Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)


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The southern part of present-day Vietnam was part of the Indianized kingdom of Funan from the 1st to the 6th centuries AD. The region around what is now Da Nang was ruled by the Hindu kingdom of Champa from the end of the 2nd century AD until 938, when Ngo Quyen vanquished the Chinese armies at the Bach Dang River.

From the 10th century until 1858 Vietnam was divided between the northern Trinh Lords and the Nguyen Lords of the south. Together they repulsed several Chinese invasions and the Nguyen expanded its borders southwards to the Mekong Delta, including the region around present-day Ho Chi Minh City. In 1858 Da Nang was stormed by French and Spanish-led forces after various missionaries had been killed by the Vietnamese. In 1859 they seized Saigon (nowadays Ho Chi Minh City) and eight years later the French had colonized all of southern Vietnam. The colony was known as Cochin China and at the end of the 19th century it included large parts of present-day Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The colony's capital was Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

The French started remodeling the city in their usual grand style and still nowadays you can see the French' influence in Ho Chi Minh City's wide boulevards, French architecture and a devout Catholic population. Despite of all the efforts, the French never became very popular with the locals and in the decades before WWII anti-colonial groups started developing, of which the Communist Party was the most organized. They organized several successful strikes before the French decided to a brutal crackdown on the communists.

During WWII the Japanese occupied all French territories in Asia, but they too met fierce resistance from the local communists called Viet Minh, who were led by Nguyen Tat Thanh, who is better known as Ho Chi Minh. As a result of their opposition to the Japanese, both the Americans and the Chinese financially supported the Viet Minh. After WWII, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnamese independence, but that sparked violent confrontations with the French, ending with the French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. A peace treaty, negotiated in Geneva, divided Vietnam into north and south regions.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) became the capital of the south and was lead by Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic who hated the communists, who ruled the north. About 1 million refugees from the communist north started pouring into Diem's south. According to the treaty signed in Geneva in 1954, elections were to be held, but Diem, afraid he would lose to Ho Chi Minh organized a rigged referendum and declared himself president of the republic of Vietnam. In December 1960 the north replied with the formation of the National Liberation Front (known in the South as the Viet Cong) in order to 'liberate' the south from Diem's tyrannical rule. Meanwhile in the south people got tired of him as well and massive demonstrations, as well as acts of immolation by Buddhist monks culminated in the assassination of Diem by his own troops in November 1963.

The Viet Cong had begun a guerrilla-style war against the south and throughout the 1960's Western troops started arriving to assist the south Vietnamese. Most Western troops soon bailed out, except for the Americans who had some 500,000 troops in Vietnam by 1969. The conflict seemed never ending and the United States started decreasing the amount of Americans in Vietnam. In March 1975 the Viet Cong mounted a surprise attack on South Vietnam's Central Highlands and the South Vietnamese started retreating. Because of this unplanned withdrawal the Southern army panicked and this opened the way for the Northern army to gain more ground. On 21 April 1975 South Vietnam's President Thieu resigned and fled the country. His deputy was replaced after a week in charge and that replacement lasted 43 hours before surrendering to the Communists. The North Vietnamese immediately changed the name of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City.

The North Vietnamese started a program of reunification (officially called liberation) and for more than a decade children of suspected 'counter-revolutionaries' deprived of education and employment opportunities. This is one of the main reasons for present-day Ho Chi Minh City's widespread poverty, illiteracy and crime. During the reunification progress the property of hundreds of thousands of people was confiscated and large numbers of people were imprisoned in forced-labor camps for 're-education'.

After one of Vietnam's largest aides, the Soviet Union, collapsed the Vietnamese government had no choice but to seek reconciliation with the West. Ho Chi Minh City has adapted very well to all these changes and will probably become one of the region's most important metropolises.

Nowadays Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is Vietnam's major cultural and economic center. It is the country's largest city and it is very busy, sometimes chaotic. All streets are lined with shops and stalls and vendors sell their wares from blankets on sidewalks. Traffic is very busy. Cars compete with people on bicycles and mopeds, while thousands move through the city on foot. Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling metropolis where, despite of all the progress, many traditions of an ancient culture are still very much visible.

Poverty is also very much visible. People from rural areas are flocking to the city continuously, in search for a better life. They are attracted by the glitter and glamour that progress brings to Ho Chi Minh City, but unfortunately only very few manage to 'make it', while the majority is destined to a life of sadness and struggle.

The central area of Ho Chi Minh City is officially called District 1, although many people seem to be calling it Saigon. It is best to refer to it as District 1 or Ho Chi Minh City to avoid offending anyone. It is very easy to find your way in the city, especially if you compare it with other Asian cities. The Vietnamese language uses Latin-based lettering, so signs are easy to read.

When to Go

Ho Chi Minh City is only 10.5 degrees north of the equator and lies between 5 and 10 m (16-35 feet) above sea level. As a result temperatures are tropical and rarely vary from about 30°C (86°F). Unfortunately seven or eight months of the year are the wet season and heavy downpours can last for days on end. During the rain season Ho Chi Minh City is wet, sweaty and generally uncomfortable, but at least the typhoons that hit the northern part of Vietnam are rare in the south. The best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City is between December and April, when the humidity is down below 60%.

Tet, or Lunar New Year Festival is vigorously celebrated in Ho Chi Minh City. During this important event the Vietnamese gather together and hope for the future. Tet lasts for a week and usually falls somewhere between 19 January and 20 Feburary.

Places of Interest

Reunification Palace

The Reunification Palace was called Independence Palace until 1975. On 30 April of that year the government of South Vietnam was waiting on the second floor of the building, while North Vietnamese forces were crushing through the wrought iron gates below. When they offered to transfer power to the north they were told by a Viet Cong officer that 'There is no question of you transferring power. You cannot give up what you do not have.'

Nowadays the Reunification Palace is one of the most interesting sights in Ho Chi Minh City, partly because of its intriguing history and partly because of the building's striking modern architecture (The building was restored in 1966 after it had partially been destroyed in an attack by South Vietnamese forces who tried to assassinate Diem). Everything is preserved as it was on the day Vietnam reunified. The building is an excellent example of 1960's architecture. It boasts spacious chambers and tasteful modern decorations. It is still used for official functions.

In the basement is a network of tunnels and rooms. One of the tunnels runs to the Gia Long Palace, which is now better known as the Revolutionary Museum. The Reunification Palace is in District 3, in the center of town.

Giac Lam Pagoda

There are countless pagodas (places of worship) in Ho Chi Minh City, of which the Giac Lam (1744) is the oldest. Much of the building's traditional layout, structure and ornamentation has survived, as the pagoda had been neglected since 1900, while many other pagodas in the city have been altered and modernized. The Buddhist Giac Lam Pagoda is home to ten monks and it also incorporates Taoism and Confucianism.

At the entrance are several ornate tombs and a white statue of Quan Thew Am Bo Tat, the Goddess of Mercy. Inside are the portraits of monks that once served there and there is also a sanctuary with gilded figures. Four times a day prayers are held and joined by a blend of chanting, bells, gongs and drums. The Giac Lam Pagoda is north of Cholon (Chinatown) in District 10, about 1 km (0.6 miles) northwest of Phu Tho Stadium.

War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum was once called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, but when tourists started bringing in the needed Dollars, the name was changed to avoid offending them. At the reception though, as pamphlet is handed out entitled 'Some Pictures of US Imperialist Aggressive War Crimes in Vietnam'. Despite of this, the museum is very popular with Western visitors and it is a good place to realize that most wars do not have any winners, only losers.

There are many photographs, as well as U.S. armored vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons. A guillotine that the French used to get rid of Viet Minh 'troublemakers' is also on display. Although the museum is not a fair representation of events in Vietnam in the 1960's and 1970's, the displays succeed in showing the fact that wars are brutal and that civilians are usually the biggest losers. The War Remnants Museum is not far northwest of the Reunification Palace in District 3 in the center of Ho Chi Minh City.

Binh Soup Shop

The Binh Soup Shop was the secret headquarters of the Viet Cong (VC) in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) during the 1960's and 1970's. Before the massive Tet Offensive, during which the Viet Cong overran South Vietnam and eventually stormed the U.S. embassy, the soup shop was the base where all the plans were made. All its waiters, waitresses and cooking staff were VC infiltrators. Nowadays it's just a soup shop again, where tasty Pho is served. The shop can be found in District 3.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi is a district of greater Ho Chi Minh City, but during the Vietnam War (known as American War in Vietnam) it was the site of intense action. At the time the area was only some 40 km (25 miles) from the city, but nevertheless it was controlled by the Viet Cong (VC) through a system of tunnels. At the height of the conflict, the tunnels stretched from Saigon through to the Cambodian border. In the Cu Chi district alone there were over 250 km (155 miles) of tunnels, some several storeys deep.

Parts of the system have been upgraded and enlarged and can be visited. They give a good idea of the conditions within the system. The tunnels included rooms that served as kitchens, living areas and hospitals. There was also a network of trap doors to guard against gas and water attacks. Smoke from the kitchens was led through a system of narrow canals before it was let out to the open. This way most of it was absorbed by the ground and by the time it reached the surface it could hardly be noticed anymore.

The town of Cu Chi is northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. It is best visited on an organized tour, as public transportation to the area is very unreliable.

Other Places of Interest

Other interesting sights in Ho Chi Minh City include the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, Cholon market and the former U.S. embassy, scene of such havoc during the 1975 evacuations.

Around Ho Chi Minh City

There are numerous public swimming pools in Ho Chi Minh City, as well as several golf courses. Ho Chi Minh City is best seen on foot and walking tours are available. Operators also offer day trips to the nearby cities of Tay Ninh and Vung Tàu, which are both quite interesting.

Transportation

Ho Chi Minh City is an excellent place to explore on foot, but it you want to use other forms of transportation, metered taxis, cyclos (pedicabs) and motorbike 'taxis' are all available, as well as a mysterious public transportation system. Cyclos are the most favorite among travelers, while the routes and timetables of the city's bus system are a constant mystery. It is also possible to rent mopeds or bicycles. When walking around, try to do as the locals do. When crossing the road, take it slowly, do not sprint to the other side, but go slow. Avoid any unexpected or sudden moves, but just straddle to the other side and the traffic will mostly try to avoid you.

Since Ho Chi Minh City lies on the Saigon River, you can also see the city from a boat. Small boats are widely available and numerous destinations are served along the banks of the river or one of several long canals.

Tan Son Nhat International Airport is only 7 km (4.3 miles) from the city center and served by metered taxis, cyclos (pedicabs), motorbike 'taxis' and trains. The airport has connections with 11 domestic destinations, as well as most major international airports. The infamous Reunification Express train from Hanoi arrives from the north into District 3, just north of the city center.

Buses connect Ho Chi Minh City with numerous towns throughout the region. They are cheap, but usually unreliable and unsafe. They run from a variety of locations around the city, including Cholon (for Mekong Delta connections) and the Binh Tranh District (for all northern destinations). Buses to Cambodia and Laos are also available in Ho Chi Minh City.

Accommodation and Food

There are numerous cheap hotels around Pham Ngu Lao Street in the west of District 1 and in Cholon (Chinatown). There are also many places around Dong Khoi Street in the east of District 1, but they are generally more expensive.
You will find a whole host of restaurants and eateries around Pham Ngu Lao Street and De Tham Street.

On Sundays and holidays the central area of Ho Chi Minh City is absolutely packed with young people during the nights, celebrating their day off and driving around on mopeds to see and be seen. In many of the larger hotels are discos and karaoke bars, but Western places such as the Hard Rock Cafe are also available. Most forms of entertainment can be found in downtown Ho Chi Minh City along Mac Thi Buoi Street, while the area around the Municipal Theatre is the place where most young hipsters congregate.

Ho Chi Minh City is in the south of Vietnam, 1140 km south of Hanoi.


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Miscellaneous Information

Latitude:    10 49 N
Longitude: 106 39 E
Elevation:  10 m (33 ft.)

Population: 7,000,000
Cost-of-living compared to Washington D.C.: n/a

Hours from UTC: 7
Daylight savings time: n/a

City phone code: 808
Country phone code: 84

Average Weather Patterns

 TemperaturePrecipitation
January26.4°C (79.5°F)1.5 cm (0.59 in)
April29.7°C (85.5°F)4.3 cm (1.69 in)
July27.5°C (81.5°F)31.5 cm (12.4 in)
October27.2°C (81°F)26.9 cm (10.59 in)

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