Goooooood morning, Saigon! Formerly known as Saigon (and still occasionally referred to as it by cheeky locals), Ho Chi Minh City is the beating heart of southern Vietnam. Back in the ol’ days, this city was the capital of the Republic of Vietnam - the capitalist & anti-communist part, that is - though after the fall back in 1975, it was officially renamed with a more...err, newly patriotic moniker.
A dynamic city that hardly sleeps, Ho Chi Minh is the business hub of Vietnam, with a unique culture, exquisite temples, classic French architecture and a vast array of great restaurants and bars. A city of contrasts, from luxurious hotels, fancy restaurants and boutiques to cheap hostels and the chaos of a local market, there’s plenty to do in this crazy town!
Population: 8 million
Vibe: Ho Chi Minh City is a vast, sprawling metropolis, sweaty and hectic but with a certain charm that doesn't go unnoticed. You'll find delicious steamed buns on most corners, interesting little markets, coffee shops and a cool backpacker vibe especially around Pham Ngu Lao.
Must Do: Visit the Cu Chi tunnels and learn about how the Vietnamese built this vast underground tunnel network to survive the war. You can go inside some of the tunnels (which have been widened for tourists), see the weapons and "booby traps" used in warfare and even shoot a genuine AK47 at the gun range.
Known for: Being the biggest and busiest city in the country and it seems that every man, woman and child has a motorbike - so watch out when you cross the street! Dodging a wave of motorcycles just to get across the road is a rite of passage for every traveller to HCMC. Just remember to walk slowly, predictably, and think of it as an exercise in inner peace.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
A time capsule of the 1960s, the Reunification Palace has been carefully preserved ever since the Fall of Saigon, when it used to be the presidential palace for South Vietnam. You can take a free, hour-long tour inside, where you get to see not only the receiving rooms for foreign dignitaries (the chair for the Vietnamese President is placed quite a bit higher up) and the basement war rooms, but also the requisite dance-hall, gambling room, and movie theatre. After your visit, take a walk around the park just in front, where groups of students and workers gather at the end of the day for impromptu picnics. There’s always a wide variety of street food on offer at the park, so grab a cup of bap xao (sauteed corn with shrimp and chilli) or a fresh bahn mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwich) and make some friends.
War Remnants Museum
For those interested in the history of the Vietnam War (known as the American War in Vietnam), make sure to visit the War Remnants Museum just around the corner from the Reunification Palace. Yes, it’s a slightly one-sided account of what happened, but this museum is an important testament to the cruel effects of war, and the atrocities committed. You can see a variety of captured U.S. military hardware on the lawn outside, such as jets and tanks, as well as a replica ‘tiger cage’ prison which was used during the war.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Many choose to combine a visit to the War Remnants Museum with a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels - a network of underground residences, meeting halls, hospitals, and schools that were used by the villagers of Cu Chi both during the French occupation in the ‘40s and the war in the ‘60s. The site is about a 90 minute drive outside of HCMC, and once there you can explore the tunnels for yourself. Show tunnels have been widened for tourists, but it’s still...rather cozy underground. Flashlights are a must!
Museum of Vietnamese History
If you’re a culture hound, stop by the Museum of Vietnamese History for one of the nicest collections of antiquities in the country, as well as an hourly water puppet show if you can’t make it to Hanoi.
There are a few splendid pagodas in the city as well, such as Thien Hau Pagoda which hosts an annual festival for the sea goddess Thien Hau, and the Quan Am Pagoda, which is the oldest in town.
Ben Thanh Market
The Ben Thanh Market in District 1 is full of all sorts of bargains and curios and you could get lost in here for hours. Across the road you’ll also find Saigon Square 1, a good place to buy jeans, “faux” Northface jackets and other items of clothing you won’t be needing in the 30degree heat of Vietnam
For those with a bit of extra time, spend an afternoon exploring Cholon, the traditional Chinese neighbourhood - it really does feel like a different country.
EATING AND DRINKING
You can’t get much better than the variety and flavours you’ll find in HCM. Try local favourites like Pho (noodle soup), Bánh Mi (Vietnam's answer to Subway but way tastier!), Bánh Bao (steamed buns filled with herbed minced/sausage meat and sometimes an egg) and steamed Morning Glory in Oyster Sauce (similar to Bok Choi).
Once the sun sets, the biggest party area for backpackers is at Pham Ngu Lao, a sprawling stretch flooded with bars, clubs, and cheap eateries. Get yourself a fresh beer for 7,000 VND (about 30cents!) and park yourself at a sidewalk table to watch the nightlife go by...before you jump in yourself, of course. Do note that it’s advisable to leave bags locked up at the guesthouse and to just carry what cash you need, as bag snatching is rampant in this area. Stay alert and you’ll have a real adventure in this hectic, vibrant city.
WHERE STRAY STAYS
Madam Cuc 127
127 Cong Quynh,
Ho Chi Minh City
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Tel: +84 28 3836 8761
A comfortable hotel in vibrant Ho Chi Minh City within walking distance to the backpacker area, Pho Tay Balo. The rooms are clean, air-conditioned and comfortable.
Facilities: Free Wi-Fi, Room service, luggage storage, 24-hour front desk, 24-hour security, currency exchange, air-conditioning