The enticing, energetic and fast-paced Ho Chi Minh City is home to about 10 million people and a seemingly endless supply of careening scooters. The city is a mix of the traditional and the modern, with chaotic multi-lane highways near narrow alleyways filled with food carts, and huge shiny skyscrapers next to old ramshackle apartment blocks.
Most locals still call the city (or at least the central districts of it) by its previous name, Saigon. The old Saigon was combined with some surrounding areas and named Ho Chi Minh City following the North Vietnamese victory in the Vietnam War and the subsequent reunification of Vietnam. Whatever you decide to call the city, here are five great reasons to visit:
1. Explore the remnants of the war
It’s impossible to visit Saigon, or Vietnam in general, without being regularly reminded of the horrific and brutal war that took place between the mid-fifties and 1975. Some of the remnants of the war are incredible and some incredibly chilling.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a testament to human ingenuity. The extensive network of tunnels were dug by hand using small axe-like tools. We were told on our tour that the total length of tunnels is about 250 kilometres, although the figures given for this measurement do seem to vary. The tunnels are mostly very small, but do also contain full-sized underground rooms that were used during the war for meetings, sleeping, hiding, fighting, and even cooking. There were small air holes connected to the surface and disguised to look like anthills.
Before going into the tunnels we watched a black and white propaganda film about their use during the war. It was an interesting, but as you might expect, also a romanticised and heavily biased account of events. Nearby, we got to see a range of the guns, bombs and traps used during the war. We also got to try some of the food that was eaten at the time. This consisted of steamed tapioca with crushed peanuts and palm sugar.
There are two parts of the tunnel system open to visitors, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc. This is often not made clear by tour companies. Ben Dinh is the one most foreign tourists visit, as most of the tours go there. It can get very crowded for this reason. The tunnels are mostly reconstructions and have been enlarged for tourists. Ben Duoc is mainly visited by Vietnamese tourists and is more authentic and usually quieter. It is part of the original tunnel network.
My girlfriend Coco and I went with a tour company called Innoviet to Ben Duoc. They picked us up at 7:30am from where we were staying and our tour guide, San, did a great job of explaining the context and realities of the tunnels. Innoviet run small group tours of between 2 and 8 people. There was no one else on the tour when we went so it ended up being a private tour, but even with a few other people I’m sure it would still have been great.
A tour is the easiest and fastest way to reach the tunnels, but it is also possible to get there by public transport. It requires taking 2 buses (the first for 1 and a half hours and the second for 45 minutes) and then walking for 20 minutes. I haven’t done it but there is a description of how to get there on FindVietnam.com.
The War Remnants Museum
This museum is a must-visit, despite the horrific images of the war that it contains. It shows the often-forgotten reality of this type of brutal, protracted and large-scale war. It also tells the story of the opposition to the war both in America and around the world.
The fall of Saigon on the 30th of April 1975 is often considered the war’s endpoint. The Independence Palace was the home of the president of the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam. 2 of the North Vietnamese tanks that crashed through the gates of the palace are still displayed on its grounds.
The Palace itself is an interesting and grand building. It costs 40,000 VND (less than US$2) to enter. Don’t miss the videos being played in rooms on the ground level as they tell the story of the building and its part in the war. The bunker under the palace was also a highlight.
2. Savour the flavours of one of the world’s best foodie cities
Ho Chi Minh has everything from fine dining to street food. Its rich culinary history is enhanced by the historical influence of Chinese, Cambodian and French cuisine. Being the largest city in Vietnam has also led to an influx of people (and their regional specialities) from all over the country. In my opinion, this mix, along with the affordable prices, makes the city one of the best places on earth to let loose your appetite.
The French brought with them a range of new ingredients and cooking methods that are still used today, but some of their most noticeable introductions are coffee and bread. These are more popular in Vietnam than anywhere else in east or southeast Asia. Both have since taken on a distinctive Vietnamese style. Vietnamese coffee is often served cold and mixed with condensed milk. Vietnamese baguettes are made with rice flour instead of wheat flour.
Some of my favourite food was from small banh mi places. Banh Mi Huynh Hoa has a bit of a cult following and rightly so. Located here, it is open daily from 2:30pm to 11pm. I’ve never had a banh mi so packed with meat.
Banh Mi 37 Nguyen Trai also makes an incredibly good sandwich. A small unassuming food cart down an alleyway off Nguyen Trai. The banh mi that contains delicious little pork patties. The woman who runs the stall starts setting up at about 4pm. We arrived then and a queue started forming almost immediately. The cost for a banh mi was an incredibly cheap 20,000 VND (less than US$1).
Somewhere that brings together a broad range of street food in one place is the Ben Thanh Street Food Market, located near the touristy knock-off filled Ben Thanh Market. Prices are a little higher than many street food stalls but it is very convenient and there is plenty of seating.
A restaurant that we loved for both its delicious food and beautiful presentation was Den Long. Some of the dishes are served in a coconut while others are served in half of a hollowed-out pineapple.
For a more comprehensive guide on the food available in Saigon, I would recommend checking out this article about 25 Must-Eat Dishes in Saigon from migrationology.com.
As well as food, Saigon also has a few good craft breweries that have opened in recent years, including Pasteur Street Brewing Company. I particularly liked their Passionfruit Wheat Ale. Fuzzy Logic and East West Brewing are two other breweries with beers worth checking out. For more information on craft beers in Saigon, this article by CityPassGuide.com is a good place to start.
3. Visit Vietnam’s ‘rice bowl’
The Mekong River forms in the Tibetan plateau before passing through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and finally, Vietnam. The Mekong Delta is where the river finally reaches the sea in southern Vietnam after its 4,350 kilometre journey. This area is responsible for over half of Vietnam’s total rice production¹ and is known as Vietnam’s rice bowl.
The area has much more than just rice though. We did the Mekong Rural Life day tour with Innoviet. The first stop was a Cao Dai temple. Cao Dai is an interesting religion founded in 1926 that incorporates elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The religion takes cultural elements from Vietnam as well as from the two main foreign influences at the time: France and China. The French writer Victor Hugo is bizarrely considered a saint. As is the first president and founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen.
Next, we visited a local market in Ben Tre. It was filled with local produce including fish, rice, fruit and vegetables. It was very much a local market and not one set up for tourists.
After this we took a small boat along one branch of the mighty Mekong River. We passed boats filled with coconuts. Our next stop was a village where the coconuts are processed. Every part of the coconut is used. The rough outer fibre gets turned into rope and then netting.
We then got to try some of the locally grown fruits in a beautiful garden setting on a local farm. After that, we travelled down one of the small scenic canals in a hand-rowed sampan boat.
We then cycled around the village before eating lunch and then heading back to Saigon. Our day was enough to get a taste of the Mekong Delta but if you have more time it’s possible to go on a multi-day tour or even to explore the area independently. Staying in one of the local homestays is often mentioned as a highlight of a visit to the region.
4. Admire the views from the city’s many rooftop bars
The rooftop bars all across the city are the perfect place to sip on a cocktail or eat a meal while admiring the views, especially at night. Unfortunately many of these sky-high locations also come with sky-high prices (at least for Vietnam). One place that doesn’t break the bank but has some great views and a nice breeze on those warm nights is the aptly named The View. It is located on the ninth floor of the Duc Vuong hotel. The hotel is on Bùi Viện in the popular backpacker area of Phạm Ngũ Lão.
The View has a happy hour from 7-10pm. When we were there this meant 3 drinks for the price of 2.
5. See the city’s French colonial influence
French rule in Saigon influenced almost every aspect of life including the previously mentioned food, coffee and religion, as well as politics, education, law, fashion, music and even the latinised writing system. For a visit to Ho Chi Minh today, the thing that stands out the most is the beautiful French architecture dotted around the city.
Some of the best examples of French colonial architecture include the Notre Dame Cathedral Of Saigon, Saigon Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City Hall and the Opera House.
While we can appreciate and admire some of the things already mentioned, I think it is also important to be aware of the reality of the six decades of French colonialism in the region. It was a corrupt and brutal authoritarian regime that made life a kind of living hell for the majority of the population. One example of this is the 15-hour days that many people worked on large plantations for almost no pay. Malnutrition, dysentery and malaria were rife on plantations, especially those producing rubber. Between the first and second world war one rubber plantation owned by the French company Michelin recorded 17,000 deaths.²
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh
The backpacker area around Phạm Ngũ Lão has a lot of good hostels and guesthouses. It’s also not far from many of the places I’ve mentioned. We stayed at Diep Anh Guesthouse, which is run by a very friendly man named Diep Anh and his family. It is located down an alley away from all of the nighttime noise of the surrounding area.