Ho Chi Minh is a bustling former French colonial city from a bygone era; still fondly called Saigon, it has suffered much from the ravages of a devastating war and, for some time, isolated itself from the world, only to reappear years later, showing no wear of a difficult and scarred past.
Since reopening its doors in the 1990’s, tourism in Ho Chi Minh City has enjoyed gradual success, helped in part by a tropical wet and dry climate which, working like a Swiss clock, has been almost evenly divided into six months of rain, May-November, and six months of sunshine, December-April, with the hottest time of the year usually occurring in late April.
A happy mix of the old and the new
Still, the main reason for the influx of tourism in this exciting city is the marriage between the old and new, providing anyone with an enormous range of holiday options – from the sprawling metropolis featuring an eclectic architectural mix of colonial French looking up to modern Bauhaus and towering buildings to magnificent pagodas and war museums – yet, sitting delightedly in between such contrasting time lines is a mishmash of exotic Vietnamese cuisine and souvenir shops.
Best places to travel
Here’s the top 8 list of best places to travel while you are in Ho Chi Minh:
War Remnants Museum
War Remnants Museum is Vietnam’s version of the infamous war. The museum has been branded derisively as nothing more than a propaganda machine, but such a label is surprising because America’s version of the war should also be properly classified as a mere propaganda. All things being equal, the museum tells the sad story of the gruesome war. Rooms upon rooms displaying a most comprehensive collection of wartime statistics and military equipment; disturbing photographs about the traumatizing consequences of napalm, phosphorous bombs and agent orange; wall-sized pictures of atrocities such as the My Lai massacre and a guillotine used by the Southern Government of Vietnam against the Viet Cong; and jars of deformed human fetuses all depict the horrors of the Vietnam War which leave many a traveler choking back tears.
If anything, the War Remnant Museum is a grim reminder for future generations on the haunting effects of war. However, by scratching beyond the cold surface of those exhibits, one cannot help but admire at the national stamina and collective courage of a nation still able to stand up once again despite going through unspeakable hardship and suffering. Small wonder, America lost that war.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels are one definite example of another admirable Vietnamese trait – ingenuity against unimaginable adversity. During the Vietnam War, the desperate Americans adopted the scorched earth policy. The surrounding area around Cu Chi became a free-fire zone and it was carpet-bombed to force the poorly armed but determined Viet Cong guerillas to surrender. However, the wily residents of the area expanded the network of underground tunnels, first used against the French in the late 40’s, to the outskirts of Saigon. The extended tunnels were used to launch effective guerilla attacks on nearby Americans, forcing the most technologically advanced fighting force in the world to succumb to the basic form of hand-to-hand combat. In its heyday, the dark, suffocating tunnels stretched as far back as Cambodia and included kitchens, arms stores, meeting rooms – and even hospitals.
The tunnels of Cu Chi played a huge tactical role in resisting American rule during the Vietnam War, and ultimately helped the Viet Cong achieve military success.
Reunification Palace served as the presidential home and workplace of the former South Vietnamese government. Its dramatic fall in the morning of April 30, 1975, when Viet Cong tanks breached its gates, marked the official end of the infamous Vietnam War.
Those tanks are still displayed on the palace grounds, and time seemed to stop still on that momentous day in late April of 1975 within the palace compound. The tour inside the palace has the same eerie quality; sparsely furnished rooms with bare walls appear musky and grim. However, the rather boring design of the whole complex is not what draws tourists to the palace as much as the significant overall historical character of the building, most especially the war command room with its huge military maps and vintage communications equipment.
Vietnam History Museum
Vietnam History Museum houses a great overview of Vietnam history in a chronological display of artifacts from the best collection of ancient ceramics in Vietnam up to the day when President Ho Chi Minh read out the Declaration of Independence.
With over 7,000 precious objects under its care representing the cultural diversity of the country, the museum also holds water puppet shows in a small, intimate, three-row theater every hour from 9-11 in the morning and 2-4 in the afternoon every day except Mondays.
Giac Lam Pagoda
Giac Lam Pagoda is widely considered a cultural relic, being the oldest temple in Ho Chi Minh. The temple is like an exclusive cemetery for the privileged few, featuring rows of ornate tombs of venerated monks in the main garden up front, with a large and imposing Bodhi tree watching, like an immovable undertaker, over his unmoving wards. The atmosphere inside the temple has the same spooky quality as the outside; it feels more like an oversized mausoleum; the walls are neatly lined up with portraits of dead monks, from oversized plaques to small, wallet-sized photos. It’s a strange place to worship.
The reason for the creepy ambience is quite simple – worshipping ancestral spirits have always been an integral part, devout Buddhists as they are, of the Vietnamese way of life, for which no amount of utilitarian and pragmatic social conditioning of Uncle Ho can suppress, much less erase.
Buddhists come to pray in Giac Lam for good health by writing their names and their sick, elderly relatives’ names on a piece of paper, and by sticking it into a grand bell that, when struck, is believed to echo in heaven and make their wishes come true.
Saigon Opera House
Saigon Opera House is a shining example of French colonial architecture in Ho Chi Minh. Built around the turn of the 20th century to entertain French colonists, this magnificent building was later used briefly as a French refugee shelter after the country was split in 1954 and then served as home of the parliament in 1956 before being reverted back to its original use as an opera house and theater after reunification in 1975.
While undergoing extensive renovations through the years, much of the original design and décor has been faithfully restored in 1998. Today, Saigon Opera House is the brightest building in Ho Chi Minh night sky, a proud beacon of the city’s French colonial past.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral, a dazzling Neo-Romanesque cathedral, is another fine example of French architecture in the city. Splendidly regal in shimmering red; its two towering spires a majestic symbol of the Catholic faith; and a grotto of the Virgin Mother in granite white — makes it so out-of-place in Ho Chi Minh and so characteristically French that, in an instant, you seem transported back to France.
However, compared to the shock and awe of the exterior, the church’s interior is a bit of a let-down, consisting only of a handful of the original stained-glass windows, most of which were damaged in the war and never replaced.
Nevertheless, the bare interior décor has a calming effect in its simplicity, and you can rest on one of the wooden pews as you plan the day ahead.
Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market is the oldest surviving market in Ho Chi Minh. Built way back in 1870 by the French as a wet market and initially called Les Halles Centrales, it was subsequently named, Ben Thanh in 1914, the market is a proud symbol of Saigon and a must-see for any traveller wanting a real taste of the city.
In Ben Thanh, you will find almost anything from branded clothes to dry goods for almost next to nothing, but only if you know when to shop. Here’s one tip – go to the market before 8am when the throng of shoppers has not yet arrived and you have the market almost to yourself to take advantage of the ‘first buy of the day’ discount that is a little lower than the usual price for the same goods. This special discount is offered for an easier first transaction which is strongly believed to bring good luck to traders for the whole day of selling.
But souvenirs are not the only thing drawing the crowds to Ben Thanh. At around 5pm or, about the same time the stalls inside the market begins to close for the day, food vendors start setting up shop, along the street surrounding the market, to provide you authentic local cuisine. In fact, this is the best place to try out cheap, great-tasting Vietnamese food like Pho noodle soup, Banh Mi, and variations of vermicelli noodles, and rice dishes.