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map of location Hue Da Nang Phong Nha Sa Pa Ha Noi Ha Long Cat Ba Hoi An Quy Nhon Buon Ma Thuot Nha Trang Da Lat Mui Ne - Phan Thiet Ho Chi Minh Vung Tau Can Tho Phu Quoc

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Ho Chi Minh city

Saigon is a name so evocative that it conjures up a thousand jumbled images. Wander through timeless alleys to ancient pagodas or teeming markets, past ramshackle wooden shops selling silk, spices and baskets, before fast-forwarding into the future beneath sleek skyscrapers or at designer malls, gourmet restaurants and minimalist bars. The ghosts of the past live on in the churches, temples, former GI hotels and government buildings that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil, but the real beauty of Saigon’s urban collage is that these two worlds blend so seamlessly into one.

Whether you want the finest hotels or the cheapest guesthouses, the classiest restaurants or the most humble street stalls, the designer boutiques or the scrum of the markets, Saigon has it all. The Saigon experience is about so many things – memorable conversations, tantalising tastes and moments of frustration – yet it will not evoke apathy. Stick around this conundrum of a city long enough and you may just unravel its mysteries.

History

Saigon was originally part of the kingdom of Cambodia and, until the 17th century, was a small port town known as Prey Nokor. As more and more settlers moved south it was absorbed by Vietnam and became the base for the Nguyen Lords.

Saigon was captured by the French in 1859, and named the capital of Cochinchina a few years later. The city served as the capital of the Republic of Vietnam from 1956 until 1975, when it fell to advancing North Vietnamese forces and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the Hanoi government.

The official government census only counts those who have official residence permits, and, today, as many as one-third of the population could be living here illegally. Some of these illegal residents lived in the city before 1975, but their residence permits were transferred to rural re-education camps after reunification. Many have simply sneaked back into the city, although without a residence permit they cannot own property or a business.

Explosive growth is evident in a slew of satellite suburbs beyond the centre and a glut of high-rise buildings, joint-venture hotels and colourful shops downtown. Downsides include the sharp increase in traffic, pollution and other urban ills, but a more openminded new generation may infuse HCMC’s chaotic growth with a more globally conscious attitude.

Getting around

Getting there & away

Land

Bus

Intercity buses depart from and arrive at a variety of bus stations around HCMC and are well served by local bus services from Ben Thanh Market. HCMC is one place where the open-tour buses really come into their own, as they depart and arrive in the very convenient Pham Ngu Lao area. This saves an extra local bus journey or taxi fare. Most of the open-tour companies sell tickets to Mui Ne (around US$5), Nha Trang (around US$9) and Dalat (around US$8), plus there are night buses to Nha Trang (around US$12). Phuong Trang (Puta Travel; 3837 9879; www.putatravel.com.vn) is a major new player serving the above routes plus Can Tho (80,000d) in the Mekong Delta.

Mien Tay bus station (Ben Xe Mien Tay; 3825 5955) serves all areas south of HCMC, which basically means the Mekong Delta. This huge station is about 10km west of HCMC in An Lac, a part of Binh Chanh district (Huyen Binh Chanh). Buses and minibuses from Mien Tay serve most towns in the Mekong Delta, using air-conditioned express buses and premium minibuses.

Buses to locations north of HCMC leave from the immensely huge and busy Mien Dong bus station (Ben Xe Mien Dong; 3829 4056), in Binh Thanh district, about 5km from central HCMC on Hwy 13 (Quoc Lo 13; the continuation of Ð Xo Viet Nghe Tinh). The station is just under 2km north of the intersection of Ð Xo Viet Nghe Tinh and Ð Dien Bien Phu. Note that express buses depart from the east side, and local buses connect with the west side of the complex.

Buses to Tay Ninh, Cu Chi and points northwest of HCMC depart from the newer An Suong bus station (Ben Xe An Suong;), in District 12, way to the west of the centre. To get here, head all the way out on Ð Cach Mang Thang Tam and Ð Truong Chinh. The station is close to the flyover for Quoc Lo 1 (Hwy 1). Note that it’s not really worth using local buses to visit Tay Ninh and Cu Chi, as many of the smaller tunnel sites are off the main highways, making it a nightmare to navigate.

Car & motorbike

Inquire at almost any tourist cafe, travel agent or hotel to arrange car rental. Just remember that your rental will include a driver, as it’s illegal for foreigners to drive in Vietnam without a Vietnamese license. The agencies in the Pham Ngu Lao area generally offer the lowest prices. Also check with travel agencies, or check out newcomer Budget Car Rental (3930 1118; www.budget.com.vn) which offers new cars with English-speaking drivers at reasonable rates.

Motorbikes are available in the Pham Ngu Lao area for around US$10 per day if you will be taking the bike out of town, although this is one city where it helps to have experience. Check the quality of the helmet provided as it may be worth investing in a better one for a long trip.

Train

Trains from Saigon train station (Ga Sai Gon; 3823 0105; 1 Ð Nguyen Thong, District 3; ticket office 7.15-11am & 1-3pm) serve coastal cities to the north of HCMC.

Purchase tickets from Saigon Railways Tourist Services (3836 7640; fax 3837 5224; 275C Ð Pham Ngu Lao; 7.30-11.30am & 1-4.30pm) to avoid any commission, or from most travel agents for a small fee.

Boat

Hydrofoils (adult/child 160,000/80,000d, 1¼ hours) depart for Vung Tau almost hourly from Bach Dang jetty on Ð Ton Duc Thang. For more information contact Greenlines (3821 5609) or Petro Express (3821 0650), which are both located at the jetty. In Vung Tau you will board the hydrofoil at Cau Da pier, opposite the Hai Au Hotel.

Air

Tan Son Nhat Airport was one of the three busiest in the world in the late 1960s. Even today, the runways are still lined with lichen-covered, mortar-proof aircraft-retaining walls, hangars and other military structures.

The majority of domestic flights in the country are operated by Vietnam Airlines. Newer budget airline Jetstar Pacific is providing some much needed competition on several routes, while Vasco flies between HCMC and the Con Dao Islands.


Ho Chi Minh Sightseeing

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