Ho Chi Minh City evolved from a small fishing village on the Saigon River a few miles from the South China Sea. In the early 1600s Vietnamese refugees fled from the north to escape a civil war. They were welcomed, and helped develop the village into a thriving seaport, eventually taking control of the city and surrounding region and naming it Saigon. In the mid 1800s, France took over much of the country and developed the city with French architecture, culture and a unique cuisine. Wide boulevards lined with elegant buildings are a hallmark of the city today.
Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976. Many locals still use the name Saigon, and you'll find it on T-shirts in the markets. With nearly 10 million inhabitants, it's the largest city in Vietnam and drives the country's economic engine. It's fast-paced, innovative and quite chaotic. Skyscrapers rise across the landscape alongside brightly colored Buddhist and Hindu temples and French colonial buildings. The city proper rises on 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 highs in the 90s, with high humidity, too. A trip to Ho Chi Minh City is much more than a visit to a former war zone; the city is a vibrant destination offering cruisers great shopping, exciting cultural and the historic treasures, and friendly people.
The Saigon River Dock has a cafe and souvenir shop. There is little else directly outside the dock gates. The port of Phu My has no passenger facilities, including ATMs.
Head for the Rex Hotel either by ship's shuttle or 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. Take the elevator up from the ground floor (now ringed with top designer boutiques) to have a look, but do not expect to find much life or atmosphere until the evening when locals and visitors gather for drinks. 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. (141 Nguyen Hue Boulevard, District 1)
The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, 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 writings, which he penned under a pseudonym. (65 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1; open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; admission less than $1)
Probably best known to those who lived through the Vietnam War is the Presidential PalaceReunification Palace, which is a museum and reception center under the name of Reunification Hall. Built in 1965, the building housed banquet, ceremonial and meeting rooms and, in the basement, a warren of offices from which the Vietnam War was conducted. 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. (106 Nguyen Du Street, District 1; open 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday; admission $1.50)
Two blocks behind is the War Remnants Museum, Once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes is sure to bring back bad memories for baby boomers. But, for those who want to dig deeper into the horrors of war, the museum offers candid photographs and exhibits 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. (28 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3;; open 7:30 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily; admission less than $1)
Ben Thanh Market, 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 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 locals and tourists alike enjoy a quick snack or full meal. Shopping there can be exhausting; narrow passageways are lined with hundreds of shops where hawkers try their best to grab your attention and dollars. Bargaining is expected, but remember to be courteous. The Vietnamese consider rude, angry and emotional behavior to be crass and bad form. (Corner of Le Loi and Ham Nghi Streets, District 1; 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. It's easy to find another cab 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.
The Hotel Continental Saigon, 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 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. (132-134 Dong Khoi Street, District 1)
The Vietnam History Museum 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 features 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 bows. Shows generally start when five or more people have gathered. (2 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, District 1; open 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; admission less than $1)
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 Viet Cong guerillas designed to make clandestine attacks on American troops. While the tunnels were first constructed after World War II to fight the French, they were greatly expanded during the Vietnam War and eventually extended some 120 miles. In one small area, you may climb down into the enlarged and reinforced tunnels to experience what it was like to live underground. On the road out and back, the route passes rice paddies, rubber plantations and flower markets. Admission is $4.
Vung Tao, originally a French coastal resort and then an American and Australian rest and recreation center during the Vietnam War, lies about 35 miles from the deepwater dock and is reachable by taxi or shore excursions. From Ho Chi Minh City, it's a two-and-a-half hour drive. Attractions include the beaches (Bai Sau, or Back Beach, is best), seafront restaurants, the view from a lighthouse and several pagodas.
On Foot: While the Saigon River 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 on foot. There is nothing within walking distance at the port in Phu My.
By Bus, Taxi and Cyclo: Most cruise lines provide shuttles between the ship and the Rex Hotel, which is at the center of town and gives walking access to many destinations. Taxis within the dock gates will try to charge much more than the going fare charged by taxis outside the gate. Most taxis in town will be happy to take you back to the ship when docked nearby, but make sure you have a firm commitment for the fare price.
From Phu My: To get to Ho Chi Minh City , you will have to take the ship's shuttle to Rex Hotel, join a ship tour or hire a cab outside the port gate. Most ships provide shuttles to the port gate or to the village of Ba Ria approximately 10 miles away, where there is an ATM machine. From there, you can take a taxi to the resort town of Vung Tau. Prearranged private tours and ship excursions are advised from this port.
Hydrofoil is another option although the timing may be iffy if the ship is sailing that day. You will have to take a taxi to the hydrofoil dock; the one-hour transit costs about $9. Public bus transport is not recommended for visitors.
Cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City offers a wide range of cuisines including French, of course. As you are visiting Southeast Asia, partake of the cuisines -- Vietnamese and Chinese, particularly -- which are complex and offer a wide variety of ingredients, preparations and tastes. Some are hot, while others are quite mild. All the establishments listed below serve lunch and dinner.
PHO 2000 is a large, casual and affordable restaurant located across the street from Ben Thanh Market. It is famous for pho noodle soup made with ingredients such as oxtail, beef, chicken or tripe. Other pho choices highlight local fresh fish and shellfish or are strictly vegetarian. President Bill Clinton made the bustling restaurant famous when he dined there while normalizing relations with Vietnam. Photos of him are displayed prominently on the restaurant walls. This is a favorite stop for many of the shore excursions and private tour companies, as well as locals. (1-3 D Phan Chu Trinh; +84 8 822 2788; open 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily)
Du Street, three blocks from the Rex, is lined with 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, named after the popular herb, is thoroughly Vietnamese and one of the best-known restaurants in the city. The three-level building is furnished with cane seating and tile floors. The long menu lists fixed lunches that might 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. (4 Nguyen Thiep Street; +84 8 822 0496; open 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily)
Quan An Ngon, 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. (138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia; +84 8 3825 7179; open 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily)
At the Institute of Cultural Exchange with France, 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, this restaurant features French main dishes -- some French-Vietnamese fusion -- that cost between $2 and $6. (31D Thai Van Lung Street; +84 8 3825 8465; open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily)
Set in an old French villa down a secluded alleyway, May serves authentic Vietnamese dishes with a French twist. Try the fish with passion fruit sauce and indulge in the fried banana with homemade ice cream for dessert. (3/5 Hoand Sa, Ward Dakao, District 1; +84 8 3910 1277; open 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. daily)
Mid-size and smaller ships can navigate the twisting Saigon River and tie up to the Saigon River Dock that's 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.
Pickpockets are known to roam the markets and 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, drivers are fully aware of crossing pedestrian traffic. Stay close together, and step out when the traffic is thinnest. 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. Follow locals as they cross the street to get the hang of it.
Avoid cyclo and taxi scams by making sure that they know exactly where you are going and how much you expect to pay for all passengers.
The local currency is the Vietnamese dong (VND). For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Almost all cabs, cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) shops and restaurants take U.S. dollars, although you probably will get change back in dongs. Be sure to bring smaller denominations, mostly fives and ones. 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 taking a local bus or exploring rural areas, changing money is not necessary.
Vietnamese is the national language, but many residents -- especially younger people -- speak and understand English. Some older people will also speak French.
At Ben Thanh Market, a huge covered shopping pavilion located three blocks from where most ship shuttle buses stop, you can find excellent prices on Vietnamese crafts. Shoppers can purchase lovely scenic prints suitable for framing and eye-catching black lacquerware with floral designs in the shapes of trays, plates, bowls and cups. It's also an excellent place to pick up the beautiful, traditional-style embroidered silk shirts and jackets, as well as knockoff of designer leather goods.