In this, the largest of Vietnam’s cities, you’ll see the hustle and bustle of Vietnamese life everywhere and there is something invigorating about it all. Contrasting images of the exotic and mundane abound. There are the street markets, where bargains are struck and deals are done; the pavement cafes, where stereo speakers fill the surrounding streets with a melodious thumping beat; and the sleek new cafes and pubs, where tourists chat over beer, pretzels, coffee and croissants. A young office worker man oeuvres her Honda Dream through rush-hour traffic, long hair flowing, high heels working the brake pedal. The sweating Chinese businessman chats on his cellular phone, cursing his necktie in the tropical heat. A desperate beggar suddenly grabs your arm, rudely reminding you that this is still a developing city despite the trimmings.

The city churns ferments, bubbles and fumes. Yet within this teeming 300 year old metropolis are timeless traditions and the beauty of an ancient culture. In the pagodas monks pray and incense burns. Artists create masterpieces on canvas or in carved wood. Puppeteers entertain children in the parks, while in the back alleys where tourists seldom venture, acupuncturists treat patients and students learn to play the violin. A seamstress carefully creates an ao dai, the graceful Vietnamese costume that could make the fashion designers of Paris envious.

Actually, Ho Chi Minh City is not so much a city as a small province covering an area of 2029 sq km stretching from the South China Sea almost to the Cambodian border. Rural regions make up about 90% of the land area of Ho Chi Minh City and hold around 2Styo of the municipality’s population. The other 75% is crammed into the remaining 10% that constitutes the urban centre.

The city centre is still unofficially called Saigon’, but officially, Saigon refers only to District 1, which is one small piece of the municipal pie. Southerners certainly prefer the name Saigon, but northerners tend to toe the official line. Most government officials are from the north, so if you have to deal with bureaucracy it’s best to say Ho Chi Minh City.

To the west of the city centre is District 5, the huge Chinese neighbourhood called Cholon, meaning ‘Big Market’, a good indication of the importance the Chinese have traditionally played in Vietnam’s economy. However, Cholon is decidedly less Chinese than it used to be, largely thanks to the ant capitalist, anti-Chinese campaign of 1978-79 which caused many ethnic Chinese to nee the country, taking with them their money and entrepreneurial skills. Many of these refugees me now returning (with foreign passports) to explore investment possibilities and Cholon’s hotels are once again packed with Chinese-speaking businesspeople.

Officially, greater Ho Chi Minh City claims a population of close to five million. Six to seven million may be the real figure. The government census-takers only count those who have official residence permits, but probably one-third of the population lives here illegally. Many of these illegal residents actually lived in Saigon prior to 1975, but their residence permits were transferred to rural re-education camps after liberation. Not surprisingly, they (and their children and grandchildren) have simply sneaked back into the city, although without a residence permit they cannot own property or a business. They are being joined by an increasing number of rural peasants who come to Saigon to seek their fortune many end up sleeping on the pavement.

Ben Thanh Market is famous place in Ho Chi Minh

Ben Thanh Market is famous place in Ho Chi Minh

Still, Saigon accommodates them all. This is the industrial and commercial heart of Vietnam, accounting for 30% of the country’s manufacturing output and 25% of its retail trade. Incomes here are three times the national average. It is to Saigon that the vast majority of foreign businesspeople come to invest and trade. It is to Saigon that ambitious young people and bureaucrats from the north and south gravitate to make a go of it.

Explosive growth is making its mark in new high-rise buildings, joint-venture hotels and colourful shops. The downside is the sharp increase in traffic, pollution and other urban ills. Still, Saigon’s neoclassical and international-style buildings, and pavement kiosks selling French rolls and croissants, give certain neighbourhoods an attractive, vaguely French atmosphere. The Americans left their mark on the city too, at least in the form of some heavily fortified apartment blocks and government buildings.

Saigon hums and buzzes with the tenacious will of human beings to survive and improve their lot. It is here that the economic changes sweeping Vietnam and their negative social implications are most evident.