Ho Chi Minh City is an intoxicating mix of old-world French colonial architecture, modern skyscrapers, historical sites, rooftop bars and arguably the world’s best street food.
Despite its rapid modernisation, you don’t have to look far for a reminder of Ho Chi Minh City’s colonial and war time past.
The sprawling metropolis, known as Saigon until reunification in 1976, retains the faded grandeur of a European city, thanks to its history as a French colony from the late 1800’s to 1954.
The French influence is most obvious downtown with its tree-lined boulevards and grand public buildings like City Hall, Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, the Central Post Office and the Saigon Opera House.
And then there’s the food. The French introduced many ingredients and flavours to Vietnam, from coffee in the 1800s to the humble baguette that gave rise to the famous “Saigon sandwich” known as bánh mì.
And while the Vietnamese prefer to look to the future rather than dwell on the past, the remnants of war are on full display in this city of 8.1 million. They’ve even become a drawcard for thousands of tourists each year.
The graphic and confronting War Remnants Museum is consistently the top-rated visitor attraction in the city, while over at Independence Palace you’ll find the Viet Cong tanks that surged into Saigon to end the war.
The hotels where war correspondents once caroused – The Caravelle, The Rex, The Hotel Majestic and The Hotel Continental – are also a major hot spot.
The Caravelle and The Rex (where the US military conducted daily press briefings during the war known as the ‘five o’clock follies’) have popular rooftop bars where you can admire the downtown skyline.
“They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest has got to be lived.”
– From Graham Greene’s acclaimed anti-war novel, The Quiet American.
Named after Communist revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, the city has long had a reputation for being international and cosmopolitan, particularly compared with Hanoi, in the north.
Hanoi might be the official capital, but Ho Chi Minh City is definitely the fast-paced, glitzy commercial capital.
The bustling metropolis on Vietnam’s southern coast is split into 19 districts, with the Saigon River curling its way through the middle.
Much of the action takes place in District 1, which boasts trendy restaurants, bars and shopping centres, as well as popular attractions like Reunification Palace, Ben Thanh Market, Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office.
Unlike Hanoi, the sidewalks in Ho Chi Minh City are wide, making it much more of a walking city.
The tree-lined Nguyen Hue Street, running from City Hall (above) to Bach Dang Wharf, became a dedicated “walking street” in 2015. At 670m long and 64m wide, it hosts annual festivals and celebrations in the middle of the city.
Check out the lotus-shaped water fountain (above) at the intersection of Nguyen Hue and Le Loi Streets, in front of the statue of Ho Chi Minh.
What To See and Do In 48 Hours
Nguyen Hue Walking Street and City Hall
There’s no better place to get your bearings than by taking a stroll down Nguyen Huê Walking Street – a giant pedestrian promenade in the middle of District 1. It leads from the Saigon River at one end, all the way to the 24-foot statue of Ho Chí Minh in front of the decorative French-built People’s Committee Building (also known as City Hall and the Hôtel de Ville), at the other. Be sure to visit after dark when it’s spectacularly illuminated, along with the giant lotus-shaped water fountain. And keep an eye out for the Cafe Apartments, not far from the statue.
Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon
The diminutive Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, built entirely with materials imported from France, was awarded cathedral status by the Vatican in 1962. Built during the French occupation in the 1860s, the deep red, neo-Romanesque building was made with bricks from Marseille. It was closed for renovations when I visited in March 2020, so I couldn’t look inside. But its highlights include hand-carved tablets and the original stained-glass windows. Its two spires stand 40 metres high, which during the colonial era was higher than anything else in the city. A statue of the Virgin Mary is the centrepiece of a small park fronting the cathedral. Pilgrims flocked to the Cathedral in October 2005 when rumours spread that the statue had shed tears.
Saigon Central Post Office
The Gothic-style Saigon Central Post Office was built between 1886 and 1891 and remains one of the country’s most celebrated structures. Designed by Alfred Foulhoux (not Gustave Eiffel as has long been claimed), the magnificent building is a reminder of a bygone era. Inside, beneath a long barrel-shaped roof, the walls are decorated with French colonial maps and a portrait of the Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. There’s a row of old-school telephone boxes (they’re still operational) with their clocks synchronised to major cities around the globe. There are two souvenir shops on either side of the main foyer selling various memorabilia as well as postcards and an array of rare stamps.
Saigon Opera House
Officially known as the Municipal Theatre, the belle époque Saigon Opera House, sits pretty on Lam Son Square, in the historic heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Modelled after the Opera Garnier in Paris, it once housed the National Assembly of South Vietnam. On either side of the Opera House you’ll find the Hotel Continental (where British writer Graham Greene conceived The Quiet American in 1955) and the towering Hotel Caravelle, where foreign correspondents would sink drinks at the 10th floor bar during the Vietnam War.
Ben Thành Market
Ben Thành Market is the oldest market in Ho Chi Minh City, and is easy to spot thanks to its iconic clock tower. Here you can buy local handicrafts, ceramics, shoes, branded goods, Vietnamese art and endless souvenirs – even a conical straw hat. The majority of stalls measure little more than 1.5 sq metres, so it’s a bit of a rabbit warren. It’s also a popular tourist spot, and prices can be quite high. Don’t accept anything more than half the asking price, and be prepared to walk away if they won’t budge. Be sure to explore the fresh produce area, as well as the seafood market where you’ll see buckets of eels and fish still flipping. Ben Thành Market has 4 main gates and 12 entrances. The main front gate (the south gate) is on Le Loi Street. When we visited in March much of this area was fenced off for construction of a new Metro, so the iconic statue of General Tran Nguyen Han in the middle of the roundabout was long gone.
Ben Thành Street Food Market
Created specifically to appeal to tourists with price tags to match, Ben Thành Street Food Market is street food done trendy. You’ll find the market at 26-28-30 Thủ Khoa Huân Street, adjacent to the main Ben Thành Market (near the north exit). These are not your typical mobile street vendors who serve a single dish and carry their wares on their backs as they move around the city. Instead, you’ll find 30 or 40 regulated stallholders selling an array of South East Asian dishes to the masses. There’s also entertainment most nights for the backpacker crowd. I must confess, I didn’t eat here but I did have a good wander around. The place was clean, vibrant and built for a purpose. But truth be told, you’ll get a delicious bánh mi from a street vendor outside the market for about half the price.
Just a street or two away from Ben Thanh Market, you’ll find HCMC’s biggest Hindu temple, dedicated to the goddess of Rain ‘Mariamman’. Visiting the Mariamman Temple (45 Truong Đinh) should be part of every itinerary. Not only is it sacred and spectacular, it supposedly also has miraculous powers that give luck and wealth to its visitors. Just remember to take your shoes off before entering.
Located across April 30th Park, Reunification Palace (also called Independence Palace) marks the site of the former Royal Palace Norodom. It was the base of Vietnamese General Ngo Dinh Diem until his death in 1963. It remained the seat of the South Vietnam Government until 1975, when a Viet Cong tank crashed through the main gates on April 30, 1975, ending the Vietnam War. Today, the time capsule-like interior has made it the city’s biggest tourist attraction. With 25 rooms spread across five levels, it’s best to explore early in the morning or late afternoon. The palace is open daily from 8am-11am and 1pm to 4pm.
War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum (28 Võ Văn Tần), formerly the Museum of American War Crimes, documents the Vietnam War and the first Indochina War with the French colonialists. Although it has received criticism for its alleged propagandist tone, it remains one of the most-visited museums in the country, attracting more than 500,000 visitors most years. Relics of the war fill the main yard out the front – including “Huey” helicopters, attack bombers and a M48 Patton tank. Inside, the ground floor documents the anti-war movement, while upstairs there are graphic pictures detailing the effects of chemical weapons like Agent Orange, napalm and phosphorus bombs. In recent years, the anti-US vibe has been toned down to suit the sensibilities of the post-embargo US. The museum opens each day at 7.30am. Entry is free for children under 6.
Saigon Sky Deck
If you want to catch the sunset – and enjoy the 360-degree view of Ho Chi Minh City and the Saigon River – head to Saigon Sky Deck, on the 48th floor of Bitexco Financial Tower (36 Ho Tung Mau Street). Bitexco Tower is the tallest building in the city at 262 metres high, and it charges 200,000 VND for entry to Sky Deck. You could always head to the EON Heli Bar – the city’s highest sky bar on the 52nd floor – where entry is free and you can grab a drink for roughly the same price as admission to Sky Deck. If you’re a beer drinker, be sure to visit The World of Heineken on the 60th floor.
Aside from shopping hotspots like Ben Thanh Market, you’ll find many international brands throughout the city including H&M, Uniqlo and even the high-end Japanese department store Takashimaya.
There are numerous department stores in District 1 including the Vincom Center (pictured), Diamond Plaza, Parkson Plaza and Saigon Square.
Vincom is the largest shopping mall with over 250 shops spread out over two separate buildings. It’s where you’ll find H&M, Bossini, G2000, Uniqlo and many other brands.
Saigon Square is a two-storey wholesale fashion mall with a seemingly endless array of replica t-shirts, shoes, handbags, swimwear, luggage, jewellery, and other must-haves.
For the latest fashion and accessories, try Dong Khoi Street in downtown District 1.
For the city’s biggest and best book store, where you’ll find English newspapers, magazines and even maps, head to Fahasa Bookstore on the ground floor of the Cafe Apartments.
In Ho Chi Minh City, a market is the best way to start the day, and a rooftop bar is the best way to end it. Whether it’s bars with historical significance or those where you can enjoy a quiet tipple, this city does not disappoint.
The five-star Rex Hotel, at the top of the Nguyen Hue Walking Street, has a classic rooftop bar and garden terrace that’s open from early morning to late at night. Many reporters lived here during the Vietnam War, adding to the classic feel.
Opened on Christmas Eve 1959, Saigon Saigon Rooftop Bar (pictured) is an iconic landmark in Ho Chi Minh City atop the Caravelle Hotel, also popular with war correspondents during the Vietnam War.
Take the lift to the 9th floor where you’ll walk up a flight of stairs to the Level 10 bar with its an-open-air courtyard, fairy lights and wooden furnishing overlooking Lam Son Square.
Other rooftop bars worth exploring include View Rooftop Bar and Skyloft by Glow (formerly Glow Skybar).
View Rooftop is located on the 9th floor of the Duc Vuong Hotel, one of the tallest buildings in Bui Vien Street. It’s popular with backpackers and serves some of the cheapest drinks in Ho Chi Minh City.
Skyloft is a stylish rooftop bar atop the President Place building in District 1 that’s just perfect for a sunset cocktail. Here, the views are special and the vibes are cool. As the night wears on, club mode kicks in as a DJ does his thing.
If you’re a sports fanatic and want to catch a game while enjoying a drink, try In Sai Gong Rooftop Bar (pictured). This no frills bar at 27-29 Huynh Thuc Khang Street in District 1, close to Nguyen Hue Walking Street, usually attracts a backpacker crowd, including plenty of Australians and Americans.
RestaurantsVietnam House, 93 Dong Khoi St, District 1
Set in an old colonial building constructed by the French in 1910, Vietnam House (pictured) in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City is run by Australian-born Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen. It’s Vietnamese cuisine with a modern twist and includes signature dishes like lobster or Iberico pork spring rolls, chargrilled five spice pigeon, Wagyu beef noodle soup and Vietnamese house-made bean curd. The menu includes a set lunch from 11am to 3pm Monday to Friday, with two courses at only 288,000 VND, and three courses for 388,000 VND. It’s great value.Anan Saigon, 89 Ton That Dam, District 1
It’s fitting that Anan Saigon is located in the middle of one of the city’s oldest street markets because it’s menu is best described as gourmet dining meets street food. Dishes like the Banh Xeo Taco and Dalat Style Pizzas pair well with the signature cocktails including the Phojito and the Tra Da, a gin-infused black tea.Mountain Retreat, 8F/36 Le Loi, District 1
Tucked away up a steep flight of stairs, just off Le Loi Street, is this charming traditional Vietnamese restaurant serving Vietnamese comfort food. Mountain Retreat serves traditional Vietnamese, and the menu will be familiar to most with classics like goi cuon (summer rolls), bánh xeo and pomelo salad with shredded dried fish. You have to climb five floors to reach this hidden gem, but the view and the food makes the trek well worth it.
Taxis and Transport
Unlike other large Asian cities such as Tokyo and Seoul, taxis in Ho Chi Minh City are incredible value. But be careful because the taxi industry in Vietnam is unregulated, which means unscrupulous operators can charge anything they like.
Play it safe by using the two oldest and most trusted taxis operators in HCMC: Vinasun (white cars with red and green stripe) or Mai Linh (green cars) are the trusted local taxi companies.
Vinasun taxi drivers wear a white shirt, black trousers and a red tie with the Vinasun logo, while Mai Linh drivers wear a white shirt, black trousers and a green tie.
No matter what type of taxi you take, always keep an eye on the meter. If it seems to increase rapidly (by 50,000 to 200,000 Dong) when you’re not looking, get out and take another taxi.
You could also book a ride with Grab – the Uber of South East Asia – or join the locals on the back of a scooter (helmet included) with Grab Bike.
The first stage of Ho Chi Minh City’s new railway system, the Ben Thanh – Suoi Tien Metro – covering 19.7 km and connecting the city centre with eastern districts – was due to open late in 2020.
© 2020 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved.
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