Aerial view of Ho Chi Minh City cathedral

Ho Chi Minh City

The yin to Hanoi’s yang, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon to its friends) offers a more internationally minded counterpoint to that northern bastion of tradition — not to mention an exciting base from which to explore Vietnam’s most interesting war sites.

During the war years, Ho Chi Minh City — then Saigon — was the nerve centre of American-backed South Vietnam. Old rivalries die hard, and though few now remember the war, its effects have shaped Vietnam’s two biggest cities in ways that can still be seen today. While Hanoi still feels more aligned with nationalism and tradition (more “Vietnamese”, to some), Ho Chi Minh City is more cosmopolitan and open to the West — relentlessly creative, energetic, and forward-thinking. These differences play out not just in the architecture of the city centre, whose wide, leafy boulevards and shiny skyscrapers certainly feel more modern and international than Hanoi’s maze of old guild streets, but in the character of its people, with their reputation for openness and ease.

And yet despite its international outlook, Ho Chi Minh City retains a distinct sense of its own character and history — its modern developments balanced by its 1920s French villas, red-brick Notre Dame cathedral, and the vaulted ceilings of the 19th century Central Post Office. Venture outside District One, meanwhile, and you’ll find a city that’s sprawling, noisy, and altogether less sanitised than other Asian megacities like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. This is particularly true in Chinatown, where dragon-entwined temples dating back to the 1700s jostle with tumbledown warehouses, and hawker stalls sell everything from herbal medicine to pan-fried dumplings. Combine this with a profusion of tours and activities catering to the demands of today’s trend-savvy younger generations (from augmented reality art tours to craft beer and coffee-tastings), and Ho Chi Minh City has an unmistakable personality entirely its own.

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