Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), as Saigon was renamed after the end of the American/Vietnam War is a bustling city. It was once the capital of South Vietnam and a fascinating place to explore. Here are 7 suggestions for what to do when visiting Ho Chi Minh City for the first time.
1. Watch the Swarm of Motorbikes!
Calling the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City chaotic is an understatement. The primary form of transportation is a motorbike, or motorcycle, and there are millions of them. Sometimes it seems like they all are at the same intersection! Swarming like bees, when the lights change, they’re off.
The drivers come incredibly close, with perhaps an inch to spare, the embodiment of the Asian concept of space, “as long as you don’t hit, you had plenty of room!” Crossing the street is frightening as the bikes just keep coming. The best advice we received was walk at a slow and steady pace (do not freak out and speed up or stop) and they judge where you will be and go around you. It seems to work, we survived!
Are you wondering why I started by talking about the traffic? It is seriously my most vivid memory of visiting Ho Chi Minh City.
I have seen recommendations for tourists to rent a motorbike to get around when visiting Ho Chi Minh City. This is insanity! Unless you are used to riding a motorcycle and driving in these conditions it is a good way to ruin your holiday. Leave it as a spectator sport! Taxis are cheap (and air conditioned).
2. See the French Influence: Walk through District 1
District 1 is the main commercial and cultural hub of Ho Chi Minh City. It was designed by French architects during the Colonial era. Wide boulevards, beautiful parks and colonial French buildings are the highlights. The Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, the old City Hall, the famous Rex Hotel and the Saigon Opera House (also known as the Municipal Theater) are all examples of the French architectural influence.
Many of the five star international hotels are also located in this area. There are fantastic coffee shops and restaurants around this area just waiting to be discovered. A walk through this area is a must when visiting Ho Chi Minh City.
3. Saigon Opera House & The AO Show
Want to see the inside of the Saigon Opera House? Going to see the AO Show is great way. The AO Show itself is fantastic. A Vietnamese inspired live show. The show changes from time to time so check what is on. Each show features the most incredible acrobatics performed on bamboo poles! It is somewhat like a Vietnamese version of Cirque de Soleil. The show is very popular so it would be best reserve tickets in advance at the link above if you really want to go during while visiting Ho Chi Minh City.
4. The War Remnants Museum
Once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the now renamed War Remnants Museum is the museum most Westerners see when visiting Ho Chi Minh City. This museum is all about the war between the USA/Vietnam, which is known as the American War in Vietnam. It is interesting to see how the Vietnamese present their version of events. The language, what is included (and excluded) and the official Vietnamese version of events are all very interesting. If you want to see a different point of view on this war, don’t miss this museum. It is about the War, and many aspects of it can be quite disturbing, but nonetheless worthwhile to see and learn.
On the top floor there was a photographic exhibition, “Requiem”. It is a collection of the photos taken by photographers that died covering the War. It is a collection of their last photos taken. It is a most moving collection of photos. Many people risked and lost their lives to make sure the world knew the story of what was happening in Vietnam. This is the legacy of those photographers that died.
5. The Presidential Palace
This is also known as Reunification Palace or Independence Palace. This is the huge building with the tank out front. The President of South Vietnam lived and worked in this building during the War. This building played a large role during the War and in its final days as this is the site of the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The final scenes of the War (which you can see in the War Remnants Museum above) took place here.
The palace has been left much as it was during the war and it is like stepping back in time. It is interesting to see the building, understand its role in history and explore how and where the war was run from in Vietnam. The communications center in the basement is very interesting if just to see what equipment was available at the time compared to our modern communications infrastructure.
6. The Cu Chi Tunnels
These are a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City. Again a relic of the War and a bit disturbing but an essential piece to understand what happened. The Vietnamese built extensive networks of tunnels which they used to engage in warfare and lived in to survive during the war.
These tunnels are small. Neither of us is very large and it was difficult to navigate these tunnels (and I think the ones visitors can go in have been enlarged!). In the picture below this man makes the size of this tunnel entry look okay, Mark barely fit in this square!
This whole complex of tunnels and actually using tunnels as a tactic in the War leaves me speechless. As I write this, I am finding it difficult to describe what impact visiting this place has. The fact the Vietnamese went to such lengths to fight during the War is one of the reasons they were such a formidable opponent even though the USA had much more fire power.
In many ways I think it has to be seen and experienced. It is one of those places you don’t want to go to but really should see. And it is not far if you are visiting Ho Chi Minh City.
We used our same guide and driver from our journey through the Mekong Delta visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh as a full day trip. Another option is to organize bus transport from your hotel or organize a tour.
7. Eating while Visiting Ho Chi Minh City
And saving the best for last, sample the local cuisine! Surely the highlight of visiting Ho Chi Minh City!
Ho Chi Minh City has a vibrant street food culture, and at night there are a lot of stalls set up around the city including near the Ben Thanh market (which turns into a night market). During the day this market is one of the largest wholesale and tourist markets in Saigon. If you want to buy it, chances are you can find it here. Haggling is essential so be prepared.
Throughout Saigon there are restaurants and bars for every budget and taste. We found some surprisingly good cocktails and wine bars and even a place with a nice selection of single-malt scotch. And it was happy hour!
If you want a trip into the past, check out Jerome’s Bar at the Caravelle Hotel (near the Opera House). Located on the 8th floor it has fantastic views of the French District from the terrace. The hotel and this bar were the central meeting spot for the foreign press correspondents and visiting dignitaries during the Vietnam War. There are a lot of historic photos from the War era throughout the hotel. Today it is a nice (albeit expensive) cocktail bar and restaurant.
If you want to try something a bit different, try Saigon HotPot Tours. We did not get a chance to do this, but it was highly recommended from several other travelers we met. Saigon HotPot guides are local university students who are looking to practice their English. The tours are free, with the guide accepting a donation if you enjoyed the day. They will make contact and find out what you would like to do and organize a day tour (usually walking) for you around the city showing some of their favorite spots and great places to eat. It’s a great way to meet a local and get the local perspective.
If you want a break from Asian food, we highly recommend Saffron, a Mediterranean restaurant or Ciao Bella (Italian) both owned by the same people. We ate at Saffron and it was a fantastic meal. Go hungry, it was a large meal!
Enjoy visiting Ho Chi Minh City (and watch out for the motorbikes!)
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