokor by Khmer fishermen, the flourishing settlement was popular with Malay, Indian and Chinese traders.

The name of Saigon dates back to the eighteenth century when the French-backed Nguyen rulers seized southern Vietnam from Chams.

In 1862 Saigon was declared the capital of French Cochin china at the Treaty of Saigon. To this day Saigon’s character owes a lot to this early influence, especially the French and Chinese.

After the end of French rule, Saigon was made the capital of South Vietnam by President Diem in 1965 and consequently became the US’s nerve center during the American War. Saigon fell to the advancing North Vietnamese troops on April 30, 1975. Within a year it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the father of the nation.

Like with Hanoi, Vietnamese New Year (‘Tet’) is the biggest festival in the city. Falling in late January to early February, expect many restaurants and shops to be closed during the celebrations which last four days.

Due to the heavy French and American influence, HCMC has more Christians than in Hanoi. Consequently Christmas is celebrated to a greater extent here than in the capital, especially around Notre Dame Cathedral.

The other major celebration resolves around April 30, marking the liberation of Saigon from South Vietnamese forces. This is celebrated as a public holiday alongside International Labor Day, which falls on May 1.


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