Words by Dawn Bradnick @DawnJorgensen
Ho Chi Minh City, commonly known as Saigon, is a buzzing metropolis in southeast Vietnam with a population of just under 9 million. The capital of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1975, Saigon played a pivotal role in the Vietnam War when it served as the headquarters of U.S. military operations. Today a place where motorcycles rule the roads and timeless incense-infused temples sit alongside chic designer malls and sleek 21st-century skyscrapers, HCMC is a dizzying adrenaline-fuelled assault on the senses and instantly commands your undivided attention.
The informal name of Saigon remains in daily speech and there is a technical difference between the two terms. Saigon commonly refers to the city center in District 1, while Ho Chi Minh City reflects the entire modern city with all its 19 urban and 5 rural districts. The most popular with visitors being District 1, 3 and 7.
The heart of the city is adorned with elegant tree-lined roads and historic French colonial buildings. The main sites in the city centre include the Reunification Palace, City Hall, the Opera House and City People’s Court. Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Palace, built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, is a landmark in Saigon.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is a cathedral located downtown that was built in the late 1880s by French colonists. Located in Paris Square, the name Notre Dame was given after the installation of the statue ‘Peaceful Notre Dame’ in 1959. Adjacent is the Ho Chi Minh City Post Office, one of the most iconic tourist destinations in the city. Inside, if you’re lucky, you’ll find 88-year-old Duong Van Ngo, the only remaining public writer who pens letters for those who cannot write themselves.
The War Remnants Museum comprises a series of themed rooms and exhibits in several buildings with graphic photographs and accounts documenting the atrocities of the Vietnam War. It is the most visited site in the city and should not be overlooked. On the outskirts of the city are the Cu Chi tunnels, a sprawling underground tunnel complex used by Viet Cong soldiers.
But eating is what you’ll want to do in Saigon and the city boasts a multitude of restaurants and some of the best street food in the world. Try typical Vietnamese dishes such as Pho soup and Banh Mi French influenced sandwiches. For a touch of voyeurism and look into the city’s nightlife, visit Bui Vien Backpacker Street in District 1, which is lined with bars, food stalls and nightclubs.
The Ben Thanh Market is the place to go for clothes, spices, food and local handcrafted souvenirs. Saigon Square is a shopper’s paradise for people seeking branded items at reasonable prices, with the basements level offering an array of restaurants and coffee shops, the other levels everything from cosmetics, clothing, coffees and locally produced products. Dong Khoi street in the old colonial heart of Ho Chi Minh City is dotted with upmarket fashion boutiques and stylish cafés.
For locally grown organic farm products, preserves, coffee, honey and more, find the L’angfarm Store on Tran Hung Dao Street in District 5, one of a chain of beautiful specialty store. Go to any Tous les Jours bakery for delicious French influenced pastries and coffees, and don’t overlook a stop for a freshly squeezed orange juice on the street.
With the chosen mode of transport in Ho Chi Minh motorbikes, you’ll find over 8 million pulsing through the streets at any given time, making crossing the road quite the challenge. The dizzying, chaotic whirl breathes a different kind of life into the city. Beyond the bikes, metered taxis are plentiful and public buses run on the main routes. Tickets can be purchased on the bus and there’s an app that shows you their routes and running times. That said, Grab (South East Asia’s Uber) is likely the best way to get around, be it by bike or by car. On the app simply select your preference for the trip.
Hotel Majestic Saigon on the picturesque riverside corner of Dong Khoi and Ton Duc Thang street has been one of the city’s landmark hotels since 1925. If you aren’t staying there, pop in for a gin and tonic overlooking the Saigon river. Fusion Suites Saigon on a quieter street lined with decades old trees offers contemporary spacious rooms, a rooftop restaurant and health focussed café on the ground floor. The Park Hyatt, New World Saigon Hotel and The Reverie Saigon remain staples for luxury accommodation in the city. Across the river in District 2, the traditional expat area, you’ll find the exceptional 8-roomed Asian chic River Cottage. For a more affordable option, try the charming and well-located Silverland Jolie Hotel & Spa. Booking your accommodation is district 1 will place you in the heart of the city where the best restaurants and attractions are to be found, but you’ll find affordable hotels and apartments throughout Ho Chi Minh.
The Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport is the main passenger airport serving Ho Chi Minh City and is located about 20 minutes drive from the city. The largest airport in Vietnam, it sees an estimated 15.5 million passengers per year.To get there look at flights with Emirates, Qatar Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Air France and British Airways. Domestic flights within Vietnam can be booked with national carrier Vietnam Airlines and low-cost VietJet Air.
Preferred Spots in Ho Chi Minh City
A special find is the Ho Chi Minh City Book Street located at Nguyen Van Binh Street in District 1, a pedestrianised alley lined with libraries, photo displays and charming book stores. Seek out the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas in District 5, a secluded, off-the-beaten-path attraction in Ho Chi Minh City famous for its enormous display of ornate statues of Buddhist deities.
For a high-end treat, head to the Saigon Skydeck at the Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest buildings in Ho Chi Minh City. This modern skyscraper was built by Ecuadorian architect Carlos Zapata and designed to resemble a lotus, Vietnam’s national flower. Here you’ll find spectacular 360 degree sweeping views of the city and iconic 49th floor heli-pad.
Visas: South African citizens can apply online to receive a 30 or 90 day single or multiple entry visa on arrival.
Currency: Vietnamese Dong. A traditional banh mi sandwich will cost no more than R15.00.
Language: Vietnamese, but English is widely spoken in the cities.
Weather: The best time to visit Vietnam is February to April, and August to October. The temperatures are more moderate and rainfall lighter during these months.