Depending on who you talk to, the city of Saigon either fell or was liberated in 1975. Now renamed for the late communist leader Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh City’s metropolitan area is home to more than ten million people – and despite its increasing popularity with travellers from around the world, you won’t find yourself feeling like you’ve entered another cut-and-paste “global high street” destination here.
Yes, there is Bui Vien street, the backpacker hub that has lured a Starbucks and a Subway to within reach of the budget hostels, but for the most part Ho Chi Minh City remains resolutely Vietnamese. This is not Just Another Big City with all the same innards as the rest. Vietnam’s rich history gives you plenty to see and do – and modern life is a whirl of hectic markets and six-lane moped madness.
I could have stayed far longer than I did and still not seen everything that HCMC had to offer, but here are a few things you really shouldn’t miss.
1. The War Remnants Museum – Võ Văn Tần
|(Picture from Wikimedia because mine was rubbish)|
The war museum costs 15,000 dong to enter if you’re not Vietnamese – the equivalent of about 50p. This would be a bargain even if the museum wasn’t amazing, which it is. You can walk it from Bui Vien in about half an hour and the route takes you past a big park you can stroll around on the way – although if you’re travelling in the hottest months you might want to splash out a quid or two on taking a taxi, so you don’t melt en route.
For your 50p you can see interesting relics and harrowing images from the Vietnam war (or, as you will find it referred to here, the American war) and while some of the exhibits are quite emotionally challenging, that’s no excuse not to go. The displays of front-line photography and images of victims of Agent Orange leave no room for the imagination, but you can ease yourself back into the present at the end of your visit by strolling to the cafe across the street for iced smoothies and sticky rice.
The museum isn’t enormous, but allow at least an hour to look around – two if you know you like to stop and contemplate frequently.
2. Ben Thanh Market – Phan Bội Châu
Hectic. Very hectic. This one’s about 10 minutes from Bui Vien and costs nothing to enter – but be prepared to haggle if you do plan on parting with cash. You can buy just about anything here, from souvenirs to seafood, sports bras to statues, and all for way less than you’d pay at home. Obviously I’m not advocating being a dick about it – don’t try and haggle to the point that you’re actually screwing over the seller in the process – but listen out for what other people are being asked for, and what they’re paying, to give yourself an idea of how much things should cost.
It isn’t uncommon for a Vietnamese customer to be asked for 100,000 dong for an item you’ve just been told is 500,000, so don’t be afraid to barter. People will try and encourage you to their stall as you pass, but just smile and say no thankyou if they don’t have what you’re looking for. (No thankyou in Vietnamese is Không Cảm On – pronounced kong camuhn)
3. The Cu Chi Tunnels
|Astroturf may not be authentic.|
Alright fine, these aren’t technically IN Ho Chi Minh City, but they’re less than two hours drive from the centre and they’re an eye-opening bit of mad history that you can get stuck into. Although in the case of the human trap exhibits, try not to do so literally.
There are a bunch of tour operators you can book with in District 1 after you’ve arrived in HCMC, and it’ll be a damn sight cheaper than doing it online through a western company. Group tours start from around $6 a person for a half-day and leave at various times to suit your wake-up schedule – some hostels will help you arrange a tour, but make sure you don’t end up paying over the odds.
On arrival, you can listen to a presentation about the history of the Cu Chi Tunnels before you go exploring – decades of war-time work produced more than 100 kilometres of secret tunnels, loaded with booby traps in menacing varieties.
Nowadays, the sections of tunnel that tourists visit have been made taller and wider than they once were, to enable visitors to crawl through them – but be warned, you still need to be bent double or crawling, and it will be pitch black in many places, so don’t go down if you’re claustrophobic.
The selection of traps on offer is gruesome and fascinating, from rolling traps and leg-snappers to the cutely named “see-saw trap”… which doesn’t look as much fun as its name might suggest.
4. Street food tours – various locations
|Credit: Johnathan Lin|
Food, food , glorious food. Much like tunnel tours, food tours come in many shapes an sizes and with prices to suit all budgets. Book an evening your and you can spend a couple of hours one night sampling authentic local cuisine, from Pho that tastes like heaven served at the side of the road to fresh summer rolls and delectable coconut ice creams.
There are tours that will take you from restaurant to restaurant, but you’ll get more for your money in most instances and a more authentic experience if you opt for a street food adventure. If tours aren’t your style, ask at your hostel for their own recommendations on where to find the best noodles and nibbles and get D.I.Y about it.
5. Thiên Hậu Temple – Nguyen Trai
|Pretty cool, huh?|
While you shouldn’t miss the Mariamman Hindu Temple next to Ben Thanh market either, or the Catholic Notre Dame of Saigon, Thiên Hậu remains one of the most popular destinations for visitors looking for a little spirituality in their day. Situated in Chinatown and still in use by the local Chinese community, Thiên Hậu is the name of a deity not specifically affiliated with either Buddhist or Taoist religion, but rather of traditional Chinese worship.
The temple itself is intricately decorated with carvings and lanterns, as well as beautiful bronze statues of Thiên Hậu herself. If you’d like the addition of having someone explain the content of the artwork to you, visit as part of a bicycle or walking tour.