Known officially as Ho Chi Minh City since the late 1970s this frenetic metropolis is the economic hub of modern Viet Nam. Beginning life as a khmer trading and fishing settlement, it came under the control of the Vietnamese in the late 17th century. Indeed the area was the site of the Gia Dinh Citadel of the Nguyen dynasty emperors at the beginning of the 18th century. However, much of the city was destroyed by invading French forces in 1859 and was subsequently rebuilt in the style of a French city and named Saigon, a corruption of the khmer name soai-gon or ‘wood of the kapok tree’.
Not only is Saigon the most important economic centre in Vietnam, it also has some of the finest colonial architecture in Indochina. Almost a hundred years of French rule has left some imposing structures, most notably the Central Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the old Hotel d’Ville. A visit to District 5, formerly known as Cholon, shows a different side to the city. Cholon, or ‘big market’, with its congested streets and bustling markets is where most of the city’s ethnic Chinese population resides. The district lives up to its name in the form of Binh Tay wholesale market. The district also has some fine places of worship with the most notable being Thien Hau temple. Also known as ‘Temple of the Heavenly Lady’, visitors come to marvel at its intricate friezes and photogenic coils of incense.