Life flashes before your eyes by at a dizzying pace in Ho Chi Minh City, often in a chaotic dervish of noise and activity…
Formerly known as Saigon, fittingly for a city with two names, it does exhibit Gemini-like qualities. Along its busy streets, the ghosts of the country’s colonial and war-stricken past stride hand-in-hand with the mass of vibrant, life-loving city dwellers of today.
Amid the hubub of the Saigonese living life at break-neck speed, you can snatch moments of bliss; whether that be tucking into Vietnamese street food or collecting your thoughts in the incense-perfumed air of a temple. Once you’ve exhausted, and become exhausted, in the metropolis, the rice paddies and tranquility of the countryside are within easy reach.
Here are our seven top recommendations for a visit to Ho Chi Minh City.
1. Pham Ngu Lao Street
The ‘Backpackers District’ is very busy with tourists and locals alike in its bars, restaurants and markets but, as always, it’s best to keep your wits about your in the mêlée. This long thoroughfare is hectic during the day with buses, motorcycles and cars darting and after dark it turns into one of the city’s main night spots.
2. Pagodas and temples
For some peace and serenity, head to one of the many ornate pagodas and temples around the city. A site of Buddhist worship, An Quang Pagoda, with its tall tiered tower, is one of the more striking while the Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of the most atmospheric with rooms filled with plumes of incense smoke, woodcarvings and statues of divinities.
3. Ben Thanh Night Market
While recognised as being a bit on the touristy side, it is still worth experiencing. The most central market in the city, you’ll find everything and anything that you can eat, wear or use on sale. In one of the city’s most liveliest quarters, it is not without its dangers as a high-risk pickpocket area. Some of the vendors can also be persistent and the prices of their goods inflated but it makes for some good sport to practice haggling if you’re feeling up to the challenge. Not only that, it is a great introduction to the wonderful world of Vietnamese street food, some of the best in southeast Asia.
4. Street food
If you’re not confident about ordering street food yourself, the best way to experience this intrinsic part of Vietnamese culture is by following a knowledgeable local to the best places to eat in town. That also goes for learning how to make your favourite dishes when you return home from the ones in the know – the great street cooks of Ho Chi Minh City. You won’t want to leave without at least trying a hearty bowl of pho’ – a healthy and filling noodle broth usually eaten for breakfast which will set you up for the day ahead exploring.
5. Cu Chi Tunnels
One of the most enduring associations with Ho Chi Minh City remains the Vietnam War. Today, what remains of the networks of warren-like tunnels used by the Viet Cong outside of the city are open to the public, with guides dressed in khakis taking you down underground through short sections. If you take a private tour, it is more than likely you’ll visit the section near the village of Ben Dinh as its most accessible by buses. The alternative is 15km away at Ben Duoc.
6. War Remnants Museum
This museum is one of the most important places to visit in order to understand the psyche of modern Vietnam. The museum gives a compelling counter-balance to western narratives of ‘the American War’. Originally called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, its bias is evident, but it uses American sources, photographs, army equipment and so on, while Vietnamese victims give voice to the horrors themselves.
7. Saigon Central Post Office
Harking back to the days of the French colonial presence in Indochina, this still-functioning post office was built in the late 1890s, the neo-classical French architecture of the building fits with other European-style buildings in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, including the nearby Notre Dame Basilica. Inside, the cavernous hall displays two specially painted maps dating from 1892; one demarking all the telegraph lines of southern Vietnam and Cambodia, the other a city map from the same period.