Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh is the first city of Vietnam in terms of demography and economy. It has a population of 7,162,864 inhabitants in an area of 809mi². The city is steeped in history, having been the capital of South Vietnam during the Vietnamese War and subsequently having been taken by the northern forces in 1975 (the fall of Saigon). The thousands of scooters and bicycles that criss-cross this city give you the impression that it is in perpetual movement. It is a place that is constantly developing and evolving, with big brands rubbing shoulders with small stalls in the midst of the hustle-and-bustle. It is the departure point for numerous excursions into the Mekong Delta. It is worth spending one or two days in Ho Chi Minh just to get a feeling for the city, which, despite its bright future, has kept a firm hold on the past, as seen in the Chinese and colonial districts.
There are several cruises running on Saigon River, from where you can see the sights of Ho Chi Minh from the comfort of a river cruiser and without getting caught up in all the hustle-and-bustle. It is best to do the cruise at night time as all the buildings along the riverside are lit up, making the city look beautiful (frankly, this isn't always the case during the day - it can sometimes be a little industrial). Bonsai river cruises offer a number of tours which you can either combine with cocktails and canapés, or a dining experience. They also offer the opportunity to rent a boat for party or business functions.
Visit the colonial district, where superb buildings are testament to the city's past. Such buildings include the Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, built in 1876, and the Opera. Also worth a try for those who want to get lost for an afternoon is a stroll in the city's Chinese district, Cholon, where the maze-like roads are strewn with tiny stalls selling everything from little ornaments to street food. Famously, this area of South-East Asia is also famous for its massages. Ho Chi Minh has no shortage of spas so you can take your pick from cheap and cheerful (often all you need - all the masseurs are excellent), or expensive and luxurious.
Reunification Palace, the old centre of government of the southern Vietnamese forces during the Vietnamese war, is now open to the public. Visitors can explore the rooms once used to devise war strategies to fight the communist forces of The North, which now have an eerie feel - as if they were abandoned in a rush, which in a way, was actually the case. When the Vietnamese People's Army (northern communists) took the capital and this palace - the centre of government - in 1975, it was essentially the end of the war, which had by that time killed millions of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, as well as thousands of Laotians, Cambodians and Americans.
Make sure you are careful with your valuables both in your hotel and whilst out sightseeing. Even though many hotel rooms are equipped with safes, these are often easy to break into and in many cases the hotel staff have the keys and have even been known to take customers belongings themselves. Therefore it is best to keep all your essentials (passport, credit cards) on you in a secure place at all times. When going out in the city, it can be easy to find yourself in the middle of a crowd of people where pickpocketing often takes place. Therefore money wallets that you can hide under your clothes are very useful.
Due to globalization and an ever growing tourist industry in Vietnam, it is not as easy as it once was to find bargains in Ho Chi Minh. However, by Western standards, eating costs in the capital are still incredibly low. The city is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan and as such, there are all kinds of international dishes to be tried in restaurants here. To sample authentic Vietnamese cuisine however, your best bet is to try street food. Beef plays a big part in many Vietnamese dishes, as does chicken and fish. Many meats are served in large bowls of noodle soup (Pho) - making the meat really tender and flavorsome. Also worth a try is mam, fermented fish pastes which can be served in a number of ways (used as dipping sauces or added to rice noodle soups?) and banh xeo, a light rice crepe. For those wanting to try something completely new, tit cai is Vietnamese for dog so you can choose whether you want to have a bite or not!
There are so many handicrafts and souvenirs to choose from in Ho Chi Minh that it can be hard to decide which ones to bring back with you. However, we would definitely recommend taking the time to get a hand-made Vietnamese dress made as they are so unique, you won't see anyone wearing it back home! Moreover, the dresses, also called 'ao dai', are said to be one of the most flattering outfits in the world. They are also truly personal as you can choose the material you would like it to be made from and each dress is made to measure from scratch.
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