Discover the hidden treasures of Ho Chi Minh City with our Saigon and Beyond series’. Country Manager Ed Pettitt shares his 3 tips to find the subtle charms of Saigon!

When arriving into Ho Chi Minh city – also known as Saigon, it isn’t always obvious what makes the city quite as interesting as it is. Gone are the busy backstreets of Hanoi and the beautiful architecture of Hoi An, replaced by something altogether more modern. But first impressions can be deceiving and Saigon might just end up being your favourite place in Vietnam.

I have travelled through the city a number of times and have always enjoyed the one or two days spent in a coffee shop or slurping a Pho Bo. The wide boulevards of districts 1 and 3 quite literally offer a breath of fresh air from the cramped alleyways of Hanoi and coupled with all the creature comforts the city has to offer, things can be very easy. But I have never seen Saigon as a rival to the northern cities; it just doesn’t offer the same mix of culture and craziness that makes Vietnam such an interesting country to explore. Well I have recently returned from a two week stay and I am very pleased to say I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I found was a city every bit as interesting and charming – and crazy to boot.

Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it has been called since a tank burst through the gates of the Presidential Palace (now Reunification Palace) in 1975, is a relative youngster when it comes to Vietnam. Carved from the twisting waterways of the Mekong Delta region in 1698 it quickly became the administrative southern capital of the Hue rulers. With Vietnam’s rice bowl on its doorstep, it is little wonder things moved quickly, and by the time the French arrived in 1859 the city was well and truly a regional superpower. Caught in the cataclysmic events of the war, the city saw hard times as the 20th Century went on, but today things are certainly looking up – quite literally. As skyscrapers climb ever higher, the city is positioning itself for the new century.

The iconic images of the Notre Dame Cathedral or the Central Post Office, tell of a past closer to Paris than Hanoi. Walking the streets of the central districts, you will see huge French Villas, Art Deco housing blocks and grandiose seats of government litter the streets – often set so far back from the roadside that the only give away of their existence is the sight of a huge roof of terracotta tiles. But the thing that jumped out during this stay, more than the architecture, was the atmosphere of the city. Everywhere I went I found a city buzzing – every alleyway a hive of life and activity. So here are my 3 simple things to try on your next visit to the city!

1. River Bank at Sunset

Unlike some of the great cities in the world, Saigon hasn’t really made the most of its riversides. Head down to Ton Duc Thang Street (at the end of Ham Nghi Street) and you will see the sharp end of the city. Huge cargo ships in various states of repair line the riverside. Dock cranes seem to be doing good business and barges ply their trade up and down river, shifting all manner of materials. On the other bank, palms and banana plants make for an altogether less industrial vista! Take a walk down the riverbank and follow the road back into the central city.

The river is the perfect gateway to the Delta though, many tours can be arranged to sleepy rural villages just outside of the city. Not to mention evening cooking classes on old rice barges at sunset!

2. 30-4 Park on a Sunday

Squeezed between the Reunification Palace and the Notre Dame Cathedral, 30-4 Park is a little bit of tranquillity in the heart of town. Head here on a Sunday afternoon to see a great cross section of Saigon – all here to sit, and chat with friends, and of course eat! In a city where finding street food is sometimes a little difficult if you don’t know where to look, you are sure to find a few snacks to whet the appetite.

3. Escape the Central Districts

As iconic and interesting as Districts 1,2 and 3 are – be sure to explore further afield so as not to miss the real city! The backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao has some great backstreets to explore, where alleyways can become so small you will wish you hadn’t had that extra large Banh My (Vietnamese sandwich) for lunch! If you want to see a side of Saigon away from the crowds, head to Cho Lon. The famous market is one thing, the surrounding streets are where the action is! Look out for my up-coming piece on Cho Lon!

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    • James
    • Asia Specialist
    • Linh
    • Thailand and Asia Specialist
    • Loc
    • Vietnam Specialist

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