Hanoi in the north is Vietnam’s capital and political center whereas Ho Chi Minh City in the south is its economic engine and power house. Many people still refer to it by its previous name, Saigon.

Since Ho Chi Minh City is a little cumbersome to write, it is generally abbreviated to HCMC, kind of like Los Angeles is often spelled as LA and New York City as NYC.

I ended up in HCMC as a climatic refugee (I just made that word up). My home town, Chiang Mai in Thailand, is plagued by horrible pollution and extreme heat every March and April due to slash and burn agricultural practices.

Saigon's opera house

The European architectural heritage is unmistakable in Saigon’s opera house

So this year I escaped to Vietnam which is just a short airplane hop from Thailand. I have to admit that in general I am not a big fan of any of those mega cities in Asia. They all suffer from plenty of pollution, horrendous traffic and way too many people for my taste.

However HCMC was a pleasant surprise to me in some ways. No, I am not talking about the traffic – that’s horrendous. However the city is quite green with lots of parks and most streets lined with trees. And the sky even looked blue which cannot be said about Chiang Mai or Bangkok in Thailand.

Saigon river cruise

Dinner cruise boat on the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City

There is a big river flowing through town. You can go on a dinner cruise and take in great views of the city’s skyline from the boat.

There are many colonial buildings which stem from the French occupation of Vietnam and which lend the city an elegant character.

Saigon post office

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City’s historical post office

Food in HCMC is amazing. There are restaurants from dozens of countries in the world represented. You will never get bored eating in this city. Vietnamese food was a pleasant change for me since it is not liberally spiked with heaps of super hot chili peppers unlike the Thai food which can literally set your mouth on fire.

Saigon is a high energy city in a rapidly developing country. It certainly does not look much like a third world city. The old and the new coexist with grand colonial buildings next to gleaming sky scrapers.

Saigon river front

Colonial buildings and modern skyscrapers sit side by side on Saigon’s river front

Vietnam had been occupied for hundreds of years first by the Chinese, then by the French, and then by the Americans. They managed to fight all them off which took a horrible toll on the country in terms of loss of life, destruction of the natural environment and constant brutal fighting.

There are still plenty of memories of this war-torn period especially for the older generation. In HCMC this is represented in the War History Museum in a country which has the biggest display collection of American fighter planes, tanks, and other weapons of war outside the United States.

Saigon War History Museum

Plenty of US military hardware is on display in Ho Chi Minh City’s War History Museum which chronicles the Vietnam war which is called the American war in Vietnam

However the younger generation had not lived through this destructive period which is just a historical foot note for them. They are looking towards the future and they want to be part of the modern world.

There is one city park right next to the backpacker tourist area which is the most amazing park I have ever seen in Asia. It really comes to life in the evening when lots of Vietnamese (and foreigners) can be seen running, using exercise machines, playing all kinds of ball games, doing aerobics, and believe it or not, ballroom dancing in several pavilions in the park.

Exercise machines in Saigon park

There are plenty of exercise machines for free public use in Saigon’s park.
Vietnamese in their teens and right up into their 70s can be seen exercising vigorously.

There is also a big stage in the park where I caught a free performance of an Asian rock concert complete with light show and other effects while I was eating my dinner of Indian food on the side of the stage.

One interesting and pleasant thing is that students from the various universities in HCMC come to this park in the evening and actively seek out foreigners. Why? English teaching in both Thailand and Vietnam consists primarily of learning grammar and reading. Talking is mostly neglected, and as a result the students have to seek out native English speakers to practice speaking English.

I found this out when I was sitting down in the park, and within minutes a couple of Vietnamese students approached me and got me involved in a lively conversation. Once this was going on, about a dozen of students crowed around us, all trying to talk to me and ask questions.

They were surprisingly well informed about the state of the world and we discussed everything from politics to internet marketing (which is my business). Those students were bright, inquisitive and eager to learn. I spent hours talking to them and they asked me to come back the next day.

Happy Buddha in southern VIetnam

This “Happy Buddha” in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam is several stories high.
There is also a large Christian minority in Vietnam.

I found people in southern Vietnam to be very friendly, welcoming, and smiling easily. Everybody seems to have time to talk to you.

If you want to escape the big city traffic, you can travel to the nearby Mekong River Delta which is a much more laid back scene with floating markets, rivers, temples, canals and green rice fields.

Canal boats in Vietnam

The traditional way of life is very much alive in the rural areas of Vietnam

Overall HCMC was a very favorable introduction to an up-and-coming country. There are many more fascinating and beautiful destinations in Vietnam – beautiful beaches, refreshingly cool mountain towns, historic cities, breathtaking scenery, and fascinating tribal communities. I will share those with you, so stay tuned!

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image of the the author, Shama KernThe author, Shama Kern, is a long time
resident of Thailand. Besides writing
about Thailand, he also chronicles his
travels in other southeast Asian countries.
He can be reached at shama@shamakern.com

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