Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC, previously known as Saigon is Vietnam’s busiest and most popular city epitomizes the contrasting facets of modern Vietnam. Vibrant, dynamic and evolving at a breathless pace, it also retains strong connections with its past. As ‘Saigon’, the metropolis served as the capital of French Indochina, acquiring a spread of suave buildings and boulevards that earned it the epithet ‘Paris of the Orient. More than a hint of Gallic grandeur survives in the swanky Dong Khoi district, the setting for Graham Greene’s era-defining novel, The Quiet American, where now designer boutiques line up alongside some of Asia’s finest restaurants and smartest hotels.
In 1975, tanks crashed through the gates of the presidential palace a few blocks away from Dong Khoi to signal the end of the Vietnam War. Since re-christened ‘Reunification Hall’, the 1960s concrete behemoth has been turned into an extraordinary museum where visitors can marvel at the kitsch furniture and decadent décor installed by the leaders of South Vietnam, who ran the war from a command centre in the basement.
No less extravagant, though on a smaller scale and more traditionally Asian, is the resplendent Jade Emperor Pagoda, the loveliest of HCMC’s many Chinese-style temples. Roofed with green ceramic tiles, its salmon-pink walls enclose chambers filled with colourful paper-maché deities and richly carved wood. The building was erected by Cantonese merchants at the start of the 20th century, along with many others in the atmospheric Cholon quarter, whose markets are brimming with silk, spices and jade souvenirs.
The ideal time to be in this high-energy cultural hub is in the dry season, between December and April. The temperature will be perfect for exploring, and the skies are clear with not much chance of rain. The tropical rains between May and December – despite being sometimes refreshing – can make city tours problematic and often bring flooding to HCMC, although the downpours don’t tend to last very long.