Ho Chi Minh City
HO CHI MINH CITY (HCMC for short), still known as Saigon to its seven million or so inhabitants, is Vietnam's centre of commerce and the country's biggest city by far, though not its administrative capital – an honour that rests with Hanoi. Fuelled by the sweeping economic changes wrought by doi moi in 1986, this effervescent city, perched on the west bank of the Saigon River, is in the throes of a programme of re-invention shaking it to its French-built foundations. Years of rubbing shoulders with the consumer-oriented Americans made the Saigonese wise to how to coin a profit. Now they are pressing old, near-forgotten skills back into service, as the market economy shifts into gear again, challenging Singapore, Bangkok and the other traditional Southeast Asian powerhouses.
All the accoutrements of economic revival – fine restaurants, flash hotels, glitzy bars and clubs, and shops selling imported luxury goods – are here, adding a glossy veneer to the city's hotch-potch landscape of French stones of empire, venerable pagodas and austere, Soviet-style housing blocks. The city's architecture has been termed "tropical Baroque" – an apt description of the once-grand but now weather-beaten buildings scattered through the city. Sadly, Ho Chi Minh City is still full to bursting with people for whom economic progress has not yet translated into food, housing and jobs. Street children range through tourist enclaves hawking books, postcards, lottery tickets and cigarette lighters; limbless mendicants haul themselves about on crude trolleys; and watchful pickpockets prowl Dong Khoi on the lookout for unguarded wallets. Indeed, begging is now of such epidemic proportions in Ho Chi Minh City that tourists must quickly come to accept it as a hassle that goes with the territory. In addition, the arrival, en masse, of wealthy Westerners has lured many women into prostitution, for which the go-go bars of Dong Khoi became famous during the American War.
If Hanoi is a city of romance and mellow charms, then Ho Chi Minh is its antithesis, a fury of sights and sounds, and the crucible in which Vietnam's rallying fortunes are boiling. Few corners of the city afford respite from the cacophony of construction work casting up new office blocks and hotels with logic-defying speed. An increasing number of cars and minibuses jostle with an organic mass of state-of-the-art jeeps, landcruisers, Hondas and cyclo, choking the tree-lined streets and boulevards. Amid this melee, the local people go about their daily life: schoolgirls clad in the traditional silk ao dai glide past streetside baguette-sellers; women shoppers ride Hondas clad in gangster-style bandanas and shoulder-length gloves to protect their skin from the sun and dust; moneyed teenagers in designer jeans chirrup into mobile phones; and Buddhist monks walk with measured pace from shopfront to shopfront in search of alms. Adding a cosmopolitan dash to the mix is the influx of Western tourists and expats in the last decade or so, many of them French and American. Much of the fun of being in Ho Chi Minh City derives from the simple pleasure of absorbing its flurry of activity – something best done from the safety of a roadside café. To blink is to miss some new and singular sight, be it a cyclo piled high with wicker baskets of fruit, or a boy rapping out a staccato tattoo on pieces of bamboo to advertise noodles for sale.
It's one of Ho Chi Minh City's many charms that once you've exhausted, or been exhausted by, all it has to offer, paddy fields, beaches and wide-open countryside are not far away. The most popular trip out of the city is to the Cu Chi tunnels, where villagers dug themselves out of the range of American shelling. The tunnels are normally twinned with a tour around the fanciful Great Temple of the indigenous Cao Dai religion at Tay Ninh. A brief taster of the Mekong Delta at My Tho or a dip in the South China Sea at Mui Ne are also eminently possible in a long day's excursion.
The best time to visit tropical Ho Chi Minh City is in the dry season, which runs from December through to April. During the wet season, May to November, there are frequent tropical storms, though these won't disrupt your travels too much. Average temperatures, year-round, hover between 26 and 29°C; March, April and May are the hottest months.