Ho Chi Minh – Paris of Asia
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon is populated by more than 10 million people making it Vietnam’s largest and most chaotic city.
Hard to believe what started as a small fishing village is today the heart of Vietnam’s dynamic and booming economy. Located on the Saigon River, constant streams of cargo ships and passenger boats run between HCMC, Southern Vietnam and Cambodia making it a busy commercial and passenger port. Traffic between the port and Mekong Delta carries some 13 million tons of cargo onboard 100,000 waterway vessels every year.
Famous for the pivotal role it played in the Vietnam War, it’s also known for its historic French colonial landmarks. Known as “Paris of Asia” with its wide, elegant boulevards lined with tall evergreen trees, HCMC brings more tourists to the area than Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. You can easily walk around HCMC visiting the Reunification Palace, City Hall, the Opera House, City Post Office and Notre-Dame Cathedral. The Majestic Hotel, also from the French colonial era, along two other hotels in Ho Chi Minh, the Rex and Caravelle hotels, was where American officers and war correspondents in the 60’s and 70’s rendezvoused.
HCMC with its eclectic mix of modern skyscrapers, oriental style pagodas and food stalls forms a dynamic urban area. Back when HCMC’s level of luxury exceeded that of Hong Kong and Bangkok, it was known as the Diamond of the Far-east. HCMC’s architecture and lifestyle, in addition with its Vietnamese qualities, is a mix of American and Chinese, historical and modern and with one of the world’s highest population densities, has the craziest traffic in the world.
With over 3.5 million motorcycles in the city causing gridlock and polluting the air, it is intimidating and scary to watch the locals cross casually where there are no crosswalks or traffic lights. The pedestrians have trust that the chaotic motorcyclists will avoid colliding with them as they move forward, making a decisive path to the other side. The hordes of motorbikes move like water in a stream around a stone. So when crossing it is best not to be erratic, keep moving steadily, no stopping, but don’t move too quickly. This allows the Vietnamese people to move around the pedestrians. There is the constant sound of honking and beeping horns, everywhere you look there are people eating or preparing food.
Dong Khoi street is full of fashionable boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants. On the streets, down alleyways the continual aroma of coffee, fresh baked bread and sometimes not so wondrous things waft in the air. There are women wearing conical bamboo hats on the streets selling drinks and carrying bamboo poles balancing baskets of food or fruits.
You have unlimited choices for things to do in Ho Chi Minh, so enjoy it at your own pace, from the 21st century skyscrapers, the sophisticated designer malls and the incense filled temples. At the centre of the most beautiful intersection of HCMC is the Notre Dame Cathedral, a connection between the physical and spiritual life of the people. Built by the French from materials imported by France the cathedral was built on the highest land. Also with French influence, the Opera House, built in 1897 is surrounded by new shopping malls and hotels. Another French inspired building, the city’s striking Post Office, right across from Notre Dame was built in 1886.
The former Presidential Palace is now the Reunification Palace and thousands of tourists photograph the palace from the front gate. Cho Lon, HCMC’s Chinatown is the oldest, most mysterious part of the city. You could easily spend a whole day here, starting at Binh Tay Market where you can find a bargain lacquerware items like a boxes, trays or vases. The other market not to miss is Ben Thanh Market, a cluttered pocket of stalls where you will find everything imaginable. Wandering along the tiny, packed stalls gives a great insight into modern Vietnamese life. Outside the building flowers, produce and meat is sold.
A generation ago the city was in turmoil, today it’s a seamless blend of worlds. Not impeccably tidy like Singapore, or ubiquitous of the urban slums of India, but a unique discovery of commerce and culture.
Is Ho Chi Minh on your radar? How do you think you’d handle crossing the roads?
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