Teeming with life, colours, smells and noise, Vietnam’s largest city is an intoxicating, chaotic mix of East meets West, with its own eccentricities thrown in. Once known as Saigon when the former capital was under the rule of the French, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976, and is home to around nine million people, a figure expected to rise to 13.9 million by 2025.
Visiting the city during a trip around South East Asia, Ho Chi Minh was only supposed to be a short pit stop, but we ended up staying much longer after falling for its charms.
Pulsating with energy, the city – like the country – is one of contrasts, from the finest hotels and cheapest guesthouses to the classiest of restaurants and street food stalls. I loved wandering around the street markets, jostling for space and a bargain with the locals, but designer stores in glossy new malls are also to be found. Old Vietnam is never far away, just step down one of the alleyways or visit an incense-infused temple.
Ho Chi Minh has emerged from the shadow of its past and the turbulent times during the Vietnam War, when it was seen as a safe hub for US soldiers, to become one of the region’s most vibrant metropolises with a style all of its own.
I’m going to cheat here and put down two places, for very different reasons. First up are the botanical gardens at Thao Cam Vien, a calming oasis and perfect escape from the bustling city. Established by the French in 1864, the lush gardens are some of the finest in Asia, where you can stroll beneath giant tropical trees. In the grounds is a monument for the Vietnamese people who were killed in World War One. There is also a zoo but I gave this a miss. My second favourite is the War Remnants Museum, which provides an insight into the country’s history and particularly the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. It’s not easy viewing at times – there are some graphic photographs of the atrocities committed – but it both informs and moves in equal measure. Outside the museum is a small collection of military hardware, including tanks, aircrafts and bombs.
Getting around Ho Chi Minh City (known colloquially as HCMC) is all part of the fun. Coming from Oman, we’re used to dodgy driving, but here it’s on another level altogether, with streets crammed with darting bicycles, motorbikes travelling the wrong way along one-way streets and cars constantly honking their horns. We opted to sightsee by cyclo, a three-wheel bicycle taxi, which is a great way to see the city up close and personal. Hire by the hour for around RO3. Motorbike taxis, Xe Om, are an exhilarating but hairy ride, and aren’t for the fainthearted. If you love to shop, the famous Ben Thanh Market is unmissable. While the local currency is the Vietnamese Dong, American dollars do the talking here, so load up and haggle for anything from watches to souvenirs. Be sure to take time to visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda (also known as Tortoise Pagoda), where the locals go to pray, and Giac Lam Pagoda, the oldest temple in HCMC. There are lots of restaurants in the city, offering anything from French to Vietnamese cuisine, but you must try the local street food. Take a seat on a plastic chair at a food cart and order pho, the legendary rice-noodle soup made with beef or clear broth.
The traffic can grate after a while and so can constant efforts to rip you off by cyclo and motorbike taxi drivers. It’s essential to negotiate and set your price in advance or you could be faced with an exorbitant charge at the end of the trip. Be sure to keep a close eye on your personal possessions while wandering around busy tourist areas as pickpockets are known to operate in crowds. Expect downpours during the hot and steamy rainy season from May to November.
You’ll find loads of street vendors selling supposed authentic mementoes from the Vietnam War, such as dog tags and Zippo lighters, but be aware that most of these are fake and likely to break shortly after arriving home. Instead, pack your suitcase home with a Non La (leaf hat), a circular cone made of bamboo and cultural symbol of Vietnam, silk, hand embroidered items and sand paintings, where colourful sand is poured between two glass panes to create a unique piece of art.
Chose anywhere in District 1 of the city to be within striking distance of all the main sights. Dong Khoi is more upmarket and close to the best restaurants and bars, while Pham Ngu Lao is better for more modest budgets. My favourite is the Rex Hotel with a rooftop bar and pool.
1. Bargain hunt at Ben Thanh Market
2. Take a cyclo tour of the city
3. Relax in the botanical gardens
4. Try the street food
5. Explore the past at the city’s museums