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Ho Chi Minh City, better known by its former name of Saigon, is an industrious and dense metropolis, the largest city in Vietnam and the business capital of the country. With a population of roughly nine million, it is crowded and noisy, yet also exciting, a historic city that encompasses the essence of the nation.
Located on the Saigon River on the edge of the Mekong Delta, Saigon became the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam and was the American headquarters during the Vietnam War. Two years later the Communist north took control of the country, the city's name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City, and recession and poverty ensued.
Today, Ho Chi Minh City has a cosmopolitan atmosphere and, having actively welcomed capitalism, its citizens are clearly business-minded. Although relatively modern, it has still managed to hold onto its historical character, and fine restaurants, chic hotels and bars line the sidewalks. The buzzing of motorbikes and scooters merges with the calls of street vendors and the urgent business of stall owners, selling a range of delectable street food and exotic delicacies. The sight of a family of four balanced precariously on a scooter, a squealing pig strapped onto the back of a bicycle, bowed heads topped by pointed lampshade-style hats and orange-clothed monks are just some of the vibrant images the city has to offer.
Although overshadowed by modern and Asiatic influences, a little of Ho Chi Minh City's French colonial charm still remains, evident in the graceful architecture, wide boulevards, and a sidewalk cafe society. It is not for the attractions that travellers visit Ho Chi Minh City however, but for the vibrancy of its street life, and its proximity to the Mekong Delta.
The disturbing War Remnants Museum highlights the horrors of modern combat, and especially portrays the suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War. Its former name, the Museum of American War Crimes, was altered so as not to cause offence to American visitors, but the museum's displays still give an anti-American perspective.
The museum houses a collection of weapons, machinery, artefacts and horrific photographs illustrating the devastating effects of napalm, Agent Orange and other weapons of mass destruction.
One room is dedicated to biological warfare, including the effects of the defoliant sprays that were dumped over the country. Another room looks at worldwide demonstrations for peace and international opposition to the war. In the courtyard there are tanks, helicopters, planes and bombs on display.
Cholon, the Chinese district of Saigon, is comprised of a dense network of vibrant streets and alleyways. It was first settled by the Chinese Hoa merchants at the end of the 18th century, and is now the home of Vietnam's biggest ethnic minority community. Cholon diverges from the conventional 'Chinatown' set up that exists in many prominent cities the world over, largely due to its impressive expanse.
When visitors enter Cholon, the difference in environment is immediately noticeable. Mandarin signposts lead into a fascinating labyrinth of temples, restaurants, exotic stores, medicine shops and markets. The best place to experience the bustle of trade is at the crowded Binh Tay Market, where the corridors are filled with stalls offering a variety of exotic produce, from live tethered ducks to nuts and seeds, as well as other household items.
There are several temples of interest in Cholon, including the Quan Am Pagoda with its ornate exterior, Phuoc An Hoi Quan Temple, its roof exquisitely ornamented with dragons and sea monsters, and the Thien Hau Pagoda dedicated to the goddess of the sea.
Located in District One, this area of Saigon is known as South Vietnam's backpacker district. Stretching along the streets of De Tham, Pham Ngu Lau and Bui Vien, Pham Ngu Lao is often compared to the more famous Khao San road of Bangkok, and is a similar amalgamation of bars, guesthouses, restaurants, souvenir shops and small travel agencies.
Known also to be an expat playground, these bars stay open later than most in the city. The prominent Go2 Bar is the most popular among tourists but dozens dot the area. Day trips to the Mekong Delta or the Cu Chi tunnels are easily organised in any of the travel agencies as well as transport to most of Vietnam. Although prices vary the trips usually are the same despite the agency.
Located in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1, Ben Thanh Market is one of the destination's best known landmarks. It is often hot, crowded and frantic, but it's a great place to buy local handicrafts, branded goods and souvenirs. A wet market at the back sells every kind of food imaginable. It is rumoured that buyers will be given their purchases in differently coloured bags according to their bargaining ability, as a sign to other vendors. The market is open daily from 7am to 6pm, but an outdoor night market and food stalls that surround the area are open until much later.
The best way to cool off in the hot dusty city is the Dam Sen Water Park. The water park is set within three hectares of Vietnamese gardens and is the centre of a larger theme park complex. Among all the rides there is a great selection of water slides which hurtle passengers, full speed, up railings and down steep drops. The large wave pool offers more relaxing fun and the wide stream encircling the park is a great place to float under the hot sun. There is also a designated section of the compound for relaxing away from the excited crowds.
Ho Chi Minh City is in the tropics, and very close to the sea, so its climate is warm to hot all year, with temperatures averaging between 70°F (21°C) and 90°F (32°C) all year round. Temperatures are slightly cooler between December and April, which is also the dry season. Rains begin in May and become heavy between June and August, but the showers are sudden and short, with the sun usually reappearing fairly quickly. There is a danger of typhoons from July to November. The best time to visit is in the cool, dry season, between December and April.
The flavours on offer when dining out in Ho Chi Minh City will linger on the palate long after the last morsel has been eaten. Vietnamese cuisine makes use of the freshest ingredients, dishes are anchored around herbs such as lemongrass, mint, Vietnamese mint, long coriander and Thai basil leaves. Known as the culinary capital of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City offers a mix of delectable street food, casual dining and modern Vietnamese restaurants.
Visitors will also be able to enjoy a wide array of restaurants specialising in cuisines from all over the globe, peppered along the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. With everything from French and Italian to good old American burgers and fries, travellers will find something to suit their taste.
Some of the best areas for dining out in the city are around the Ben Thanh Market, where some of the best local fare can be sampled, including dishes like mien ga (vermicelli, chicken, and mushrooms in a broth-like soup) and the Vietnamese staple, pho (noodle soup). Travellers can dine on a riverboat while they float along the Saigon or grab their meal on the go from one of the city's popular street vendors - the choices are endless!
Serving some of Ho Chi Minh City's finest pho, Pho 24 is a popular chain restaurant serving up Vietnam's staple for a number of years. The choices aren't that exciting, but meat lovers will enjoy the pho with beef fillet and fat brisket, or pho with chicken, while vegetarian options are available too. Open for lunch and dinner.
For travellers who are feeling a little homesick, Al Frescos offers good old America fare that most western visitors will enjoy. From ribs, burgers and pizzas to tex-mex, steaks and fries with lashings of ketchup, Al Fresco's has it all. Open daily for breakfast lunch and dinner.
With local cane furniture, low lighting and three storeys to choose from, Lemongrass makes the perfect location for a romantic dinner in Ho Chi Minh City. Its lunch menu's not bad either. This eatery has been serving local Vietnamese fare to visitors and locals for years and comes highly recommended. Serving healthy and light dishes, the menu is varied, incorporating seasonal flavours and ingredients and catering to all tastes. Guests should try the soup or spring rolls and the deep-fried prawn in coconut batter. Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Its nightlife gained notoriety during the Vietnam War for its girly-bars but a lot has changed recently thanks to Vietnam's tourist boom. Ho Chi Minh City's nightlife has grown and diversified considerably, and while not rivalling the range of entertainment of other Southeast Asian destinations, it's still guaranteed to do the job.
With everything from rooftop bars and lounges to pubs and nightclubs playing all the latest dance hits, travellers looking to let loose on a night out on the town will have plenty of options in this bustling, neon city.
Visitors can start their night off at a rooftop bar or beer garden, from where they can watch the sun set over the busy streets before heading out to District 1. Here the bars and fashionable clubs can be found, particularly on the streets around Dong Khoi and Hai Ba Trung. Travellers can expect to encounter many popular spots for expats and other westerners, where party goers can make use of the bar, dance floor and pool tables.
When visitors start feeling more confident, they can try their hand at hitting those high notes at one of the many karaoke bars, for a night of fun and singing. Then they can head over to District 3, where they can attend one of the nightly live gigs, including local rock bands. But if travellers are after something special and really different, they should hop on one of the many dinner cruises that operate from District 1 and cruise down the Saigon River in style. This is the perfect way to relax and spend a lazy evening.
Travellers should also note that many of Ho Chi Minh City's bars and nightclubs close early by big city standards, around midnight or when the last customer leaves so anyone looking to keep going until the early hours of the morning will be sorely disappointed.
Travellers in Ho Chi Minh City will at first be overwhelmed with the amount of stalls and roadside vendors that cram the sidewalks and street corners, but there are plenty of bargains to be found among the usual tourist wares and counterfeit handbags.
Best buys include silk clothing and other hand-woven fabrics, bamboo goods, ceramics, boxes and vases made from lacquer ware, while traditional Vietnamese hats can be found just about anywhere. Tailor-made clothing is also popular.
Most of Ho Chi Minh City's shopping can be done from the local markets and street vendors where polite haggling is expected, especially at the Anh Dong Market in District 5 or the Ben Thanh indoor market in downtown Saigon.
Shoppers looking for something a little more upmarket should head to Dong Khoi Street in District 1, where designer stores, boutiques, antique stores and jewellery stores abound, though bargain hunters will be pleased to know there is a duty-free store on Nguyen Hue Boulevard in District 1, which specialises in duty-free items such as perfumes and colognes.
Most shops in Ho Chi Minh City are open daily from 8am to 8pm.
This city has some of the world's most chaotic traffic, much of which consists of bicycles and motorcycles. It is tempting to want to hire a bike and join in the fray, and they are available, but it can be a nerve-wracking experience for travellers to pilot their own vehicle. A better option is to flag down a motorcycle taxi and negotiate an hourly rate. Most of the major hotels and restaurants attract concentrations of taxi cabs that can be hailed from the roadside, and taxis can also be ordered by telephone. Most tour operators offer the services of a car and driver for the day.
Ho Chi Minh City stands out as Vietnam's premiere commercial metropolitan and is without a doubt the embodiment of big city life in the country. As such, its major attractions include massive markets in the city's Chinese district, the famous nightlife of District One, various museums, French colonial buildings and older remnants of past emperors.
As with Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City offers a blend of traditional, colonial and modern sites. War museums and history museums tell of the recent American invasion and earlier conflicts with European powers, while the Reunification Palace celebrates Vietnam as a nation.
Hidden within this hectic metropolis are temples, secluded gardens and cloisters that offer a brief reprieve from the whirr of activity. Rural Vietnam is also never too far away, so it's easy to leave the city for some fresh air among rice paddies, to visit a small village or retreat to a tiny temple in the surrounding country before plunging into the city once more.
The frantic construction of modern skyscrapers and office blocks is apparent everywhere, and the Saigon Skydeck Tower with its 360° viewing deck is the perfect lens through which to view this sprawling city in its entirety. It is this mixture of youthful flair, old-world charm and the ease of escaping to the tranquillity of rural life that makes this destination so unique as a meeting place of history and modernity.
The Cu Chi Tunnels system is an underground network of tunnels dug in the 1940s by the Vietnamese as a place to hide during the fight against the French. The network was later expanded and used in the American War. Today the system is more than 150 miles (250km) long.
It is comprised of winding tunnels and unlit offshoots, secret trap doors connecting narrow routes to hidden shelters, local rivers and tunnels reaching to the Cambodian border. It was once a sprawling city of improvised hospitals, living quarters, kitchens and fresh water wells, with some tunnels barely large enough to wriggle through. The plan was to launch surprise assaults on the enemy, and then disappear; this strategy was so successful that the superior firepower of the French and American armies was insufficient in the face of continuous ambushes in which the assailants seemed to vanish into thin air.
Today many of the tunnels have been enlarged to allow visitors the dirty and claustrophobic experience of crawling through a portion of the underground network, past secret trapdoors and booby traps laid against invasion. The two main sites, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, are different in that one was constructed specifically for tourists (Ben Dinh) and the other was actually used in war (Ben Duoc). Due to their popularity with tourists, hard-sell vendors can be a constant hassle among the touring throngs.
The delta is a vast network of waterways formed by the Mekong River. It is surrounded by a fertile patchwork of endless green rice paddies, orchards and swamplands, where most of the country's rice is grown. Not only does the Mekong River irrigate what is known as 'the rice bowl of Vietnam', it also serves as a vital form of transport.
A unique way of life has evolved among the villagers that have lived on or beside the river for centuries. The best way to experience the delta is by boat, joining the rowing boats and fishermen, rickety houseboats, ferries and traditional sampans on the brown water. On the banks are small villages, vegetable gardens, fish farms and stilted houses. Trading is carried out between boats at floating markets, where whole sections of the river are covered by bobbing merchants who advertise their wares, often hung from long bamboo poles.
There are several towns in the region from where visitors can arrange boat trips, if not already on an organised tour. Tourists should try to avoid the rainy season, as the tides may be too high for canal travel. There is an impressive range of local dishes on offer and, besides seafood, there are opportunities for adventurous travellers to sample snake, eel and bat.
Mui Ne is Vietnam's most western style resort beach. The city itself is a typical Vietnamese fishing community sporting a fleet of beautiful fishing boats but with little to see or do in town. The beach beside it, however, is home to luxury resorts and hotels, while cheaper guesthouses can be found across the road or closer to town.
A variety of water activities are available including surfing, kite surfing, jet-skiing, and sailing. The young and tireless will enjoy the beach and roadside bars where cheap drinks and electro music carry on late into the night. Most parts of the long six mile (10 km) stretch of beach resemble the tropical paradise Mui Ne has always been toted as, but other sections have experienced coastal erosion. Travellers should keep this in mind when selecting a resort.
There are red-coloured sand dunes close to town, but beyond those lie much larger white sand dunes, which are worth the extra half-hour trip. For a small tip, children will rent out sand sleds and demonstrate how to surf the dunes. One of Vietnam's top golf courses is also just outside the city. Mui Ne is a scenic five-hour motorbike trip from Vung Tau or five to seven-hour highway bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City.
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