Washed ashore above the Mekong Delta, some 40km north of the South China Sea, HO CHI MINH CITY is a city on the march, a boomtown where the rule of the dollar is absolute. Fuelled by the sweeping economic changes wrought by doi moi, this effervescent city, perched on the west bank of the Saigon River, now boasts fine restaurants, immaculate hotels, and glitzy bars among its colonial villas, venerable pagodas and austere, Soviet-style housing-blocks. Sadly, Ho Chi Minh City is also full to bursting with people for whom progress hasn't yet translated into food, lodgings and employment, so begging, stealing and prostitution are all facts of life here.
Ho Chi Minh City started life as a fishing village known as Prei Nokor and, during the Angkor period (until the fifteenth century), it flourished as an entrepôt for Cambodian boats pushing down the Mekong River. By the seventeenth century it boasted a Khmer garrison and a community of Malay, Indian and Chinese traders. During the eighteenth century, Hué's Nguyen Dynasty ousted the Khmers, renamed Prei Nokor Saigon , and established a temporary capital here between 1772 and 1802, after which the Emperor Gia Long used it as his regional administrative centre. The French seized Saigon in 1861, and a year later the Treaty of Saigon declared the city the capital of French Cochinchina. They set about a huge public works programme, building roads and draining marshlands, but ruled harshly. After a thirty-year war against the French, Saigon was finally designated the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam by President Diem in 1955, soon becoming both the nerve-centre of the American war effort, and its R&R capital, with a slough of sleazy bars catering to GIs on leave of duty. The American troops withdrew in 1973, and two years later the Ho Chi Minh Campaign rolled through the gates of the presidential palace and the communists were in control. Within a year, Saigon had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.