Everybody still calls it Saigon, even if it has officially been known as Ho Chi
Minh City since 1975. With more than 7 million inhabitants, Vietnam’s economic capital is the country’s
biggest city. Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as HCMC, is at the crossroads of a number of different
worlds, combining a colonial history with vibrant modernity, communism and economic growth. Without ever
losing its soul.
So much so that this metropolis in South Vietnam, a city of
culture and inspirational sporting events like the Ho Chi Minh City Marathon, is a fully-fledged and
thriving lifestyle destination. From pretty markets, like Ben Thanh and Binh Tây, to ultramodern
shopping centers, such as Saigon Square, the Vincom Center and Diamond Plaza, HCMC is a hyperactive,
colorful city boasting authentic charm and sophisticated style, depending on which part of town you’re
in. It’s a real treat to walk or cycle through its parks, including Tao Dan and Hoang Van Thu, a bit
further away, but just as charming with its miniature Eiffel Tower.
But it’s on the vast
Nguyen Hue Street that you can really appreciate the changes that have taken place in Ho Chi Minh City.
In the space of just 750 metres, from the Saigon River to the town hall, Nguyen Hue Street bridges the
gap between the past and the future. Brand new shopping centers sell their elegant wares a stone’s throw
away from the town hall and the opera house, two architectural gems left behind by French colonialism.
The former is a Neo-Renaissance building, while not far away, the latter is a replica of Paris’s Petit
Palais, built in 1900 in the flamboyant style of France’s 3rd Republic.
In Saigon, the past
puts up a bit of resistance. The monumental Central Post Office looks like a station that is never
empty. Built between 1886 and 1891 by the French, the building boasts a frame designed by Gustave
Eiffel. Right opposite, the Notre-Dame basilica was built according to an 1877 version of pure Neo-Roman
Dong Khoi Street, formerly known as Rue Catinat, looks like it’s stepped right out of
the 1930s and is home to many colonial buildings. Among the Art Déco gems there are trendy shops, art
galleries – including the Vietnam Art Gallery – and chic restaurants. This is a vibrant neighbourhood, a
condensed version of the whole city. It’s particularly busy during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, between
the last week in January and the third week in February; but also during two popular traditional events:
Tet Doan Ngo in the summer, and Tet Trung Thu, also known as the Moon Festival or Mid-Autumn
This stunning urban mosaic is reflected in the glass panels of the futuristic
Bitexco Financial Tower, 300 metres tall, which rises up like a symbol of the city’s energy and
vibrancy. The years of conflict now belong to history, even if there are plenty of reminders of them
wherever you look: from the legendary Cu Chi tunnels to the History Museum or the War Remnants Museum,
filled with relics from the Vietnam War. Not forgetting the Reunification (or Independence) Palace,
which is dedicated to the glory of North Vietnam. Not far away, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum offers a
more peaceful look at Vietnam’s cultural history. It has to be said that all cultures seem to come
together in HCMC. A pilgrimage to Sadec, on the Mekong Delta, and the “Lover’s House”, the home of Huỳnh
Thủy Lê, where Marguerite Duras lived as a youngster. Come to Tay Ninh to worship the likes of Victor
Hugo, Joan of Arc and Louis Pasteur, regarded as spiritual guides by the unique philosophy of Caodaism.
In this Cao Dai Temple, a real gem boasting some rather eclectic architecture, Churchill, Lenin,
Shakespeare, Buddha and Jesus are all venerated on an equal footing. Strange and striking, just like the
rest of the city, which cannot fail to impress its visitors.