I don’t remember being in a city with two names before. Are we in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City? Our flight from Danang was to Ho Chi Minh City; our somewhat hyperactive guide Jay Jay welcomed us to Saigon. Ever anxious to avoid offence we had previously asked what to call this vast metropolis of 13 million people and were reassured either title would do. One distinction seems to be chronological; those whose point of reference is pre-1975 still use Saigon. Another is geographic; there are 13 districts and district 1, where we are based, is Saigon. So, for both reasons, I’m gonna go with Saigon.
First the good news-it finally stopped raining!! 32 humid degrees and sunshine at last. The perpetual grey skies of central Vietnam were a thing of the past and we had arrived in the south. As expected the city thrummed with noise and traffic. Much more developed than Hanoi, very quickly our eyes were drawn up to ever soaring skyscrapers. But the city also preserves its green spaces; many of the wide streets were tree lined and there are park spaces provided too. Residents must need an escape from the traffic laden streets, once again inexplicably remaining flowing despite any discernible rules for driving.
We arrived at our hotel on the river and took in the view from our room. The urge to explore was keen and we were just steps from the main city streets. The overwhelming impression is of an incredible variety of architectural styles. Some are typically French, drawing us back to the country’s colonial past once more.
The People’s Committee building has all the character of a French ‘hotel du Ville’.
And the municipal theatre could be an opera house in any French city.
There are several famous hotels here; the Continental, Caravelle and, the one I wanted most to see, the Rex. It was from the rooftop bar here that US journalists filed their war reports, which came to be known as ‘the five o’clock follies’. Nowadays, five o’clock is more like happy hour and the hotel is luxurious, with designer outlets in the foyer.
The main post office is from where the correspondents would have sent their copy. Now the cavernous central hall is watched over by a triumphant Ho and statues celebrate war victories.
The cathedral is anything but an oasis of calm, sitting as it does on a busy traffic intersection and thronged by tourists and locals trying for a photo opportunity.
Evidence is everywhere of this country’s drive to modernise and the influx of capital from overseas investments. There are modern shopping malls to match any European capital.
Modern skyscrapers blend in well with existing architecture in an eclectic mix of styles.
Cities change by night. Saigon comes out on the streets to enjoy the cooling air, have family walks and enjoy bars and restaurants. The buildings are lit and the whole scene is one of colour and noise. We finished the evening on the rooftop bar of the Caravelle, drinks in hand and another memorable day enjoyed to the full.