Ho Chi Minh City, still informally referred to as Saigon, is the largest and most dynamic city in Vietnam, as well as the commerce and financial hub. Nowhere else in the country is Western influence and economic progress so apparent. Skyscrapers dot the city, and everywhere are the signs of growing status – cars, mobile phones, upscale cafés, fine dining and trendy nightlife.
And yet the city still retains a uniquely Vietnamese feel. The city springs to life early in the morning with the hustle and bustle of the local markets, and incessant horns, traffic and activity fill the streets until late at night. Despite the rise of high-end restaurants and shopping malls, street stalls and local vendors can still be found on every street corner.
Set on the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh is a sprawling city, with myriads of rivers and canals, although most tourists spend most of their time in the central districts.
What to Do ?
Ho Chi Minh City has a wide array of markets, shopping, museums, pagodas, and other attractions to draw the interest of visitors. The city is too large to be seen entirely by foot, although walking is highly recommended in the area around Dong Khoi and the Opera House, the Ben Thnah market, the Notre Dame cathedral and the Reunification Palace.
The Ben Thanh Market, the oldest and largest market in Saigon, is definitely worth a visit, although it can be a bit overwhelming at initial glance. Also of interest is a visit to HCMC’s Chinatown, Cho Lon, for a walking tour of the street, herb shops, and pagodas, as well as the small street stalls.
For those who are interested in the history of the city and the American-Vietnam war, highlights are the War Remnant Museum and the Reunification Palace, as well as a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels, an extensive network of tunnels total about 155 miles through the French Indochina war right through the American Vietnam war, are located about 24 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City and be easily done in a half-day trip from the city.
Other museums of interest are the History Museum, the Fine Arts Museum, and the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. There are also a number of pagodas, churches and temples to visit, both within the city and nearby, including the Notre Dame Cathdral, the Quan Am pagoda in Chinatown, and the Giam Lan and Jade Emperor pagodas in greater HCMC, as well as the Cao Dai temple, which is around 96 km from HCMC.
For shopping and boutiques, the best areas are Dong Khoi and many of its side streets, as well as the streets around Pasteur, Le Thanh Ton and the little street of Ton Thap Thiet.
HCMC is also a good starting point for a trip to the Mekong delta by river, or travel on to the nearby beaches of Phu Quoc, Phan Thiet (Mui Ne), or the mountainous resort town of Dalat, as well as a start or end to a longer trip up the coast of Vietnam to Hanoi.
When to Go ?
HCM City lies in a tropical climate zone and has warm and most sunny weather all year with an annual average temperature of 27ºC. During the rainy season, which lasts from May to November, rains can be long and heavy, but often are short daily rains that clear quickly. Generally, the best time to visit is during the dry season from December and April, although the coolest months are October through December.
How To Get There ?
With the largest airport in Vietnam and numerous transportation options, HCMC is easy to reach, both from domestic and international destinations. HCMC is often used as a starting point (or an ending point) for moving on up the coast of Vietnam, to the Mekong Delta or nearby beaches, or on to Cambodia by flight, train, bus, or boat.
Flights: The HCMC airport serves many international destinations and almost all domestic locations in Vietnam, with only a few northern cities that require transit in Hanoi. HCMC’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport is 7km outside the city center, or approximately 30 minutes drive.
Train: The Reunification express train connects HCMC to Hanoi and serves all of the major cities along the coast. The journey from HCMC and Hanoi takes around 30 hours, but many people prefer to stop along the way in Hue, Danang, Nha Trang, etc. There is also a tourist train from HCMC to Phan Thiet.
Bus: There are a number of open-tour buses that go up the coast towards Hanoi. Tickets can be bought easily, especially in Pham Ngu Lao (backpacker) area, for bargain prices. Public buses are another option, with a number of public buses for travel in any direction: Cholon or Mien Tay bus stations for travel to Mekong Delta, Mien Dong bus station for travel north, and Tay Ninh bus station to points northeast including Tay Ninh ad Cu Chi tunnels.
Boat: HCMC has almost hourly hydrofoils (boats) to reach Vung Tau, a popular Vietnamese weekend escape, and a new hydrofoil to Can Dao, an island due south of HCMC, as well as slow cargo ferries to the Mekong Delta.