Ho Chi Minh is a city where urban chaos, history and rapid modernisation all collides to the backdrop of bright lights and a diverse field of architecture. Dubbed as one of Asia’s most exciting up and coming hubs for the sophisticated and adventurous, the city is a regular host to those who are just passing through on stopover or business. But with everything on hand from tear-jerking history to shopping strips so luxe it hurts and vibrant street food to fine cuisine, discovering the soul of the city in a short period of time is a welcomed challenge by most. Whilst you won’t have the time to venture out into the countryside to visit the likes of the Cu Chi Tunnels if you’re just stopping by, Ho Chi Minh’s downtown area will help you discover a memorable glimpse of the charm of Ho Chi Minh, or as the locals still call it, Saigon.
We’ve made hitting the city’s sweet spots easier by dividing this short itinerary into the big five; architecture, history & culture, food, nature and shopping. Happy exploration!
Ho Chi Minh’s architecture is nothing short of spectacular. With the once abundant French colonial architecture fading fast from the skyline, tracking down the remnants sits high on the bucket lists of many. The Notre Dam Cathedral was built around 1880 by well-known designer Gustav Eiffel and is a wonderful display of traditional colonial architecture at the heart of the city. Thanks to its grand appearance. You might even be lucky enough to catch a traditional Vietnamese wedding when in town as the venue is a firm favourite with the locals. From here, head to the Post Office. Now on paper, we know that doesn’t sound particularly appealing and is akin to suggesting a casual trip to the laundrette, but stick with us because you’ll not want to miss out. Still in operation, this gorgeous building is picture-postcard worthy and steeped in grandeur. Take the time to track down the city’s monuments and ancient pagodas, in particular Thien Hau in China Town, which was dedicated to the Goddess of the sea. If you’re still hungry for some architecture in a world where the urban city vibe seamlessly melds together with the past, historic buildings such as the Reunification Palace, Opera House and City Hall await.
History and Culture
Museums are aplenty throughout the city, showcasing everything from fine arts to design and everything in-between, but the War Remnants Museum is the one true must-visit museum. Not for the faint hearted, the museum harks back to the country’s earlier dark and moving history, telling a brutal story of war and tragedy. A sobering experience that documents just some of the atrocities that took place, the museum showcases relics from the war, including tanks, aircraft and propaganda posters. From here, take the time to amble through the packed streets of China town and take in the sights and smells of what is considered the world’s largest China town (by area). This is where you’ll find Binh Tay Market. Popular amongst visitors, it is packed to the rafters with everything from hats to street food. Watching the rush and absolute chaos unfold before you is all part of the fun, so pull up a chair and take it all in. Once you’ve had your fix of all things fast-paced, make your final cultural stop to Reunification Palace. Previously a symbol of the separate South Vietnamese government before the country reunified, this is the very site that a tank crashed through the gate to symbolise the end of the war.
Image source Flickr
Vietnamese cuisine is fast becoming fashionable the world over and it’s easy to see why. Mouth-watering dishes like Cao Lau, banh ran and goi cuon can all be found on menus all across the city, but there’s only one word on the lips of those passing through – pho. As one of Vietnam’s most successful exports, bowls of hot and steamy pho can be found in cafes and restaurants the world over, but only in Vietnam can a lifelong love affair with the real stuff be born. Make your way to district one and explore the hidden alleyways in search of classics like banh mi and be sure to try the local beer and Saigonese coffee. Ho Chi Minh has a vibrant street food scene as well as a high-end Michelin-starred circle of restaurants, so there really is something for everyone. The night markets are the perfect place to sample the true South Vietnamese culinary experience which differs massively from that in the north.
When it comes to city life, it can be hard to come across the perfect balance of greenery and concrete. With densely populated metropolises like London, Tokyo and Hong Kong doing it so well with sprawling parks and beautiful gardens, Ho Chi Minh plays it hand with Tao Dan Park. This verdant public park is the ideal spot for an early morning stroll before temperatures heat up. Covering 10 hectares of this urban jungle, the park is home to over 1,000 huge trees, providing a haven for an abundance of wildlife. Here you’ll find the popular Buddhist temple, King Hung, conveniently located not far from Ben Thanh Market.
As home to some of the country’s most significant offerings, the majority of your sightseeing will take place throughout District 1, the city’s commercial and financial hub. It’s therefore as if the stars have aligned, as it is also home to the best hotels in Ho Chi Minh, bursting with an expanding number of restaurants, bars and ultra-lux shopping malls.
Image source The Reverie Saigon
The iconic Times Square Building plays host to a portfolio of over 30 collections, showcasing some of Europe’s most prestigious brands in a unique setting that makes no apologies for its grand and eclectic appearance. For a low-key shopping experience, the city’s night markets should not be missed. Ky Hoa Street is where tourists can pick up the latest Vietnamese threads, but it’s Ben Thanh that is most familiar to visitors, offering everything from clothes to handmade crafts. If you’ve traversed the city’s markets and are still looking for a way to fill your evening, head to one of the many nightclubs and bars that will see you through right up until that early flight.
Image source Flickr