Ho Chi Minh City


Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's undisputedly commercial headquarters with a keen sense of its own importance as Vietnamemerges from years of austerity to claim a place in the "Asian Tiger" economic slugfest. Located on the Saigon River, Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is still called by all, is Vietnam's major port and largest city, and still survives in wide downtown avenues flanked by pristine colonials. Thousands of expatriates and Vietnamese immigrants couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. They’ve long since fallen prey to the hidden charms of one of Southeast Asia’s most hectic and eclectic cities.

Top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Encounter the tangle of local traffic head-on from the seat of a cyclo.
  • Visit some of the city’s myriad museums and sprawling parks.
  • Admire the elaborate Chinese pagodas in Cho Lon.
  • Explore endless culinary possibilities and unbridled nightlife.
  • Splish-splash a day away at one of the many water parks in and around the city.
  • Book a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels and down the Mekong Delta to explore the daily life and culture of the locals.

Where to go in Ho Chi Minh City:

Ben Thanh Market In addition to the clock tower over the main entrance to what was formerly known as Les Halles Centrale, the market can be considered to be the symbol of Saigon. Out front, near the main entrance, find lots of knockoff brand-name clothes, and farther in a number of small souvenir stands. Toward the back are a few small cafes serving local cuisine or coffee and che, a popular Vietnamese dessert. The wet market at the far back, with its selection of meat, fish, produce, and flowers, is interesting and hassle-free. In open-air stalls surrounding the market are some nice little eateries that open just as the market itself starts closing down, and this is in fact one of the best place to try authentic local cuisine

Cao Dai Temple The Cao Dai religion is less than 100 years old and is a broad, inclusive faith that sprang from Buddhist origins to embrace Jesus, Mohammed, and other non-traditional, latter day saints such as Louis Pasteur, Martin Luther King, and Victor Hugo. Practitioners of Cao Daism are pacifists, pray four times daily, and follow a vegetarian diet for 10 days out of every month. Cao Daism is practiced by only a small percentage of Vietnamese people, mostly in the south, but you'll see temples scattered far and wide. Visitors are welcome at any of the four daily ceremonies, but all are asked to wear trousers covering the knee, remove their shoes before entering, and act politely, quietly observing the ceremony from the balcony area. The temple interior is colorful, with bright murals and carved pillars.

On the way from Saigon to the Cao Dai Temple you'll pass through the town of Trang Bang, site of the famous photo of 9-year-old Kim Phuc who was burned by napalm and whose story is told in the popular book The Girl in the Photo.

The road also passes Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain, which is just 11km northeast of Tay Ninh (100km from Saigon). The story goes that a young girl was forced to marry a wealthy mandarin, and rather than do so fell to her death from the peak. The mountain is dotted with small temples.

Cho Lon is a sizable district bordered by Hung Vuong to the north, Nguyen Van Cu to the east, the Ben Nghe Chanel to the south, and Nguyen Thi Nho to the west. Cho Lon is the predominately Chinese district of Saigon and probably the largestChinatown in the world. Cho Lon is a fascinating maze of temples, restaurants, jade ornaments, and medicine shops. You can lose yourself walking the narrow streets, but it makes sense to take a cyclo by the hour to see the sights.

City Hall was originally a French hotel constructed between 1902 and 1908, a fantastic ornate example of refined colonial architecture. Unfortunately, it's not open to the public, but there is a small walking mall out front and running the length of the behemoth Rex Hotel, itself an important vestige of the American years when it housed the CIA headquarters. The park is a great spot for a good group photo with the majestic City Hall in the background.

Cu Chi Tunnels Just 65km northwest of Saigon and definitely worth the day trip, the Cu Chi area lies at the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and was the base from which Ho Chi Minh guerillas used to attack Saigon. As a result, the whole area became a "free fire zone" and was carpet-bombed in one of many American "scorched-earth" policies. But the residents of Cu Chi took their war underground by developing a network of tunnels that, at its height, stretched as far as Cambodia and included meeting rooms, kitchens, and triage areas, an effective network for waging guerilla warfare on nearby U.S. troops.

Emperor Jade Pagoda One of the most interesting pagodas in Vietnam, the Emperor Jade is filled with smoky incense and fantastic carved figurines. It was built by the Cantonese community around the turn of the 20th century and is still buzzing with worshippers, many lounging in the front gardens. The roof is covered with elaborate tile work. The statues, which represent characters from both the Buddhist and Taoist tradition, are made of reinforced papier-mache (chewed-up paper).

Ho Chi Minh City Museum Formerly the Revolutionary Museum, this central behemoth attracts more newlyweds posing for photos on the front steps than anything. Originally built in 1890 by the French as a commercial museum, then a Governor's Palace, and later committee building, the exhibits in this museum cover a broad range, from archaeology to ethnic survey and early photos of the city and documents from its founding in the 1600s. The second floor is devoted to Vietnam's ongoing revolution, with displays of weaponry and memorabilia from the period of struggle against Imperialism and many flags, placards, and dispatches from the rise of Communism, beginning with the August Revolution of 1945 all the way to the fall ofSaigon.

Notre Dame Cathedral The neo-Romanesque cathedral was constructed between 1877 and 1883 using bricks fromMarseilles and stained-glass windows from Chartres. The Romanesque towers of nearly 60m tower over a large white statue of the Virgin Mary and the nearby Saigon Post Office. The tiles are a cubic pattern done in black, white, and gray. The atmosphere is fairly serene and there's something calming about taking a rest on the wooden pews.

Reunification Palace Designed as the home of former president Ngo Dinh Diem, the U.S.-backed leader of Vietnam until his assassination in 1962, this building is most notable for its symbolic role in the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

Built on the site of the French governor general's home, called the Norodom Palace, the current modern building was completed in 1966. Like the Bao Dai Palace in Da Lat, the Reunification Palace is a series of rather empty rooms that are nevertheless interesting because they specialize in period kitsch and haven't been gussied up too much. Tour private quarters, dining rooms, entertainment lounges, and the president's office. Most interesting is the war command room, with its huge maps and old communications equipment, as well as the basement labyrinth. There is an ongoing screening in a series of rooms in the basement, cool and a good rest while touring.

The Conference Hall The main room is still used for important national events. The carpeting you'll see on your visit is a shabby piece of cloth used for display and protection purposes only. For special events, like the recent APEC summit and the signing of the WTO accord, the display rug is whisked away and a bright red piece of carpet is unveiled.

Opera House This magnificent building was built at the turn of the 20th century as a classical opera house to entertain French colonists. The building was renovated in the 1940s, only to be badly damaged by bombers in 1944. A shelter for refugees after the Geneva Accord split the country at the 17th Parallel in 1954, the building would briefly house the parliament before falling under first private, and ultimately state, hands (after reunification) as an opera house and theater. The three-story interior houses some 1,800 seats. Today the Municipal Theater does very little in terms of performances, but it is a stalwart atmospheric holdout amid the rising steel and glass downtown.

Vietnam History Museum Housed in a pagoda-like structure, the museum presents a clear picture of Vietnamese history, with a focus on the south. There's an excellent selection of Cham sculpture and the best collection of ancient ceramics in Vietnam, although some of the artifacts are being held together by scotch tape. Weaponry from the 14th century onward is on display; one yard is nothing but cannons. Room 4 (left of the main entrance) has a fascinating, slightly creepy display of an embalmed body in remarkable shape that dates back to 1869. One wing is dedicated to ethnic minorities of the south, including photographs, costumes, and household implements. Nguyen dynasty (1700-1945) clothing and house wares are also on display. There are archaeological artifacts from prehistoric Saigon. Its 19th- and early-20th-century histories are shown using photos and, curiously, a female corpse unearthed as construction teams broke ground for a recent housing project.

A small, three-row theatre inside the museum shows regular water puppet performances which is an intimate venue and the performance is to a certain extent wittier than the one in Hanoi.

Vinh Nghiem Pagoda Located to the north of town on the road to the airport, this pagoda is distinct because of its constant activities at the attached school, as well as for the daily workings of the many monks and nuns housed here. Housed under large, sloping roofs, with upturned cornices, the temple has two floors, with a grand sanctuary on the second floor and a more utilitarian hall on the ground floor, as well as large block of classrooms and housing for monks and nuns, some of whom may come out and greet you in the hopes of practicing their English.

Nearby, you'll also find the brash pink facade of the wedding cake that is Tan Dinh Cathedral, a busy working Catholic church with daily services that stands out like a sore thumb in the busy Saigon streetscape of the Tan Dinh area. The nearby Tan Dinh Market is notable for the absence of foreign visitors and the pushy hard-sell going on in the popular Ben Thanh Market; Tan Dinh is a good glimpse at the workings of an average city market, with cloth sellers at the front, dry-goods vendors in the center, and meats, vegetables, and fish sold in the back.

War Remnants Museum is a comprehensive collection of the machinery, weapons, photos, and documentation ofVietnam's wars with the both the French and Americans. The museum was once called the War Crimes Museum and is a call for peace and a hope that history is not repeated. The exhibit begins to the right of the entrance with a room listing war facts: troop numbers, bomb tonnage, and statistics on international involvement in the conflict, and numbers of casualties on both sides. Next is a room dedicated to the journalists who were lost during the war. The exhibits are constantly evolving, and the museum was under renovation throughout 2004. One room is devoted to biological warfare, another to weaponry, and another to worldwide demonstrations for peace. The explanations, which include English translations, are very thorough. There is a large collection of bombs, planes, tanks, and war machinery in the main courtyard. There's also a model of the French colonial prisons, called the Tiger Cages, on the grounds.

Can Gio Island is a beach and mangrove area just west of the Vung Tau Peninsula and only about 1 1/2 hours south ofSaigon. The bumpy ride there crosses a number of small bridges and requires a few short ferry hops. The beach is not spectacular, nor set up for fun and frolic, but instead it's a place where local families come to picnic and that's the main allure. Taking a holiday alongside locals, you'll likely be dragged into a group for a good barbecue and cup after cup of rice whiskey. Heading south of Saigon, you'll first reach the Nha Be area, a wide, wet plain, followed by two ferry crossings. Next, it's onto the island's mangrove forest area and beach which is good for a long walk and to clear Saigon's pollution out of your lungs and mind. You can get a bite at one of the local seafood shacks and enjoy a long, lazy repast before heading back to the big city.

Transfer in and to Ho Chi Minh city:

By Plane: Most regional airlines connect with Ho Chi Minh City, including Malaysian Airlines, Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Silk Air/Singapore Airlines, Lao Aviation, Garuda Indonesia, Philippine Airlines, United, and Cathay Pacific (from Hong Kong). Vietnam Airlines usually has the best fare thanks to government controls with daily flights from Hanoi, Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Nha Trang, and Da Lat.

By Bus/Minivan: Saigon is the hub of transport in the south, and all bus lines pass through here. Pham Ngu Lao Streetboasts many traveler cafes that provide air-conditioned buses or minivans.

Tourist buses also connect Saigon by road via the Moc Bai border crossing with nearby Cambodia. The all-day ride leaves daily in either a minibus or large air-conditioned coach from the De Tham-area tourist cafes.

By Car: For safety reasons alone, if you're renting a car, we suggest that you book a private minivan with a tour or arrange a car with driver. Self-drive is possible, but chaotic roads and shoddy insurance can mean some major hassles.

By Train: Saigon is the southern terminus of the Reunification Express, Vietnam's north-south rail connection. The Saigonstation is located in 1 Nguyen Thong St (District 3). Most popular from Saigon is the long hall to Nha Trang (about 6 1/2 hr) or toDa Nang (13 hr), Hue (14 1/2 hr), or all the way to Hanoi (31 hr).

By Boat: The unique option provides connection by boat from Phnom Penh or Chau Doc in the Mekong Delta and begins an overland tour to Saigon.

With the annual average temperature is around 27ºC, heavy and long rains during rainy season from May and November, the best time to visit tropical climate zone, Ho Chi Minh City is in the dry season – from December to April.


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