Photo: Burning incense at a Cholon pagoda.


As cyclo drivers rest easy below vast neon billboards, the emerging Vietnamese middle class -- mobile phones in hand -- cruise past draped in haute couture on their imported motorcycles. Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City -- Vietnam's largest and most exciting city.

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How things have changed from the sleepy days pre-16th century, when the Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor was established on a vast swampland. Saigon's origins date back to the early 17th century when the area became home for refugees fleeing war in the north. Towards the end of the century, once the population was more Vietnamese and Cambodia’s kingdom waning in influence, Vietnam annexed the territory. Over the following decades Prey Nokor developed into the Saigon the French found when they conquered the region in the mid 19th century.

Within a very short time the French began to leave their mark on the city. Some of the best hotels in Saigon are within grandiose colonial buildings overlooking gorgeous boulevards dating back to Saigon's heyday as the so-called Paris of the Orient. For the French, Saigon became the capital of Cochinchina, an expansive region encompassing parts of modern-day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Through the next 100 years, they extracted as much as they could from the region -- much of it passing through Saigon's ports. Often cruel and thoughtless, French rule remained over the city and Cochinchina until their exit from Vietnam following their defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

When the French opted out of Vietnam to avoid recognising the Communist victors, they left the south under the care of Emperor Bao Dai who had made his capital there in 1950. Subsequently, when Vietnam was officially partitioned, the southern government, led by Ngo Dinh Diem, kept the capital at Saigon. And there the southern capital remained, throughout the topsy-turvy period of the American war. Then, as America's role in Vietnam's pains drew to an end, Saigon swelled to the eyeballs with refugees fleeing troubles to the north -- just as Prey Nokor once did.

When the South finally fell to Northern communist forces in 1975, what remained was a paltry shadow of its more grandiose self. The following year the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the late leader of North Vietnam himself. Despite this, many still know the sprawling town as Saigon, and the name still refers to central District 1.

The Communist victory was followed by widespread repression and re-education. The economy buckled under a heavy hand from the north as entrepreneurial spirit was almost all but stamped out with the Chinese trading class particularly hard hit. Simultaneously, Saigon's elite and pretty much anyone else with the means did their best to get out of the country, and through the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vietnam's "boat people" were featured in media worldwide.

Through a policy of industrial privatisation known as doi moi in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the country’s economic leash was loosened and Saigon has never looked back. With a very young, increasingly well-educated population, the city has gone from strength to strength. Today, children of party bigshots slide through the heaving traffic in gleaming, chauffeur-driven Bentleys, and the general population looks more to neon shrines for direction than to Uncle Ho and the old guard.

Towering developments now pierce what was once a very low-key skyline. Five-star hotels and international shopping chains have replaced dowdy government guesthouses and empty shelves. Along with the fancier pickings, Ho Chi Minh City has an excellent budget guesthouse scene and some of the best cuisine in Vietnam, from cheap street eating to salubrious haute cuisine. A renewed interest in the arts has stimulated the art scene and many galleries and museums are slowly being spruced up. For a tourist there is a lot to do in Saigon.

And once you're done with the city, use it as a base to explore the surrounds: head out to the tunnels at Chu Chi, the Cao Dai temple at Tay Ninh or jet off to the sublime Con Dao. Then there's the entire Mekong Delta to explore. How much time have you got?!

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