Ho Chi Minh City evolved from a small fishing village on the Saigon River a few miles from the South China Sea. In the early 1600s Vietnamese refugees fled from the north to escape a civil war. They were welcomed, and helped develop the village into a thriving seaport, eventually taking control of the city and surrounding region and naming it Saigon. In the mid 1800s, France took over much of the country and developed the city with French architecture, culture and a unique cuisine. Wide boulevards lined with elegant buildings are a hallmark of the city today.
Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976. Many locals still use the name Saigon, and you'll find it on T-shirts in the markets. With nearly 10 million inhabitants, it's the largest city in Vietnam and drives the country's economic engine. It's fast-paced, innovative and quite chaotic. Skyscrapers rise across the landscape alongside brightly colored Buddhist and Hindu temples and French colonial buildings. The city proper rises on one side of the Saigon River, while one- and two-story low-rise houses and commercial enterprises line the opposite bank.
Most cruise ships call during the dry season, which lasts from November through April. Temperatures at this time range from a low of about 70 to highs in the 90s, with high humidity, too. A trip to Ho Chi Minh City is much more than a visit to a former war zone; the city is a vibrant destination offering cruisers great shopping, exciting cultural and the historic treasures, and friendly people.
Mid-size and smaller ships can navigate the twisting Saigon River and tie up to the Saigon River Dock that's a very short distance of the city center. Larger ships dock at Phu My, a commercial port on the South China Sea near Vung Tao, some 80 miles by road (2.5 hours) from Ho Chi Minh City.
Pickpockets are known to roam the markets and crowded streets, but violent crime against tourists is unusual. Crossing the street is not for the timid, but the dangers can be overblown. In the city center, drivers are fully aware of crossing pedestrian traffic. Stay close together, and step out when the traffic is thinnest. Keep walking slowly and deliberately at a steady pace while watching the oncoming traffic. It will simply flow around you. Abrupt movements or a sudden dash can throw off the natural flow. Once you have done it a few times, you will gain confidence. Follow locals as they cross the street to get the hang of it.
Avoid cyclo and taxi scams by making sure that they know exactly where you are going and how much you expect to pay for all passengers.
The local currency is the Vietnamese dong (VND). For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Almost all cabs, cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) shops and restaurants take U.S. dollars, although you probably will get change back in dongs. Be sure to bring smaller denominations, mostly fives and ones. Credit cards are welcome in higher-priced restaurants and shops. Banks in the city center have ATM machines, and major hotels have exchange counters, but unless you are taking a local bus or exploring rural areas, changing money is not necessary.
Vietnamese is the national language, but many residents -- especially younger people -- speak and understand English. Some older people will also speak French.
At Ben Thanh Market, a huge covered shopping pavilion located three blocks from where most ship shuttle buses stop, you can find excellent prices on Vietnamese crafts. Shoppers can purchase lovely scenic prints suitable for framing and eye-catching black lacquerware with floral designs in the shapes of trays, plates, bowls and cups. It's also an excellent place to pick up the beautiful, traditional-style embroidered silk shirts and jackets, as well as knockoff of designer leather goods.