So Saigon

This vibrant, bustling city is on the move (sort of)

By: Jim Calio

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam You take your life in your hands when you cross the street in Ho Chi Minh City (the locals still call it Saigon). The endless stream of motorbikes, some piled high with people, flowers, air conditioners or pots of steaming food, pose more than a challenge they are a mortal danger. The idea is not to hesitate, to walk steadily and deliberately to the other side, hoping you don’t get mowed down in the process. If you look at an oncoming driver, you’re dead meat literally.

Such is life in Ho Chi Minh City these days a mixture of high adventure, low comedy and a feeling that things are constantly changing. The city, with a population of 5.3 million, is vibrant, noisy and constantly on the move, and it seems that most people are moving on motorbikes. The best way to see Ho Chi Minh City is from the back seat of an air-conditioned car arranged for your client in advance or by the hotel, or sitting in a pedicab, and even then they are bound to get caught up in traffic like they’ve never seen before.

But Ho Chi Minh City is fast becoming a tourist destination of choice, and for good reason. The hotels are plentiful and inexpensive, the people friendly and perhaps most important, it is a safe destination. Tourism increased to 2.5 million last year, and over the last 10 years it has jumped by 15 percent, even with the debilitating effects of the SARS and bird flu scares. True, there is petty crime in Ho Chi Minh City, but that’s the case in any big city in the world.

The best time to see the city is in the winter months, from December to April. The rainy season, from May to November, is uncomfortably hot and humid, and you can get drenched in the afternoon thundershowers.

Vietnam Airlines, which boasts a fleet of brand-new 777s, code shares with major international carriers for flights into the country. Gateways from the U.S. include Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lampur and Bangkok, among others. United Airlines announced in May that it intends to inaugurate direct service from the U.S next year. And there are plans afoot to replace the old Ton Son Hut airport with a new $5.4 billion facility. But that is still in the future.

The influence of the French colonial period is reflected in the buildings all over the city, from the Notre Dame Cathedral (Vietnam has 9 million Catholics) to the fancy ironwork on balconies throughout the city to the grand old colonial hotels. The main market, Ben Thanh, once went by the name of Les Halles Centrales, and the city itself was once known as the “Paris of the East.” Two must-see sights may give pause to American tourists. The Reunification Palace, formerly the presidential palace, has a tank allegedly used to break down the fence during the North Vietnamese takeover in 1975. And the War Remnants Museum contains some graphic reminders of the Vietnam War with a decidedly anti-American slant.

Ho Chi Minh City is not about anything if not the future, however, and for most Vietnamese the future is now. Family-run shops line every street and they are chock-full of the latest consumer goods, from refrigerators to DVDs to expensive running shoes.

In fact the only time the city seems to slow down is late at night, when shopkeepers put out long tables and feed friends and customers alike, although the city is also rich in cuisine from all around the world.

Even late at night, however, it is not recommended that you try to cross the street by yourself. The motorbikes are still out there, prowling the narrow streets and wide boulevards of this bustling city.