A mysteriously beautiful and historic region awaits the adventurous traveller to Vietnam. In what is now called Ho Chi Minh City lies the district still referred to by locals as Saigon. More than other large cities in Vietnam, Saigon retains a more uniquely Vietnamese flavour. Recommended stops on a trip to Saigon should balance the history of a people who have endured a violent past as well as a celebration of their resilient culture and people. The following top ten Saigon locations provide a fascinating insight into a fascination country.
Educate yourself at the Museums
The Museum of Vietnamese History is a great place to begin a visit to Saigon by learning about the local history and culture. Housed in a pagoda inspired building built in 1928, the museum is host to a rich collection of artifacts and art. Exhibits present a surprisingly thorough look into the history of the region going back to prehistoric times. A particularly impressive collection of ancient ceramics and armaments is worth the trip. Be sure to plan time to enjoy the botanical gardens surrounding the museum. The museum is open daily.
The aptly named War Remnants Museum, called locally Nha Trung Bay Toi Ac Chien Tranh, offers a sobering glimpse of the war-torn history of Saigon. Formerly called the Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes, the museum is spread over three storeys and portrays a vivid, and often disturbing, account of the effect war has on all people. A particularly moving collection of images taken by photographers and journalists, including a number of well-known Americans, who died in the fighting, is tastefully presented.
Wander the Reunification Palace
Formerly the Ngo Dinh Diem’s presidential palace, the building was made famous by photographs published around the world in 1975 as tanks from North Vietnam rolled through the gates and declared victory. Dated by its 1966 modern architecture with heavy Chinese influences, designed by the Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu the Independence Palace is home to an intriguing collection of presidential gifts in addition to a well maintained war room and bunker in the basement. Period electronics and a collection of wartime paraphernalia make this one of the tour highlights.
Explore the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
At one time the twin spires on the Notre Dame Cathedral were the tallest structures in Saigon. Now dwarfed by modern skyscrapers, the French inspired Cathedral was completed in 1880 by French colonists and is still considered a landmark that bridges multiple influences and time periods. Bricks from Marseille, stained glass from Chartres, as well as a more recent statue of Mary from Rome. Built under French colonial rule, the Cathedral now reflects the diverse influences of Vietnamese culture.
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Haggle at Saigon’s Markets
As in all cities, the market is often the center of town and a great place to truly appreciate a local culture. The robust En Thank Market opened in 1914 and is best known for its iconic clock tower. Upwards of 1,200 vendors flood the market with clothing, food, and tourist items. Towards the back of the market don’t miss the small cafes that provide the best location to sample a local dessert called ‘che.’ Bin Tay Market, while smaller, is often more crowded. Best known for the wide array of produce and livestock such as chickens and duck; Bin Tay Market offers similar products to the En Thank Market but with a discernible Chinese influence. Central Ben Thanh Market is perfect for coffee, bags, shirts and souvenirs. Ben Thanh, which is easily accessible from some of the city's major hotels, also offers a night market with fresh food. Most night markets operate from 5pm to midnight including Ba Chieu, Hoa Hung, Cho Lon and Ky Hoa.
Discover the Thien Hau Pagoda
Known as “The Lady Temple,” Thien Hau Temple honours the goddess of the sea, Thien Hau. In a classic Chinese temple located in Chalon (Big Market) in Saigon, the Statue of the goddess is surrounded by the goddess of fertility and the protector of fishermen. The temple is not only popular with visitors but also with local devotees.
Ho Chi Minh City continues to experience tourism growth with 3.5 million visitors to the city last year. This year’s visitor numbers are up 8% for the first quarter compared with the same period last year with 972,000 travellers discovering the delights of Saigon.
Crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi tunnels were dug by hand during 25 years of conflict, first with the French, then with the United States and are located about 25km outside of Ho Chi Minh City. It is estimated that at the height of construction 155 miles of tunnel were completed. During that time, the passages housed everything from Hospitals to theatres. The majority of the network was destroyed during the fighting. In 1990 the Vietnamese government opened two to public viewing. There are two locations available for tours; both start in Ben Duoc, approximately 37 miles northwest of Ho Chi Minh City. A short stretch of tunnels has been widened to accommodate tourists but be prepared to stoop or crawl for the full experience.
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Admire the skyline from the Bitexco Financial Tower Skydeck
The best way to take in the sheer size and frenetic pace of Ho Chi Minh City is to view it from above. And at 262m the Bitexco Skydeck is an ideal location to gawp at the city. Designed by Carlos Zapata, an architect from New York, this is the tallest structure in Saigon. In all there are 68 storeys and the public skydeck is on floor 49, with a helipad on the rooftop.
Chill out at the Dam Sen Cultural Park
Everyone enjoys a little fun while traveling. Dam Sen Park offers something for everyone: from intricately manicured Asian gardens to the kid-friendly butterfly garden; from the historically themed venues to the impressive water-park. This entertainment oasis in the center of this urban environment is by far the most popular destination for families.
Admire the Central Post Office
Also located on Dong Khoi Street is the Central Post Office which stands opposite to the Notre Dame Basilica in downtown Saigon. The building is architecturally intriguing and was constructed during the French Indochina period during the early 20th century. The Post Office was designed by the legendary architect and engineer Gustave Eiffel (who also designed and constructed the Eiffel Tower in Paris) and is Gothic in style. Today the Post Office is firmly on the tourist trail and as such can be very busy.
Treat the family to a water puppet show
The biggest and most famous water puppet show is in Hanoi but if you’re not venturing north the check out Saigon’s version at Thao Dien Village. You can make an evening of it with local traditional Vietnamese food on offer as well as the cultural show which is held each Saturday night.