Effervescent Ho Chi Minh City

Sunset Ho Chi Minh city from flickr user Pamito

Today’s featured guest post comes from Nick of Selective Asia, writing about the many wonders of Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam. Enjoy!

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) has its eyes set firmly on the future, its troubled past now safely filed away and energetic entrepreneurs investing heavily in a brave new world of fusion restaurants, glitzy bars and world-class hotels. Just 40km to the north of the South China Sea and on the River Saigon’s west bank, Ho Chi Minh City’s scenic location and rich heritage make it a fabulous place to start your holidays in Vietnam.

The city used to be called Saigon, of course, and it was only renamed in 1976 after the communists took over in the Presidential Palace. The much more romantic older name has refused to die, however, and lives on officially in railway timetables. It is also the unofficial but usual name for the city’s District 1, humanising an Orwellian label that otherwise sounds like something out of a futuristic dystopia. The comrades, admirable in every other respect, were never gifted with a flair for evocative naming.

There are 18 districts in all, though 1, 3 and 5 are the only ones tourists usually get to see. District 1 used to be the old French Quarter, and most of the remaining colonial buildings and main museums are located in the Dong Khoi and Le Duan sectors here. Apart from reminders of the Vietnam War, or the American War as it’s called by the Vietnamese, there are also numerous religious sites that hark back to Vietnam’s glorious and supremely civilised past, such as the stunning Jade Emperor Pagoda.

There are other pagodas in the city but this is the most impressive. It was constructed in 1900 by the Cantonese community and its intricate gilt woodwork carvings of Buddhist and Taoist gods and goddesses, and its roof which seems to sag under the weight of brilliantly coloured dragons, make for a captivating sight.

Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam by flickr user simonmonk

Above the central altar in the main hall towers a statue of the Jade Emperor himself, a reminder of what the ruling principle of this land used to be – a uniquely civilised blend of power and virtue, directed by the flame of an enlightened and tolerant religion. The emperor holds a lamp in one hand and an axe in the other, just to drive the point home to any citizens inclined to disagree with him.

The eye-catching Ho Chi Minh City Museum is actually the former Gia Long Palace, erected by the French colonial regime in 1886. There is a network of tunnels underneath it where the last President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, hid in 1962 before making a rush to his date with death at the nearby church of Cho Lon. All the exhibits have labels in English, making it one of Vietnam’s more user-friendly venues.

Ho Chi Minch City Museum Vietnam from flickr user Dave_B_

The ground floor houses extensive archaeology collections and exhibitions about the history of the city, with some great photos of old Saigon as it was at the start of the 20th century. Upstairs there are some understandably biased exhibits on the French colonial period and the later war with America and the role of the brave resistance to these unwarranted impositions.

Spend a few days looking around Saigon, as most of us prefer to still call it, before heading further afield to experience the timeless wonders of this diverse and richly rewarding country.

Nick is the founder of Selective Asia. He was lucky enough to turn his life’s biggest passion – travel, into a full time job and has never looked back. Nick uses every opportunity he gets to explore the world’s exotic wonders. His travels took him from the deserts of Namibia to Canadian Arctic, but his real passion has always been Asia.

He's travelled through Laos, Burma, Borneo, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Cambodia. He returns from every journey with a heavy heart but full of memories and inspirations. Check out Nick’s Google + profile here.

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