Vietnam’s largest city stands out from the rest of the country with its fascinating contrasts. The Vietnamese culture, history and modern business life stands side by side in the vibrant streets. Here we have collected our five favorite experiences in Ho Chi Minh City.
Written by Mette / Photo by Martin
Translated from Danish
We visited Ho Chi Minh City on Christmas Day 2016 and had decided that our stay was to be this years Christmas gift. The roasted pork was to be replaced with Vietnamese delicacies and the traditional dance around the Christmas tree performed in the form of sightseeing. It’s still one of the best Christmas presents we’ve ever got.
Before travelling to Vietnam we had heard different opinions about Ho Chi Minh City. People’s opinions seemed to be based on whether they liked Hanoi or HCMC the most. Since we have not been in Hanoi, we cannot compare the two. We can only conclude that Ho Chi Minh City is now one of our favorites in Southeast Asia.
#1 – Saigon – the historic center
To us, the greatest experience was strolling around the old city center, also called Saigon or Downtown. Looking at a map you will find it marked as District 1. But in Lonely Planet they call it for Dong Khoi Area, which is the city’s main shopping street. This is the area that the French settlers established in the mid 1800’s. Today they have left the country, but their presence is still visible.
Around the city you will find wide boulevards and over 100 years old French buildings. The colonial architecture stands out in between shattered buildings, polished skyscrapers and large shopping malls. Most famous is the Main Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Opera House, and the former town hall, which today has become the People’s Committee House.
You can wander Saigon on a good day, but we suggest you spend two or three days in city center. Then you have the time to eat at a couple of the many fantastic restaurants, visit some of the city’s most famous attractions – and, simply, just ponder on life in the pulsating streets.
Our favorite streets
We especially loved strolling around the streets located in a shape of triangle between: Me Linh Square at the Saigon River; Ben Thanh Market at the end of 23-9 Park; and Main Post Office/Notre Dame, located right next to each other.
If you want a more intense experience of street life, you can visit the backpacker neighborhood Khu Pho Tay. It sprays a spider web of tiny alleys out between the streets of Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien. Here you will also find plenty of bars, restaurants and shops.
#2 – The selfie’s street show
The classical buildings will surely make the heart of any romantic historian beat faster. For us, the greatest joy was focused on the feet. Saigon has wide, relatively neat and tiled pavements. A rare delight among many Southeast Asian cities, as you can look up while you walk and observe city life.
Are the pavements big enough for you to dance Gangnam style, you ask? Yes, we think so! And no, you will not stand out if you dance in front of the old French buildings. Here you will find newlyweds in elaborate poses in front of a team of photographers, makeup artists and stylists, as if they were creating the cover of a Vietnamese Vogue.
Our favorite photo
Next to the future married couples, you will discover a forest of selfie sticks. Everyone attempting to perpetuate the perfect pose, friendship portrait or spectacular jumps. So, do remember to bring a to-go coffee, find a soothing spot in the shadow and enjoy the show. This is people watching when it’s best!
The Vietnamese rarely speak English very well, but they are experts in selfies. So, if you want to socialize with the locals, through a language you both understand, simply do a ‘photo bomb’. To our surprise you will be anything but unpopular. Instead, you will immediately be arranged to be in the picture. Through mimic and hands you are asked to pose for the camera with them. We admit, we became very addicted to this discipline. “Say Cheese, Saigoneer!”
#3 – Traffic-free pedestrian street
Boulevard Nguyen Hue is a central and popular gathering place in HCMC. The short 1 mile long and very wide promenade is referred to as Saigon’s first pedestrian street and has a stunning 360-degree view of the surrounding buildings. Here, both locals and tourists gather together in the evenings, in the weekend and at special festivals, where the two lanes on either side of the boulevard are closed for traffic.
It may feel like everyone is waiting for a big rock concert to start when you sneak through the crowd. And in the eyes of many people there is also one very special star that always occurs on the boulevard. In front of the People’s Committee House, in the northwestern end of the boulevard, there is a statue of Ho Chi Minh. The idealist and revolutionary leader who devoted his life to Vietnam’s independence and the struggle for social justice.
Our favorite street view
The vibrant city life around the boulevard is also a fascinating sight seen from above. Reward yourself with a cold drink at the bar Broma. It’s located on top of a tall building overlooking the street as well as some of the city’s most characteristic skyscrapers. Arrive just around twilight to observe the transformation as the city puts on its black cocktail dress, decked with sparkling lights and flashing neon. Saigon is one Lovely Lady!
#4 – Must-see museums
With only 160 years of history, Saigon is a relatively young city. It is not to compare with the capital of Hanoi, founded over 1000 years ago. Nevertheless, Saigon’s most interesting attractions are historic and deal with the horrific events surrounding the Vietnam War. It sounds gloomy. And it is. But it is both fascinating and educational to walk in the footsteps of the past. To stand in the same places where significant moments have happened and echoed through the world’s history.
We were not really strong in the history of the Vietnam War beforehand. But after a visit to the War Museum and the Presidential Palace (also known as the Independence Palace or Reunification Palace) we suddenly began to sequence the line of information and understand what actually happened. The experience crawled under our skin. In particular, the War Museum’s collection of photographs taken by American photojournalists during the Vietnam War affected us so much that we had to leave the exhibition without having seen it all.
Good to know
Both the War Museum and the Presidential Palace are popular attractions. Try to arrive either at the very start or end of the day, where the amount of tourists are tolerable. And remember that the museums are closed in the middle of the day. Check out opening hours before standing in line – and do remember to bring a bottle of water.
#5 – Saigon shopping
Any Visa Card will either tremble with fear or lick its mouth, depending on the owner’s financial capabilities. Shopping in Saigon can quickly become a full-time job if you are heading for the city’s many shopping malls, designer stores and markets. Primarily located around the streets of Dong Khoi, Le Thanh Ton, Le Loi and Nguyen Hue.
The major shopping malls have polished floors, aircondition-cooled temperatures, styled concept stores and international brands like any other modern shopping mall in Asia. The biggest experience for us was treasure hunting in the small designer stores selling boutique designs, traditional crafts and trendy souvenirs, such as T-shirts and posters with recognizable Vietnamese propaganda motifs.
Our favorite shop
We didn’t have time to visit all of the shops that we would have liked to, but we can recommend Saigon Kitch (43 Ton That Thiep) and L’Usine (151 Dong Khoi + 70 Le Loi), who also have a delicious cafe. In addition, Ben Thanh Market is always a fun experience. The market is open from 6am to 6pm. After 5pm the streets are transformed into a lively night market with cheap stuff and small food stalls.