My solo trip through Vietnam started in the Southern Capital – Ho Chi Minh City, former Saigon.
Though Vietnam is becoming an increasingly popular travel destination, the City still felt un-spoilt by the effects of tourism. Here are just a few of my highlights:
Cho Lon China Town
Cho Lon is located in District 5 of HCMC and is the largest China Town in the World.
It’s a little bit of a trek from the Centre of Ho Chi Minh, but for that you are rewarded with beautiful temples and tea rooms undisturbed by other tourists.
There are two main Taoist temples within Cho Lon, both free to enter – The Thien Hau Pagoda and The Quan Am Pagoda.
My personal favourite (and favourite in Ho Chi Minh for that matter) was the Thien Hau Pagoda. A peaceful and beautifully decorated temple, filled with the aroma of incense. The Thien Hau Pagoda is dedicated to both Buddha, and Thien Hau – The Chinese born Goddess of the Sea, and protector of Sailors.
Cholon’s Binh Tay Market is pretty interesting too, and possibly more authentic than the popular Ben Thanh in District One as it is one for the locals. If you’ve visited a lot of markets in Asia, you may not find it that spectacular, but here you can find pretty much everything from Chinese Dragon costumes, to meat, to caged animals, to Chinese tea leaves.
There are little pockets in the floor throughout the market for people to leave their incense sticks – I myself didn’t notice this at first and felt the snap of a bunch of them under my shoe. (Some bad ju-ju coming my way for sure!)
History buffs will love HCMC. The museums that I visited there were some of the most interesting I’ve ever been to.
The War Remnants Museum gives a raw and unpolished view of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. Of course, this is only one side of the story, but it is really interesting to see their view, and their thoughts on America’s involvement.
Old US Army war planes and tanks line the outer grounds of the museum, along with a former prisoner of war camp which gives an insight into the horror and consequence of finding yourself in a Vietnamese prison.
The museum exhibitions are moving, if a little distressing – images and recovered articles tell the story of those civilians caught up in the war, and the ongoing effects of ‘Agent Orange’ – The US Army’s attempt to cut off the North Vietnamese rebel groups resources by spraying almost 20 million gallons of chemicals into the forests North of Saigon, yet adversely, the after effects are now still causing disabilities and birth defects in Children born in Vietnam even to this date.
It is upsetting, but sometimes I feel it is important to address the atrocities of humanity, from time to time.
The museum can seem a little biased, so pay it a visit, and form your own opinion.
Admission is just 15,000 VND, that’s 67 cents, or 50p!
Okay it’s not the most attractive site from the outside, I know. It looks like a 1970’s retro office complex. A former presidential home, you can wander through the rooms, living quarters and offices of Reunification Palace and it as though time has stood still, with the building being empty since the first Communist tanks arrived on site in 1975.
Some of the rooms are beautifully decorated, but most interesting for me was the underground section of the palace – a rabbit warren of tunnels filled with communication rooms for secret discussions with the United States, with all of the radio equipment and transmitters still in place, and the bunkers ready for the event of an attack.
Entrance to the Reunification Palace is also only 15,000 VND.
Both the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace are a short walk from each other in District 1, so you can easily do them both in a day. I’d recommend setting aside a couple of hours for the War Museum – it is three floors full of exhibits!
Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market was okay, if a little touristy. It’s probably one of the best places to pick up souvenirs with stall upon stall of your Vietnam tourist essentials:
Pointy Vietnamese hats – check!
Floaty Aladdin trousers with Elephants on them – check!
Since there are so many stores selling similar items, it is easy for you to haggle and secure your best deal!
The food section is pretty good too. I had some damn good Pho for 50,000 VND at one of the stalls.
French Colonial Architecture
As former Capital of French Indochina, Ho Chi Minh features some beautiful French Colonial Architecture which you perhaps wouldn’t expect in the heart of South East Asia. The Saigon Post Office (above) was designed by Gustave Eiffel – the French Engineer who also oversaw the Statue of Liberty and of course, the Eiffel tower.
Other beautiful French Colonial sites nearby include The Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Saigon Opera House. All three are in a short walking distance of each other.
Hanging out in the ‘burbs – District 3
It is a saying amongst locals in Saigon, that you “go out in District 1 but live in District 3”.
Most of the hotels and hostels in the City are located within District 1, which gives you a good proximity to most of the main tourist sites, however I wanted a more local experience so I decided to stay with a Vietnamese family in District 3.
The area reminded me of Naples – The Naples of South East Asia if you will.
Vespas speed along the narrow twisted streets as street Vendors sell Chuoi Nuong (Grilled Banana and Coconut Milk) and locals sit elbow to elbow slurping their Pho at the roadside eateries. The food here is incredible.
If you’re looking for an insight into the real Vietnam, you’ve got that here.
Buddhist and Taoist pagodas are scattered throughout the City. It felt so rewarding when taking a stroll to stumble across a lesser known temple, step inside and see its beautiful interiors and witness the religious rituals.
The Jade Emperor Pagoda is often considered the most important, and one of the most impressive in Saigon. Tucked away in a little enclave in the heart of downtown Saigon, its dimly lit, silent, incense filled rooms filled with Taoist figures offers a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of the City.
Getting out of the City
Popular excursions from Ho Chi Minh City are the Mekong River Delta Tour, and the Cu Chi Tunnels. I flirted with the idea of visiting the tunnels, but sadly I am hugely claustrophobic and, quite frankly, a bottom as big as mine has no business trying to be squeezed through narrow spaces.
There are a ton of different tour companies within District 1 that organise trips to both sites. You only have to walk a couple of blocks to stumble across another company.
Most hotels can also point you in the direction of a provider, but bear in mind that they will also be getting some level of royalty from referring you, so you may not be getting the best deal.
Have you been to Ho Chi Minh and have any other recommendations for visitors?
Are you planning a trip and want some advice?