Saigon travel highlights
Food - there’s no better place to sample the delicious flavours of Vietnam. And Saigon’s French and other international culinary offerings are impressive too.
A chaotic, fast changing city - Saigon is one of South East Asia’s fastest growing cities. The chaos is exhausting and exhilarating all at once.
History - A major centre of French colonial power and then the centre of US power during the Vietnam War, Saigon’s history is incredible.
Disappearing gems - Saigon’s leaders are ripping through the city’s heritage with rapacious energy. Check out the cool cafes that are pushing back.
Nightlife - Saigon’s mayhem by day morphs by night into a vibrant scene of rooftop bars from the fancy to Saigon hipster with plenty of texture in between.
Nearby - The former Viet Cong Tunnels and Cu Chi and the Mekong Delta are easy excursions from Saigon
Despite being Vietnam’s most dysfunctional, polluted and overcrowded city, Saigon miraculously transcends its physical space with spirit and character - charming travellers along the way.
Amidst the motorcycle fumes and the construction dust, an irrepressible Saigonese energy and optimism endures. Don’t be surprised if you’re charmed despite your best instincts.
You won't be the first.
Saigon has spent more than half a century in near constant turmoil - which may explain its residents’ incredible tolerance for disruption and change. French colonials, Japanese invaders, the rabid anti-communist Ngo Dinh DIem and his corrupt American sponsored successors, all had their time here before Ho Chi Minh’s forces took over in 1975 and renamed the city in his honour.
From there it was more than a decade of penury as communist hardliners applied stiff medicine to cleanse the city of its decadent capitalist ways. The result was famine, a massive outflow of boat people and, in the late 80s, a belated decision that perhaps some market forces should be tolerated.
Ever since, Saigon has been at the epicentre of Vietnam’s two decades long experiment with market reform. Its population has swelled, its economy has boomed, corruption has soared and a new class of hyper wealthy have traded hammers and sickles for Hummers and Louis Vuitton.
While Saigon’s cafes are perennially busy serving the city’s new rich, for the majority, life is still a grind of long hours and low wages. But you’ll struggle to find anyone who doesn’t concede that things have improved plenty in the past two decades.
Saigon may have been known as the Paris of the East in the 50s and 60s, but these days, it’s a bustling architectural shambles.
Some French era boulevards and architectural icons remain. For the most part though, the city’s colonial architectural heritage is going the same way the repressive French colonial administration did decades ago - down. And while modern day Ho Chi Minh City has plenty of attractions, pleasing architecture and public spaces are not among them.
In a depressing binge of self-harm, Saigon's leaders seem determined to cleanse the city of the modest heritage assets still standing. Even Dong Khoi St, the main street since French colonial days, hasn't been spared. Grand old apartment blocks, department stores and shophouses that lent the city some old-world charm, have disappeared. More heritage demolitions are planned.
Their replacements have done little to improve the visual quality or the amenities of the city.
Saigon's colonial past might be disappearing, but juggling past and present is the sport that makes the city such a uniquely compelling place.
The War Remnants Museum, the former Presidential Palace and the Cu Chi Tunnels are compulsory stops on any itinerary. But these relics of a war that put Vietnam on the geopolitical map, seem more consequential to baby boomer tourists than contemporary Vietnamese.
With one of the youngest populations in Asia, Saigon oozes youthful, friendly energy, optimism and good humoured cheek. And it’s Saigon’s rosy outlook that continues to see Vietnam rank highly in global optimism measures.
Even the Vietnamese can’t resist the place. The city is packed with emigres from all over the country - a remarkably large number of them from the proud, victorious capital Hanoi.
Saigon is up there with Asia’s best culinary cities. The delicious distinct flavours that mark out Vietnam’s south, centre and north are all plentifully showcased, as is an impressive turnout of other Asian and western cuisine.
After you recover from the initial shock, it’s easy to be swept up in Saigon’s infectious positive energy. Exploring the the history, the food, the shopping and simply gazing at the constant activity, will easily keep you busy for three days. For more details, read on!