While Hanoi is Vietnam's administrative capital, its largest city and commercial hub is Ho Chi Minh City. Lying on the banks of the Saigon River (and still commonly referred to as Saigon by its eight million inhabitants) this is one metropolis that has undergone dramatic changes in recent years.
The city received widespread damage during the Vietnam War years. But in the several decades that have passed since the ceasefire, it has gone from strength to strength. In the eighties there were sweeping economic reforms, meaning that this part of Vietnam is now thriving – indeed Ho Chi Minh City is now challenging its fellow Far Eastern powerhouses of Bangkok and Singapore in terms of financial clout.
As with anywhere else in this beautiful country, visiting Ho Chi Minh City offers an incredible diversity of attractions. All the trappings of economic success are here to be enjoyed – sumptuous restaurants, lively bars and clubs, luxurious hotels and retail outlets stocked with luxury imports.
Strolling around Ho Chi Minh City you'll find yourself immersed in an exciting hotch-potch of architectural styles. There are sedate pagodas, weatherworn buildings dating from the French colonial era, austere Soviet-eta housing blocks, and dazzling contemporary designs.
For all the economic success, many of the streets remain the domain of a miniature army of kids hawking books, lottery tickets and postcards to visitors. While Hanoi is often viewed as a romantic and charming location, Ho Chi Minh City is the larger, boisterous, cousin, its thoroughfares alive with colour and noise. To some first-time tourists this can be slightly disconcerting. But many others love this aspect, relishing the experience of roaming the tree-lined boulevards, taking in the bandana-clad women shoppers buzzing on motorbikes, the teenagers flaunting the latest in designer-ware, and the state-of-the-art Honda SUVs increasingly clogging the streets. The best way to observe this manic way of life is to book a cyclo trip, or simply take refuge in a roadside cafe to enjoy a bowl of spicy noodles while Ho Chi Minh flashes by.
The city itself is split into districts, 24 in total, although visitors tend to stick to One, Three and Five. Expats gravitate to District 7's Phu My Hung, an affluent suburb quite at odds with the rest of the surrounding bustle.
As far as places to visit are concerned, you are spoilt for choice with shopping areas, galleries, museums and temples. There are grandiose reminders of the time when the French tricolour flew from government offices – the Hotel de Ville or Notre Dame Cathedral. There are much older buildings, such as the Quan Am Padoga or the Jade Emperor Pagoda. There are also Botanical Gardens, museums crammed with cultural artifacts dating back millennia, and also paddy fields beaches and forests teeming with exotic birdcall.