Officially named ‘Ho Chi Minh City’ yet still known to locals as ‘Saigon’, this flourishing city is a true economic powerhouse. It has more in common with nearby Bangkok than its sedate compatriot Hanoi, which lies over 1,000 miles to the north. Indeed, Saigon is the larger of the two cities, with a population thought to be around 8 million, though it’s hard to imagine how a census can be taken amidst the chaos. It’s a youthful city that oozes such an energy and optimism that even the Vietnamese can’t resist the draw of its streets – Saigon is packed with émigrés from all over the country, including a large number from the proud northern capital.
Saigon has spent most of its history in a state of constant turmoil; French colonials, Japanese invaders and the American-sponsored anti-communist regime all had their time here before Ho Chi Minh’s forces took over in 1975 and renamed the city in his honour. Then, during a period of strict ‘corrective’ communist measures, there was famine and a massive outflow of boat people until a belated decision in the late 80’s saw market forces embraced. Saigon has not looked back.
The French legacy is certainly still evident in several key colonial buildings, but whilst Saigon may have been known as the ‘Paris of the East’ in the 60s, these days it’s a bit of an architectural shambles. Juggling past with the present is what makes Saigon such a uniquely compelling place for the visitor. After you recover from the initial shock of Saigon’s frantic street life, it’s easy to be swept up in the infectious positive energy. Exploring the history, the food, the shopping and gazing at the constant activity will easily keep you busy for several days in the Vietnamese capital-in-all-but-name.