Visiting Ho Chi Minh City - What to See and Do
(Tan Son Nhat International Airport SGN, Vietnam)
Though Ho Chi Minh City
, or Saigon as many people still prefer, doesn't have the historic charm of Hanoi
, it does offer a fascinating glimpse into the modern direction of Vietnam
. It is the country's largest city, a teeming metropolis that is in the midst of a prosperous period.
Shopping in the maze of the Ben Thanh Market or browsing trendy boutiques along Dong Khoi Street - there are plenty of ways to spend your money in Ho Chi Minh City. Dong Khoi is also a great area to base yourself, with lots of clean hotels, tasty restaurants and fun night bars, where you can inject yourself into the local scene.
Fans of military history will find the best attractions from the Vietnam War in Saigon, while those who are seeking the ancient face of Vietnam can still find traces of it at sites like the Emperor Jade Pagoda. Ho Chi Minh City also makes a great base for day trips to the beaches at Phan Thiet and the emerald landscape of the Mekong Delta area.
Ten things you must do in Ho Chi Minh City
- Unless you are absolutely claustrophobic, you have to enter the warrens of the Ben Thanh Market, the main bazaar of Ho Chi Minh City. It is impossibly packed with tiny stalls selling everything you could ever imagine. Much of it is junk or household items. There always seems to be one or two little treasures hidden in the back corner that you just have to buy.
- A rare glimpse into the ancient look of Vietnam can be found at the Emperor Jade Pagoda (Phuoc Hai). Although it was built at the start of the 20th century, it looks absolutely timeless with its fantastical carvings and heavy incense wafting through the halls. The temple is also a working site for devotees who throng the place daily. It is a bit spooky, a little mysterious, and totally interesting.
- Vietnam's top cultural attraction for learning about the Vietnam War is the War Remnants Museum. Inside is a comprehensive collection of war machinery, propaganda and statistics. The photography is striking and the exhibits are well organised into different themes. In the courtyard of this grand old building are actual fighter planes, tanks and heavy artillery used in the war.
- The Vietnam History Museum avoids its recent war, focusing on the ancient dynasties that ruled the country, like the Cham and Nguyen. The collection is a tad disorganised, but the relics begin with the 14th century and include weapons, ceramics, sculptures and an appealing array of household items used in the 18th-century Nguyen dynasty.
- The top spot in Ho Chi Minh City for shopping, eating and drinking in the evening is Dong Khoi Street. This strip has been the place to be seen in Saigon since its colonial days, and remains the centre of all things trendy for the city's youthful population. Be sure to venture down some of the side streets as well, where items like silk, antiques and other souvenirs can be found.
- Without a doubt the best way to meet some locals is to sit down at any of the thousands of 'bia hoi' beer stands that appear like magic every evening on every corner of the city. It is just local draft beer (pennies for a glass), noodles and snacks. However, it is incredibly tasty, and always pleasant to sit outside on the streets after dark and watch city life trickle to a crawl. Try Nguyen Thai Hoc Street and Pham Ngu Lao for a more local scene.
- Ho Chi Minh City is a great place to enjoy a massage at unbelievably low rates. Most hotels have some form of spa onsite, but the recent trend is little spa shops opening up along the city streets. The Dong Hoi area is particularly popular, offering everything from foot massages to full body work.
- The city's oldest pagoda is Giac Lam, with the tombs of revered monks, eerie sculptures and a massive sacred Bodhi tree in the courtyard. This is a living temple, with monks walking about performing their rituals, and old men lounging in the courtyard playing chess. Visitors are more than welcome, just don't wear a hat or smoke inside.
- Anyone who has studied Ho Chi Minh City and the Vietnam War will instantly recognise the Reunification Palace on sight. This attraction was where the North finally breached the gates of the power base of the South in 1975 and forced a dramatic surrender. The very tanks that smashed the gates are still standing at the entrance, and inside are some interesting war rooms left exactly as they were when things fell apart.
- If you want to really see the depths that the North Vietnamese went to when fighting the Americans, spend a day at the Cu Chi Tunnels, roughly 64 km / 40 miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City. These tunnels stretched all the way to Cambodia and were large enough in spots to house whole communities. It is an impressive piece of engineering considering the enemy was literally steps away above them. You can enter portions of the tunnels, shoot AK-47s and enjoy other exotic activities at Cu Chi.