Vietnam is a popular destination for Australians and in normal times we travel there a lot. With a flight time of less than nine hours between Sydney and Ho Chi Minh City, we regard it and South-East Asia generally as almost local compared with the much longer journey times to other continents.
I’m of a generation that finds it hard not to call this city Saigon, but whichever name it goes by it has, in my opinion, lost a lot of its old colonial charm. Parts of the metropolis resemble any other big city and at least one of its grand old colonial hotels is now little more than a giant wedding venue. English author and Saigon aficionado Graham Greene must be turning in his grave.
That said, there is still much of interest to see in Ho Chi Minh City and its history alone begs a visit. The city is a maelstrom of people and traffic and navigating through it can be a nightmare. But there are rewards in the many examples of beautiful French colonial architecture including the People’s Committee Building, Central Post Office and the Municipal Theatre (Saigon Opera House).
Pictured below is the former Presidential Palace – now known as Independence Palace or Reunification Palace – where the first communist tanks arrived on 30 April 1975 and crashed through the original wrought-iron gates – a scene shown countless times on newsreels.
Hotel Continental, the Rex (my favourite), the Majestic and the Caravelle are among Saigon’s grand old colonial hotels. Indulge in a drink at the Rex Hotel’s Rooftop Garden Bar, from where you can gaze out over the city. Opposite the Hotel Continental is the Vincom Centre, a bastion of international consumerism with more than 250 shops and multiple food outlets. It is the city’s largest shopping mall.
Bến Thành Market is located in the centre of the city in District 1 and is a hugely popular attraction. The market is one of the earliest surviving structures in Ho Chi Minh City and an important symbol of the city. It operates all year round and opens at around 6am every day until the official closing time of 6pm, after which it converts into a night market that runs until 10pm.
A rickshaw or “cyclo” ride around Cholon in District 5 will get you up close and personal with one of the city’s old quarters. Cholon lies on the west bank of the Saigon River with Bình Tây Market as its centrepiece. By contrast the Bitexco Financial Tower in the city centre can hold its own with any big-city skyscraper and it affords spectacular views from its Sky Deck.
An hour’s drive or 45 kilometres north-west of Ho Chi Minh City are the Cu Chi tunnels, a must-see attraction for military history buffs. Communist forces began digging the first of these tunnels beneath the jungle in the late 1940s, during their war of independence from French colonial authority.
In the early 1960s, as the United States began escalating its military presence in Vietnam and Australia joined the war, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops gradually expanded the tunnels. They were used to launch guerrilla attacks and as shelter from the aerial bombing, and eventually grew to house entire underground villages.
At the peak of the Vietnam War, the network of tunnels linked Viet Cong support bases over a distance of some 250 kilometres, from the outskirts of Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border.
There are two display sites where you can descend and crawl through the tunnels, but don’t attempt it if you are claustrophobic. There is also a rather noisy shooting range onsite and a restaurant.
The Mekong Delta
While in Ho Chi Minh City it is worth taking a boat ride along the Mekong River to witness the way of life along the river banks and visit the floating markets.
Cai Rang is the largest floating market in the delta and it can be reached from the city of Can Tho, about 170 kilometres south-west of Ho Chi Minh City. Be prepared to start early as the floating markets open around dawn and are all over by mid-morning, before it gets too hot.
Photos ©Judy Barford