City of Surprises

Present-day Ho Chi Minh City is becoming a tourism hot spot

By: Gary Bowerman

Standing in Dogma a tongue-in-cheek store of colorfully kitsch, Communist-themed memorabilia, propaganda posters, coffee mugs, coasters and T-shirts it’s hard to reconcile Saigon’s wartime suffering with today’s ambitious, confident city.

The missing connection is made a few blocks away at Khao Silk, an upscale boutique selling fashionable clothing and accessories. On the wall, is a photo of Michael Caine, snapped in the store during filming of the war-era movie, “The Quiet American.” Seeing that picture, past and present came together and Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now named, ceased to be the bright, up-tempo city I had come to know and returned to a previous self the dark, bombed-out war nexus of Graham Greene’s novel.

Fast-forward to the present day, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is one of Asia’s hottest tourism cities. With Vietnam’s economy booming (it grew 8.5 percent last year) and the World Travel & Tourism Council predicting its travel and tourism industry will have the world’s sixth-highest growth rate between 2007 and 2016, HCMC has a spring in its step. Pacier and more metropolitan than Vietnam’s northern capital, Hanoi, it is no longer the preserve of backpackers wending their way through Southeast Asia.

The panoramic view from Saigon Saigon is the best in the city. The bar itself, on the 10th floor of the Caravelle hotel, is a neat metaphor for HCMC’s embracing of the finer trappings of tourism. At night, its cocktail-sipping clientele clamor for the best terrace tables to gaze out across the neon-lit, yet still largely low-rise skyline. Below them is a city reinvented; teeming with chic cafes, Asian-fusion restaurants, glassy shopping malls and elegant bars and hotels.

From up high, the most obvious reference point is the grand Municipal Theatre on Lam Son Square, with the trendy Q Bar next door. Directly behind sits a brand new boutique Park Hyatt hotel. HCMC’s penchant for style has gained the city its own Luxe City Guide, the discerning tourist’s companion to the 16 chicest cities in Asia. Glossy lifestyle magazines, such as Saigon CityLife and Saigon Inside Out, report the latest openings and events.

Scrape below the shiny veneer, however, and HCMC’s tragic history begins to surface. Throughout the city, rows of French-style, colonial-era mansions and hotel facades such as the Rex and Continental and the stunning former Hotel de Ville underline the French determination to recast Indochina in its own image. The U.S. Consulate on Le Duan Boulevard was rebuilt on the grounds of the former American Embassy, which was attacked by Vietcong soldiers on Jan. 31, 1968, during the nationwide Tet Offensive, and was later the site of a mass helicopter evacuation marking the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in April 1975.

But the true horrors of the Vietnam War are recaptured at the War Remnants Museum. Opened in 1975 and recently renovated, it is a chilling, graphically distressing reminder of the dehumanizing effects of this brutal, prolonged conflict. According to a 1976 book by professor RW Stevens, $925 billion was expended on the war, and millions of U.S. Air Force bombs were dropped.

The Museum’s collection includes some of the bravest and most emotive war photography of the 20th century. Superbly documented and narrated, the photos include the work of Robert Capa, Robert Ellison, Larry Burrows and Kyoichi Sawada’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a mother and family wading neck-deep across a river to flee the bombing. Also on display in the courtyard are U.S. military tanks, aircraft, helicopters, bombs and missiles.

After a couple of hours inside the museum, I emerged into the early evening dusk and into a whole new HCMC experience: rush hour. Though there is plenty of car traffic, the scooter rules and the two-wheeled street crush is mind-blowing. Every combination, from entire families to office workers, delivery drivers and canoodling couples, zip past. Crossing the street is an art form, combining mental agility, a keen eye and no small amount of bravery. Caught in the swarm, it’s easy to imagine how a beekeeper feels when lifting the lid of his hive. But once you’ve started to cross, keep going scooter drivers do skirt around purposeful pedestrians.

With my legs still intact, I made for the twin-spired Notre Dame cathedral and sat in its small park to collect my thoughts and snap some photos. Bad move. Another swarm descended on me, this time good-natured but persistent fruit, map and postcard vendors. Instead, I crossed the street to sneak a peak inside the French-colonial General Post Office before it closed.

With its vaulted roof, varnished wood-cabin telephone booths, large map murals and portrait of Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, I felt I had miraculously materialized back in the 1880s. I poked my head outside, and the racetrack sounds of the scooters reassured me that time actually had not warped. A city of surprises, indeed.


Trip Options from Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is a great base to explore the Mekong Delta, a picturesque lowland tapestry of swamplands, fruit groves, floating river markets, rural villages, coconut plantations and rice paddies. Two- and three-day trips can be arranged by hotels and also booked at one of the cluster of tour agencies located on Pham Ngu Lao and Da Tham in the backpacker district of the city.

For clients with limited time, a one-day trip to the Cao Dai Cathedral and Cu Chi Tunnels is highly recommended.

Guided trips explain how entire villages and armies overcame appalling conditions of intense heat and humidity in summer and damp and cold during winter by surviving underground. Tours also reveal examples of vicious human mines and traps designed to maim enemy soldiers.