Nestled beside the emerald flow of the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City is among Asia’s most evocative and dizzying cities, and one driven onward by the boundless spirit of its people. Once labelled the ‘Diamond of the Far-East’, Ho Chi Minh City has a colourful, tumultuous history to impart, and a limitless array of cultural highlights to savour.
From the moment you step off your Scenic Space-Ship in this enigmatic Vietnamese city, you’ll be struck by its exoticism and vibrancy. Marrying 19th century French colonialism with the contemporary architecture favoured by many cities on the Asian continent, Ho Chi Minh City boasts an extraordinary skyline which serves to reflect its rich diversity.
Today, Ho Chi Minh is among Asia’s most progressive and up-and-coming cities, characterised by its cultural opulence and unfailingly friendly people. From traditional Vietnamese street vendors to the most jaw-dropping of inner city skyscrapers, this is a city of contrast, and one that provides the ultimate stop-off on any Asian river cruise.
Despite its sprawling cityscape, Ho Chi Minh City is derived from the humblest of origins. Formally known as Saigon, the city began life as a small fishing village on the banks of the Saigon River, and was originally inhabited by a tribe called the Khmer people, who prospered here from 800BC right up until the 17th century.
It was then that Vietnamese settlers began to colonise the area, forcing the Khmer people into an isolated area of the Mekong Delta. Eventually, the Khmers became a minority, and had lost a handle on the city altogether by the end of the century. The Vietnamese subsequently began a vast development project headed by Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh, a noblemen widely credited with the expansion of Ho Chi Minh City as it stands today.
In 1859, the French conquered Vietnam, beginning a long period of colonisation. The city changed dramatically under French rule, with Western-style buildings and French villas erected throughout the city. Saigon’s population doubled between the 1860s and 1930s, and it didn’t regain its independence from France until 1955.
After the Second World War, Vietnam was divided between the communist north and the capitalist south, and tensions soon escalated between the opposing states. In 1961 the US intervened in the country, thus instigating the start of the infamous Vietnam War. The conflict lasted until 1975, when the US finally withdrew its troops from the country after Saigon fell to the communist regime. Despite the huge loss of life, North and South Vietnam reunified the following year. In the aftermath of the war, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh.
From the ancient to the modern, Ho Chi Minh City is teeming with cultural treasures which hark back to the ancient and not-so-distant past. Here, we look at a handful of the highlights you can expect during a visit to the city.
CU CHI TUNNELS
For those interested in unearthing the history, and horrors, of the Vietnam Conflict, the Cu Chi Tunnels ought to be your first port of call. Stretching for miles beneath the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh, these subterranean passageways were used by Viet Cong fighters to protect themselves from aerial bombardment, and often featured larger bunkers where troops could rest safely. As US troops approached, the Viet Cong booby-trapped the tunnel entranceways with vicious traps that were nearly impossible to detect. While we’d recommend visiting this unnerving post-war relic, we’d advise that they aren’t for the faint of heart.
SAIGON OPERA HOUSE
One of Vietnam’s finest examples of French colonial architecture, the Saigon Opera House is an impressive 800-seat auditorium which is still used as a performance venue today. After taking in the exquisite architecture of the building itself, be seated for the incredible Cirque du Soleil-esque performance of the AO Show — one of Ho Chi Minh’s most celebrated theatre productions.
PARIS SQUARE & CITY HALL
Experience the depth of Ho Chi Minh City’s French influence by paying a visit to the aptly named Paris Square. Located close to the centre of the city, this Parisian themed plaza is dominated by the twin spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral, a smaller but no less impressive version of the French original. After you’ve explored the quaint gardens in the middle of the square, negotiate your way to Ho Chi’s City Hall — arguably the city’s most beautiful French colonial buildings.
WHERE TO SHOP
Heavily influenced by French colonialism, Ho Chi Minh City has retained a Western attitude to retail — offering a vibrant mix of shopping opportunities across the city. Whether you’re looking for an authentic souvenir, high-end designer brands, or a fragrant food market, there are lots of opportunities to splash the cash in the Vietnamese capital.
BEN THANH MARKET
If you’re feeling brave and fancy tasting a handful of local delicacies, make for Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh’s largest open-air food and crafts arcade. With a roster of handcrafted items on offer, this is the perfect place to pick up something special for a loved one back home, or else sample some of the city’s more exotic cuisines. We’d recommend Com Tam, a rice dish made from grilled pork, fried egg, spring onion and pork skin.
Claiming the mantle as Ho Chi Minh City’s largest shopping mall, the Vincom Center contains over 250 stores spread out across two separate buildings. The original building, Vincom Center A, is a charming, low rise colonial structure featuring a number of international flagship stores, including Hugo Boss, Hermes and Ralph Lauren. Meanwhile, Vincom Center B is a towering contemporary skyscraper, brimming with high street brands and charming homeware stores.
DONG KHOI STREET
Those with a penchant for high fashion will love the independent boutiques which flank Dong Khoi Street, one of the oldest streets in Ho Chi Minh City’s downtown district. With independent apparel, gift and homeware stores aplenty, this is the perfect place to visit for those keen to splash the cash on something exclusive and unique during their time in the city.
If Ho Chi Minh City sounds like the perfect place to while the day away during a stimulating river cruise, Scenic can transport you there thanks to our selection of luxury Asian river cruises. To find out more, visit the homepage or call us on 0808 159 9468.