Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon),  Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh Square, Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh Square (and that’s the man in the middle) and City hall. Photo by Brian Snelson.

Visiting Ho Chi Minh City (aka HCMC or Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City, originally named Saigon by French occupying forces in the 1860s, is the wild child of Vietnam – buzzing, brashly modern, colourful and occasionally tiresome.

Streets hum with bike overload and the air is thick with two-stroke fumes but there are some worthwhile attractions and the shopping and eating options are superb, both down and up-market.

The Diamond Shopping Plaza, ho chi minh city, vietnam

The Diamond Shopping Plaza. Photo by Prenn.

Ho Chi Minh City is the largest (pop. over 7 million) and most economically important city in Vietnam, a leader in high technology and electronics not only in the country but in all Asia, as Vietnamese can now undercut Chinese labour costs.
But what’s good for Vietnam is not necessarily good for tourism as massive modernisation, thundering traffic and ever-expanding city limits is not what most visitors are looking for.
Saigon is still the official name of the city centre and commonly seen elsewhere, including at the main airport.

Main Things to Do and See

Quan Am Temple roof, ho chi minh city, vietnam

Quan Am Temple roof in classic Chinese over-the-top baroque. Photo by Franzfoto.

• The War Remnants Museum. See below.

• The beautifully carved wood FITO Museum of traditional Vietnamese Medecine, including 3, 000 exhibits dating back to the Stone Age and equipped with modern audio-visual technology.

• The Reunification Palace. See below.

• Bitexo Financial Tower SkyDeck (level 50) offers incredible panoramas over the city, especially around sunset, though some think the entry is pricey. It is, but only relative to Vietnamese life, not for normal Asian tourism. Furthermore, if you go to the restaurant (level 51) entry is free and if you have the buffet it’s cheaper than the cost of the SkyDeck! There’s also a bar on level 52.

• Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, an entertaining, funny, and interesting show, even if it is in Vietnamese. The puppets have great characters, the story really comes across and the movements of the puppets are mesmerising. Well worth a visit and not just for kids!

• Central Post office. It’s still fully functioning as a post office and thus free to enter and admire the incredible 60’s architecture and perhaps do some souvenir shopping too.

• Cao Dai Temple is an extraordinary and beautiful building well out of the city at Tay Ninh, around 95 kms away but near to the Cu Chi tunnels so makes a good combination trip.

• Ho Chi Minh Square (photo near top of page) is an oasis of clean and well-organised tranquility in a very noisy, frenetic city of – apparently – 6 million motorcycles!

The War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum, ho chi minh city, vietnam

The War Remnants Museum, as it says on the box. More of a granite box than a piece of architecture.
Photo by Smuconlaw

War is such a major part of Vietnamese history that foreign tourists should visit this museum to get a view from the other side, but be prepared for a heavy experience. Coupled with a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels on the outskirts of the city this would certainly clarify the Vietnam War and why bad things can happen to good people.

We recommend starting on the 2nd floor where there is a a timeline of the French and American wars in Vietnam, illustrated with photos and fascinating facts, though those with a personal connection to the war may consider the presentation to be somewhat biased! Not really a surprise.

Reunification Palace

If you find this interesting then take a look around the Reunification Palace – fundamentally unchanged since 60’s Saigon – may be worthwhile. The building is a time capsule of 60’s architecture and the basement level command center illustrates how primitive war management tools were at the time.

massed scooters in saigon, vietnam

The rush hour grand prix ready for the off. See Crossing the Road in Vietnam. Photo by Nam ho Park

In Japan people drive on the left. In China people drive on the right. In Vietnam it doesn’t matter.
P J O'Rourke - All the trouble in the world

Weather

Ho Chi Minh City, unlike Hanoi, has a tropical wet and dry climate, meaning that it’s always hot (21C-40C) but has a distinctly dry season from December to April – in other words that’s the time to visit – and an incredibly wet season for the remaining months.

Visas

Unfortunately you cannot just arrive at an airport or border crossing and get a visa, unless you’re Scandinavian, Russian or Southeast Asian.

Vietnamese cuisine in Ho Chi Minh City

Elephant Ear Fish, saigon, vietnam

Elephant Ear Fish

And when the tourist has had enough of the war’s shock and awe unpleasantness it’s time to go shopping for silks, hand-painted sandals. . . or trying superb local cuisine, whether it’s pricey, like this Elephant Ear Fish from the Mekong River with an inscrutably muddy taste, or superb value spring rolls and two veg, or even a simple. . .

food stall, ho chi minh city, vietnam

. . . dish of noodles on the street.

Vietnamese traditional food is light, fresh, inexpensive, diverse and delightful. It’s less spicy than Thai food, and less oily than Chinese. Fresh ingredients are always used with lots of herbs.

Street eats, especially Pho (noodle soup, in beef or chicken form) is particularly more-ish, nourishing and hygienic. Boiled street food is a good tasty but safe starting point for delicate foreign stomachs.

Excellent seafood is served everywhere, while Chinese or French influenced food is widely available, particularly in Hanoi and Saigon. Travellers will also enjoy fine local coffee and Asia’s best French bread.

Cu Chi Tunnels

What are they?

The Cu Chi tunnels area outside Ho Chi Minh City gives a convincing display of how determined and imaginative low-tech opponents can give terminal trouble to the most advance military organisations in the world.
The gigantic network of tunnels – and not just in the Saigon region – served as home base, hospitals, kitchens, weapon caches and bomb shelters for the Viet Cong foces in the Vietnam war and played a great part in their resistance and ultimate victory in the face of the superior technology of South Vietnam and her allies.

ho chi minh city, cu chi US tank, vietnam

A US tank surrounded by soil-regenerating eucalyptus trees soaking up the remnants of chemical warfare, America’s infamous Agent Orange defoliation treatment.

ho chi minh city, cu chi tunnel, vietnam

One of many hidden entrances to one of the Cu Chi tunnels.

The Viet Cong tunnel system

This 75 mile complex (121 kms) amazes, horrifies and educates, giving a good shot of claustrophobia too as US troops were well aware, especially the ‘tunnel rats’ who used to pursue the ‘Cong into and through the tunnels, “Out of the Blue and into the Black, ” as Neil Young sang. Another expression used by GIs to describe the tunnel experience was “The Black Echo. ”

Subterranean life was not easy for the ‘Cong as the tunnels lacked air and water, and the food and human residue in them attracted various unpleasant insect forms, such as poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and the deadliest of all, mosquitoes. Malaria was rampant underground and the second biggest killer of Viet Cong after battle wounds.

Multiple levels and exits made initial US army attempts to shut tunnels down by throwing in hand grenades or pumping in gas ineffective, as the enemy escaped by another concealed door, so tunnel rat volunteers were trained to enter tunnels with little more than a knife, flashlight and pistol, avoiding booby traps, punji traps, Viet Cong ambush and overwhelming psychological assault.

ho chi minh city, cu chi shooting range, vitenam

A Cu Chi shooting range offering a wide variety of automatic weapons.

Cu Chi Tourism

Tourists visiting the Cu Chi complex can crawl/crouch/waddle along tunnels which in some cases have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists, while low-power lights have been installed in several of them to make movement easier.

Underground conference rooms where campaigns were planned have been restored and visitors can enjoy (OK, maybe ‘try’ would be a better word! ) a typical meal that Viet Cong fighters would have eaten (rat fried rice for example), inspect an underground Command Centre and also fire a variety of assault rifles, such as the M16 rifle or AK-47, as well as a light machine gun like the M60.

We have heard that tourists can also buy an animal such as a chicken or even cow to tie up and shred with an automatic weapon. We hope this is an urban legend but we fear not.