Ho Chi Minh City – or Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh, to give it its full Vietnamese title – is Vietnam’s centre of commerce and the country’s biggest city, though not its administrative capital – an honour that rests with Hanoi. As a result of the sweeping economic changes wrought by doi moi in 1986, this effervescent city, perched on the banks of the Saigon River and still known as Saigon to its eight million or so inhabitants, has changed its image from that of a war-torn city to one of a thriving metropolis, challenging Singapore, Bangkok and the other traditional Southeast Asian powerhouses. All the accoutrements of economic success – fine restaurants, flash hotels, glitzy bars and clubs, and shops selling imported luxury goods – are here, adding a glossy veneer to the city’s hotchpotch landscape of French stones of empire, venerable pagodas and austere, Soviet-style housing blocks.
Sadly, however, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is still full of people for whom economic progress has not yet translated into food, housing and jobs. Street children roam the tourist enclaves hawking books, postcards, lottery tickets and cigarette lighters; limbless mendicants haul themselves about on crude trolleys; and watchful pickpockets prowl crowded streets on the lookout for unguarded wallets. Though the number of beggars is gradually declining, tourists must quickly come to accept them as a hassle that goes with the territory. In addition, the arrival, en masse, of wealthy Westerners has lured many women into prostitution, for which the go-go bars of Dong Khoi became famous during the American War.
If Hanoi is a city of romance and mellow charms, then Ho Chi Minh City is its antithesis, a fury of sights and sounds, and the crucible in which Vietnam’s rallying fortunes are boiling. Few corners of the city afford respite from the cacophony of construction work casting up new office blocks and hotels with logic-defying speed. An increasing number of cars and minibuses jostle with an organic mass of state-of-the-art Honda SUVs, choking the tree-lined streets and boulevards. Amid this melee, the local people go about their daily life: smartly dressed schoolkids wander past streetside baguette-sellers; women shoppers ride motorbikes clad in gangster-style bandanas to protect their skin from the sun and dust; while teenagers in designer jeans chirrup into mobile phones. Much of the fun of being in Ho Chi Minh City derives from the simple pleasure of absorbing its flurry of activity – something best done from the seat of a cyclo or a roadside café. To blink is to miss some new and singular sight, be it a motorbike stacked high with piglets bound for the market, or a boy on a bicycle rapping out a staccato tattoo on pieces of bamboo to advertise noodles for sale.
HCMC is divided into 24 districts, though tourists rarely travel beyond districts One, Three and Five. In addition, an increasing number of expats reside in Phu My Hung, aka South Saigon, in district Seven – a squeaky-clean suburb that wouldn’t look out of place in Singapore, making quite a contrast to the rest of this seething metropolis. The city proper hugs the west bank of the Saigon River, and its central area, District One, nestles in the hinge formed by the confluence of the river with the Ben Nghe Channel; traditionally the French Quarter of the city, this area is still widely known as Saigon. Dong Khoi is its delicate backbone, and around the T-shape it forms with Le Duan Boulevard are located several of the city’s museums and colonial remnants. However, many of the city’s other sights are scattered further afield, so visitors have to effect a dot-to-dot of the sights that appeal most. These invariably include one or more of the museums that pander to the West’s fixation with the American War, the pick of the bunch being the War Remnants Museum and Ho Chi Minh City Museum.
For some visitors, the war is their primary frame of reference and such historical hot spots as the Reunification Palace rank highly on their itineraries. Yet the city pre-dates American involvement by several centuries, and not all of its sights revolve around planes, tanks and rusting ordnance. Ostentatious reminders of French rule abound, among them such memorable buildings as Notre Dame Cathedral and the grandiose Hotel de Ville – but even these look spanking-new when compared to gloriously musty edifices like Quan Am Pagoda and the Jade Emperor Pagoda, just a couple of the many captivating places of worship across the city. And if the chaos becomes too much, you can escape to the relative calm of the Botanical Gardens – also home to the city’s History Museum.
It’s one of Ho Chi Minh City’s many charms that once you’ve exhausted, or been exhausted by, all it has to offer, paddy fields, beaches and wide-open countryside are not far away. The most popular trip out of the city is to the Cu Chi tunnels, where villagers dug themselves out of the range of American shelling. The tunnels are often twinned with a tour around the fanciful Great Temple of the indigenous Cao Dai religion at Tay Ninh. A brief taster of the Mekong Delta at My Tho or a dip in the South China Sea at Ho Coc are also eminently possible in a long day’s excursion.
The best time to visit tropical Ho Chi Minh City is in the dry season, which runs from December through to April. During the wet season, May to November, there are frequent tropical storms, though these won’t disrupt your travels too much. Average temperatures, year-round, hover between 26°C and 29°C; March, April and May are the hottest months.
Knowledge of Ho Chi Minh City’s early history is sketchy at best. Between the first and sixth centuries, the territory on which it lies fell under the nominal rule of the Funan Empire to the west. Funan was subsequently absorbed by the Kambuja peoples of the pre-Angkor Chen La Empire, but it is unlikely that these imperial machinations had much bearing upon the sleepy fishing backwater that would later develop into Ho Chi Minh City.
Khmer fishermen eked out a living here, building their huts on the stable ground just north of the delta wetlands, which made it ideal for human settlement. Originally named Prei Nokor, it flourished as an entrepô for Cambodian boats pushing down the Mekong River, and by the seventeenth century it boasted a garrison and a mercantile community that embraced Malay, Indian and Chinese traders.
Such a dynamic settlement was bound to draw attention from the north. By the eighteenth century, the Viets had subdued the kingdom of Champa, and this area was swallowed up by Hué’s Nguyen Dynasty. With new ownership came a new name, Saigon, thought to be derived from the Vietnamese word for the kapok tree. Upon the outbreak of the Tay Son Rebellion, in 1772, Nguyen Anh bricked the whole settlement into a walled fortress, the eight-sided Gia Dinh Citadel. The army that put down the Tay Son brothers included an assisting French military force, who grappled for several decades to undermine Vietnamese control in the region and develop a trading post in Asia. Finally, in 1861, they seized Saigon, using Emperor Tu Duc’s persecution of French missionaries as a pretext. The 1862 Treaty of Saigon declared the city the capital of French Cochinchina.
Ho Chi Minh City owes much of its form and character to the French colonists: channels were filled in, marshlands drained and steam tramways set to work along its regimental grid of tamarind-shaded boulevards, which by the 1930s sported names like Boulevard de la Somme and Rue Rousseau. Flashy examples of European architecture were erected, cafés and boutiques sprang up to cater for its new, Vermouth-sipping, baguette-munching citizens and the city was imbued with such an all-round Gallic air that Somerset Maugham, visiting in the 1930s, found it reminiscent of “a little provincial town in the south of France, a blithe and smiling little place”. The French colons (colonials) bankrolled improvements to Saigon with the vast profits they were able to cream from exporting Vietnam’s rubber and rice out of the city’s rapidly expanding seaport.
On a human level, however, French rule was invariably harsh; dissent crystallized in the form of strikes through the 1920s and 1930s, but the nationalist movement hadn’t gathered any real head of steam before World War II’s tendrils spread to Southeast Asia. At its close, the Potsdam Conference of 1945 set the British Army the task of disarming Japanese troops in southern Vietnam. Arriving in Saigon two months later, they promptly returned power to the French and so began thirty years of war. Saigon saw little action during the anti-French war, which was fought mostly in the countryside and resulted in the French capitulation at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Saigon in the American War
Designated the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam by President Diem in 1955, Saigon was soon both the nerve centre of the American war effort, and its R&R capital, with a slough of sleazy bars along Dong Khoi (known then as Tu Do) catering to GIs on leave from duty. Despite the Communist bomb attacks and demonstrations by students and monks that periodically disturbed the peace, these were good times for Saigon, whose entrepreneurs prospered on the back of the tens of thousands of Americans posted here. The gravy train ran out of steam with the withdrawal of American troops in 1973, and two years later the Ho Chi Minh Campaign rolled into the city and through the gates of the presidential palace and the Communists were in control. Within a year, Saigon had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
The war years extracted a heavy toll: American carpet-bombing of the Vietnamese countryside forced millions of refugees into the relative safety of the city, and ill-advised, post-reunification policies triggered a social and economic stagnation whose ramifications still echo like ripples on a lake. Persecution of southerners with links to the Americans saw many thousands sent to re-education camps. Millions more fled the country by boat.
Only in 1986, when the economic liberalization, doi moi, was established, and a market economy reintroduced, did the fortunes of the city show signs of taking an upturn. Today, more than two decades later, the city’s resurgence is well advanced and its inhabitants are eyeing the future with unprecedented optimism.