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Ho Chi Minh City Overview
Sailing up the snaking Saigon River aboard Seabourn Spirit, I am reminded of the colonial-era ship arrival scenes from the 1992 French film "Indochine," especially as we make our final approach to Ho Chi Minh City. As the ship rounds the last bend in the river, the pre-war Majestic Hotel, situated directly on the waterfront, comes into view, and the mustard-color high-Victorian Hotel de Ville appears at the far end of a long boulevard.
The four- to five-hour transit from the South China Sea, made by small to mid-size cruise ships, reveals swampy channels that make up the Mekong River Delta, the banks lined with rickety wooden houses built on stilts and dreary gray industrial warehouses. Beside us, long, narrow fishing boats -- with sets of eyes painted on their bows -- troll their nets, rows of container ships and bulk carriers load rice and coffee, tugs tow barges laden with construction sand, and cross-river ferries carry pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes and pick-up trucks from one side to the other.
You may know Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon, but following the Vietnam War (known here as the American War to distinguish this period from the French War and the Chinese Wars), the name Saigon lost out, as did the city's role as the country's capital. Though the name has been officially changed, the locals -- that is, those not from the North (former North Vietnam) -- still refer to their city by the French designation.
Compared to Hanoi -- now Vietnam's capital -- Ho Chi Minh City, with its seven million inhabitants, is much more fast-paced, innovative and sophisticated. Skyscrapers rise across the landscape, and a soaring new bridge is under construction, as is a cross-river vehicular tunnel. For now, the city proper rises on just one side of the Saigon River, while one- and two-story low-rise houses and commercial enterprises line the opposite bank.
Most cruise ships call during the dry season, which lasts from November through April. Temperatures at this time range from a low of about 70 to a high of about 85. Cruise travelers come looking for the cultural and the historic and find them in the covered market, a uniquely Vietnamese water puppet show, the late 19th-century French-designed architecture, the Rex Hotel roof bar, the Presidential Palace and the gate where, on April 30, 1975, the North Vietnamese tank crashed through to signal the Communist North victory over the South.
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At Ben Thanh Market, a huge covered pavilion, located three blocks from where most ship shuttle buses stop, you can find excellent prices on Vietnamese crafts -- lovely scenic prints suitable for framing and eye-catching black lacquerware with pretty floral designs in the shapes of trays, plates, bowls and cups. Bargaining is the name of the game.
Vietnamese is the national language, but many residents -- especially younger people -- now speak and understand English. Some older people will also speak French, but the official French era ended long ago, in 1954, with the fall of Dien Bien Phu.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Vietnamese dong (VND), and roughly 17,000 equal one dollar. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.xe.com. The U.S. dollar is preferred for most cash purchases, including taxis, pedicabs and snacks. Credit cards are welcome in higher-priced restaurants and shops. Banks in the city center have ATM machines, and major hotels have exchange counters, but unless you are going to take a local bus or explore rural areas, changing money is really not necessary.
Where You're Docked
Mid-size and smaller ships can navigate the twisting Saigon River and tie up within a very short distance of the city center. Larger ships dock at Phu My, a commercial port on the South China Sea near Vung Tao, some 80 miles by road (2.5 hours) from Ho Chi Minh City.
The city center dock has a cafe and souvenir shop. There is little else directly outside the dock gates. The commercial deep-water pier on the coast has limited facilities, except at the nearby resort town of Vung Tao (not walkable).
While the close-in 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 to venture across on foot.
Most cruise lines provide shuttles between the ship and the Rex Hotel, which is dead center and gives walking access to many destinations. Taxis within the dock gates will try to charge much more than the going $2-3 fare. Ignore them, and walk outside the dock gate; then bargain. Most taxis in town will be happy to take you back to the ship when docked nearby, but have a firm commitment as to the amount (about $5). Pedicabs back to the ship cost a similar amount. Public transportation is not an option from the dock; nor are car rentals.
From the remote, deep-water port, you will have to use the ship's shuttle, take a ship tour or hire a cab. (Establish the price first, and arrange for a return ride.) Hydrofoil is another option; the one-hour transit costs about $9.
Watch Out For
Pickpockets are known to roam the markets and more crowded streets, but violent crime against tourists is unusual. Crossing the street is not for the timid, but the dangers can be overblown. In the city center, bicycle and motorbike riders and car, truck and bus drivers are fully aware of crossing pedestrian traffic. Stay close together, and start out when the traffic is thinnest. Just keep walking slowly and deliberately at a steady pace while watching the oncoming traffic. It will simply flow around you. Abrupt movements or a sudden dash can throw off the natural flow. Once you have done it a few times, you will gain confidence. Also, most of the traffic is two- or three-wheeled (including pedicabs).
Head for the Rex Hotel (141 Nguyen Hue Blvd., District 1), either by the ship's shuttle or a 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. Have a look -- don't miss the great view over the city -- but do not expect to find much life until the evening when locals and visitors gather for drinks among kitschy statuary, caged birds and bonsai trees. 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.
Close by, the Continental (132 - 134 Dong Khoi St., District 1), which boasts a new wing, is another colonial holdover with a courtyard bar and restaurant, while the former old Caravelle Hotel (19 Lam Son Square, District 1) is now a high-rise luxury tower.
Major French Victorian and colonial-style buildings in the same immediate neighborhood are the flamboyant Hotel de Ville (City Hall), the classically handsome Municipal Theater, red brick neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral (1893) and the central post office (1886) with its soaring vaulted interior.
The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City (65 Ly Tu Trong St., District 1), 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 writing, which he penned under a pseudonym. It's open daily from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. and from 1:30 to 5 p.m.
Probably best known to those who lived through the Vietnam War is the Presidential Palace, which is now a museum and reception center under the name of Reunification Hall (106 Nguyen Du St., District 1). Built in 1965, the building housed banquet, ceremonial and meeting rooms and, in the basement, a warren of offices where the Vietnam War was conducted. Much 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. It's open daily from 7:30 to 11 a.m. and from 1 to 4 p.m.
Two blocks behind is the War Remnants Museum (28 Vo Van Tan St., District 3) for those who want to dig deeper into the horrors of war, as displayed in photographs and Communist propaganda 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. It's open daily from 7:30 a.m. to noon and from 1:30 to 5 p.m.
The History Museum (2 Nguyen Binh Khiem St., District 1) traces Vietnamese culture from the Bronze Age to the Cham, Khmer and modern periods. The 1929 building houses displays of costumes, pottery and art, as well as a small water puppet theater. This ancient art form has men hidden behind a screen, manipulating puppets in the form of humans, dragons, birds, frogs and turtles on, under and above the water surface to relate legends, simulate fights and perform dances. The enchanting performances are accompanied by music, and the manipulators appear, chest-deep, in the pool to take their bow. It's open Tuesday through Sunday, 8 to 11 a.m. and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Shows generally start when five or more people have gathered.
Ben Thanh Market (corner of Le Loi and Ham Nghi Streets, District 1), 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 back 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 the locals and tourists alike enjoy a quick snack or full meal. It's 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, and it's easy to find another 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.
Been There, Done That
Hire a shared taxi for a 45-mile, one-hour trip out of Ho Chi Minh City to see the Cu Chi Tunnels, a complex of underground passages and living quarters that Vietcong guerillas designed to make clandestine attacks on the American troops. While the tunnels were first constructed after World War II to fight the French, they were greatly expanded during the Vietnam (American) War and eventually extended some 120 miles. In one small area, you may climb down into the enlarged tunnels to experience what it was like to live underground. This exercise is not for the claustrophobic. On the road out and back, the route passes rice paddies, rubber plantations and flower markets.
Vung Tao -- originally a French coastal resort and then an American and Australian rest and recreation center during the Vietnam War -- lies close to the deep-water dock and is reachable by taxi. From Ho Chi Minh City, it's two-and-a-half hours by regular minibus or just longer than an hour by hydrofoil along the Saigon River. The attractions are the beaches (Bai San or Back Beach is best), seafront restaurants, the view from a lighthouse and several pagodas.
Ho Chi Minh City, being quite cosmopolitan, offers a wide range of cuisines -- including French, of course. As you are visiting Southeast Asia, partake of the local cuisines -- Vietnamese and Chinese, particularly -- both of which are complex and offer a wide variety of ingredients, preparations and tastes. Some are hot, some are medium, and some are quite mild. All the establishments listed below serve both lunch and dinner.
The most exciting place to have a really cheap eat is at the Ben Thanh Market, where the locals gather throughout the day for shopping and eating at several dozen tiny stalls. Have a close look at what is displayed and being eaten, and take particular note of the most popular stalls before you decide where to sit. To be safe, be sure to order cooked food or pastries, and stay away from uncooked vegetables and fruits without skins to peel. Drink bottled water, soda, beer or -- best of all -- tea. Fish, pork and chicken are accompanied by a selection of sweet and spicy sauces. A bowl of tasty beef noodles will cost less than a dollar. Prices in dongs are displayed on signs that hang above the counters.
Dong Du Street, three blocks from the Rex, is lined with an entire block of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Vietnamese restaurants, most with menus and prices in the front windows. Cruise by them, and look in to see which ones are the most popular with locals or visitors -- though, with a large Asian tourist market, that is sometimes hard to tell.
Lemongrass, 4 Nguyen Thiep Street, is thoroughly Vietnamese and is also one of the best-known restaurants in the area. It's named after one of the most popular local spices there and in Thailand. The three-level building is furnished with cane seating and tile floors. The long menu lists fixed lunches that may include soup, spring rolls and a light curry for $2 to $3. Two favorites are deep-fried prawns in coconut batter and crab sauteed in a pepper sauce. If you go with others, choose several dishes, and share.
Quan An Ngon, 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, one block from the Rex and Hotel de Ville and near the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, has indoor and balcony dining. In addition, it has an outdoor garden patio where you can see cooks preparing traditional Vietnamese dishes using fish, chicken, beef and various other ingredients. Try the noodle dishes (like cold noodles with beef), rice and vegetable combos (featuring broccoli, cabbage, eggplant and spinach), spring rolls and the spicy stews. This busy, noisy place charges from $1 to $5 for most dishes.
At the Institute of Cultural Exchange with France, 31 Thai Van Lung St., District 1, four blocks from the Rex, Le Jardin is a popular French bistro, set in a garden. Frequented by French visitors and sophisticated Vietnamese, main dishes -- some French-Vietnamese fusion -- cost between $2 and $6.
Staying in Touch
Internet centers are thick in the city center in stores and cafes. Rates begin at about $1 to $2 per hour.
Best for First-Timers: The Saigon City Orientation is a four-hour tour that covers the city's highlights by bus, pedicab 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 first 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.
For More Information
On the Web: Ho Chi Minh City Department of Tourism (www.tourism.hochiminhcity.gov.vn) and Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (www.vietnamtourism.com)
Tourist Bureau: 4G 4H Le Loi St., Dist. 1, Ho Chi Minh City (84-8) 822 6033
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--by Theodore W. Scull, Cruise Critic Contributor