Ho Chi Minh City and around

Ho Chi Minh City is a manic, capitalistic hothouse, clogged with traffic, bustling with energy and enlivened by top restaurants, shops and bars. Its streets are evidence of a vibrant historical past with pagodas and temples and a bustling Chinatown. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Saigon, the Pearl of the Orient, boomed and flourished under the American occupation. In more recent times it was the seat of the South Vietnam government until the events that led to the country's reunification.

Today, Ho Chi Minh City is dedicated to commerce and hedonistic pleasures. Officially renamed in 1975, it remains to most the bi-syllabic, familiar 'Saigon'. It is the largest city in Vietnam and still growing at a prodigious rate. It is also the nation's foremost commercial and industrial centre, a place of remorseless, relentless activity and expanding urban sprawl. For the visitor, Ho Chi Minh City is a fantastic place to shop, eat and drink, while admiring its historical past and enjoying its energetic present.

The city is surrounded by fascinating historical sites to the north and by the liquid fingers of the river delta to its south. The Mekong region is a veritable Garden of Eden, stuffed full of bountiful fruit trees, decorated in pink bougainvillea and carpeted with brilliant green rice paddies. Waterways are as busy as highways, with fishing boats chug chug chugging their way along the brown river. Elsewhere in the south, historical, cultural, religious and pleasurable treasures abound: the Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi, the fantastical Cao Dai temple at Tay Ninh and dazzling white, remote beaches at Phu Quoc.

Before the 15th century, Ho Chi Minh City was a small village surrounded by a wilderness of forest and swamp. Through the years it was ostensibly incorporated into the Funan and then the Khmer empires but it's unlikely that these kingdoms had any lasting influence on the community. In fact, the Khmers, who called the region
Prei Nokor
, used it for hunting. By 1623 the town had become an important commercial centre and, in the mid-17th century, it became the residence of the so-called Vice-King of Cambodia. In 1698, the Viets managed to extend their control to the far south and Saigon was finally brought under Vietnamese control. By 1790, the city had a population of 50,000 and Emperor Gia Long made it his place of residence until Hué was selected as the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty.

In the middle of the 19th century, the French began to challenge Vietnamese authority in the south. Between 1859 and 1862, in response to Nguyen persecution of the Catholics in Vietnam, the French attacked and captured Saigon. The Treaty of Saigon in 1862 ratified the conquest and created the new French colony of Cochin China. Saigon was developed in French style, with wide, tree-lined boulevards, street-side cafés, elegant French architecture, boutiques and the smell of baking baguettes.

During the course of the Vietnam War, as refugees spilled in from a devastated countryside, the population of Saigon almost doubled from 2.4 million in 1965 to around 4.5 million by 1975. With reunification in 1976, the new Communist authorities pursued a policy of depopulation, believing that the city had become too large and parasitic, preying on the surrounding countryside.

The population of Ho Chi Minh City today is officially seven million and rising fast as the rural poor are lured by tales of streets paved with gold. Vietnam's economic reforms are most in evidence in Ho Chi Minh City, where average annual incomes, at US$1800, are more than double the national average. It is also here that the country's largest population (around 380,000) of Hoa (ethnic Chinese) is to be found. Once persecuted for their economic success, they still have the greatest economic influence and acumen. Under the current regime, best described as crony capitalism, the city is once more being rebuilt.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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