Highlights from Ho Chi Minh City

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I unexpectedly made my first trip to Vietnam in early 2014, in the midst of the lead-up to Tet, the huge celebration of the Lunar New Year. It was fun and interesting to see everything from Tet preparations in Hanoi to extra lanterns being strung in Hoi An to the grand fireworks display in Ho Chi Minh City.

Being in Ho Chi Minh City during the culmination of the Tet celebrations, though, meant that I've always kind of focused on the holiday in my mind when thinking about Vietnam's largest city – and consequently realize that I wrote very little about the city itself here on my blog!

This is a pity and a major oversight on my part, since it's a city that I really enjoyed.

Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

If you've never been to Ho Chi Minh City, you probably know very little about it (like I did). So here are some facts to know:

  • Despite many people assuming otherwise, Ho Chi Minh City is NOT the capital of modern-day Vietnam. It served as the capital of South Vietnam (back when most people knew it as Saigon), but the capital of Vietnam today is Hanoi.
  • The city is divided up into numbered Districts (think: neighborhoods).
  • There are more than one million motorbikes in the city. And if you try to cross a busy road here at any time of day, you'll probably be convinced that every single one of them is out on the road at the same time!
  • Coffee is the drink of choice in HCMC – so caffeine addicts, rejoice.

I spent a few days in Ho Chi Minh City during Tet, meaning that some of the main attractions were closed due to the celebrations. But I still managed to do and see a lot in the city.

Street in Ho Chi Minh City

Here are some of my top recommendations for things to do in Ho Chi Minh City:

Within HCMC

There's a lot to do within Ho Chi Minh City itself – you could easily occupy a few days just wandering around all the different districts and sampling all sorts of delicious street food. But if you want some specific suggestions on what to see…

Admire the French colonial architecture

Another fact important to know about this part of Southeast Asia: it was a French colony for nearly a century, and that French influence can still be found in cities throughout the region – including in the architecture of Ho Chi Minh City. You'll find wide boulevards and historic French colonial buildings dotting the downtown area. One of my favorites is the City Hall building.

City Hall in Ho Chi Minh City
City Hall
Saigon Central Post Office
Saigon Central Post Office

Go inside the Central Post Office

Another beautiful piece of architecture in the city is the Central Post Office. It's near the Notre-Dame Basilica (HCMC's cathedral and a symbol of the city), and is absolutely gorgeous on the inside. If you need an excuse to send a postcard or two back home, a visit here is perfect.

Inside Saigon Central Post Office

Shop at theBen Thanh Market

Whether it's fresh produce, souvenirs, or a bite to eat that you're after, you'll find it in Ho Chi Minh City's largest and most lively market. (I unfortunately didn't get to visit the market on my trip because it was completely closed up for Tet!)

Visit the War Remnants Museum

War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

If you are a Western tourist visiting Ho Chi Minh City, at some point you will inevitably find yourself at the War Remnants Museum. This museum mostly consists of exhibits related to the Vietnam War and the atrocities committed during it. The museum is often criticized as being rather one-sided (and the word “propaganda” definitely applies to a lot of it), but it's nevertheless an interesting look into how the conflict is portrayed on this side of the world. I personally didn't love the museum, but maybe that's just my American guilt shining through.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon

Tour the Reunification Palace

An unexpected outing in HCMC took me to the Reunification (or Independence) Palace. This grand building was the home of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and was where the war ended in April of 1975 during the Fall of Saigon (two of the tanks that famously stormed the palace on that day can still be found displayed on the grounds). The current building is actually quite new – it was rebuilt in the 1960s after being bombed and partially destroyed in 1962. You can tour/wander around the inside of the building as long as there aren't any official receptions/meetings going on.

Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City

Reunification Palace interior in Ho Chi Minh City

Out of town

If you're in the area for more than just a few days, you may decide to take a day trip or two, as well. Some popular ones include:

Visit the Cu Chi Tunnels

During the Vietnam War, an intricate series of tunnels were dug beneath then-Saigon. The Cu Chi tunnels are just one part of this immense network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong for everything from a place to hide to supply routes to even living quarters. Today, the tunnels are a popular tourist attraction. Not only can you learn about how people lived (yes, LIVED) in these tunnels during the war, but you can even crawl down into certain sections on your own to see just how narrow they are.

Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam
I barely fit inside!

Tours here can depend on the guide you get (I had a very rude guide who made me feel very uncomfortable at times), but I'd still say the tunnels are worth visiting.

Check out this Urban Adventures tour of the Cu Chi tunnels: Cu Chi Experience

Go to the Mekong Delta

My favorite day trip from Ho Chi Minh City was to the Mekong Delta. A day trip here usually includes a ride in a traditional sampan boat (conical hat-wearing optional), visits to farms or a coconut candy factory, and a meal at a local Vietnamese restaurant. Even though this place isn't far from Ho Chi Minh City, you'll see that life is very different in the Mekong Delta.

Sampan boat in the Mekong Delta

Interested in a tour like this? I recommend the Mekong Discovery tour with Urban Adventures.

Have you been to Ho Chi Minh City? What else would you add to this list?

 

Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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24 Comments on “Highlights from Ho Chi Minh City

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  1. Another interesting glimpse from Vietnam. Thanks for sharing this Amanda. Love reading your story. How does it feel to enter in Cu Chi Tunnels? I hope you don’t feel like creepy.

      The tunnels are SO creepy! They’re tiny and very dark. I was going to crawl through one of them but I saw a bat and changed my mind!

      The part where you get the picture pulling yourself out of a tunnel is more just a hole, one person tried to have a look around but funnily enough also saw a bat and came straight out again! There’s a stretch of tunnel you can go through properly which is cool. It’s a little cramped but not totally claustrophobic like I expected. 🙂 Although I’m small lol! Definitely worth doing!

    Never been to Ho Chi Minh, but I’m not much of a city boy. There are only so many museums and buildings that one person can appreciate in a lifetime. The Mekong Delta looks interesting, how far out of town would you need to go to get there?

      I liked this city because it was quite different to the other cities I visited in Vietnam. And the Mekong Delta is about 1.5-2 hours away – very doable as a day trip!

        2 hours isn’t so bad. I actually had a trip planned to Ho Chi Minh about a year ago to visit a friend, but the plans fell through. Maybe I’ll head over there some time.

          You should! I really liked Vietnam.

    HCMC looks like a fun visit, and I especially think the day trips sound like a good time. Not a city I had originally planned to visit, but now something to consider if I’m ever in that region. Thanks for sharing!

      I certainly wouldn’t skip it if you’re in Vietnam – it was a much cooler city than I expected!

    Ho Chi Minh City looks unexpectedly beautiful! Wow, I should’ve known about the French architecture but somehow it never crossed my mind that buildings would look so gorgeous. I really need to visit Vietnam one day!

      I know, right?? It really surprised me, too.

    I’ve never really looked at photos of modern Vietnam before, and these are absolutely gorgeous. I’ll have to talk the boss ( my wife ) into visiting with me one day. Thanks for sharing your adventure Amanda.

      Yes, I think a lot of people (and especially Americans) would be surprised to see modern-day Vietnam! Ho Chi Minh City especially is much different than what I expected!

    American guilt? I have friends who are military spouses (I am one, too, have been for 23 years) who toured that museum and were angry and upset, not feeling guilty! The communist government lies to it’s own people and about the US… we went there to save Vietnam… the shame is that our politicians pulled out and left a million people to be slaughtered by the North Vietnamese. They are the predators and the ones w ho should be feeling guilty… we did our best under the circumstances, trying to bail out France’s butt as they failed and bailed.

      I’m not arguing with you, but the U.S. (and especially the U.S. media) paints unfair portraits of other countries (and religions), too. And in times of war, both sides end up doing terrible things. I left the Cu Chi tunnels feeling quite angry because I could tell my guide was *trying* to make me feel guilty.

    Great read Amanda. I totally want to do the Mekong Delta discovery tour, I am sure it will be fun. I have to add this to my bucket list ?

      It’s a fun day out! I loved riding in the boats the most.

    Hi Amanda,
    Enjoy reading your blog..thanks for sharing..will be visiting HCM this coming October..:)

    I liked HCMC but I didn’t feel like it had as much character as Hanoi! The war museum was fascinating and important to visit I think, but there is propaganda on both sides which makes it difficult to see the truth. I agree with you about the Cu Chi tunnels in that the guides make you feel a bit uncomfortable (and I’m not even American)! But again really fascinating.

      Hanoi definitely feel more “Vietnam” – but I still really enjoyed HCMC too!

    I’m planning a trip to Vietnam, and I plan to spend a couple of days in Ho Chi Minh. The tunnel looks interesting to try. I have heard a lot of stories about the museum now and the traffic there. Can’t wait to experience them myself!

      The traffic isn’t as crazy as in Hanoi, but it’s definitely still crazy! I hope you enjoy your time there – it’s a super interesting city!

    I agree with Amy’s comment. Vietnam is a fascinating country but one must keep in mind that is is a Communist country and which portrays America in a very negative manner. Your tour guides may be descendants of the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese Army or communists seeking to bring out your “American guilt.”
    I’ve spent time in the places you’ve described and agree with some of your observations. Saigon or it’s post-war name Ho Chi Minh City is a fascinating city. If describing Hanoi as more “Vietnam” I’d suggest more communist as another description. I am saddened that so many of the wonderful Vietnamese people there didn’t have the opportunity to life in freedom and wouldn’t support the War Museum or the “Hanoi Hilton” where John McCain was tortured as a young man. Just my opinion. Remember 58,000 young American boys died in that conflict. Several hundred thousand physically and mentally wounded and American is called an Imperialist country in Vietnam. Enjoyed your photos 🙂

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