Contemporary commerce meets centuries of culture behind French colonial building facades. Asian exporters trade with the world from atop glass and steel skyscrapers, while mere blocks away narrow alleyways are navigated by cyclo, or bicycle taxi. Elegant restaurants with linen-draped tables serve French-inspired fare, while around the corner smoky temples fill the air with the sweet smell of incense.
Vietnam is at once a mix of pulsating energy and painful history, and nowhere is the mélange more visible than in Ho Chi Minh City. Known to past generations as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh melds the ancient and the modern as captivatingly as any city in Asia.
The wide, tree-lined boulevards of central Ho Chi Minh City were designed by the French, and the fingerprints of European colonizers remain throughout the city. Take in the sacred art and soaring spires of the 19th-century redbrick Notre Dame Cathedral. Walk through the balconied colonial Fine Arts Museum. Galleries in this museum are packed with artistic treasures ranging from 4th-century statuary to contemporary paintings.
Decidedly Asian are Ho Chi Minh City’s temples. Dozens of carved wooden and papier maché figures join the dazzlingly robed Jade Emperor himself in the smoke-filled Jade Emperor Pagoda. Even more beautifully ornamented is the Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda. Coils of smoldering incense and paper lanterns hang from the temple’s ceiling. And a blaze of ornate brass ornaments and weapons share space with intricate wood carvings in the pagoda’s interior.
Peaceful as Ho Chi Minh City’s temples may be, the city of Ho Chi Minh bears an indelible connection with war. Vestiges of that brutal conflict continue to lure visitors to the War Remnants Museum. American and Viet Cong military vehicles and weapons stand alongside grim photographs at the perennially popular stop. Nearby, Reunification Palace further recounts the story of the Vietnam War. Forever linked in Western minds to the final fall of Saigon, the palace’s basement-level war room, 1970s-era telecommunications center and network of underground tunnels paint a somber picture of the conflict’s final days.
Take an opportunity to shop the stalls at Ben Tanh Market. Ho Chi Minh City’s favorite market is noisy with hagglers and vibrant with piles of fresh seafood, dragon fruit, locally-roasted coffee and red chili peppers. Tables overflow with colorful silks, Vietnamese sandals and cone-shaped hats, favorites among souvenir shoppers. And restaurateurs tempt food lovers with the sights and smells of steamed rice cakes, banh mi sandwiches and bowls of savory pho. Lively and chaotic, Ben Tanh Market enjoys a mix of tourists and locals, young and old, rich and poor. Eclectic and energetic, just like Ho Chi Minh City itself.
(May/June 2017 issue of Traveler)