Ho Chi Minh was our first stop in Vietnam and what a great place to begin our travels in the country. On the bus ride into the city center from the airport we kept ourselves entertained looking out the windows, taking it all in as we made our way towards the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao. There was that distinct South East Asia feel to the place; people were eating at food stalls along the side of the street, there was a bit of a rough and ready look to the place and then there were the bikes! Of course the obligatory views of entire families cruising past, people carrying ridiculous loads and balancing more than you ever thought possible on their little 50cc bikes. This wasn’t what surprised us though, it was the sheer volume of bikes, there seemed to be very few four wheelers, the roads were full almost exclusively with two wheelers. We had never seen up to a hundred bikes waiting at a red light before, it was madness!
Saigon is a cool city, with plenty going on and a good buzz around the place. Getting around is a breeze, as from Pham Ngu Lao, all the major tourist attractions are within walking distance. When I say all the major tourist attractions, there are really just two and then a few other bits and pieces, that are worth seeing if you have some time. You can easily cover everything in a day on foot.
If you were to pick just one place to visit then make it the War Remnants Museum. It’s a no holes barred kind of museum which leaves little to the imagination. Documenting the American stag of the Vietnam War, it’s graphic to say the least. Some of the imagery is quite disturbing and there’s no denying that it’s quite a one-sided account of the war. Generally there’s an air of propaganda about the place, in fact, it was originally called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes, later it was renamed as the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression before finally being names the War Remnants Museum, after relations with America improved in 1995. This will give you an idea of what to expect from the exhibitions. However, with that said it’s definitely one not to miss as there are not too many museums out there like it.(Opening hours are from 7:30am to 12:00, closed for lunch, open again from 13:00 to 17:00)
The next biggest tourist attraction is the Independence Palace/Reunification Palace. After buying your ticket at the gate you can freely stroll around this old government building where a North Vietnam Tank crashed through the front gate back in 197, signifying the end of the Vietnam War. Walking around inside is like being caught in a time warp, the furniture, décor, appliances and even board games are all straight out of the seventies. It’s worth a stroll around for sure but the most interesting section is the bomb shelter in the basement. It wouldn’t look out of place on the set of ‘MASH’, with its retro communications room, labyrinth of tunnels and even a shooting range.
A short walk from the palace brings you to Turong Duc Me, a small square in downtown Ho Chi Minh. On one side of the square is the Notre Dame cathedral which was built by French colonists in 1880. On the other side of the square is the Saigon Central Post Office, where you can buy and send postcards but the real draw here is the architecture. The building itself looks more like an old European train station and there’s a beautiful arched ceiling inside. Along the walls are some cool, old-school phone booths. The Opera House is just a little further on, also a nice building and is in the new ultra-modern section of town, amongst the fancy hotels and designer shops in the Dong Khoi district.
As we were at the beginning of our trip, we didn’t see much point in loading up on cheap clothes, bags, hats, sunglasses and everything else that they sell in Ben Thanh Market but it’s worth strolling around anyway. There’s loads of different coffees, dried goods and fresh fruit and vegetables and of course all the tacky tourist tat out near the front. There are a few simple restaurants down the back too and most offered an English menu.
Getting lost down around the backstreets around Pham Ngu Lao was probably one of the coolest things in Saigon. People just going about their daily lives, sitting out the front of their houses, chatting with the neighbours, chopping veg with the dinner, having a smoke and just doing normal things. Not too many visitors seem to bother exploring down around these areas but sometimes it’s nice to get lost and find something new.