At the heart of a small province stretching from the South China Sea nearly to Cambodia, crêpe-flat Ho Chi Minh City straddles the meandering Saigon River. Sometimes dubbed HCMC for short, the city is still referred to as Saigonits pre-1975 nameby many locals. To reflect its status as the capital of Cochin China, French administrators designed District 1 along the river's west bank with broad boulevards lined by numerous neoclassical municipal buildings. Now the district plays host to swank apartments, banks, and the city's finest hotels, restaurants, and shops. District 3, just to the west, has retained enough of its colonial-era residences to give it a neighborhood feel. The foothills of the Central Highlands, part of the spine of mountains running nearly the entire length of Vietnam, begin a few hours' drive to the northeast. To the south spreads the Mekong Delta, a West Virginiasize floodplain.
WHEN TO GO
Go to southern Vietnam in winter for the best weather, avoiding the monsoon season (May to October). But be prepared for humid conditions throughout the year. The best month is January, when the weather is drier and temperatures hover in the high-80s. The weather in the Central Highlands northeast of Ho Chi Minh City is appreciably cooler, especially at night.
HOW TO GET THERE
Several airlines offer non-stop flights from Asian hubs like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bangkok to the Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Taxis are plentiful outside the arrivals area of the new international terminal, and a ride to town should be around $5. Alternatively, your hotel may have an airport shuttlemore expensive, but more convenient. It's also possible to travel overland from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Ho Chi Minh City in a day via the Moc Bai/Bavet border crossing; travelers' cafés in both cities sell bus tickets for the trip, which normally takes from six to eight hours.
Cycloscarts driven by a bicycleare uncomfortable and slow. Though swift and ubiquitous, a motorbike taxi, or xe om, is inconvenient if it's raining or there are more than two in your party. However, full-size taxis are cheap (no ride within District 1 should be more than a few dollars) and air-conditioneda boon in humid Ho Chi Minh City. Call Vinasun (84-8-827-2727; www.vinasuntaxi.com) or Saigon Taxi (84-8-823-2323). At night, beware that some taxis will try to run "fast meters'' that overcharge for short trips.
Tourist agencies provide information and book city tours. Trails of Indochina specializes in high-end, customized itineraries throughout Southeast Asia (10/8 Phan Ding Giot St.; 84-8-844-1005; www.trailsofindochina.com). Ann Tours also builds custom itineraries for individuals and small groups (58 Ton That Tung St., Ben Thanh; 84-8-833-2564; www.anntours.com). Alternatively, try Exotissimo (Saigon Trade Center, 37 Ton Duc Thang St.; 84-8-825-1723; www.exotissimo.com).
The government-run tourist agency is Saigontourist Travel Service (49 Le Thanh Ton St.; 84-8-829-8914; www.saigontourist.net). However, it's a little more expensive than many local agencies.
There are numerous free publications available; the most useful and comprehensive is AsiaLife, a monthly compendium of the Saigon scene.
Compared to most other nations in Southeast Asia, which issue visas on arrival, Vietnam has a lengthy and expensive visa process. For U.S. citizens, the easiest method is to apply for a visa from the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C. (202-861-2293; email@example.com; www.vietnamembassy.us). The cost for a single-entry 30-day tourist visa is $65, plus $16.25 for a prepaid U.S. Postal Service Express Mail envelope and postage. Apply at least one month before your planned departure, especially during holiday periods such as Tet during early February.View Vietnam Factsheet