Ho Chi Minh City
The South is dominated by the metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City, still often called Saigon, once a small fishing village that has expanded to well over 2,000km2 of urban sprawl with a population somewhere between 5 and 8 million (many residents are not registered).
Its early history is hazy, but it appears to have begun as Prei Nokot, a small Kh’mer community on a patch of land in a forest surrounded by waterways on three sides. At the time, the area was ruled by Funan, an ancient southern port with an Indianised culture that expanded to become a powerful kingdom. Funan was eventually supplanted by Chen La, which was in turn absorbed the Angkor Empire.
As Empires rose and fell, the waterside location of Prei Nokor attracted boats navigating the Mekong River. By the 17th century, it was a thriving trading community of Malay, Indian and Chinese merchants.
The end of the 17th century saw the steady southwards advance of the Viet people as it gradually overwhelmed the Kingdom of Champa, until it was absorbed the Empire controlled by the Hue-based Nguyen Dynasty, and acquired a new name – Saigon.
In the latter part of the 18th century, a peasants’ revolt led by the Tay Son brothers swept north and took control. Nguyen Anh, the Nguyen Emperor at the time, headed south, and fortified Saigon to be his capital in the south. When Nguyen Anh regained control, with help the French, he retained Saigon as his southern administrative centre.
By the middle of the 19th century, the French seized Saigon and made it the capital of French Indochina. Under French rule it became a fashionable destination, but during the decades of the US-backed Saigon ‘government’, it was a byword for decadence, sleaze and corruption as money flowed in and the presence of large numbers of American GI’s stimulated the growth of brothels and gaming dens.
The end of the war, economic progress and a rebirth as Ho Chi Minh City has fuelled growth and created today's vibrant metropolis.
Its traffic is dreadful, petty crime is rife, land prices are soaring, and social problems abound, but its bustling chaos makes it easily Vietnam’s most exciting city. There is plenty to see and do, some of the best hotels in the country, and a vast range of places to eat and drink simple street cafes to ultra swish (and ultra expensive) Vietnamese and international restaurants.
Ho Chi Minh City is a Mecca of commerce. Practically anything can be bought in its malls, shops and markets. Stylish stores bursting with famous international brand names down to the wicker baskets of fruit and the trays of lighters and shoelaces carried by humble street sellers: something for everyone and prices for everything. Modern office blocks house the many trading and financial businesses that have their headquarters in the southern hub.
It’s also a city with a chequered history and a rich culture. Its pagodas, museums, public buildings, parks and boulevards make it a magnet for international tourists who arrive in increasing numbers at Tan Son Nhat, Vietnam’s busiest airport, or by road, train or ship.
Visitors are hardly ever wish-washy about their opinions of Ho Chi Minh City – they either love it or hate it but whatever they feel, they can’t ignore it!