Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is one of the most rapidly developing dynamic cities in Asia. The hustle and bustle is dominated by honking motorbikes swerving to avoid bumping into one another. The city is surrounded by a slew of newly constructed buildings, not to mention people on foot who are always traveling from one point to another. In spite of the large crowds and the seeming pressure to have the city modernized by the government, Ho Chi Minh City has been able to retain its one-of-a-kind personality. It is the people who live in Ho Chi Minh City that give the place spirit and character – their practices and lifestyles are a fine integration of modernization and tradition.
There has been a substantial amount of turbulence in Ho Chi Minh’s history. Because of Vietnam’s social and political standing, the region was invaded many times throughout the years.
Originally connected to Cambodia, the city became one with Vietnam under Nguyen Lord-rule during the 17thcentury. The hectic traffic and colossal structures in the city today, it’s hard to imagine that one time, Ho Chi Minh City was nothing more than a tiny fishing village (which, at the time, was called Prey Nokor), inhabited by people of Khmer descent. Vietnam took over the area in 1698, which is when a citadel started to get constructed. In 1859, the city started to rise in ranking once the French colonial era started, eventually turning into Cochinchina’s capital. The city gained a European influence during the French colonial rule courtesy of art and architecture. You can still see France’s influence on Ho Chi Minh City today – not just in the colonial design edifices, but in the cuisine prepared by restaurants in the area as well.
Once Vietnam was split into two sectors as a result of the Geneva Convention, Saigon took over as South Vietnam’s capital in 1954.
A substantial amount of destruction and unrest came about during Indochina’s second war. Areas of the city were wrecked in battle. Saigon was taken over by North Vietnamese soldiers in 1975, renaming the city after their leader, Ho Chi Minh.
The subsequent period became quite turbulent for Ho Chi Minh City, which was the epicenter of development in Vietnam. The city was suddenly thrown into modernization without warning. Sadly, a number of iconic structures and heritage sites are gone, and in its place, contemporary buildings stand tall. The Vietnamese government does not want its economy to suffer because of pride in traditionalism.
Ho Chi Minh City is a wonderful integration of contemporary skyscrapers, shopping centers, conventional Vietnam culture, and throwbacks to the French colonial period. Such integration is quite chaotic, and the personality of the natives is what gives Ho Chi Minh City its unique and intoxicating character.
With more than 8 million people living in Ho Chi Minh City, the place is always active. Most of the people who live here are Kinh (Vietnamese), and Chinese people represent the biggest ethnic minority community here. Having said that, the population is getting more diverse with each passing year, no different than any other metropolitan city.
Every year, millions of visitors – domestic and foreign alike – are drawn to the city. This can mostly be attributed to Ho Chi Minh City’s distinctiveness. There are a number of things here that appeal to tourists, and many a traveler are seduced by its charm.
Ho Chi Minh City is separated into 19 different districts, the epicenter of which is District 1. The upscale area has no shortage of bars and restaurants, though the meals and drinks are more costly here than in other nearby districts. The destination is highly populated because of the amount of things to do and see here. The further away you get from the city center, the less contemporary the districts get. Also, attractions in other districts warrant visitation to them. For example, District 5 is where Chinatown is located.
In District 1, Dong Khoi is an area renowned for its French colonial structures. While a number of these interesting buildings have been knocked down in favor of newer developments, several remarkable French architecture instances are still standing. The streets have gone through a number of makeovers throughout the years as the city changes with the times. You’ll get a sense of what glamour and wealth was like in the last remaining French buildings, which are adjacent to grandiose department stores and imposing high-rise towers.
A number of the street’s attractions are located in Paris Square, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office. Development of the Cathedral started in the early 1860s and took about 20 years to complete. A couple of peak bell towers penetrate the sky, providing the structure with an intimidating silhouette. The Catholic Cathedral still remains there today. Across the street from it is the Central Post Office, a place visited because of its French architecture. Renaissance and Gothic influences are aplenty in this building. When you’re in the post office, you might forget what era it is or what country you’re in! Inside are a pair of interesting maps, one of which depicts what Saigon used to resemble, and the other displaying a postal route going from Vietnam to Cambodia.
The Opera House is further south in the direction of the Saigon River. It was initially constructed at the start of the twentieth century to provide entertainment for French colonialists. Eventually, the theater turned into South Vietnam’s Lower House Assembly. In 1975, the structure was repurposed as a theater once more, a project that took another 20 years to complete. In addition to the mesmerizing architecture, performers from across the globe have visited and performed in the Opera House.
Nguyen Hue is beside Dong Khoi, a place where automobiles are banned from the streets on weekends between 6:00 PM and 1:00 AM. During this time, anyone can walk the streets as they see fit without being inconvenienced by loud speeding motorcycles. You can access all kinds of Dong Khoi buildings during your stroll, in addition to a wharf, which is close by. Because of how much room is available on the streets without vehicles on them, some areas – such as the Nguyen Hue – are ideal for cultural activities and events. They also serve as a meeting place for friends and family to socialize in.
The Bitexco Tower is another remarkable architectural aspect of District 1, though it has more of a contemporary design. No other building in the city is higher than it – the tower is 262.5 meters tall. You might get a little dizzy by looking at it from the ground. While the structure is quite contemporary, looks-wise, its theme encompasses Vietnam’s national flower, the Lotus. All 68 floors of the building are separated into individual sectors, which includes areas for entertainment, business, and a helipad atop the fiftieth floor! The tower has an unparalleled view of Ho Chi Minh City that you can see from the Drinks Lounge or the Sky Deck. The sites you will be exposed to are particularly amazing at nighttime as the city sparkles with the commotion on the streets.
In addition to the remarkable architecture that can be seen in District 1, there are a number of places outdoors to visit where you can seek refuge from noisy streets. The Botanical Gardens and the Saigon Zoo are a couple of the biggest plant-based areas in Vietnam. There are so many things to be impressed by at the Botanical Gardens, a place where plant species are counted by the thousands (some of which are endangered and rare species)! The zoo is not quite as riveting, but they do house a number of gorgeous animals, even though some of their living conditions are inadequate. On the other hand, the gardens are a great place you can go to be surrounded by greenery and get away from the sounds of Ho Chi Minh City. These places are especially beautiful early in the morning – specifically sunset – as the sun cracks through the trees. As the sun rises, people rise with it to prepare for their upcoming day.
While Ho Chi Minh City is in the process of being redeveloped and modernized at a rapid rate, the city’s history is maintained at a number of museums. For those with an interest in Indochina’s backstory, the Museum of Vietnamese History should be visited. Situated on the Botanical Gardens’ grounds, this building that warrants a whole day of exploration. Some of the artifacts can be traced to the prehistoric era, allowing tourists to experience the city’s cultural transformation. Visitors will see all of the transformations that Vietnam has undergone.
The War Remnants Museum is another remarkable Museum in the Third District of Ho Chi Minh City. The museum chronicles the tragedies and atrocities that came from the Vietnam War. The showcased displays at this place convey a very dark time in the country. The exterior exhibits of machinery and weaponry are beside tiger cages that were used to imprison Vietcong soldiers. Things aren’t quite as bleak on the main floor, which highlights the protests against the Vietnam War by people all over the world. The devastations of war are illustrated in a disturbing but intense display on floors 2 and 3 – with an emphasis on the devastation instilled by American troops. While the exhibits are nothing short of harrowing, they do explain what the country and its inhabitants went through and overcame. The displays are harsh reminders of the terrible price we pay because of war.
Reunification Palace is also a historical site worth visiting. Situated in District 1, the palace is close to the War Remnants Museum, where Vietnam’s political stances are chronicled throughout its evolution. Maybe the most moving moment to transpire here was in the later part of 1975, when the Vietnam War ended. The main gates were bulldozed by a North Vietnamese tank, which running amok on the structure before Saigon was seized. That’s when Saigon turned into Ho Chi Minh City. Though it remains a government facility, the building contains reception rooms and meeting rooms that serve as venues for events. Telecommunication systems and war rooms are located in the basement, all of which are connected through mazes of tunnels.
Situated on the Saigon Riverbanks is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which is a tribute to the life and work of the national treasure. At one time, the edifice was known as Dragon Wharf (a house for French customs). Today, a number of artifacts are found in the building that were in some way connected to Ho Chi Minh’s life. The riveting life of the leader and what he achieved are conveyed by photos and personal items showcased.
One of the most popular places of historical significance in Ho Chi Minh City is the tunnel system of Cu Chi. Here, tourists can learn about the struggles of Vietcong soldiers and what they faced in these intricate tunnels. These labyrinth-like tunnels reached across Vietnam, stretching all the way to Cambodia! These mazes were of key significance in defeating the American forces, offering a place for troops to build a life in, to prepare for unanticipated attacks, and to transmit communications from. Those who visit the tunnels are able to reach the end of them, though they might feel a little claustrophobic in the process. Tourists can tour the quarter’s underground areas and gain insight into what life was like for a soldier who battled and resided there.
Popular religions practiced in the city are Confucianism, Taoism, and Mahayana Buddhism. That is not to say that other religions aren’t practiced in Ho Chi Minh City – you’ll find Muslims, Hindus, and Catholics everywhere. The range of religions is exemplified by all of the temples you’ll find in the city.
The city’s most famous temple is situated in District 1. The Jade Emperor Pagoda is located just behind the Nhieu Loc-Thai River. Created in 1909 by the Chinese community, the pagoda is a shrine to deities of Taoist and Buddhist descent. An incensed smoke cloud wraps around the pagoda on a consistent basis, which swirls around the detailed sculptures and carvings. The altar’s primary focus is the Jade Emperor – elegant in appearance – encompassed by his protectors. You’ll also see a Kim Hua statue in the pagoda, who many women pray to for fertility. There also statues of the Chief of Hell (along with his sinister assistants).
Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda is another mesmerizing attraction and is situated in District 5. When you walk into the pagoda, you will notice a series of intense colors sprouting out of the walls, most of which are gold, red, yellow, and green. The adornment is just as captivating as intricate sculptures, red lanterns, and incense spiral down from the ceiling. The pagoda is a tribute to Quan Cong, who you’ll see a statue of behind the central altar.
Ho Chi Minh City’s biggest pagoda is Xa Loi Pagoda, which was constructed in 1956. At one time, this pagoda was South Vietnam’s Buddhism headquarters. Raids transpired at the pagoda in the early 1960S – during this time, about 400 nuns and monks were jailed. Several self-sacrifices transpired here – specifically a number of monks who set themselves ablaze to protest the Diem regime. While there are reminders of the struggles endured by people inside of the pagoda, it is now a place where people can worship peacefully. Inside, you’ll find a large golden sitting Buddha statue over a lotus blossom, where many people come to meditate.
In an effort to pay tribute to the goddess of rain, Mariamman, Indian traders began to construct a Hindu temple for her in the 19th century. The Mariamman Temple is adorned with colorful sculptures on its exterior, illustrating a range of gods. Within the temple is a stunning Mariamann statute (surrounded by her protectors) where fragrant flowers and incense are offered by worshipers.
The Saigon Central Mosque has quite a distinctive look thanks to its green, white, and blue exterior. South Indian worshipers living in Saigon had the mosque constructed in 1935. The tranquil ambiance and cool verandas are a place for people to get away from the humidity and hectic city life. Outside of the mosque, you’ll see a number of vendors selling street food and delicious treats.
One of Ho Chi Minh City’s most interesting areas is Cholon (Chinatown). This may be the largest Chinatown in the world, and there are plenty of places to see here. Binh Tay Market is also a popular wholesale market. You’ll always find stalls with piles of goods to purchase. You’ll also find a couple of Chinese pagodas here – Quan Am and Thien Hau.
Thien Hau Pagoda is a tribute to the goddess of the sea. This place was created by Chinese sailors and merchants during the 1970s who wanted to express their gratitude to her for protecting them while they were away from land. The pagoda’s roof contains a number of small legend and god figurines, while lovely lanterns encompass the entrance. In the altar of the pagoda, you’ll see an homage to Thien Hau usually encircled by fragrant smoke wisps (released by incense burners).
Created in the 19th century by the Fujianese community, the Quan Am Pagoda is also in Cholon. It is a tribute to the goddess of mercy. The intricately-opulent pagoda contains a gorgeous monument of the goddess, Quan Am, in addition to a number of other deities.
You can become acquainted with Ho Chi Minh City culture at the Ben Thanh Market. This area is culture heavy, as you can see from the piles of food and wholesale goods to haggle for. The market is a wonderful place to buy souvenirs or simply enjoy watching people. There’s a lot to do here as the market is both a culture and commerce center.
In addition to the diverse cultural tapestry, the city is also home to a thriving art scene. You’ll find many fascinating art galleries displaying work from both contemporary and traditional artists. You can see the way art has evolved in Vietnam at the Fine Art Museum. Whether you’re looking at seventh-century Cham art or modern art, you’ll find no shortage of eye-catching displays in the museum. The colonial-style Vila of the museum has stained-glass and tile floors that are mesmerizing on their own.
You’ll also see many art galleries scattered all over Ho Chi Minh City. You’ll find a number of them in Dong Khoi and nearby areas, all of which will sell you reproduction artwork and original pieces. The Apricot Gallery in Dong Khoi showcases some amazing contemporary work on their walls. Some of the galleries here focus on wartime propaganda, while others are contemporary art-exclusive.
Ho Chi Minh City’s largest festival is Tet. This event marks the new year in Vietnam. Schools and businesses are closed during this holiday, and a number of the country’s inhabitants leave home to spend time with their loved ones. Getting prepared for Tet is a large endeavor. Ho Chi Minh City will be blanketed with conventional decorations for New Year’s, adding livelihood and color to the roads. During Tet, visitors will gain insight into the traditions of Vietnam, such as issuing lucky money to kids and the customization of certain foods. For a number of Vietnamese inhabitants, Tet is a period where families come together to eat and enjoy each other’s company. As such, the city tends to quiet down around this time since businesses are closed and traffic is minimized.
The Spring Flower Festival takes place at the same time as Tet, but in different areas of Ho Chi Minh City. The streets become colorized courtesy of local artists who put their floral creations on display. You’ll find no shortage of things to do in Tao Dan Cultural Park, as there are food stalls, live musicians, and fun games to take part in. The spirit of a New Year’s celebration and spring festivities are exemplified here.
On the new lunar year’s fifteenth day – and once Tet has concluded – the Lantern Festival (Tet Nguyen Tieu) begins. This high-energy festival is mostly celebrated in Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese area, Cholon. At this time, the streets come alive with colorful dancers and loud drum music. You’ll see red lanterns bobbing all over the streets from the vibrations of the festivities under it. One thing to look out for at this celebration are the lanterns put on display outside of family homes, all of which are made by hand. The parades and dragon dances that line the roads are just as mesmerizing.
The Southern Fruit Festival is quite a colorful celebration and adds to the excitement taking place on Ho Chi Minh City’s streets. At the beginning of June, performances, parades, and craft markets are surrounded by fruits of all colors to entertain festival patrons. It’s a fun approach to learning about and celebrating the tasty produce South East Asia is known for. You might be exposed to new varieties of fruit here!
The mid-autumn festival takes place on the eighth lunar month’s fifteenth day. It is an opportunity to view the celebrations and activities on the streets. While this is mostly a kids’ festival, adults can have fun here as well. Lion dances at the festival are also quite riveting as they seem to come out of nowhere. They attract spectators from all over Ho Chi Minh City before they disappear once more. The roads are bedecked with colorful lanterns, and the streets are oozing with excitement.
Because of its multiculturalism and modernism, Ho Chi Minh City has a wide variety of food – from around the world, not just Vietnam – that your taste buds need to be introduced to. While in Vietnam, you must try out a steaming pho bowl or some banh mi prepared fresh. Sometimes the simplest foods are the best tasting ones, com tam being one of them. Translated to mean broken rice, com tam can be found at stalls throughout the city, all of which will provide you with various toppings. You’ll recognize its scent as the meat is grilled on hot coals, matched with the aroma of boiling rice fats. This feast is a favorite during lunchtime and is usually served with Vietnamese pickles, eggs, sliced pork skin, meatloaf, eggs, and pork steaks. In addition to being quite filling, this meal is inexpensive.
Banh Tam Bi is often consumed at lunch. This moderately sweet and creamy coconut dish contains dense tapioca noodles. It is served on top of a rice layer with a combination of fresh herbs, vegetables, and pork strips, topped by coconut milk sauce. You can get some of the best Banh Tam Bi bowls in Vietnam from the Dong Thap on Nguyen Street.
Noodles are one of Vietnam’s specialties, and natives tend to pull over their vehicles at a moment’s notice just to consume a bowl of spicy and hot Bun Rieu. This meal is comprised of a crab base stock that is mixed with tomatoes and rice vinegar, creating a sour-yet-spicy taste. The soup is supplemented with noodles before being topped off by fresh herbs, vegetables, tofu, blood jelly, crab, and pork chunks. Once prepared, it can be customized to accommodate the tastes of the person eating it using all kinds of sauces.
You’ll find seafood aplenty in Ho Chi Minh City. A conventional dish consumed here is Bun Mam, which integrates steamed noodles and broth, and is quite a filling meal. The flavoring of the broth stems from the fish sauce, which is fermented. Mam tom tends to come with a serving of vegetables, pork, and seafood. A catfish meal known as Ca Kho is served from a claim pot. Fillets of catfish are marinated in a sticky, thick sauce created out of sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic, and shallots. Ca Kho comes with a serving of white rice. A frequently consumed shellfish snack – OC – is comprised of a shellfish ion and can be prepared based on how you like to eat it. These delicious morsels are sold by various street vendors and are worth your money.
Several food snacks that can be purchased from roadside vendors are worth trying out, some of which include Banh Khot and Banh Xeo (rice crepes and fried rice cakes). In English, Banh Beo translates to Waterford cake, while Goi Cuon translates to fresh spring rolls, both of which can also be bought.
In addition to the tasty Vietnamese food options at your disposal, Ho Chi Minh City has plenty of international food you can pick from, too. Chinese food can be purchased in Cholon, sushi bars and Ramen noodles can be bought from the Japanese district, and American meals can be found in some of the Western restaurants. Some travelers revolve their whole trip around trying out different foods here!
At nighttime, Ho Chi Minh City is just as eclectic and lively as it is during the daytime. The energetic and youthful energy emitting from the city tells you that there’s always something to do at night here.
An inexpensive but refreshing glass of Bia Hoi is a fun way to begin a night of fun. This popular beverage can be purchased all over the city. You’ll find a number of pavement stalls surrounded by plastic stools serving this drink. Bui Vien Street is regarded as a beer hotspot and tends to be frequented by Western travelers and young Vietnamese adults. If the fresh beer brewed isn’t something that interests you, you have other craft brew choices, a number of which are rising in popularity. Most of these establishments serve cocktails and wine, too. Many people enjoy taking in the nightlife with a tasty beverage from a rooftop bar.
Activity in music venues and nightclubs tends to pick up when the bars closed down for the night. The music played at these venues defers, but you’ll always find something happening around here, and the fun can last all night long.
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