Fasten your seatbelts as Ho Chi Minh City is a metropolis on the move – and we’re not just talking about the motorbikes that throng the streets. Saigon, as it’s known to all but city officials, is Vietnam at its most dizzying: a high-octane city of commerce and culture that has driven the whole country forward with its limitless energy. It is a living organism that breathes life and vitality into all who settle here, and visitors cannot help but be hauled along for the ride.

Saigon is a name so evocative that it conjures up a thousand jumbled images. Wander through timeless alleys to ancient pagodas or teeming markets, past ramshackle wooden shops selling silk, spices and baskets, before fast-forwarding into the future beneath sleek skyscrapers or at designer malls, gourmet restaurants and minimalist bars. The ghosts of the past live on in the churches, temples, former GI hotels and government buildings that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil, but the real beauty of Saigon’s urban collage is that these two worlds blend so seamlessly into one.

Whether you want the finest hotels or the cheapest guesthouses, the classiest restaurants or the most humble street stalls, the designer boutiques or the scrum of the markets, Saigon has it all. The Saigon experience is about so many things – memorable conversations, tantalising tastes and moments of frustration – yet it will not evoke apathy. Stick around this conundrum of a city long enough and you may just unravel its mysteries.

Introducing Around Ho Chi Minh City

As the geographic footprint of Ho Chi Minh City continues to expand, finding a respite from urban life has become a somewhat complicated undertaking. Thankfully, there are still some refreshing escapes – to wild forests, inviting beaches and fascinating historical and cultural sights – just a short journey from town.

One of the region’s top attractions is the Cat Tien National Park, a 70, 000-hectare Unesco-rated biosphere boasting a startling variety of flora and fauna. Visitors can go bird-watching, take to hiking trails, overnight in a crocodile swamp and look for signs of Vietnam’s rarest wildlife. The Con Dao Islands, a 40-minute flight from the city, offer an equally attractive getaway, albeit of a tropical island flavour. A former prison colony under the French and US regimes, Con Dao today boasts largely undiscovered beaches, empty coastal roads and a healthy ecosystem complete with coral reefs and colonies of green sea turtles – one of Vietnam’s best places to see them in the wild.

Other fine beaches stretch just east of the gruff oilman’s town of Vung Tau. Although lacking the popularity of Mui Ne and Nha Trang further up the coast, there are some sparkling gems here – particularly Long Hai and Ho Tram – for those seeking a quiet beach holiday far from the madding crowd. More popular than HCMC’s nearby beaches and forests, however, are the dark, stifling tunnels of Cu Chi, where VC guerrillas once lived, fought and – in many cases – died. Nearby, the fantastical Cao Dai Temple provides a surreal point to learn about Vietnam’s uniquely home-grown religion. Both of these sights are extremely popular tour-bus day trips from HCMC

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