Ho Chi Minh City, or as it was once known – Saigon, is a frenetic megacity of some 7 million people and almost as many motorbikes. Although there are now numerous international airport options for Viet Nam invariably most tourists will pass through Ho Chi Minh City, either to begin their journey or as their exit point from the country. Ho Chi Minh City is a city rich in history, culture and architecture, from both past centuries and more recent decades, and weeks could be spent exploring and experiencing all this city has to offer. But what if your time is limited, as is probably the case with most tourists? Viet Nam has a lot to offer, and maybe your interests lie elsewhere. How do you get the most out of Ho Chi Minh City in a limited time? Say, one day?
Get an early start and this is certainly achievable. There is an element of timing to this “walking tour” however, as the ticket offices of two of the major sights are closed for lunch. This walk could also be done in reverse depending where your hotel is located. Either way, I’d suggest a start time between 8:00am – 8:30am. And bring a map!
1. Cho Ben Thanh
(Ben Thanh Market)
Why not start the day with a spot of shopping? Ben Thanh market is one of the busiest markets in Ho Chi Minh City and popular with locals and tourists alike. The current structure was built in 1912 and extensively renovated in 1985. The market is crammed full of stalls selling everything the discerning tourist will never want however will probably end up buying. Bargains can be had on everything from Ho Chi Minh t-shirts to chopsticks, coffee drippers to cargo pants.
Be prepared to be hassled (nicely) by the hawkers and be ready to bargain. And bargain hard! Remember to be polite and friendly at all times but don’t give in to the first price. Or the second. Or even the fifth. If you leave the shopkeeper muttering under his breath as you leave you will know you’ve done well (I did get called a “gangster” once apparently). If you feel bad about this then remember – they will never sell you anything at a loss.
Of course if shopping is not your thing there is always the food stalls serving up steaming hot bowls of Pho Bo or Pho Ga, or the great culinary delight that is the Vietnamese sandwich, Banh Mi. If eating in a crowded, noisy market isn’t to your taste then duck across the road and upstairs to Pho2000. They do a reasonably good Pho Bo and an iced coffee (although at a higher price than the markets) and you can eat under a photo of former POTUS Bill Clinton. On a visit to Ho Chi Minh City in 1998 he and his entourage made an unscheduled stop here.
2. War Remnants Museum
Having had breakfast and hopefully not loaded yourself down with too much shopping its time to start walking. From Ben Thanh Market head out the rear entrance and using your trusty map walk the 1.3 km to the War Remnants Museum on Vo Van Tan street.
History is written by the victor they say, and that is certainly the case with the War Remnants Museum. Whilst most of the descriptions of the displays in this museum are propaganda-driven Communist drivel it does give an insight into the remarkable amount of suffering the people of Viet Nam experienced as a result of the 30 years of war from 1945 to 1975. The museum only costs 15 000 VND to enter and is a “must see” for any first time visitor to Viet Nam, irrespective of the rather distorted versions of the truth that are presented.
The walled courtyard is full of American military armaments such as tanks, jeeps, helicopters and aeroplanes, all of which appear to have been recently repainted giving them a somewhat unrealistic appearance. Inside, and spread over three floors, are displays of smaller items used by military personnel from both sides, including various armaments, along with numerous photographic exhibitions on various subjects relating to the war such as the treatment of American POW’s, political views of other countries, the effects of Agent Orange and other atrocities committed by American forces. A current exhibition which I found most fascinating was a photographic history of the dozens of war journalists who died during the war.
At a minimum the museum takes about 2 hours and the ticketing window is shut between 12:00PM and 1:30PM, so time your visit accordingly.
3. Re-unification Palace
After the War Remnants Museum it’s time for lunch. Luckily there are a plethora of restaurants and street stalls in the surrounding streets for you to choose from. The Re-unification Palace is also closed for lunch, so you may as well take your time!
It’s only a short walk of a few hundred metres to the entrance of the Re-unification Palace at the intersection of Nam Ky Khoi Nghia street and Le Duan. The entry fee is 20 000 VND. Note that the ticket window is closed from 11:00AM to 1:00PM.
The Palace is an imposing piece of classic early 60’s architecture set amongst lush grounds surrounding it on all sides. As you enter the premises note the tanks parked on the right side. These tanks (although replicas) crashed through the gates of the palace on 30 April 1975, finally ending the war and subsequently re-uniting North and South Viet Nam under the Communist regime. Video of the tanks crashing through the gates was captured by acclaimed Australian combat photojournalist Neil Davis from inside the grounds of the palace.
Most of the rooms of the palace are roped off, allowing viewing from doorways only. The furnishings and fixtures are as interesting as the architecture though, and a walk through the basement bunker with its military style headquarters is fascinating. The top floor provides great views of the surrounding grounds and the helicopter which sits on the landing pad at the rear of the palace.
After leaving the palace (or upon arrival) you’re likely to be accosted by someone selling you fresh coconut juice (straight from a chilled coconut). They will start at an outrageous price. Don’t pay any more than 15 000 VND.
4. Notre Dame Cathedral
Another short walk through the beautifully shaded trees along Le Duan brings you to the Notre Dame Cathedral, or as it’s officially known, Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception.
Completed in 1880 for French colonists all the original building materials were imported from France, including the bricks and all the roof tiles. The bell towers were added in 1895 bringing the total height of the structure to 60.5 metres.
In October 2005 the statue of Our Lady of Peace which is situated in the garden at the front of the Cathedral was reported to have shed tears, causing a great commotion for days as thousands of people attended to see the “miracle” for themselves.
In all my numerous visits to Ho Chi Minh City since 2006 I’ve never known the cathedral to be open and as such have never been inside. Perhaps if you’re lucky enough to be there at the time of a church service you might be able to see the interior.
5. Saigon Central Post Office
Directly across the road from the Cathedral is another of Ho Chi Minh City’s great architectural delights, the Saigon Central Post Office. The post office remains operational however they are used to tourists stepping inside. Take note of the two maps on the walls from times past. One is of the greater Ho Chi Minh City area from the 1890’s and the other is of the telegraph lines in Indo-china in 1937. Take a minute to send a postcard home whilst you’re there.
Popular belief has it that Gustav Eiffel designed the building however this is not true. It was designed by Auguste Vildieu and Alfred Foulhoux.
6. Ho Chi Minh City Hall
Map in hand, head east from the Cathedral along Dong Khoi for two blocks and then turn right into Le Thanh Ton. This brings you to the impressive Ho Chi Minh City Hall, a classic piece of French colonial architecture and one of the best photo opportunities in Ho Chi Minh City, particularly at night when the building is beautifully lit up. Opposite the building the newly re-constructed park contains a new statue of Ho Chi Minh standing at 7 metres tall.
7. Opera House
The small park containing the statue of Uncle Ho continues to the corner of Le Loi. Currently this part of the street is under construction for the new mono-rail being built however you can walk up the side of the construction until you reach the Saigon Opera House, or, as it’s officially known – the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City. The Opera House is another fine example of French colonial architecture, having been built in 1897, and is currently still in use. Entry to the Opera House is allowed provided that no rehearsals or shows are currently under way.
Standing on the steps of the Opera House you can see three of the most famous and historic hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, the Continental, the Rex and the Caravelle. The square on which the opera house is situated famously appeared in the 2002 film, The Quiet American.
8. Hotel Majestic
Continuing east along Dong Khoi brings you to the Saigon River and on the corner is the Hotel Majestic, one of the most historic hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, and now a five star establishment. Originally built in 1925 for local Chinese businessman Hiu Bon Hoa, it has hosted over the years luminaries such as authors Somerset Maugham and Grahame Greene, French actress Catherine Deneuve and French President Francois Mitterand.
You’ve now been walking for quite a while and covered a fair distance. Perhaps it’s time for a drink at the Breeze Sky Bar on the top floor? Just don’t expect it to be a cheap one.
9. Saigon Skydeck
Heading south, following the river for a block brings you back to the wide boulevard that is Nguyen Hue. From here you can see (as from almost anywhere in Ho Chi Minh City) the imposing structure that is the Bitexco Financial Tower; a 68-storey, 262 metre high behemoth of glass and steel with a huge helipad jutting out from the 52nd floor.
If sky high viewpoints are your thing then the Saigon Skydeck located on the 49th floor may be for you. It costs 200 000 VND to visit and offers a 360° view of Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve never done it. I’m scared of heights in man made structures (Yes, weird. I know…)
10. Cau Mong (Rainbow Bridge)
Breaking out your trusty map again, head south about 500 metres from the Bitexco Financial tower and zig-zag through a few streets to the Ben Nghe Canal and Cau Mong, the Rainbow Bridge. This bridge is another great piece of French engineering and architecture and one of the little gems that few tourists to Ho Chi Minh City know about or bother to see.
Originally built in 1894 this is another structure where Gustav Eiffel is mentioned often as the designer however again, is probably not true. His company did have an office in Ho Chi Minh City during this period however and it is quite possible that they did have a hand in the design. The pedestrian-only bridge is popular for wedding photos and you will often see couples having their photos taken in the weeks before their wedding.
So that’s it. You’ve just walked 4.6km around Ho Chi Minh City to see the best it has to offer in one day. You must be tired and hungry. I’d suggest a gin & tonic at a rooftop bar somewhere and then head to the BBQ Garden on the corner of Le Thanh Ton and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia for dinner. Although maybe you should catch a taxi………..