Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City is commonly known as Saigon or by the abbreviation HCMC. Although it is not the capital of Vietnam, it is the largest city in Vietnam and it was the capital of the former Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). As the throbbing commercial and economical center of Vietnam, Saigon is always busy, and the heat, the noise of the traffic and crowds can be overwhelming. Be nice to Saigon: it rewards patient tourists with a fascinating glimpse of Vietnam, of its past and present, and it will always be developing ahead of all cities in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is located in the southeastern region of Vietnam, it has a muggy, tropical climate with an average of 75% humidity. Rainy season runs from May to late November, with December to April being the driest, coolest months. The city is somewhat chaotic, boasting an electric, near palpable energy. Ho Chi Minh City is one of Southeast Asia’s liveliest cities. For the casual visitor, Saigon – as its still called by all but the city officials who live here – can seem a chaotic mess of traffic-clogged roads and urban bustle. But zillions of expats and Vietnamese immigrants couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. If asked for a symbol of Saigon, it would surely be the motorbike. More than three million of them move along the streets. Cruising along boulevards and narrow streets, the crowds of private easy-riders and xe om (motorbike taxi) belong to the image of the city. Hectic markets, stylistic cafés, massage and acupuncture clinics, centuries-old pagodas, modern skyscrapers and ramshackle shops selling all kinds of goods all try to attract customers amid the surreal urban collage. Saigon is one of the most forward-looking cities driving the current economic boom. Investments are materialized in new lavish hotels and restaurants, trendy nightclubs and high-end boutiques as well as modern expensive development areas and neighborhoods. Saigon has now some 10 million inhabitants in the greater HCMC area, 7 million in the city itself; it has almost 7% of the total population of Vietnam. The population is growing rapidly, with a rate of about 200 thousand per year. About 90% of the population is ethnic Vietnamese. Another 8% of HCMC residents are Chinese; they make up the largest Chinatown in Vietnam, Cho Lon. Most residents of Ho Chi Minh City are Buddhist or practice ancestor worship, but about 15% are Roman Catholic or Protestant. Other religious groups such as Islam and Hinduism are found in smaller numbers. Ho Chi Minh City began as a small fishing village called Prey Nokor, inhabited by Khmer people originally from what is now Cambodia. Over time, Vietnamese refugees fleeing civil wars elsewhere in Vietnam filled the region. By the end of the 17th century, under the Nguyen dynasty, Vietnam had completely absorbed Prey Nokor, which was by then known as Saigon. The French arrived in 1859 and conquered Saigon and later the rest of Vietnam. With its wide boulevards and French-inspired architecture, Saigon became known as "the Pearl of the Far East" (Hòn ngọc Viễn Đông) and "Paris in the Orient." Many visitors claim that this charm is still present in the city. Independence movements against French colonial rule, led by liberation movements, were organized by the Viet Minh and others. In 1954 Ho Chi Minh's communist Viet Minh forces defeated the French in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, causing them to withdraw from Vietnam. Subsequently, Vietnam was partitioned into North and South Vietnam, with the government of the South, the Republic of Vietnam, holding its seat in Saigon. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, ending the Vietnam War. Following North Vietnam's victory, Vietnam was unified and the capital of the reunified Vietnam became Hanoi. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon: getting around and transportation • Air Most domestic flights from Tan Son Nhat Airport are operated by Viet¬nam Airlines. Pacific Airlines also offers the HCMC-Hanoi and HCMC-Da Nang routes, while Sasco flies between HCMC and the Con Dao Islands. Tan Son Nhat Airport was one of the three busiest airports in the world in the late 1960s. The runways are still lined with lichen-covered, mortar-proof aircraft-retaining walls, hangars and other military structures. • Bus Intercity buses depart from and arrive at a variety of stations around HCMC. Cho Lon bus station (Le Quang Sung Street, north of Binh Tay Market) is the most convenient place to get buses to My Tho and other Mekong Delta towns. Buses to the Mekong Delta also depart from Mien Tay bus station (Ben Xe Mien Tay, Tel. 825 5955). This huge station is about 10km west of HCMC in An Lac, a part of the Binh Chanh district. Buses to travel north leave from Mien Dong bus station (Ben Xe Mien Dong; Tel. 829 4056), in Binh Thanh district about 5km from central HCMC on Hwy 13 (Quoc Lo 13, the continuation of Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Street). Destinations are Buon Ma Thuot (12 hours, 110 thousand Dong), Da Nang (26 hours, 200 thousand Dong), Hai Phong (53 hours (!), 340 thousand Dong), Nha Trang (11 hours, 75 thousand Dong), Ha Noi (49 hours, 320 thousand Dong), Hué (24 hours , 220 thousand Dong), among others. • Car and motorbike Inquire at almost any tourist café, travel agent or your hotel to arrange car rental. Car rental will include a driver as it is against the law for foreigners to drive in Vietnam without a Vietnamese license. Motorbikes are available for about US$10 per day. • Train Trains from Saigon train station (Ga Sai Gon; Tel. 823 0105; 1 Nguyen Thong Street, District 3; ticket office 7.15-11 a.m. & 1-3 p.m.) serve cities along the coast north of HCMC. Train tickets can be purchased from Saigon Railways Tourist Services (Tel. 836 7640; fax 837 5224; 275C Pham Ngu Lao Street; 7.30-11.30 a.m. & 1-4.30 p.m.) or from most travel agents. • Boat Hydrofoils (US$10, 1 hour 15 min) depart for Vung Tau almost hourly from Bach Dang jetty on Ton Duc Thang Street (contact Petro Express, Tel. 821 0650 at the jetty). Travelers who have time can ask (at the dock, Ham Nghi Street, at the river end, Tel. 829 7892) for departures to destinations in the Me Kong Delta like An Giang, Vinh Long, Ca Mau, My Tho, among others. Tickets can be purchased on the boat.