HO CHI MINH CITY (about 1,700 kilometers from Hanoi) is reckless, fast-paced and hedonistic city with a short history. Situated on the Saigon (or Dongnai) River about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from the South China Sea, it lies on the eastern edge of the Mekong Delta and is connected to the Mekong River by a network of canals. Unlike relatively quiet and quaint Hanoi, Saigon is busy place running headlong into the future. Everybody seems to be in a hurry around the clock. Most locals still call the city Saigon—only bureaucrats and tourists call it Ho Chi Minh City, and even they often refer to it as HCM City or HCMC.

HCMC is Vietnam's largest city and river port. Its sprawl stretches from the shores of the South China Sea to within a few kilometers of the Cambodian border. There are 22 districts (15 urban and 7 rural) with 75 percent of the population in the urban districts. Only a few degrees above the Equator, the city has a tropical, monsoon climate with an average annual temperature of 83°F. April is the hottest month with an average temperature of 86°F. There are two seasons-rainy (from June to November) and dry (from December to April). Average number of rainy days annually is 159, with 90% of the rainfall occurring in the rainy season.

Greater Ho Chi Minh City covers 2,095.5 square kilometers and is home to around 9 million people (2020). It is Vietnam's southern commercial center and largest city. People in Hanoi will tell you it the second the most important in Vietnam after Hanoi but Saigonese will that is not true. Ho Chi Minh City is not only a commercial center but also a cultural, scientific, technological, industrial and tourist center. The city is bathed by many rivers, arroyos and canals, the biggest river being the Saigon River. The Port of Saigon is accessible to ships weighing up to 30,000 tons, a rare advantage for an inland river port.

Ho Chi Minh City, the Pulse of Vietnam?

There is an old saying that Ho Chi Minh City is 30 years behind Taiwan and Thailand and Hanoi is 30 years behind Ho Chi Minh City. The last part of this saying may be true but Ho Chi Minh City has made up considerable ground on Bangkok and Taipei, but still has some way to go, and that is not all bad. Although HCMC has its share of glass-and-steel buildings and billboards advertising foreign brands, old neighborhoods remain and goods enter they center by way of dozens of canals that lace the city. Hawkers on the streets offer everything from ear cleaning to pirated vidoe games. It still lacks a subway system.

Emily Brady wrote in the New York Times, “With only three centuries of history, compared with Hanoi’s thousand years, the city has a youthful spirit and is quick to embrace change. This is not the Saigon familiar to the West in films like “Apocalypse Now”; it’s a forward-looking city, home to glittering skyscrapers, innovative fashion and a pulsing night life. As Vietnam’s largest city, it has an energy and noise level that can be at once exhilarating and wearying. Sure, you can still catch an occasional glimpse of picture-postcard Vietnam, like an old woman in a conical hat pedaling a bicycle, but she’ll most likely be lost in a sea of motorbikes, rumbling toward the future. [Source: Emily Brady, New York Times, December 18, 2008]

According to the New Yorker” Ho Chi Minh City is a single-mindedly commercial place. Lined with pushcarts and venders selling everything from soup to CDs, the streets are roaring rivers of Chinese two-stroke motorcycles. The exhaust fumes are so thick that Saigon’s famously beautiful women have started covering their faces with scarves. “We are all Muslims now,” says Viet, my Honda man, on the back of whose motorcycle I travel around the city.

In a survey of 46 Asia-Pacific cities by the Hong Kong-based Business Traveler, Ho Chi Minh City was ranked as the No. 6 on the list of the ten worst cities in the region. Only Dhaka, Guangzhou, Delhi, Bombay and Karachi ranked lower. Yes, the air of Saigon is filthy and the canals are foul (some families draw drinking and washing water from the same canals where they relieve themselves and toss rotted vegetables), but trees and parks fill up much of the city and cyclos and bicycles still course through the streets, but they are overpowered by the million of motorcycles and motorcycles that have become symbols of Ho Chi Minh City rise. The population of Ho Chi Minh City is expected to rise to 12 million in 2020. The largest ethnic groups in the region are the Viet (Kinh, Vietnamese), Hoa, Khmer and Cham.

History of Ho Chi Minh City

Unlike old Hanoi, which was founded in A.D. 1010, Saigon was little more than a hamlet until 1859, when the French captured it and transformed it into the "Pearl of the Orient," a bustling center of commerce in what became known as French Cochin China. before the French took over the most important town in the area was Cochin, a town founded by Chinese in 1788. At that time merchants from China, Japan and many European countries would sail upstream the Saigon River to reach the islet of Pho, a trading center. Cochin is still around and so are the Chinese.

The Port of Saigon was established in 1862. In 1874, Cholon merged with Saigon, and this grew into the largest city in Indochina. During much the French colonial period Saigon was a lazy colonial outpost surrounded by rubber plantations. Saigon grew from about 400,000 people to one million during World War II when hundreds of thousands fled to the city during the Japanese occupation. After that war many of the 900,000 or so non-Communists that fled from North Vietnam after it was taken over by the Viet Minh fled there also.

Until 1975, Saigon was the capital and largest port in South Vietnam.After the arrival of the Americans in 1960s, Saigon expanded again, this time into a center of decadence and sin, filled with brothels with mini-skirted prostitutes and opium dens and gambling halls with marijuana-smoking and drug-taking GIs attempting to forget and exorcize their battlefield demons in intense bursts of reckless partying.

After the end of Vietnam war in 1975 the Communist tried to neuter Saigon's spirit by giving it a new name (Ho Chi Minh City), and outlawing anything that hinted of capitalism and the United States. For more than a decade Saigon slept. But when the market reforms were enacted in 1986, Saigon was reborn and the dealmakers, hucksters, drug dealers and prostitutes that prospered in the 1960s returned.

Today, Ho Chi Minh City accounts for one third of Vietnam's $15 billion economy, contributes one third of both the national budget and industrial output and takes in a third of foreign investment that flows into Vietnam. For a while the per capital income of Ho Chi Minh City was three times the national average. Money flows freely; deals are made around the clock; and capitalism has taken hold with an urgency that is not found in Hanoi.

Travel Information for Ho Chi Minh City

Tourist Information: HCMC Visitor Information and Support Center, Address: 188 Ph m Ngũ Lão, Phư ng Ph m Ngũ Lão, Qu n 1, Thành ph H Chí Minh 710100, Vietnam; Hours: 9:00am-8:30pm; Tel: +84 28 3920 3040. There are other HCMC Visitor Information & Support Centers at Phư ng 10, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and Nam Kỳ Kh i Nghĩa, Phư ng 6, Qu n 3, Thành ph H Chí Minh, Vietnam. These places operate more like travel agencies than tourist information offices. There are also tourist information offices at Tan Son Nhat International Airport and at the railway station, but they usually don't have much stuff. Many budget traveler make travel arrangements through the Sing Cafe and other cafes and travel agencies s around the backpacker guesthouse area around Pham Ngu Lao Street. Ho Chi Minh City has tourist police.

Traveling and Transportation in Vietnam: The easiest way to get most anywhere in Vietnam is through a tour organized in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City or another major tourist town. Usually you can work out something with the staff of your hotel. If you want to shop around there are plenty of tour agencies on the streets of the tourist areas or on the Internet. For long distances you are best taking a flight. Air Asia serves many places but the flights often originate in Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam Airlines, budget carrier VietJet Air and Jetstar Pacific Airlines, a unit of Vietnam Airlines, all operate domestic routes. The trains are okay but the destinations they service are limited. It is possible to take local buses and minibuses but traveling that way is hassle and time-consuming: you have to deal with language issues, scheduling, locating where the buses leave and often crowded, hot conditions on the buses.

Climate: Ho Chi Minh City has a a subequatorial climate and is generally hot and humid. There are two distinctive seasons: the rainy season, from May to November, and the dry season, from December to April. The annual average temperature is 27 degrees C. Average monthly sunshine reaches from 160 to 270 hours, average humidity is 79.5 percent. April has the highest average monthly temperature (30.5 degrees C), December has the lowest (26 degrees C). The city has rainfall averaging around 1934 millimeters. In the May-to-November rainy It usually rains late in the of day, quite hard but for short time. Sometimes it continually rains all day.

Orientation and Layout of Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is divided into 12 urban districts and 6 rural districts. The districts in the city are numbered 1 through 12 and the districts in the rural districts are named after six revolutionary leaders: Go Vap, Binh Thanh, Thuc Duc, Nha Be, Tan Bihn and Phu Nhuan districts.

The streets have names and Western-style addresses. Most places of interest to tourists are on west side of the Saigon river from which canals and side rivers branch out across the city. Cholon (Chinatown) is located in a different area about three kilometers from the city center.

Most of the major top-end hotels are around city center on Tu Do Street and Nguyen Hue Street, which shoot out perpendicular from the river, and Le Loi Boulevard. Major landmarks include the Rex Hotel (intersection of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi Blvds), Notre Dame Basilica Cathedral (Tu Do Street), Ben Thanh Market (at a large roundabout on Le Loi Boulevard) and the Pham Ngu Lao Street backpacker area (about 500 meters southwest of Ben Thanh Market).

Administrative divisions: Districts: District 1, District 2, District 3, District 4, District 5, District 6, District 7, District 8, District 9, District 10, District 11, District 12, Tan Binh, Binh Thanh, Phu Nhuan, Thu Duc, Go Vap, Binh Tan,Tan Phu; Rural Districts: Nha Be, Can Gio Hoc Mon, Cu Chi Binh Chanh.

Accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City

Most of the top-end hotels are around the Rex Hotel (at the intersection of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi Blvds, (141 Nguyen Hue Boulevard; 84-8-3829-2185; www.rexhotelvietnam.com). The Rex was a famous officer and journalist hang out in the Vietnam War. Other famous hotels include the Continental (featured in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American ) and the Floating Hotel (towed from Australia to the banks of the Saigon River). Developers from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere built more than a dozen hotels that opened since the late 1990s. One is a five star luxury hotel with a $1,000-a night presidential suite. More hotels of the same ilk have been built since then.

Most backpackers and budget travelers stay around Pham Ngu Lao Street (about 500 meters southwest of Ben Thanh Market). There are several dozen of guesthouses, mini-hotels and hotels here as well as restaurants, shops and travel agents that offer reasonably-priced tours. Other hotels and guesthouses are scattered around town.

The tourist office in Ho Chi Minh City and the hotel information desk at the airport can help you find three star hotels and up. The Lonely Planet books have good lists and descriptions of cheap accommodation options. Hotel touts often wait outside the airport and train station for new arrivals. Taxis drivers can take you some place if you are stuck.

Saigon has a Marriot, Hyatt and Ramada Inn. The ultra-swank Caravelle Hotel (19 Lam Son Square; 84-8-3823-4999; www.caravellehotel.com) overlooks the opera house and the Saigon River, and has 335 sleek rooms, starting at about $230. In the early 2000s the Caravelle Hotel was rebuilt and looks like a Hyatt.

Across the square is the historic Continental Hotel (132-134 Dong Khoi Street; 84-8-3829-9201; www.continental-saigon.com). Founded by a Frenchman in 1880, the hotel was a popular watering hole for journalists during the war. It has high ceilings and lots of carved wood. Rooms start at $125. It was remodeled and lost some of its charm More modest digs include the modern Elios Hotel (233 Pham Ngu Lao Street; 84-8-3838-5584; www.elioshotel.vn), a new, 90-room guesthouse overlooking a leafy park in Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker district. Rooms with a view start at $80, including breakfast. See Famous Hotels Under Sights.

Transportation in Ho Chi Minh City

Taxis, cyclos and motorcycle taxis are cheap available. Don't bother with the buses. Ho Chi Minh City is not nearly as bicycle friendly as Hanoi. Even so, there are spme places that rent bicycles around Pham Ngu Lao Street. They charge a few dollars a day and accept a driver license as a deposit. Jeremy Laurance wrote in The Independent, “Outside the Rex hotel in the center of Saigon the evening rush hour is a scene of motorised pandemonium. Tens of thousands of scooters sweep along the six- lane highways, blithely ignoring the rules of the road, like herds of migrating wildebeest across the Serengeti plains.[Source: Jeremy Laurance, The Independent, February 27, 2006]

According to ASIRT: “Traffic congestion is an increasing problem. Congestion in the city is causing backups on main roads leading to the city. Road crashes are frequent. Roads are crowded with pedestrians, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, buses and trucks. Few drivers obey the traffic laws. There increasing numbers of traffic lights, but many drivers do not stop for red lights. Horns are constantly being sounded. Motorbikes and bicycles are involved in many road crashes. [Source: Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 2008]

Taxis are easiest to find near larger hotels and restaurants. Taxi drivers may to go incorrect destinations or take circuitous routes. Construction of the first metro route (Ben Thanh- Suoi Tien) begin in 2009. Current public transport system has the capacity to meet 5% of the city’s needs. Motorbikes and bicycles are not as easy to rent as in other cities.

Ho Chi Minh City as a Transportation Hub for Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City is the main junction for trains, roads, water, and air transportation systems for domestic trips and for foreign destination. By road Ho Chi Minh City is 1,730 kilometers from Hanoi, 99 kilometers from Tay Ninh, 30 kilometers from Bien Hoa (Dong Nai), 70 kilometers from My Tho, 125 kilometers from Vung Tau, 168 kilometers from Can Tho, 308 kilometers from Dalat, and 375 kilometers from Buon Ma Thuot. National Highway 13 connects Ho Chi Minh City with the rest of Indochina. Train: Thong Nhat express train connects Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, via many provinces in Vietnam. The Saigon Railway Station (ga Sai Gon) is located is District 3 at 1 Nguyen Thong. .

Tan Son Nhat International Airport, seven kilometers from center of city, is the biggest airport in Vietnam with many domestic and international routes. Metered taxis and private cabs are available from the airport. For security, note taxi’s registration number. Airport Taxi provides transport to the city center at a set price. Shuttle service is available from many hotels. Book in advance.

Vietnam Airlines Sales Office: 116 Nguyen Hue Street, District 1, Tel: 3823 0695; Fax: 3823 0273. See Airports. Domestic Flights from Ho Chi Minh City: Buon Ma Thuot , 23 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 162, 261, 01h00'14 flights/ week, Air Mekong, 00h50'; Ca Mau , Daily, Vietnam Airlines, 154, 248, 01h50'12 flights/ week, Vasco, 01h00'; Chu Lai, Daily, Air Mekong, 01h40'; Can Tho , 5 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 81, 130, 00h45'; Con Dao , 14 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 154, 248, 01h00'14 flights/ week, Air Mekong, 00h45'24 flights/ week, Vasco, 01h00'Da Lat, 14 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 133, 214, 00h50'Daily, Air Mekong, 00h45'; Danang , 70 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 375, 604, 01h10'; Dong Hoi , 4 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 463, 745, 01h35'; Nha Trang , 28 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 198, 319, 00h55'; Hai Phong , 28 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 691, 1,112, 02h00'; Hanoi , 30 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 707, 1,138, 02h00'Hue, 25 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 392, 631, 01h20'; Pleiku , 14 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines238, 383, 01h05'Daily, Air Mekong, 00h55'; Phu Quoc , 72 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 188, 303, 01h00'30 flights/ week, Air Mekong, 00h50'; Rach Gia , Daily, Vietnam Airlines, 120, 193, 00h45'; Quy Nhon , 8 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 268, 431, 01h10'Daily, Air Mekong01h05'; Tam Ky , 4 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 347, 558, 01h40'; Tuy Hoa , Daily, Vietnam Airlines, 238, 383, 01h15'Daily, Vasco, 01h15'; Vinh , 21 flights/ week, Vietnam Airlines, 549, 884, 01h45'.

Bus Stations: Many travelers sign up for buses at the Sinh Cafe and other cafes, guest houses, hotels and travel agencies in the Pham Ngu Lao Street backpacker area. Otherwise, there are thee major long distance bus terminals: Cholon Station (near Binh Tay Market) and Mien Tay Bus Station (near Cholon Station) handles buses to the Mekong Delta; Mien Dong Station (3 miles form the city center in Binh Thanh District) handles to Hanoi, Hue, Pleiku and other destinations in the north.

Bus Stations: 1) An Suong Station, Address: Highway 22, Ba Diem, Hoc Mon Dist., Tel: 3891 8798, For buses to Tay Ninh; 2) Ben Thanh Station, Address: Ham Nghi Road, Dist.1, Tel: 3821 7182, For buses to Vung Tau City and Cu Chi Dist. 3) Cho Lon Station, Address: 86 Trang Tu Str., Dist. 5, Tel: 3855 7719, For buses to Mytho City and My Thuan (Mekong Delta). 4) Mien Dong Station, Address: 227/6 Highway 13, Binh Thanh Dist. Tel: 3898 4899, For buses to the north andVung Tau City. 5) Mien Tay Station, Address: 137 Hung Vuong Str., Binh Chanh Dist. Tel: 3877 6593. For buses to the south and Mekong Delta.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated August 2020

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