Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is one of my favourite Asian cities. We visited in 2008 as part of a two week trip through Vietnam, and in December I went back there for work.
Like the rest of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is booming – and you can get cheap tickets to the country. There are cranes everywhere, and, on street corners, stores like Gucci, Prada and Versace sit alongside family-run restaurants that spill onto the footpath.
I love the city because at any time of the day or night, it feels like something is happening. There are people about, motorbikes zipping through the street and an atmosphere of… I don’t know, activity. There is so much to see, great food to eat, and a plethora of fantastic accommodation options in Ho Chi Minh.
Here are my favourite things to do in Saigon, in no particular order.
1. Ben Thanh Market
You can get anything you want at Ben Thanh Market. From freshly ground coffee to weird smelling foods to knock-off watches to t-shirts plastered with Uncle Ho’s face to Vietnamese souvenirs, Ben Thanh has it all. And bargaining is a must. Even if you’re not in the mood for shopping, it’s fun to wander through the narrow alleys (undercover – Ben Thanh is an indoor market) just looking as you’re bombarded with calls of “Pretty lady, where you from?”. Do be warned, the shop owners can be quite pushy and will grab your arm and hold on, preventing you from moving off. A polite but firm “no thanks” before moving off will get you out of trouble.
Location: Le Loi Street
2. Reunification Palace
The palace is set in beautiful, large grounds and is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. It played an important part in the history of Vietnam: on 30 April 1975, communist tanks crashed through the gates, symbolically marking the end of the war.
Location: 133 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street
Opening hours: 7.30-4pm (closed from 11am to 1pm each day)
Vietnamese food is up there with some of my favourite. A must-eat is pho (pronounced fur), the breakfast staple of Vietnamese people – beef or chicken in a delicious broth with noodles, topped with lime and chillis. Also great for hangovers, but of course I’m not speaking from experience
4. War Remnants Museum
Not for the faint-hearted, the War Remants Museum is quite confronting. There are several displays of weapons and equipment used by the United States, photos of protests around the world, newspaper clippings and, most horrible, photos of the victims of the use of chemicals (such as napalm) and torture. You won’t leave this place with any doubt that war is a horrible, terrible thing. This is a Vietnamese museum, so don’t be offended if you find it one-sided in its views about the war.
Location: Vo Van Tan
5. Rex Hotel
An iconic building, the Rex Hotel is famous for the Five O’Clock Follies, a daily press conference held during the war at the hotel, nicknamed such by journalists cynical about the war spin machine. The hotel has a great rooftop bar which serves a variety of local and Western food and great cocktails. You can get a view of the city here and escape the heat and traffic far below you.
Oh, and of course you can stay at the Rex Hotel too.
Location: Nguyen Hue Street
6. Wander, wander, wander and people watch
One of my favourite things to do in cities is to simply wander and watch the locals as they go about their daily routines. In Saigon, you’ll see people cooking in small restaurants on the footpath, sleeping on motorbikes and chasing down tourists to convince them to catch a cyclo (the bicycle-type vehicle you’ll see around, pronounced sick-low).
7. Get a new suit
While Hoi An is more famous for its tailors, Ho Chi Minh City offers plenty of competition. Wander around Le Loi or Dong Khoi Streets and you’ll stumble across many talented tailors ready to whip you up a suit or new dress in 24 hours.
8. Visit the Mekong
On a day trip, you can get out of Ho Chi Minh City and head for the bustle of the Mekong, one of Asia’s most important waterways. Here, you can get all Apocalypse Now as you’re rowed down small tributaries, the jungle closing in on each side. Most hostels and tour companies offer a variation of this tour.
9. Visit the Cu Chi Tunnels
As you force yourself to push through the tunnels, your mind will boggle as you consider that thousands of Viet Cong spent weeks at a time down in these tunnels, mostly in the dark, sharing the narrow walkways with rats and other creepy-crawlies. The VC used these tunnels to catch US troops unaware, and the tunnels criss-crossed the countryside for hundreds of kilometres. At the end of the tour, you can take your pick of weapon and shoot at targets ($US1 a bullet at the time I visited in 2008). Check with your hostel or any of the tour operators for tour options.
10. Avoid being run over by motorbikes
Ho Chi Minh City is filled with millions of motorbikes and it’ll take a bit of practice and courage to get you to step off that kerb for the first time. Never fear, you will get used to it – just step out, keep eye contact and don’t stop moving. Good luck.
Where to stay: The Pham Ngu Lao area has heaps of backpacker and budget options – you only need to wander down the street to find a room.
Getting around: Ho Chi Minh is very easy to navigate, particularly District 1, which is where most tourists spend their time, and where most of the attractions are. Street names are clearly marked and mostly run in a grid-like manner. Cyclos, taxis and motorbikes are all available modes of transport – just negotiate and confirm the rate before you get in.
Have you been to Ho Chi Minh City? What are your favourite things to do there?
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