As you first cast eyes upon the city passing through swarms of mopeds and round dusty street corners it would be easy to misread exactly what Ho Chi Minh is all about. As a booming business hub that’s at the heart of Vietnam’s modernising economy, Ho Chi Minh is one of Asia’s true gems, offering everything from stunning French colonial architecture with its very own Notre Dam Cathedral, to war museums showcasing the country’s sobering history, and vibrant artisanal coffee houses. Here are five insights into Asia’s most dynamic destination!
Before 1975 when South Vietnam gained independence from the north, Saigon was known by the French colony of Cochinchina – the country’s capital. In fact historically, Saigon is a three-time former capital of Vietnam, as the country changed dynasties and palaces dozens of times over the years before settling on Hanoi as its capital in 1976. It wasn’t until the Vietnam War ended that Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City as we know it today.
Vietnam has one of the highest vehicle densities in the world, and a whopping 1.5million motorbikes pass through Ho Chi Minh every day, far outweighing the number of cars on the road by as much as 25! The rules of the road are centred on two wheels here, with yellow lights symbolising divers to ‘go faster’ and pedestrians being courteous to motorbikes. If you’re worried about crossing the road when visiting, fear not, as there’s one golden rule that will always keep you safe – keep walking forward and in a straight line.
Although steeped in history and centuries-old tradition, Ho Chi Minh is one of the world’s most up and coming business hubs and has seen rapid modernisation in recent years. There are almost 5,000 five-star hotel rooms scattered around the city – a number that is forever growing in line with its visitors’ lust for luxury. The luxury hotels in Ho Chi Minh are some of the world’s most extravagant and all out eccentric, with the likes of the Reverie Saigon boasting design from the world’s most famous designers and a collection of artefacts that wouldn’t be out of place in a museum.
Image source: The Reverie Saigon
Although Miss Saigon went on to become the longest running London musical of the 20th century and has been produced in 25 countries, across 12 languages and 250 cities, never has it been produced in Vietnam. That said, Vietnam has its own production to be proud of – the water puppet theatre. Having originated in a rice paddy field neighbouring the Red River Delta back in the 11th century, the ancient art form remains an iconic cultural draw for tourists today. Although performances are entirely in Vietnamese, guests are delighted by the ornamental-style puppets, authentic Vietnamese music and the charm of it all.
A hot, steamy bowl of pho is the go-to dish for the people of Ho Chi Minh as the nation’s staple, served for breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every day – but this wasn’t always the case. Pho only became the city’s favourite dish when wartime refugees from the north fled down south, recipe in hand. Of course it’s been given a southern twist ever since, with the addition of bean sprouts, lime and basil. You’ll find stark contrasts between southern and northern Vietnamese food, with each town or city having a delicacy. When in Ho Chi Minh, be sure to try banh mi, one of the country’s most famous exports, as well as broken rice, a southern Vietnamese dish that uses cast-off rice, mixed with veggies and shredded pork.