sleepless in saigon



Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City in July 1976 – a year after armies from the North took over the South, drove the Americans out and remade Vietnam as one. Hundreds of thousands refugees perhaps millions fled communism by sea. Many were drown, robbed or raped by pirates trying to reach Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Today 40 years on, Vietnam is one of the few remaining communist countries in the world. However, red banners, logos and slogans and a grand post office that sells colorful postage stamps are the only signs of socialism overseas visitors will encounter in Vietnam’s largest city. The experience of Ho Chi Minh for many will surely be one of capitalism, near naked and on steroids.


Ho Chi Minh City is brash, animated and intensely money-minded.

Quan Am Temple in Cholon in District 5 was built in 19th century by migrants from China
Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s economic and financial hub.


Vietnam despite impressive economic growth remains  a poor country with minimum wages at around USD150 per month


As a tourist you can perhaps get better food, coffee and massages in neighbouring cities but you cannot afford to skip Saigon (as locals still call the city) if you want to understand the hunger and relentless energy that drives success and entrepreneurship in this part of Asia.


There is really no season to avoid when you plan to visit Ho Chi Minh City. The weather reports say June to September is rainy season but I find Ho Chi Minh City pleasant at this time of the year with slightly reduced heat and fresh balmy breeze at night, conducive for roof top club music and a cocktail.


Phuc Long Coffee is well known for its ice peach tea served with slices of real canned peace


Late afternoon shoppers at the popular Ben Thanh Market
The Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon was built between 1877 and 1883 using entirely materials from France including the characteristic red bricks shipped from Marseilles


The market for luxury cars sees strong growth with car sales in 2015 for Mercedes Benz and BMW respectively increased by 50% and 40% from the previous year


Motorcyclists on Le Loi Boulevard. Ho Chi Minh City has 7.4 million motorbikes.


One of the classified reasons why foreign armies lost the war in Vietnam
Vietnam’s population grows by a million people annually and will soon reach 95 million by 2017. The population is young with a quarter of Vietnamese below 15 years old.

city of ascending dragon


I dodged fried dough sellers, shoeshiners and swarms of scooters before perching myself on a low plastic stool for a tall glass of ca phe da. Hanoi’s old city still gives me a child in a toyshop adrenaline rush like no other urban site in Asia except maybe night time in Tokyo’s Shibuya and Kolkata at any hour.


Hanoi’s ancient mercantile quarter is an evocative place to wander around. It is half Paris meet Canton in the Tropics; half Communist meets Capitalist and wholly mad on a Saturday night with chock-full of humanity pouring into its narrow streets as if fleeing an advancing molten lava after a soccer game.

The old city area of Hanoi is I think the last place remaining in the world to see a classical oriental city that is little changed from the past century and miraculously undamaged by the Vietnam/American War 40 years ago. Its labyrinthine streets of narrow shops are interspersed with temples and sectionalised by guilds and trades. Here one can still see and hear the sights and sounds of street traders, vendors on bicycles and on foot carrying on poles their wares in woven baskets and pavement of people slurping hot rice noodles and drinking coffee dolloped with condensed milk.

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Hanoi is by the standards of emerging Asia a beautiful and atmospheric city. It is situated on the watery banks of the Red River about 100 km from its mouth at the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam’s North.  It is a locality steep in history with records of human settlements in and around the present city going back at least 3,000 years.

In 1010 the first Vietnamese king of the Ly Dynasty moved his base here . He named his new capital city Thang Long or Ascending Dragon. Hanoi is still poetically known by this name to this day.

Although Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam for most of the country’s existence as a political entity, it was for over a thousand years up until the 10 th century, along with most of northern Vietnam, ruled on and off and marginally as part of China.

DSCF2796DSCF2598DSCF2392DSCF1879S0152585DSCF2259DSCF2053DSCF1647 DSCF1458DSCF1463DSCF2279DSCF2765DSCF1451DSCF2516DSCF2402DSCF1805DSCF1469DSCF1713DSCF1995DSCF1936DSCF2090DSCF1685DSCF1904DSCF1821S0512905DSCF2443DSCF1974DSCF2954DSCF1915DSCF2780DSCF1838S0282682DSCF2017DSCF2024DSCF2500DSCF2448DSCF2452All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng November 2014