It’s impossible to escape the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City.
Frenetic energy pulses through its hotwired circuit board of streets and alleyways, pouring into the food, the nightlife, and the day-to-day lives of all who venture into its limits. Many stutter in the face of its overwhelming atmosphere, but for those who allow it to whisk them off, an astounding city awaits — one that’s stepping firmly into the future, away from the horrors that engulfed it decades before.
Don’t be fooled by the skyscrapers growing into the cityscape. This is still very much Vietnam. For every sleek cocktail bar and high-end eatery, there’s an equally wonderful back alley Pho joint ready to blow your gastronomical socks off. Oh, and go easy on the coffee. It packs a punch here.
Take a deep breath and dive in.
Welcome to Ho Chi Minh City.
5 things you can’t miss in Saigon
Take a look from the other side
Almost 68 thousand Americans died during the eight-year period it was involved in the Vietnam War, but could you say how many Vietnamese died? The answer is in the millions. Ho Chi Minh City offers the opportunity for visitors to understand the toll of war on the country and see that nothing is as black and white as we might think.
A visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels is a must on any visit. The harrowing site of many brutal guerilla-style battles between North and South Vietnam as well as the United States, visitors can see the immense system of underground tunnels built to counter the American presence and even go inside them to feel the claustrophobia. Brutal traps, torture devices, and depictions of how tough life was during the war are all on show. It’s not a pleasant visit, but an important one. Book a small organized tour if you can.
Back in the city, the War Remnants Museum is a sobering excursion. Detailing the effects of the controversial agent orange and its generational impact on the population, graphic accounts of the war, and some of the horrors committed on both sides, few museums in the world are likely to stir emotions like this one for Americans. It can feel biased, and it is in places (it was once called the American War Crimes Museum), but it’s a good place to gain perspective.
Get buzzed on a coffee tour
Vietnamese coffee is no joke. Those not used to it sometimes feel a little drunk. For everyone else, it’s a glorious hit, whatever form you get.
One of the best ways to learn is on a coffee tour. These fantastic days out are usually done on two wheels. A private tour guide will whisk you off on the back of their motorbike to the best spots in town, offering a little history of the coffee and trying different varieties. Simple iced coffee with condensed milk will be the starting point before moving on to the wonderful egg coffee, and even a type of bean that’s literally passed through a ferret.
Some coffee shops frequented on the tour are even tied in with the war. One amazing cafe has a secret bunker built under it that used to stockpile weapons for the Viet Cong. Expect to grab a few nibbles on the way too!
Enjoy the French connection
France’s influence in Vietnam stretched back to the end of the nineteenth century when they colonized the region as part of French Indochina. Just before the Vietnam War, the French were defeated and kicked out, but many of their buildings and cultural influence remain.
Visiting Notre Dame Basilica is a great way to get start. Built in the late eighteen hundreds, the European-styled red-pink brickwork sticks out like a beautiful sore thumb. Just across the road is the old post office. The stunning, strikingly yellow building still functions as such, and you can even send a postcard back to your family and friends from the building.
Don’t forget to check out the Saigon Opera House and Saigon City Hall, all of which wouldn’t look out of place in a European city. Ben Thanh Market is a wonderful clash of cultures to explore. The French-styled walls enclose a traditional market where a morning can be spent browsing local wares.
Take a dip
Beat the heat by visiting the Dam Sen Water Park. Don’t be fooled, this water park is no dingy park with questionable swimming water.
The Dam Sen Water Park is over 125 acres in size and 30 different activity zones including wave pools, rollercoasters, gardens, castles, theaters, electronic gaming areas, and more. The park is also home to over 70 species of birds and 20 animals.
You’ll even find a water display specially designed for musical performances featuring laser lights and films being projected on a big screen.
Another unique amusement park is the Buddha themed Suoi Tien park that features larger than life Buddhas and over 150 entertainment facilities.
Have a religious experience
With everything from Catholic churches to Buddhist pagodas, you can’t miss out on exploring the varied and one-of-a-kind religious buildings.
First stop by the bright pink Tan Dinh church to marvel at the Barbie-pink painted walls. The inside is equally as impressive with its dynamic archways and columned hallways.
The Mariamman Hindu Temple is another sight for sore eyes. The exterior is a mosaic of bright hues and gold accented lines.