Ho Chi Minh City
Known as Saigon among the locals, Ho Chi Minh has a burgeoning arts and music scene. As dusk falls, enjoy the sunset in a chic rooftop bar.
While Hanoi is the seat of government, Ho Chi Minh City – still known as Saigon among locals – is the commercial heart of the nation. What's more, its burgeoning arts and music scene means Hanoi's mantle as the cultural capital is in serious danger of slipping.
In many ways, arriving in HCMC from Hanoi feels like stepping into the country's future, if not another country entirely. Not only is the accent a million miles away from that in the north, so is the pace of life, the can-do business attitude and the nightlife scene. While the bars of Hanoi begin to close up around 10pm, the party hasn't even got started in HCMC's chic rooftop bars, mammoth megaclubs or the backpacker haven of Pham Ngu Lao.
This is a city with an inescapable buzz and definite sense of purpose. Development is happening at a frenzied pace, with large scale expansion underway across the banks of the Saigon River. The distinct shape of the Bitexco tower downtown stands proud neatly encapsulating the city's grand ambition.
Even in the face of this modernity, HCMC retains much of its heart. The grand avenues and green spaces laid out by the French remain perfect for weekend walks and the chaotic trading of Chinatown has lost none of its furore.
An intoxicating mix of old and new, Saigon has pulled off the neat trick of balancing tradition and modernity. In the process, one of Southeast Asia's most richly rewarding cities has emerged.
The city's climate splits into the wet and dry seasons. From December to April it is largely dry, with high humidity from February to May. Expect rains, sometime very heavy but not often prolonged, from May to November.
Singaporeans and citizens of other ASEAN member states can visit Vietnam for 30 days without a visa. Visitors arriving directly from other countries must arrange for a visa in advance.
Vietnam dong. There are ATMs and a couple of currency exchange counters at the airport. In town, ATMs can be found easily, and almost all banks offer a foreign currency exchange service.
The best way to reach the city from the airport is by taxi. Numerous firms stand outside - look for the green VinaSun cars. All taxis run on a meter and slips are given indicating your taxi's number. In the city, cheap metered taxis are everywhere. Some are more reputable than others - stick to VinaSun. The smaller the cab, the lower the fare. The other option is a xe om motorcycle taxi which can be found on almost every corner. Haggle your price with a smile then hang on tight for a fun and fast way to see the city. Less common, but also lots of fun are the pedicabs.
HCMC remains fairly safe, but reports of theft are more common here than in Hanoi. Take care around the Pham Ngu Lau area late at night. The traffic is more orderly than in the capital but it still pays to be extra cautious when crossing the streets. The tap water is not safe to drink, but ice is generally fine. There is no malaria risk here, but the small risk of Dengue fever is present.
|How are you?||Moi vi-uhk te nao?|
|Fine, thanks||Van tot, kam urn|
|Excuse-me! (to get attention, to get past)||Sin choo i!|
|Thank you||Kam urn|
|What's your name?||Ten ban la ji?|
|My name is…||Ten toi la…|
|Pleased to meet you||Rat voo-i dew-urk lam kwen|
|Are you on Facebook/Twitter?||Ban ko Facebook/Twitter kog?|
|Where’s an internet café?||Internet cafe ur doh?|
|Where can I get a taxi?||Toi ko tei goi se taxi ur doh?|
|Where is the bus/train station?||Tram se boo-yit/tram se lur-a ur doh?|
|A one-way/return ticket to…||Mot ve mot chi-yoh/koor hoi den…|
|Do you have a room for one/two?||Ban ko fog kog cho mot/hai gew-ur-i?|
|When's check out?||Ki nao tra fog?|
|Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar?||Ban ko te jur-i ti-yoh mot na hag/kwan rew-uru gon kog?|
|A table for two, please||Sin cho mot ban cho hai|
|A menu, please||Cho sem tur-k dur-n|
|The bill, please||Voo-i log cho sem hwa durn|
|Where's the toilet?||Na vei shin ur doh?|
|Help!||Kur-ew toi vur-i!|
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Notre Dame Cathedral
The French colonial architect Pavrard designed the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral to represent the glory of the French empire and mirror the original Notre-Dame de Paris. Inaugurated in 1880, making it the oldest church in Vietnam, this was one of France’s most ambitious projects in Indochina at the time; bricks used in the construction were shipped from Marseilles in France. Visit just before 5pm when the city's Catholics descend for evening Mass.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
One of the city’s most colourful and captivating places of worship is the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Built in 1909 by Cantonese Buddhists who settled in Saigon, its unique interior architectural style is heavily influenced by southern Chinese elements. A dense fog of smoke from spiral incense coils suspended from the rafters envelops a fascinating array of weird and wonderful elaborate statues – some Buddhist, others Taoist-inspired. The ornately robed Jade Emperor surveys the main sanctuary from his central altar.
Bitexco Financial Tower
HCMC’s loftiest building, the Biextco Tower is a stunning, 68-storey creation, designed to resemble a lotus bud. It is Vietnam’s second-tallest structure after Hanoi’s Landmark Tower. Its Saigon Skydeck gives panoramic views and features a touch-screen monitor that allows visitors to call up information on major landmarks. The helicopter pad that juts out 22 metres/yds on the 52nd floor includes a bar and restaurant. A small exhibition explains how the tower was constructed, using 6,000 individually cut glass panels.
War Remnants Museum
A visit to the War Remnants Museum is a sobering reminder of the heavy toll of war. A series of numbered exhibition halls displays the horrors of the French and American wars; these include graphic photographs, bell jars of deformed foetuses showing the effects of US-sprayed chemical defoliants, plus a guillotine used by the French and mock-up of the notorious 'tiger cages'. The poignant Requiem Hall features a large collection of photos taken by 134 photojournalists from 11 nations, themselves killed during both conflicts. Although the exhibits are distressing to see, this is one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions.
About 5km (3 miles) west of downtown, HCMC’s sprawling Chinatown, or Cholon, is a bustling place packed with Chinese shops and French architecture. 'Cho Lon' translates as 'big market', and aptly describes this endlessly buzzing maze of streets and alleyways. Ethnic Chinese (Hoa) originating from southwest China first settled here in the late 18th century. Cholon, which is largely contained within District 5, is a great place simply to wander around, taking in the sights and smells, particularly along Trieu Quang Phuc Street, where all manner of herbs are sold.
Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market offers practically every conceivable product at countless stalls. Still a market for locals, this is more an experience than a shopper's paradise for tourists, although ever more tourist kitsch is being added. After browsing, head to the food stalls at the rear for some excellent, cheap dishes. Come sundown, the Ben Thanh Night Market springs into action, operating until late at night along the streets immediately surrounding the building with some fantastic makeshift food stalls serving more authentic Vietnamese fare.
HCMC is an easy place to keep little ones entertained and there are plenty of options that are fun for big kids too. Start your day at Saigon’s tallest building, the iconic Bitexco Tower. The Skydeck on the 49th floor gives unparalleled views across the sprawling metropolis. From here you can point out your next destination – the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens.
Next door to the Museum of Vietnamese History (far from a child-friendly attraction), the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens has a vast collection of animals, with 800 specimens of 120 species, many of which are endangered. Most popular with kids are the tigers, giraffes and elephants. Time your visit with the mid-afternoon feeding times. Another highlight is the dedicated children’s centre with its goats and sheep.
Next up, head to Dam Sen Park, where theme park rides will keep the whole family happy for hours. Expect a haunted castle, 4-D cinema, Ferris wheel and roller-coaster. Kids will also enjoy a ride in the 2km (1-mile) -long monorail and checking out the sea life centre.
When the afternoon heat picks up, cool off in the ever popular Dam Sen Water Park. A series of pools, slides and wave machines provide hours of fun. Thrill-seekers should shoot down the Kamikaze Slide or brave the darkness of Black Thunder.
If you have any energy left, spend the evening at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. Daily shows run at 5 and 6.30pm.
Bitexco Tower, Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Dam Sen Water Park , Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre.
Start your day soaking up some of the culture of 18th-century Saigon in the form of Cholon, aka Chinatown. Take a walk along Trieu Quang Phuc Street where spice shops and medicine traders still ply their trade, and the smell of incense wafting from richly decorated Chinese temples creates plenty of atmosphere.
Next up, head back downtown to soak up some art at the Fine Arts Museum. Here, cultural influences from France are evident in both the classic colonial architecture and the impressionist works on show. Recent efforts to restore the building have gone some way to bringing back its former grandeur, although its slightly ramshackle nature lends it a certain endearing charm.
Continuing your cultural quest, head north to the Museum of Vietnamese History. Also housed in a glorious colonial building, it tells the story of Vietnamese history and culture from its birth right up to 1945 – the year the Democratic Republic was founded. Visitors also gain an insight into the Cham and Cambodian civilisations and how their history and culture are entwined with Vietnam's own.
For something more up-to-date, grab a slice of modern Vietnamese culture at San Art (3 Le Minh). This modern gallery and centre of collaboration is dedicated to promoting and showcasing contemporary art. Last up, for one more art fix, end your day back in District One at Galerie Quynh, where modern art from Vietnam and overseas hangs in a cool converted factory space.
Cholon (Chinatown), Fine Arts Museum , Museum of Vietnamese History, San Art , Galerie Quynh.
The best way to start the day is with a fragrant bowl of the national dish – pho bo (beef noodle soup). It can be found on almost every street in the city, but Pho Hoa, on Pasteur Street, is worth seeking out.
Next up, head further into town and work up an appetite browsing the stalls at Ben Thanh Market before hitting the outlets at its rear selling all manner of cuisines from the central coast to Saigon. Take a look at what others are eating and when you’ve found something you like the look of, simply point and take a seat. The bun thit nuong (grilled pork with fresh herbs) and banh canh cua (thick noodle soup served with crab and prawn) are two dishes not to miss.
From here, take a walk over to the Opera House and the General Post Office. Once hunger strikes, drop in at L’Usine (Dong Khoi Street), the city’s coolest café and haunt of the hipster set. Alongside the retail store selling a select group of labels, L’Usine is famed for its range of cupcakes which taste every bit as magnificent as they look.
To finish your day with some serious feasting, book a night with XO Tours or Vietnam Vespa Adventures. Both companies run whistle-stop group motorcycle tours around the best of the city’s night food spots and you’re sure to see parts of Saigon you wouldn’t reach on your own.
Pho Hoa, Ben Thanh Market, L’Usine , XO Tours, Vietnam Vespa Adventures.