Looking for the heart and soul of southern Vietnam? Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) – a city full of contrasts, memories of the past and excitement for the future. Known to many as Saigon, HCMC is the country’s largest city, its economic centre, and one of its most popular expat hubs.
Home to more than seven million people, HCMC is as historical as it is modern. Here’s a city where designer skyscrapers tower over French colonial buildings and traditional Chinese style pagodas, and where a modern stock exchange and business HQs stand next to memorials, museums and historical sites that pay tribute to the city’s turbulent past.
Renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 after the spiritual leader of Vietnamese Communism, the city has been the centre of French colonial power and then the centre of US power during the Vietnam War. Today, it is one of the fastest growing cities in South East Asia – a New World Wealth survey reported a 400% rise in multi-millionaires since 2004 – with a surge of urban regeneration projects, luxury housing developments, business towers, glitzy shopping malls, and designer bridges.
Attractions include Reunification Palace and The War Remnants Museum, which both trace the story of Vietnam during its turbulent 20th century history, the Nghia An Hoi Quan Pagoda, and the Notre-Dame Cathedral left by the French colonialists in the 1880s. Vung Tau’s beaches, the Mekong Delta and the network of Cu Chi Tunnels used during the Vietnam War are all just a short drive away. There are popular street markets such as Ben Thanh Head, where you can haggle for Vietnamese lanterns, lucky cats and chopsticks aplenty; plenty of trendy cafes serving the hugely popular and inexpensive Vietnamese coffee; and floating markets selling everything from fruit to fashion.
Located on the banks of the Saigon River, HCMC is divided into 19 districts, and District 1 is certainly the centre of attention. With its wide boulevards lined with stately trees and elegant French villas, the city is easy to explore on foot. That’s fortunate as HCMC’s public transport system is relatively underdeveloped, although a much-needed metro system is currently under construction.
Alongside Hanoi, HCMC is the most popular expat destination in Vietnam. As well offering low cost of living and affordable rents, the city has more than 50 international schools that largely follow the UK curriculum or International Baccalaureate programme from nursery through to sixth form. Popular communities are centred in District 1, the suburban District 2, and the newly developed District 7.