Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - Stein Travel
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Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, better known by its former name of Saigon, is a brazen, industrious and dense metropolis, the largest city in Vietnam and the business capital of the country. With a population of five million, it is crowded, noisy and dirty, yet it is also exciting and historic, the essence of the nation.

Located on the Saigon River on the edge of the Mekong Delta, Saigon became the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam and was the American headquarters during the Vietnam War. Two years later the Communist north took control of the country, the city's name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City, and recession and poverty ensued.

Today Ho Chi Minh City has a cosmopolitan and energetic atmosphere, and having actively welcomed the new capitalist principle, the business-minded spirit of the people is much in evidence. Although relatively modern, it has still managed to hold onto its Asian character, and fine restaurants, smart hotels and chic bars line the sidewalks crammed with noodle stands, markets and shoeshine boys. The buzzing of motorbikes and scooters merges with the cries of street vendors and the urgent business of stall owners, selling barbecued dog, writhing snakes and tropical fruits. The sight of a family of four balanced precariously on a scooter, a squealing pig strapped onto the back of a bicycle, bowed heads topped by pointed lampshade-style hats and orange-clothed monks are just some of the vibrant images the city has to offer.

Although overshadowed by modern and Asiatic influences, a little of Ho Chi Minh City's French colonial charm still remains, evident in the graceful architecture, wide boulevards, and a sidewalk cafe society. It is not for the attractions that one visits Ho Chi Minh City however, but for the vibrancy of its street life, and its proximity to the Mekong Delta.

Information & Facts

Climate

Ho Chi Minh City is in the tropics, and very close to the sea, so its climate is steadily warm to hot all year round. Temperatures are slightly cooler between December and April, which is also the dry season. Rains begin in May and become heavy from June to August, but the showers are sudden and short, with the sun usually reappearing fairly quickly. There is a danger of typhoons from July to November.

Eating Out

The flavours one experiences when dining out in Ho Chi Minh City will linger on the palate long after you've finished eating. Vietnamese cuisine makes use of the freshest ingredients, ensuring a taste sensation every time. Dishes are anchored around herbs such as lemongrass, mint, Vietnamese mint, long coriander and Thai basil leaves with lean, healthy meat like pork, chicken, fish, and various kinds of seafood. Fish sauce and soy sauce are used to season dishes instead of salt.

Visitors will be able to enjoy a wide array of restaurants specialising in cuisines from all over the globe peppered along the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. With everything from French and Italian to good old American burgers and fries, travellers will find something to suit their taste.

Some of the best areas for dining out in the city are round the Ben Thanh Market where some of the best local fare can be samples, including dishes like mien ga (vermicelli, chicken, and mushrooms in a broth-like soup) and the Vietnamese staple, pho (noodle soup). Dine on a riverboat while you float along the Saigon or grab your meal on the go from one of the city's popular street vendors - the choices are endless!

Getting Around

This hectic city boasts the world's most chaotic traffic, much of which consists of bicycles and motorcycles. It is tempting to want to hire a bike and join in the fray, and they are available, but it can be a nerve-wracking experience piloting your own vehicle. A better option is to flag down a motorcycle taxi and negotiate an hourly rate. Another alternative is a 'cyclo', but tourists will need to negotiate a fee before getting in. Most of the major hotels and restaurants attract concentrations of taxicabs that can be hailed from the roadside, or ordered by telephone. Most tour operators offer the services of a car and driver for the day.

Language

The official language in Vietnam is Vietnamese. Some Chinese, English and French are spoken. Tour guides can also speak Russian and Japanese. Numerous ethnic languages are also spoken in parts.

Money

The official currency is the Dông (VND). There are no smaller denominations. Currency can be exchanged at banks, bureaux de change, hotels and on the black market. Visa, MasterCard and American Express are becoming more widely acceptable, particularly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but it is best not to rely on them elsewhere. It is recommended that visitors bring travellers cheques in US Dollars, which can be cashed at major banks in the main cities and tourist areas. US currency acts as unofficial tender and is useful as a back-up when banks won't cash travellers cheques outside the main cities, but notes must be relatively new and unmarked. Dông can be withdrawn from ATMs, which are becoming more widespread.

Night Life

Its nightlife gained notoriety during the Vietnam War for its girly-bars but a lot has changed recently thanks to Vietnam's tourist boom. Ho Chi Minh City's nightlife has grown and diversified considerable, and while not rivalling the range of entertainment of other Southeast Asian destinations, it's still guaranteed to do the job.

With everything from rooftop bars and lounges to pubs and nightclubs playing all the latest dance hits, travellers looking to let loose on a night out on the town will have plenty of options in this bustling, neon third-world city.

Start off at the Rex Hotel's a trendy Rooftop Garden for drinks where you can watch the sunset over the busy streets where the flicker of streetlights and neon begin to come to life before heading out to District 1 where the funky bars and fashionable clubs can be found, particularly on the streets around Dong Khoi and Hai Ba Trung. Travellers should also head to the Apocolypse Now bar and club, a popular spot for expats and other westerners, where party goers can make use of the bar, dance floor pool tables and café.

The International Tourist Club disco and karaoke bar in the New World Hotel is a must for a night of fun and singing, or head over to the The Metallic Bar on Ba Huyen Thanh Quan in District 3 for live gigs from local rock bands or for something completely different, Bonsai Cruise on Nguyen Van Thu St. in District 1 operates Saigon River dinner cruises, the perfect way to relax and spend a lazy evening.

Travellers should also note that many of Ho Chi Minh City's bars and nightclubs close early by big city standards, around midnight or when the last customer leaves so anyone looking to keep going until the early hours of the morning will be sorely disappointed.

Shopping

Travellers in Ho Chi Minh City will at first be overwhelmed with the amount of stalls and roadside vendors that cram the sidewalks and street corners, but there are plenty of bargains to be found amongst the usual tourists tat and counterfeit handbags.

Best buys include silk clothing and other hand-woven fabrics, bamboo ware, ceramics and boxes and vases made from lacquer ware, while traditional Vietnamese hats can be found just about anywhere and tailor-made clothing is popular too.

Most of Ho Chi Minh City's shopping can be done from the local markets and street vendors where polite haggling is expected, especially at the Anh Dong Markets in District 5 or the Ban Thanh indoor market in downtown Saigon.

Shoppers looking for something a little more upmarket should head to Dong Khoi Street in District 1 where designer stores, boutiques, antique stores and jewellery stores abound while bargain hunters will also be pleased to know there is a duty-free store on Nguyen Hue Blvd in District 1 which specialises in duty-free items such as perfumes and colognes.

Most shops in Ho Chi Minh City are open daily from 8am to 8pm.

Time

Local time in Vietnam is GMT +7.

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