Ho Chi Minh City: Hopeful and Heady
One hears Saigon City, or today, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and an image conjures up in your mind, perhaps of the war, of French colonial architecture and a bustling city of two-wheelers. What it really is, a Revelation.
HCMC is everything, a commercial capital, a strikingly modern city with contemporary architecture, French cityscape of tree-lined promenades, relics of its cultural and architectural heritage, markets halls and shopping malls, and several hidden treasures. The city is adorned with lush green parks, lakes, public spaces, riverside walks, and beautiful pagodas. At the heart of this stunning city sits the City Hall and the busy promenade of Đ. Nguyễn Huệ, flanked and packed with life in the city. A 10-minute walk along Đ. Nguyễn Huệ, from the city hall to Song Sai Gon, is an urban collage of many faces of the city.
The city has embraced its multi-dimensional role, but what stands out is its people and their celebration of this Vietnam's largest city, which exudes the headstrong attitude and hopeful aspirations of its people. One is drawn into its zest for life, the whirlwind chaos of the everyday city and the energetic and innovative expressions of the city. Possibly one of the only cities that have truly guarded its soul in the face of colonisation, communism and war.
Rising like a phoenix, Saigon rose above the ashes to assert itself, its true self expressing its rich Vietnamese culture and attitude. The city rapidly urbanised in the 1990s, and the old crumbling places and relics of the past, its communal Vietnamese houses, had to give way (on the contrary, Hanoi celebrates its Vietnamese architecture) to new glass buildings. Formally named in honour of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary, the two names of the city are somewhat used interchangeably; the two characters of the city complement and complete each other. The swanky character of Ho Chi Minh City offers everything contemporary and posh; hopeful Saigon still holds dear its food stalls and pretty much everything along the sidewalks.
Everyday life unfolds on the streets in Vietnam. In HCMC, it is compounded. From alfresco dining at The Long @ Time Square to savouring banh mi squatting on the low stools along the footpath or sipping a coffee on the balcony on the 4th floor of The Cafe Apartments; the city offers plenty and outstanding culinary choices in exciting settings and experiences to absorb the energy of the city and motorbikes whizzing past. As an urbanist, it was astonishing to see an apartment building could be converted into an incubator space for innovative food entrepreneurs and how in the Western world, it is hard to make it work even on the ground floor. The Cafe Apartments is a unique setting and an exemplar of interesting urbanism, a must-experience landmark for all urban designers.
The city is constantly evolving and regenerating; it has skipped, hopped and jumped to be a 21st-century city. The city districts' characters are becoming even more discerning; amongst its 24 urban districts, certainly, District 1 is unwaveringly the commercial and tourist area, District 3 is an ideal place to live, whereas District 4 has managed to retain its colourful Vietnamese culture and food, and District 5 is the undoubtedly plays upon its Chinese heritage.
In this city of contrasts, where the past seamlessly nestles with the present, discovering gems like the Book Street east of Notre Dame Cathedral is not unusual. Unmissably, the French colonial architecture of Notre Dame Cathedral, the City Hall, the Opera House and the Post Office Building mark your memory. But what makes a visit more memorable is your travel companions; here again, K+K never miss a chance to be the playful muses.
Continuing on the journey of Vietnam, coming up next is the 'Yellow City'!