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Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is as fascinating as it is entertaining. The 'Pearl of Vietnam' is still popularly referred to by its old name, especially in the city centre. The official name change took place in 1976 following the country's reunification. Located in the south of Vietnam on a giant bend of the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City is the country's largest city, with a population of nearly seven million people and over one million motorbikes. Whilst Hanoi is the centre of government, Ho Chi Minh City is the nation's economic heart and most exciting city.

There are a number of great activities to keep you busy and wonderful historic sites, museums, and shops to keep you interested. The dining facilities and small groupings of stores are wonderful, and while portions of Ho Chi Minh resemble a bustling commercial center, other parts are quiet and agricultural. Some of the locals keep to themselves, subdued and caught up in their daily routine. Others will be the first to greet you, inviting you to the grand opening of their bar or restaurant. It is the tremendous diversity of Ho Chi Minh that makes it such a desirable tourist destination. There is so much to do and see, and it is an incredibly friendly city. The citizens will assist you almost without exception, and the city is relatively easy to navigate.

This exciting Asian city is a relatively new one, only founded in the 18th century. Chinese and Vietnamese merchants from the north settled Ho Chi Minh, as they were looking for political and economic freedom. The majority of the first inhabitants to the area were civil war refugees. It did not take long for Ho Chi Minh to become a powerful commercial center. Its location and abundance of natural resources made it a desirable location for trade and commerce. This is still the major commercial port in all of Vietnam. Five and a half million people live in Ho Chi Minh, making it the largest city in the country. It is located on the Saigon River, and the atmosphere in and around the city is extremely engaging. The Chinese district springs up out of nowhere, and this is part of the charm of the city. Many of the best aspects of Ho Chi Minh are often stumbled upon un-knowingly. They just pop up and you are instantly transported into another dimension of fun and excitement. The food here is outstanding, and the nightlife exceptional. There are a couple of rather seedy portions of the city, but no more than anywhere else. Exercise the same caution as you would at home and you should be fine. Phan Thiet beach is great if you can make it out there, but if not, there is so much to do in this wonderful city that your time will constantly be occupied with delightful activities.

The city is divided into two major sections: the municipal district of Saigon, and Chinatown, or 'Cholon', where the entrepreneurial talent and private funds are concentrated. 'Cholon' is Ho Chi Minh City's liveliest and most populated section. Visitors are fascinated by its bustle of activity and numerous pagodas, reputed to be the finest in the city.

Where You are Dock
Cruise ships dock at the Port of Saigon near downtown Ho Chi Minh. From here, about a half-mile (800 metres) from the city centre. Pedicabs, or 'rickshaws', and taxis are available for hire outside the port gate; be sure to agree on the fare in writing before setting out. Drivers tend to aggressively vie for your business. Yellow Cabs are metered, paid for in U.S. dollars, and the most reliable. 

Getting Around
On Foot: While the Saigon River Dock is within a 10-minute walk of the city center, do not attempt it. The short bridge carrying the main road over a filled-in creek has no pedestrian walkway, and the steady stream of traffic makes this portion unsafe on foot. There is nothing within walking distance at the port in Phu My.

By Bus, Taxi and Cyclo: Most cruise lines provide shuttles between the ship and the Rex Hotel, which is at the center of town and gives walking access to many destinations. Taxis within the dock gates will try to charge much more than the going fare charged by taxis outside the gate. Most taxis in town will be happy to take you back to the ship when docked nearby, but make sure you have a firm commitment for the fare price.

From Phu My: To get to Ho Chi Minh City , you will have to take the ship's shuttle to Rex Hotel, join a ship tour or hire a cab outside the port gate. Most ships provide shuttles to the port gate or to the village of Ba Ria approximately 10 miles away, where there is an ATM machine. From there, you can take a taxi to the resort town of Vung Tau. Prearranged private tours and ship excursions are advised from this port.

Taxis are by far your best transportation option while enjoying Ho Chi Minh City. No doubt many travelers have seen films and television programs that have depicted the chaotic road conditions of densely packed cities of the Far East. Bicycles and motorcycles are available for rent, but you must be extremely sure of your two-wheeled skills before you decide to tackle the roads of Saigon. Be on the safe side and call Mai Linh taxi (08/844-6666) or Saigon Taxi (08/842-4242) to arrange for a ride.

Hydrofoil is another option although the timing may be iffy if the ship is sailing that day. You will have to take a taxi to the hydrofoil dock; the one-hour transit costs about $9. Public bus transport is not recommended for visitors.

Things to See

Central Saigon
The Rex Hotel, a famous hangout for American officers and journalists during the war, has regained some of its previous glory and is the central hub of the city once again. Nearby is the impressive French-era Municipal Theatre, which offers a varied programme of events, and the magnificent pastel-yellow Saigon City Hall, now the People's Committee Building. Head for the Rex Hotel either by ship's shuttle or taxi and you will be in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Most of the city's sights are walkable from there. The pre-war-built Rex was the center of social life during the Vietnam War; its fifth-floor rooftop bar and restaurant was the liveliest place in town for the American troops on R&R and the press looking for stories. Take the elevator up from the ground floor (now ringed with top designer boutiques) to have a look, but do not expect to find much life or atmosphere until the evening when locals and visitors gather for drinks. The menu offers nearly everything from sandwiches and spring rolls to full meals, and the prices are much higher there than at most restaurants you will find at street level. (141 Nguyen Hue Boulevard, District 1)

Botanical Gardens
Located at the end of Le Duan Boulevard, these 130-year-old gardens boast a lovely collection of orchids and other flowers. The small onsite zoo features a number of endangered indigenous animals, as well as other exotic exhibits from overseas.

War Crimes Museum
Photographic exhibits depict events of the Vietnam War, and the courtyard features a collection of war material that includes tanks, U.S. choppers and bombs.

The Zoo and Botanical Garden, located on Nguyen Bingh Khiem Street, is best in the springtime, when all of the flowers are in bloom. The interesting array of creatures, many unique to Vietnam, is the main reason for visiting this destination. The best feature is the monkey cage, full of these swinging troublemakers.

The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, a five-minute walk from the Rex, is housed in a classical 1885-built building. The collection centers on the Communist history of Vietnam, including French-language newspaper clips of Ho Chi Minh's writings, which he penned under a pseudonym. (65 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1; open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; admission less than $1)

Presidential PalaceReunification Palace, which is a museum and reception center under the name of Reunification Hall. Built in 1965, the building housed banquet, ceremonial and meeting rooms and, in the basement, a warren of offices from which the Vietnam War was conducted. Original equipment -- radios, phones, printing machines and maps -- is on display. Standing on the hall's front steps, look across the courtyard to the main gate that was dramatically breached on April 30, 1975, by a North Vietnamese tank, signaling the Communist victory. English-speaking guides are available. (106 Nguyen Du Street, District 1; open 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; admission $1.50)

The War Remnants Museum is located at 28 Ð Vo Van Tan Street (08/930-5587) and is a wonderful historical site. The collection of machinery found in this museum is remarkable, and the weapons and photos are terrifically interesting. The emphasis here is on the Vietnam conflict, and the graphic relics and pictures are indicative of the point of view that you are getting once inside this building. In fact, the site used to be called the War Crimes Museum, a further example of the Vietnamese sentiment towards that particular era in history. In any event, this museum is a fascinating location that provides incredible insight, information, and artifacts.

The Notre Dame Cathedral is located on Ð Han Thuyen. This cathedral in Neo-Romanesque style was built between the years of 1877 and 1883. Bricks from Marseilles were brought over to Vietnam to construct this fabulous edifice, and the beautiful stained-glass windows were brought from Chartres. Sunday Masses are still held, and they are spoken in both English and Vietnamese. No matter what your religious beliefs may be, attending one of these services is one of the most fulfilling and interesting activities in Ho Chi Minh. You derive a real sense of the culture and religion of the area, and the cathedral is an enchanting site that demands a visit.

War Remnants Museum, Once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes is sure to bring back bad memories for baby boomers. But, for those who want to dig deeper into the horrors of war, the museum offers candid photographs and exhibits with a distinctly anti-American and anti-French slant. A guillotine, prisoner cages, wartime photos (some not for the faint-hearted), tanks and armaments are also on display. Some of the labels are in English. (28 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3;; open 7:30 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily; admission less than $1)

Ben Thanh Market, topped by an imposing clock tower, occupies a pavilion encompassing one square kilometer. Located three blocks from the Rex, along Le Loi Street, the market dates to 1914. Operating every day, all day, it is geared to visitors with row after row of stalls that display both familiar and exotic produce, fish and shellfish, as well as clothing, housewares and tourist items like red and black lacquerware, paintings, prints, porcelain, jewelry, watches and wood carvings. Perhaps most intriguing are the food stalls, where locals and tourists alike enjoy a quick snack or full meal. Shopping there can be exhausting; narrow passageways are lined with hundreds of shops where hawkers try their best to grab your attention and dollars. Bargaining is expected, but remember to be courteous. The Vietnamese consider rude, angry and emotional behavior to be crass and bad form. (Corner of Le Loi and Ham Nghi Streets, District 1; open daily)

Cholon is Chinatown, an older section of the city in Districts 5 and 6 (the western part) with a maze of narrow streets, hundreds of commercial shops and several outstanding pagodas clustered in a small area. The ambitious can walk there in about a half-hour, but there are many streets to cross, so taking a taxi or pedicab is best. Be sure to establish the price. It's easy to find another cab for the return trip. Thien Hau Pagoda, built in the 18th century, is dedicated to the goddess of the sea and the protector of sailors (and presumably cruise-ship passengers). Elaborate ceramic friezes line the roof, and the pleasant smell of incense comes from burning coils that hang from the ceiling. A sacred horse greets visitors and worshipers at the entrance to Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda, and many stroke his mane for long life and ring the bell around his neck. The interior and altar are particularly beautiful. Quan Am Pagoda, built in 1816, displays a ceramic ceiling that depicts traditional Chinese stories and plays.
Face up to the past
Vietnam's war-torn history can't – and shouldn't – be ignored. Ho Chi Minh City Museum has many informative exhibitions, and explains the country's bloody past through photographs, artefacts and memorabilia. It's sensitively done, without glossing over the atrocities, and (rather ironically) is housed in the Gia Long Palace, where Ngo Dinh Diem spent his final hours in power before his assassination in 1963.
The War Remnants Museum is a more grisly – but equally essential – reminder of local atrocities. From eerie bomb remnants and first-person accounts by war veterans to a bloodied guillotine and photographs of horrific napalm burns, this is a chilling reminder of life not-too-long ago.
Dress up for Lam Son Square
This well-heeled area has always been one of the city's most prestigious addresses: today, it's the place to head for a night of culture, or a spot of shopping amongst the city's affluent residents.
You can't miss the Hotel Continental in the heart of Lam Son Square (its high-maintenance glossy finish marks it out from the crowd): this was the favoured spot of French high society, and it's still possible to sip cocktails in the hotel terrace, just as they did.
If you're after a more meaningful cultural experience, make a beeline for the Municipal Theatre – a lavish 100-year-old building that regularly hosts local and touring dance, opera and theatre companies.
Reunification Palace
When the French left in 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem constructed the Independence Palace to demonstrate his country's strength, but it was pulled down after an attempt to assassinate him. The replacement building was later renamed Reunification Palace after the fall of Saigon in the 1970s.
Much of the palace remains unchanged since the 70s, and although the shiny rosewood-clad meeting rooms and musty library are interesting, perhaps the most fascinating relic resides in the garden. Here, you'll find the tank that crashed through the gates of the palace on 30 April 1975, signalling the fall of the Saigon regime.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
If you only have time to see one Vietnamese pagoda, make it this one: built in the 1900s by Taoists and Buddhists, the Jade Emperor Pagoda is simultaneously spiritual and awe-inspiring in scale and ambition.
Ornate carved panels and intricate deities line the interior, flanked by lotus flower and fruit offerings and cloaked in a cloud of incense smoke. Head upstairs, and out onto the equally embellished roof terrace, where you'll find a statue of Quan Am (the goddess of mercy) which overlooks a sacred bodhi tree in the courtyard.
Wander Dong Khoi
Dong Khoi, a lively stretch of shops and bars, spans from Notre Dame Cathedral to the Saigon River. Visit Dong Khoi for its stories: this characterful road has played a part in Ho Chi Minh's modern history, from the go-go bars that catered for young American GIs back in the 1950s, to its 1970s descent into disrepair after the fall of Saigon.
Today, it's just as colourful: take in the colonial facades and street food stalls while dodging Honda-straddling teenagers and shady characters (watch your wallet – pickpockets abound).
Travel further afield
Ho Chi Minh City is the perfect starting point for exploring southern Vietnam, as well as further afield around South-East Asia. The graciousness of the people living in the 'countryside' is quite refreshing after being stuck in the city for long stretches of time.
Taking the express water taxi and checking out all of Vung Tau is an unmissable day trip. Can Tho, the Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc Island, Phan Thiet and Mui Ne are all nearby, as is Cu Chi.
Looking for a longer adventure? Read our motorbiking guide to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the 1950s military-built route than stretches the length of the country. It starts in Hi Chi Minh City, weaving northwards through challenging rural terrain.
Shore Excursions
Best for First-Timers: The "Saigon City Orientation" is a four-hour tour that covers the city's highlights by bus, pedicabs and on foot. Included are the reception and war rooms of the Presidential Palace, now called Reunification Hall; an introduction to Vietnam's diverse cultures and a water puppet show in the History Museum; Ben Thanh Market; Notre Dame Cathedral; and the 18th-century Thien Hau (Buddhist) Temple in Cholon (Chinatown).

Best for Foodies: The "Market Visit and Cooking Class" is a three-hour tour, where the chef of the Rex Hotel takes passengers to the Ben Thanh Market to learn about what fresh ingredients he uses in cooking. Then, he provides a transfer by pedicab to the hotel for a cooking demonstration. Participants get to prepare several dishes and consume the results.

Best for Repeat Visitors: The "Mekong River in Depth" is an all-day tour by van. You'll venture deep into the Mekong River Delta for a boat ride to see the floating market, where locals sell their produce from wooden vessels. You'll then experience a cruise along the canals, a visit to a factory that makes candy from corn and rice, a walk along intersecting footpaths to a farmer's house and fruit orchard, and lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant by the river.

Another possibility for repeat visitors is the three-day/two-night "Angkor Wat Overland Tour" that explores the Cambodian UNESCO World Heritage site. In addition to the largest temple in the world, tour stops include Prohn Temple, a boat trip to Tonle Sap Lake and the stunning Khmer temple Bayon. Fees include flights and hotel stays. Check with your cruise line to see whether this tour is an option.

Outdoor Sports
A wonderful tennis facility is the Lan Anh International Tennis Court, which is located at 291 Cach Mang Thang Tam (08/862-7144). It is a great spot to play a little tennis with your friends or with the friendly locals. The Delta Caravelle Hotel offers usage of their heated pool, lovely spa, and well-stocked gymnasium. All three are in fabulous condition, and the equipment is all top notch. This is the main destination in Ho Chi Minh if you wish to get some quality exercise. The Saigon Water Park is located at Ð Kha Van Can (08/897-0456) and features pools, chutes, and slides that are all great fun. All of the amenities inside are in pristine condition, and the Saigon Water Park gives you an enjoyable glimpse into one of the favorite activities of the citizens of Vietnam.

Eating Out
Stop for coffee
Believe it or not, Vietnam is the biggest coffee exporter in the world. Vietnamese coffee is excellent – and it's inexpensive and available nearly everywhere. Black coffee with ice (ca phe da) is strong and sweet with an almost chocolate-like richness. Condensed milk can be added, giving you coffee milk ice, or ca phe sua da.
Coffee shops are a huge part of the city's culture. From street vendors to side-walk shops, it's hard to beat having a coffee and watching Ho Chi Minh City go by. Prices range from 33 cents from a street vendor, to $3 or more at the top-end places. Deep-roasted Trung Nguyen is the most popular local brand.
Sample the street food Vietnam’s reputation as one of the world’s tastiest street food nations is well deserved, but many of the pricier restaurants can be disappointing – especially when you combine (more-than-likely) poor service with the hit your wallet takes. You can have a much better meal elsewhere for just a few dollars. In small eateries, prices range from an incredibly low $3 for a typically large meal of meat, rice and vegetables, but you can pay $50 or more at a four- or five-star restaurant. The hot pots are outrageously good. Tipping is highly irregular, which makes the overall lack of anything resembling service a bit easier to swallow.
Ho Chi Minh city claims, as does every city in Vietnam, to have the best food in the country, and it deserves the hype for its local versions of pho (pronounced 'fur'), the noodle soup most commonly served at breakfast but available throughout the day.
Camargue 16 Cao Ba Quat (00 84 8 824 3148). For a taste of the continuing French legacy in the city, book a table on the beautiful terrace.
Hoi ANn11 Le Thanh Ton (00 84 8 823 7694). You may want to start your education in Vietnamese food here, and at Mandarin, below.
11a Ngo Van Nam (00 84 8 822 9783).
Nam Phan
64 Le Thanh Ton (00 84 8 829 2757). This will give you an introduction to the mini-empire of silk merchant Hoang Khai. As well as multiple silk shops around the country he owns several restaurants including Emperor in Hanoi and Brother's café in Hoi An, plus the Riverside Resort in Hoi An. While the spaces he designs are absolutely beautiful, the food is more comforting than exciting.
Pho Pasteur
260 Pasteur, District 3 (00 84 8 829 7943). For the best pho or noodle soup, in the city, visit Pho Pasteur.
Quan An Ngon
The best 'street food in a restaurant' can be found at Quan an Ngon (138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia; 00 84 8 825 7179). That the communal tables are packed with locals as well as foreigners is testament to the authenticity of the food and its value for money. You can watch your spring rolls, soups and main courses being made at little stations around the restaurant.
Temple Club
29-31 Ton That Thiep (00 84 8 829 9244). This is a seductive, rarefied space lined with ceramic elephants; it serves cocktails and dinner, and all the furniture and accessories are for sale. Downstairs, Fanny's has very good ice cream to finish off your meal.

For the best shopping in Ho Chi Minh, visit the Dong Khoi district. Authentique Interiors is located at 38 Ð Dong Khoi and offers extravagant quilts and tapestries. Heritage can be found at Ð Dong Khoi (08/825-5438) and is the best place for ethnic items and wood carvings. The Xuan Gallery is located at 58 Ð Pham Hong Thai (08/824-5349) and is a fabulous art gallery where you can find all kinds of paintings by contemporary Vietnamese artists.

Most shops are centred in the area surrounding the Rex Hotel. Available handicrafts include lacquer ware, items with mother-of-pearl inlay, ceramics, embroidered articles, and local artwork. At the enormous Ben Thanh Market, everything imaginable can be found under one roof. Shopping here is truly a mind-boggling experience. The local currency is the Dong; most purchases can be paid for in U.S. dollars.
Haggle for bargains in the markets
There are two landmark markets (cho) in Ho Chi Minh City, and numerous others. Cho Ben Thanh, located in District 1 across from the bus station, is probably the best known. It is especially popular in the evening and at night, when food vendors set up stalls and locals and tourists alike gather to eat and shop.
The other, Cho Lon, is a huge Chinese market. You will not see as many tourists here, and the variety of goods is amazing. Both markets are a lot of fun, regardless of whether you're souvenir shopping or just browsing.

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