City with a past

City with a past

Ho Chi Minh

City with a past

A few decades ago, Vietnam was known to people as a place where a devastating and long war had been fought. It was the story of David taking on Goliath, where the poor and ill-armed Vietnamese fought persistently with a well-armed and sophisticated American army. What is more, they managed to chase them away.

That was the past of a city known as Saigon. Not too long ago, the city’s name was changed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh. Nevertheless, many old timers still refer to it as Saigon. For the younger generation, it is HCMC, a shortened form of the tongue-twisting Ho Chi Minh City. Today, HCMC is one of the most popular tourist destinations of Asia. Hordes of travellers descend on it every year, and go back enchanted by the sights, cuisine and people.

Eventful history

From a French Colonial identity to a war-ravaged city to a business capital, HCMC has come a long way. The French has crowned the city as the capital of South Vietnam. They called it the Pearl of the Orient and left their footprints in the form of a beautiful Opera House, City Hall, Basilica and the Central Post Office (designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower fame), all constructed in the classic French colonial architecture. The broad boulevards stretching up to the Saigon River, several stucco villas and a hotel known as Hotel de Ville are some other remnants of the colonial era.

The reminders of the war have not been completely obliterated. They still stand in the city, in the form of the war museums, as a memento of those horrifying years. These are more of interest to the tourists and serve as an educational experience for the students. Lest they forget the historic struggle of their forefathers. The famous Reunion Palace is one of the compelling symbols of the Vietnam War. Also known as the Independence Palace, it stands where the grand Palais Norodom stood before it was bombed and destroyed. The warren of war rooms, communication rooms and telecommunication control room underground are a total anomaly to the lavish reception rooms, grand living areas, bars and party rooms on the upper floors.

Those who are not squeamish can visit the War Remnants Museum. Graphic pictures of dead children, mutilated bodies and other war crimes are exhibited in this museum along with those of war equipment. For the rest, a short tour of the Vietnam National History Museum should suffice. Located in the lush area between the Botanical Gardens and Saigon Zoo, the museum is an introduction to the country's history right from the times of Champa Kingdom to the modern time.

There is an unmistakable influence of the Chinese occupation on the city. Some of the finest pagodas can be found here. Right from food to culture, gardens and temples, the influence is scattered all over the city, more so in the Cholon area, which is HCMC’s very own Chinatown.

HCMC is a city of contrasts. It is possible to traverse from the elegant colonial structures to the tranquil pagodas and lush parks to the mad snarl of traffic in a matter of minutes. As the sun sets, coloured fountains come alive on the enormous lit up squares along with the foot-tapping music.

It is a young city in many ways, with most of its population born in the 70s, and the average age being 29. On most evenings, the Saigon River is where the action is. With crowds of young couples sitting around the river bank, it is a vibrant place. Dozens of tourist-laden boats cruise down the river. On the banks stands the Majestic Hotel, where Graham Greene sat staring at the gently flowing river as he plotted his well-known novel The Quiet American.

Street surprise

Exotic street food is what draws many tourists to Vietnam. Every other alleyway and street is crowded with food stalls. The Vietnamese are complete foodies, given to detailed discussions on food and drinks. Come evening and the small plastic stools crowd the pavements, as people swap gossip and news, slurp soups and gulp down Vietnamese beer or coffee. The last item is much like the filter coffee of our country, made in similar contraption. Speak to a tourist and he is sure to rave about the Vietnamese coffee. Pho, a delicious soup of noodles and meat, is as popular with the tourists as the crusty French baguettes and pastries (remnants of French influence) that remain city’s speciality.

Shopping is never far from a tourist’s mind. For such minds, HCMC is a veritable paradise. The bustling Ben Thanh Market is where they converge for their shopping spree. From textiles to tobacco and spices, almost everything is stocked in the cornucopia of tiny stalls. There are also food stalls, should you feel the hunger pangs after brisk bargaining, which is almost mandatory. For those who need another venue for shopping, there is the Binh Tay market. Located in the Chinatown, it was established by a Chinese entrepreneur named Quach Dam. Binh Tay, with its 2,000-plus stalls, is a noisy and chaotic place but it is also a place that has a food court, which serves fantastic fare.

Most visitors to HCMC go back with the image of a pulsating, warm and spirited city. Undeniably, HCMC is a city with a ­soul and a warm one at that.

Fact file

 Getting there:  Many airlines like Vietnam Airways, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines and Jet Airways fly from India to Hanoi.

Stay: Compared to many foreign destinations, Vietnam is quite affordable. At HCMC, one could very well book in a 5-star hotel like Hotel Continental for a pleasingly low tariff. For those looking for cheaper stay options, there are several B&Bs and hostels around the city.

Food: Street food is inexpensive, provided you are willing to sit on a plastic stool on the street-side and enjoy it with the locals. Vietnam is a veritable paradise for sea-food lovers.

Shopping: Silks, ceramics, black-and-red lacquer ware, wood carvings and bamboo artefacts are some of the most popular shopping items. The local silk dress ao dai is a must-buy.

Currency: The Vietnamese dong is essential, although you can convert US dollars in many places.

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