As one of Oceania Cruises’ passionate guest lecturers, Dr. John Freedman thrives on sharing his in-depth knowledge of world history and international cultures while sailing around the globe. Combining his long career in medicine and fascination with faraway lands, Dr. Freedman has explored over 120 countries and been involved with numerous international medical volunteer programs and relief efforts. He is also an experienced expedition leader for university and museum educational travel programs, an accomplished travel photographer, and a much-followed travel blogger. With his lively presentation style, he is sure to bring our exotic destinations alive for you. Below, Dr. Freedman shares a snapshot of what makes Saigon such a special city.
Vietnam’s most vibrant city is not only on the short list of My Favorite Asian Cities – it’s also on the short list of My Favorite Cities Worldwide. It has a rich and emotionally involving history, friendly people, eminently walkable streets, unending diversity, a thriving economy assuring growth, and a local cuisine second to none. The ubiquitous pho (the city’s signature dish, an ultra-savory meal-in-a-bowl soup infused with fresh cut basil, chili and lime) is to me a metaphor for the city itself – always simmering day and night on every street corner, full of colorful ingredients, redolent of exotic spices, and offering something different in every spoonful.
The city was officially re-named Ho Chi Minh City after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, but its historic name of Saigon has staying power – so you can use it without fear of political incorrectness.
The area was first settled hundreds of years before the Vietnamese arrived, starting as the port town of Prei Nokor under the rule of ancient Cambodia’s Kings of Angkor. After falling under Vietnamese control in the late 17th century, it quickly became a bustling mercantile hub.
The hyper-industrious Viet people saw their city grow into the country’s largest city, both its major commercial center and gateway to the world.
The French swiftly made Saigon the capital of their showcase Indochinese colony in the late 19th century, and today the city leverages the charming air of its “Indochine” aesthetic history with a rich heritage of French colonial architecture including the wedding cake City Hall, the General Post Office designed by Alfred Eiffel, the Franco-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Opera House – all within a leisurely walk of each other in the city’s central District 1.
The French café spirit lives on too, offering the best coffee, baguettes, croissants and ice cream in Asia. The central district is home to the storied hotels of yesteryear like the Continental (1888), the Majestic (1925) and the Rex (1927) – all doing a brisker business than ever.
Within a short stroll is Saigon’s iconic Reunification Palace – a 1960s-era structure which served as the Presidential Palace of South Vietnam’s leaders until it became the site where the Vietnam War decisively ended when a North Vietnamese tank bulldozed through the wrought iron front gate on April 30, 1975. The Cho Ben Thanh, one of Saigon’s largest and most interesting markets, is nearby, and Saigon’s energetic Chinatown is also just a short taxi ride away. Meanderings through the city take you to innumerable temples representing the region’s three major religions in all their syncretism: Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism.
Meanwhile, just a few blocks from Saigon’s convenient downtown cruise port is the Bitexco Tower, a sleek skyscraper symbolizing Saigon’s headlong rush into the future – but surrounded by historic buildings which anchor it to its intriguing past. And while urban improvement projects continually emerge, the community is seeing to it that the city remains one of the most walkable in the world, from its French-style tree-lined boulevards to its quaint alleys perfect for “people-seeing.” “Simmering Saigon” is always a most welcome stop on any voyage to Asia!
Join Dr. Freedman in Saigon on this fascinating fall journey aboard Insignia:
© Dr. John Freedman 2015