Getting to know Ho Chi Minh City
By Samantha Fergusson
Ho Chi Minh City, still commonly known as Saigon to the locals, is Vietnam's biggest - and busiest - city. Step into the city centre and embrace the moment as you are hit by a whirlwind of colour, sounds and smells. The streets are bursting with life – mopeds zip past laden with fruit and produce, street-sellers call out their wares, wafts of mouth-watering temptation drift from street-food stalls – but in amongst all this activity you can find tranquil temples filled with soothing incense, brilliant museums full of in-depth knowledge of the city’s troubled past and spectacular remnants of the French colonial days.
With all of this surrounding you, it can be hard to decide on where to focus your explorations. To help, we’ve picked out what we believe to be the city’s best bits so that you never run out of things to do in Ho Chi Minh.
Ho Chi Minh City was (as its name suggests) integral in the Vietnam war, one of the most textbook examples of a proxy war where the Vietnamese (made up of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army) were essentially pitched against the forces of America. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a fascinating reminder of how the Vietnamese fought against the superiorly-equipped American soldiers. A seemingly endless maze of winding tunnel networks succeeded in hiding whole villages from air-raids, and acted as safe underground passages for the Viet Cong to use in their Guerrilla war. The entrances into the tunnels are tiny, the Vietnamese being generally far smaller in build to the western troops, and the tunnels small and winding. Let your imagination run away with you as you explore these tiny underground spaces – the ingenuity of them is something to be admired.
Relax with a cup of coffee
If you love a caffeine hit and fancy a bit of a treat, then make sure you sip on a Vietnamese coffee… If we say so ourselves, they’ve nailed it. Whether you like it hot, cold, white or black, you can grab a coffee in pretty much every café or restaurant in the city. We highly recommend having a white one at some point, simply because they use sticky, sweet condensed milk – absolutely delicious with the rich Vietnamese coffee beans!
It’s always great to discover something a little different, and it doesn’t get much more different than the wooden puppets that swoop and splash across a water stage in the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. This is supposedly a staple of Vietnamese culture, and includes narration and musical accompaniment.
Explore Notre Dame
Yes, you read that right. You can indeed explore a French cathedral whilst in Ho Chi Minh City. In fact, the French colonialists who built it in the 19th century were so keen to bring the feel of France and its famous cathedral to the far east, that the builders used French bricks and constructed huge Romanesque bell towers. It is well worth an exploration, and if you’re interested in the colonial period, there are still plenty of French villas and wide tree-lined streets to wander around in District 3.
Explore the Bến Thành Market
This is a great market, right in District 1, for picking up knick-knacks to take home with you. Grab some street food as you wander the stalls (make sure you pick a busy stand so you know the food hasn’t been hanging around too long), and admire the traditional Vietnamese lanterns, vibrant scarves, handmade bowls and chopsticks and, of course, “lucky” cats.
Alternatively, save your appetite and head to the market once the sun has sunk beneath the horizon, and visit one of the 20 or so eateries around the outskirts of the market. Tuck into vegetarian noodles, crispy rice pancakes, fresh seafood and steamed cakes, all the while soaking up the atmosphere – it’s a popular hangout with locals who stop off for a drink or a snack on their way home from work.
Take in a view
Head to Bitexco Financial Tower for the best views all over the city. If you head to the 50th floor you will find a bar where you can enjoy a drink, ideally whilst watching the sun sink over the city skyline, for roughly the same price as access to the Skydeck.
Visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda
This is one of the most spectacularly atmospheric temples to be found in Ho Chi Minh City. Wander past a pond, the surface broken by little turtles covered in auspicious symbols, and enter the elaborate 1909 structure to see the array of incredible papier mâché sculptures, representing characters from both Taoist and Buddhist lore. Flanking the door are two magnificent, four-metre-high generals, each standing over their conquests – a white tiger and a green dragon. The Jade Emperor himself is seated in the main sanctuary, flanked by his Four Big Diamonds (his guardians, so named because they were harder than diamonds). While you could be tempted to linger with the crowds in front of the emperor, it is definitely worth exploring the other rooms throughout the pagoda – see if you can find the Hall of the Ten Hells, or spot Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell, and his red horse.
War Remnants Museum
Last, but absolutely not least, we strongly recommend a visit to the War Remnants Museum. Here you will see photography depicting the effects of the US’s chemical arsenal as well as military vehicles and various weapons. It is intriguing, harrowing, and at some points shocking, but it is rare to find such an uncensored collection that depicts the horrors of war quite so accurately.
Make it happen
If you would like to explore Ho Chi Minh City, then send an enquiry to our local experts in Vietnam. They already have a wonderful itinerary to inspire you and introduce you to the essentials of Vietnam, and can very happily put together a tailor-made tour just for you through the wonders of Saigon. All you need to do is ask. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, call us on 0117 325 7898.