Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon
I find Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) more to my liking than Hanoi. The people are more focused and less aggressive – remnants of a less distant non-socialist past perhaps. There are more trees and wider streets. At the same time there is probably more to see in Hanoi than HCMC.
Located at the top of the Mekong Delta, HCMC is still a capitalistic paradise, despite 30 years of communist rule. When the govenment relaxed its restrictions on small business a few years ago, the economy took off. HCMC was the biggest beneficiary, having never fully given up on capitalism after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The city is much more modernized and glittery than Hanoi. There are high rises, international standard hotels, quality restaurants, and elegant shopping.
See also: What to do and see in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)
Little is known about the early history of HCMC. In the first to fifth centuries the area of present day, HCMC was under Funan Empire control (like Angkor in Cambodia). The main population of this sleepy backwater was Khmer fisherman. As Angkor rose, this area benefited as the starting point for shipping and receiving goods into the Angkorian Empire. During the 17th and 18th centuries the northern Viets entered the area, followed by the Nguyen dynasty in Hué in the early 19th century.This is when the city was first known as Saigon.
During a period of rebellion (Tay Son brothers) in 1772, members of the Nguyen dynasty fled south from Hanoi, building the Gia Dinh Citadel. The leader, Nguyen Anh, returned north, this time to Hué, and renamed himself Emperor Gia Long.
The Tay Son brothers’ rebellion provided the French their first chance to enter Vietnam; they did so by assisting Gia Long in putting down the rebellion. It took seven decades, but the French finally gained control over the southern part of Vietnam and established a trading post in Saigon. In 1861 they seized control of Saigon and in 1862 named Saigon the capital of French Cochinchina.
The French set about busily remaking the city in the image of Paris – wide avenues, villas, a cathedral, tree-lined boulevards, an opera house, and much more. They also started creating an infrastructure of railroads and roads. The French rule, often quite harsh, extended to the entire country. Interrupted by World War II, the French lost control of the north but retained control in the south. They gradually eased out of the country and the Americans eased in.
The end of colonialism came with the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Since the fall of Saigon, the renamed city has been treated with less than highest favor by the powers in Hanoi. Nonetheless, the effects of capitalism are far more evident here, and the benefits of economic liberalization (almost 20 years ago) are more far-reaching than in the north.
Getting There & Away
Flying in to HCMC is easy, although not that cheap. If you arrive in Hanoi and want to fly the entire way (or vice versa) the trip on Vietnam Airlines is going to cost over $200 each way, unless you catch a special deal. You can also fly in from Dalat, Nha Trang, Hoi An/Danang, Hué, and other parts of the country.
The airport, Tan Son Nhat, is about seven km/four miles from the center of HCMC. It takes 20-30 minutes in a taxi or hired car, and both cost about $10. There are also buses and motorbikes (about $2 for the trip).
The airport is quite well equipped. You can find “left luggage” services, plenty of ATMs and money changing facilities, a decent array of duty-free shops, and a Saigon tourist desk. Make sure to buy a city map at the tourist desk or in SASCO books nearby. If you want to reserve a hotel, the tourist desk can help with that, too.
Many people either start or end their journey in Vietnam with a trip by train. The train station is about three km/two miles northwest of town (for northern arrivals and departures). The best way to get soft sleeper or soft seat tickets is to go through your hotel or a tour operator. You will rarely get one by going to the train station yourself. Since it’s a bit of a trip to town and the traffic is awful, take a taxi ($4), even if you have to call for one (tel. 08/842-4242 or 811-1111).
There are several terminals for bus arrivals, depending on the bus company and the city you are coming from or going to. Plan to take a motorbike, cyclo ride or taxi to your hotel ($3-$5).
It is possible to come in by boat from points along the Mekong. Only the hydrofoil from Vung Tau arrives in the city proper – other arrivals are a few km north or south of the center. Again, call for a taxi (tel. 8111-1111) or hop a motorbike or cyclo (bike-propelled cart) for a few dollars.
Where to Eat
HCMC is a food-lover’s paradise. There are restaurants of every imaginable style and price range. The backpackers’ area (Pham Ngu Lao) is the best place for inexpensive Asian and Western food, especially if your taste runs to burgers and pizza. Most of the international-caliber hotels have buffets and lunch and dinner and these are quite reasonably priced.
Dong Khoi Area
Chu, 158 Dong Khoi, serves American-style food and Asian dishes. Manhattan’s, 94 Hai Ba Trung (Saigon Square), serves the best burgers in HCMC, as well as chicken and pizza dishes. Amigo, 55 Nguyen Hué, a place for grilled steaks and seafood. Gardenstadt, 34 Dong Khoi, a German Restaurant with imported food and beer. Vietnam House, 93-95 Dong Khoi, with very traditional Vietnamese food in a Colonial building.
Pham Ngu Lao (the backpacker area)
Asian Kitchen, 185/22 Pham Ngu Lao, with Vietnamese, Japanese, and vegetarian choices at good prices. Bodhi Tree, 175/4 Pham Ngu Lao (a personal favorite), is a vegetarian restaurant with a pleasant atmosphere.
Cafés abound and are occupied from early morning to late at night with coffee-sipping, pastry-eating locals and tourists. You will think you’re in Paris.
If its nightlife you’re after, you’ve finally come to the right part of Vietnam!
In addition to hanging out at the numerous cafés, check out the larger hotels. Many have rooftop bars, basement discos, and live entertainment of surprisingly good quality.
Check out some of the bia hoi bars for a taste of local draft beer served over ice.
There are bookstores by the dozen, and several high-end shopping centers. There are only a few craft shops, and you are better off buying your souvenirs in Hanoi.There are several public markets worth a walk-through. Check out Be Thanh Market (junction of Tran Hung Dao, Le Loi, And Ham Nghi), or Thai Binh Market on the west end of Pham Ngu Lao.
See also: What to do and see in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Getting around and sightseeing
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