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Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon ), Vietnam

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Like many cities in Vietnam, Saigon did not escape the wrath of war. From the outset, Saigon has had quite a traumatic history. There are many citations to the birth of Saigon and the origin of its name. In the 15th century, this area consisted of swamps, marshes and thick forests. By the early 17th century, a small township had been formed. According to o¬ne theory, the name Saigon or Sai Con is derived from the Khmer words Prei Kor (Kapok Tree Forest).

The name Saigon was first used officially in 1698, when Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu sent Mr. Nguyen Huu Canh to create the districts and to form a government for this southern outpost. Because of its strategic location for trade and commerce as well as its military importance, Saigon continued to grow and became a bona fide city. By 1772, Mr. Nguyen Cuu Dam had begun to fill many of the canals to form streets.

In the mid 19th century, the French with the aid of the Spanish invaded this port city and destroyed the fort. This event was the precursor to the long struggle between the people of Vietnam and France leading to the defeat of the French in 1954. In subsequent years, Vietnam was divided into two separate countries and Saigon became the hub of resettlement for many as people from north and central Vietnam immigrated south.

In the 1960s and 70s, Saigon was bustling with activity and commerce. It was the cultural center and the capital city of South Vietnam. Already heavily influenced by the French in terms of culture and style, the city had an air of a French provincial town with a Vietnamese twist. Saigon was dubbed the “Pearl of the Orient” by the foreign press. The city was alive with cultural diversity rivaling that of any Asian city at the time.

After the fall of South Vietnam to communism in 1975, the city and many of its inhabitants were in a state of chaos and turmoil. In 1976, the new government renamed the city Ho Chi Minh City and shut its door to the rest of the world. Although recognized worldwide as Ho Chi Minh City, to the people of Vietnam, the city is still lovingly referred to as Saigon.

Street Scenes

With a population of over 5 million people, Saigon is one of the densest urban areas in the world. On many streets, it is common to see houses with their ground floor converted into a business frontage while several families share the living space on the upper levels.

Once the most common mode of transportation, “cyclos” are now becoming rare, having been banned from many streets. Replacing them are fleets of taxis and “Honda ôm” – Japanese motocycles that you just wave down and jump on to be transported anywhere in town.

Unlike other cities in Vietnam, Saigon is very active at night. Music halls often play to sold-out local crowds and restaurants stay open late into the night. During the summer months, sidewalks are dotted with colorful fruit stalls.

Orientation

The downtown area of Ho Chi Minh City is now officially called District 1, though you will still hear some people call it Saigon. Stick to either District 1 or Ho Chi Minh City – that way, nobody will be confused or offended.

Orientation is quite simple in this city – a relief if you”ve been travelling to other Asian destinations. Since the Vietnamese language uses Latin-based lettering, signs are easy to read. However, the street numbering can sometimes be confusing, as they can comprise a generous quantity of letters as well as numbers.

Budget travellers tend to congregate around Pham Ngu Lao str., at the western end of District 1. Cholon (Chinatown) has plenty of cheap rooms, but Western backpackers are still rare here. Travellers with a little more cash prefer the more upmarket hotels concentrated around Dong Khoi St at the eastern side of District 1. Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham Streets form the axis of Saigon”s haven of budget eateries.

The famously muddled Tan Son Nhat International Airport is only 7km (4.3mi) from the city centre. Trains, including the infamous Reunification Express from Hanoi, arrive from the north in District 3, just north of the city centre. Dirt-cheap buses – in equal measure unreliable and unsafe – run from a variety of locations around the city, including Cholon (for Mekong Delta connections) and the Binh Tranh District (for all northern destinations).

Ben Thanh Market

Built on a landfill site that was once a swamp named Bo Ret (Marais Boresse), the new Ben Thanh Market is located in the center of the city. Under the French government, the area around Ben Thanh Market was called Cu Nhac circle (Rond point Cuniac), named after Mr. Cuniac, the person who proposed filling the swamp to create this site. The area was later renamed Cong truong Dien Hong.

Nha Tho Duc Ba – Cathedral of our Lady

Conceived as one of France”s most ambitious construction projects in Indochina at the time, Rev. Colombert laid the cornerstone for the cathedral on October 7, 1877.

Three years later, in 1880, the cathedral was opened to the public. These two dates are inscribed on a marble placard in the cathedral. The bricks used to build the structure were shipped from Marseilles. Artisans from Lorin Company (Chartres, France) were commissioned to create the stained glass windows. The cost of construction was a whopping 2.5 million francs. In 1962, the Vatican gave the cathedral the title Basilique.

Vinh Nghiem Temple

Located on Cong Ly boulevard (or Nam Ky Khoi Nghia), Vinh Nghiem is south Vietnam”s most majestic temple. Construction of the temple was completed in 1971 according to the design of Mr. Nguyen Ba Lang and associates. The ground floor consists of the library, the auditorium, and offices. On the left of the upper courtyard stands a tower or the seven-level Avalokitesvara Stupa. Next to the tower hangs a large bell given to the temple by the Japanese Buddhists Sangha.

Hoi Giao – Islam

A small number of Muslims live in Vietnam, and are mainly found in the south central region, the Mekong Delta, and by the Cambodian border. Islam was introduced to Vietnam in the 7th century via Arab traders and later blended with local customs and religion. Islam is now mostly practiced by the Cham population of Vietnam, although there is a strong Hindu influence in their practice. Today, there are several mosques in metropolitan Saigon.

Bao Tang Lich Su – Historical Museum

Located in Saigon”s Botanical garden and Zoo, the museum opened its doors to the public on January 1, 1929. Originally named Blanchard de la Brosse, the museum was renamed Bao Tang Quoc Gia (National Museum) in 1956, and finally, Bao Tang Lich Su (Historical Museum) in 1979.

The museum houses many historical artifacts including three wooden stakes from the battle between Ngo Quyen and the Han invaders, granite tablets with intricate carvings, and uniforms of the mandarins and kings of yesteryears. A statue of the Buddha with 1,000 eyes and 1,000 arms is also part of the museum”s collection. According to the curator, many of the artifacts date back to the 6th and 7th century.

Den Ngoc Hoang – Emperor of JadeTemple

Located in Dakao, first district, the temple was built by Cantonese Buddhists who settled in Saigon in the 19th century. The architectural style is heavily influenced by the southern Chinese.

The Taoist deity (Emperor of Jade) is enshrined here along with his 4 guardians (Tu Dai Kim Cuong). The shrine is famous for its elaborate carvings of the various deities as well as its unique architectural style. This temple is also home to the Hall of Ten Hells which contains carvings depicting the various levels of Hell.

Dinh Doc Lap – Independence Palace

Dinh Doc Lap or the Independence Palace was completed in 1966 after three years of construction. The plans were drawn by Mr. Ngo Viet Thu, winner of the architectural excellence prize in Rome. The palace was built o¬n the site of the French governor”s headquarters in the 19th century. President Diem commissioned Mr. Thu to design the new palace and supervised its construction. Unfortunately, the president was assassinated shortly after construction started. The Palace became the home of the then President of South Vietnam Nguyen Van Thieu until the fall of Saigon in 1975. It is now called the Reunification Hall but all the original furnishings are still intact.

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