Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is the largest city in Vietnam, though the thriving metropolis was formally known by a different name. Until the mid-1970s, the city was known as Saigon, that is until the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front captured the municipality in what is now called the Fall of Saigon. After the city was taken, it was renamed after the communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, who had died six years earlier in 1969. He was a key component in the design and orchestration of the People’s Army of Vietnam and President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. While the city changed names to honor this important figure, it is common practice for the Vietnamese to still call the city Saigon. It appears that Ho’s legacy is built around a cult of personality, as his legacy has been compared to those of Lenin, Mao Zedong and Kim Jong-Il.
Whether you call it by its formal name of Ho Chi Minh City, or its more historic names of Saigon and Prey Nokor (the name of the original fishing village in this location), the city is rich in history and culture. Both of its more popular names have interesting meanings when translated. Saigon roughly translates to “cotton stick” and is thought to be descriptive of the kapok trees (they grow up to 230 feet!) planted around the city by the Khmer people. Ho Chi Minh roughly translates to “bringer of light,” a slightly more profound name, though not the given name of the former leader.
The city is home to beautiful architecture that spans centuries. Ho Chi Minh City Hall was built in the early 1900’s in French colonial style and is not open to the public. It sits illuminated at night with a statue out front of its namesake. Cholon, a Chinese influenced district of the city has markets and pagodas that date back to the late-1800’s and capture the Chinatown-feel that is prevalent in many big cities. The Saigon Railway station, built in the 1930’s, is the largest and most important transportation hub in the city. Some 85% of the country’s passengers pass through this station, and nearly 60% of the cargo travels via this line in transit to Hanoi and elsewhere.
One of the more impressive works of architecture is the Bitexco Financial Tower. At sixty-eight floors above ground and three below, it is the 124th tallest building in the world. Designed by renowned architect Carlos Zapata, it is based on the national flower, the Lotus. Formerly the tallest building in Vietnam, it was surpassed by the Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower in 2011. However, the intricacies of the Bitexco Tower are amazing. On level 49 it has a 360-degree observation deck; and on the 52nd level it has a heli-pad. It is conveniently located near many of the most significant landmarks in the city, including the Saigon Bridge, Thu Thien Tunnel, Tan Thuan Bridge and international airport. It really is a modern work of art in its elegant design.
Vietnam is heavily reliant on tourism for its economic growth, and of the estimated 4.5 million people that visit the country every year, nearly 70% come to HCMC. Pretty impressive for a city that takes up just over half a percent of the total land in the country! Some of the tourists that travel to the area are in seek of the natural wonders the country has to offer. With 31 national parks and 21 national tourist areas, there is wealth of history, heritage and natural beauty to satisfy any traveler. Cat Tien, located just 150 miles from HCMC, is home to the largest area of lowland rainforests left in the country. At 720 square kilometers, it is a sanctuary worthy of preservation, and a perfect stop on this tour of our Small World.