Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as I prefer to call it, is the largest, busiest and most dynamic city in Vietnam and the former capital of the Republic of Vietnam. It’s history is steeped in conflict and following the fall of Saigon in 1975, an event that marked the end of the Vietnam War and the start of a transition period to the formal reunification of Vietnam under the Socialist Republic, Saigon was “officially” renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
For the History Buff…
What is today known as Ho Chi Minh City began as the Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor. The village was situated on swampland and remained in the hands of the Khmer for many centuries until floods of Vietnamese immigration arrived during the 17th Century A.D. The immigrants first came in 1623 with permission from the Cambodian king, but later waves came uninvited, while Cambodia was too weakened by a war with Thailand to stop them. (credit:Wikitravel)
At the heart of Saigon is Pham Ngu Lao in District 1 where most first time tourists and visitors will find themselves. This is also known as the backpacker district where modest, clean and comfortable accommodations are easily available for as little as 10-15 US Dollars a night. It is where most busses coming in and out of the city stop as well.
Most places on the tourist trail are within a short walking distance from here or a short taxi ride. Notably in the vicinity are the Reunification Palace, Ben Thanh Market, Fine Arts Museum, War Remnants Museum, The Saigon River, Notre Dame Cathedral and The Central Post Office. On my last visit I managed to see some of these places and this time around I was only in Saigon for 36 hours and wanted to connect the dots between the places I had missed out on my first visit.
Before I get into the main parts of my story, here are some tips, do’s and don’ts if you will, for those planning a trip to Saigon. These I’m sure have been covered in countless blogs and posts by other travellers but are important snippets of information that I feel need to be mentioned nonetheless.
Let me get this one out of the way up front. Traffic on the streets of Saigon is nothing short of mayhem especially during the morning and evening rush hours. It comes at you from all directions. Even with zebra crossings, it is seemingly impossible to cross the streets here. It will take a lot of guts to step out into oncoming traffic and attempt any sort of crossing even as bikes and cars will often slow down to avoid you, however do exercise caution nonetheless. Eyes in the back of your head would come in handy for this.
Get a map of the area or have Google Maps ready on your cell phone as this is an invaluable tool for getting around Saigon. You’ll be surprised at how close most places are to each other. I found data packages on local carriers a little expensive as I was burning through close to 20,000 Dong (US$1) within just a few hours on 3G. Wifi is available almost everywhere so it’s prudent to stop regularly and have a cuppa coffee to get your bearings for free. And for heavens sake not at a Starbucks, for 10,000 Dong (50 cents) enjoy street coffee, it’s an experience and you can have as many for your daily fix for less than the price of one latte at Starbucks. Do support the local industry, besides Vietnam has some of the best coffees in the world.
Whatever you do, do not take the cyclo-rides anywhere. These guys are a bunch of thieves and will rip you off even on the shortest of distances. I repeat do not engage a cyclo under any circumstances. They will quote a low price when you get on and it will often escalate to 10 times the price or more when you get to your destination. Put them out of business I say.
To Infinity and Beyond
With the above house-keeping chores out of the way, I have to say that I did a lot of walking this time around because I’m just tired of tour operators, tour packages and those full day/half day tours that show you nothing and don’t give you enough time to explore places the way I like to. Here then are the places I found on foot this time around in no particular order of preference.
Bến Thành Market
One of the usual suspects, no trip to HCMC would be complete if you miss this one. A hop skip and jump from where I was staying, Ben Thanh Market (circa 1912) is one of the earliest surviving structures in Saigon and an important symbol of the city. Needless to say it’s highly popular with tourists for local handicrafts, textiles, áo dai (Vietnamese national costume), souvenirs, fruit and it’s extensive selection of local cuisine. A busy marketplace with seasoned traders who are accustomed to tourists, bargaining for items is expected. As a rule of thumb, I usually start at 50% their asking price and negotiate from there.
Ben Thanh reminded me a lot of it’s sibling, the Central Market in Phnom Penh (Psar Thom Thmei). They were both built by the French in the early 1900’s and if I had to pick one over the other, I’d say the grand old Phnom Penh market is certainly more impressive from an architectural stand point.
In the evenings when the dust has settled and the market comes to a close, a night market takes over on the streets outside Ben Thanh. It’s a great place to hangout after dinner or for a late supper. There’s plenty to see, shop and eat here too.
Just across the street from Ben Thanh is a small park where locals and tourists both old and young spend their time in the evenings and during the day. It’s almost like a green lung in the heart of this part of the city. People come here daily to exercise, go for walks and of course the younger folk can be seen getting cuddly and romantic in the park.
Fine Arts Museum
I’m not big on museums but the Fine Arts Museum in Saigon is an exception. Located just a few metres off one of the roundabout exits across from Ben Thanh Market, it’s one of the largest fine arts centres in Vietnam.
This yellow and white grand colonial era mansion combines both French and Chinese styles with it’s original gorgeous inlaid tiled flooring and spacious airy rooms which are now galleries for contemporary and modern Vietnamese artists. The building is considered a masterpiece and sits as a heritage structure harking back to grand old colonial times.
At the main entrance lobby is the first ever lift that was installed in Saigon and is still operational even today. With it’s wrought iron grill gates on every floor and it’s wooden cabin, it’s pure vintage like I’ve never seen before.
The artwork on display is eclectic and representative of the vibrant cultural and social changes Vietnam has undergone through the years. The museum was originally the mansion of Mr. Hoa, a Chinese during colonial times. The wealthiest man in Saigon at the time, he also owned other famous buildings in the city such as the Majestic Hotel and Tu Du Hospital.
For a birds eye view of the city, the Saigon Skydeck at the Bitexco Financial Tower has stunning views of the city and skyline. Entrance to the Skydeck is $10 which is located on the 51st floor of this building. I headed to the helipad bar on the 52nd floor instead and for the price of a drink (beers start from $7), took in some breathtaking 360° views of the city as I watched the sunset unfold over Saigon. From here there are beautiful views of Ben Thanh Market Square, Saigon Times Square and the Saigon river.
Photographers hoping to get some shots of the city with a DSLR from up here may be a little disappointed, I certainly was, as the glass windows reflect back the interior lighting making it quite a challenge to get any decent shots.
The Saigon River
The clock is ticking and just 5 minutes from the Financial Tower is Saigon River. I was determined to find the Majestic Hotel as I’ve read so much about it. Less than a 100 metres down the promenade I found it across the street.
Classic colonial French Riviera architecture, The Majestic (circa 1925) is truly majestic. During the French occupation in Vietnam, the bar was favoured by French colonial agents for rendezvous with spies, who slunk in by side doors to report on pro-independence activism. And during the Vietnam War, it is rumoured to have been one of the places where foreign correspondents secretly met. It is also where Graham Greene penned parts of his novel, The Quiet American.
On my way back to the hotel, I passed through Saigon Times Square which was packed with teenagers just out and about hanging out with friends and doing what they do best, taking selfies. At the far end of the square is a curious statue of Ho Chi Minh and a lovely colonial building behind it. It was not immediately apparent what this building was except that a plaque on it read, “Ho Chi Minh City, People’s Council, People’s Committee“. I wish there had been more information on this.
Pham Ngu Lao
I’m back where I started. As I mentioned earlier, Pham Ngu Lao is very touristy and chock full of foreigners. In the evenings, the street is packed with people and is dotted with bars and cafes from one end of the street to the other and then some.
What I found quaint about the setup here is that the establishments lay out rows and rows of chairs and tables right on the kerb side for customers to sit and have a bite or a beverage. It’s a wonderful place to just sit, chill and watch the world go by. One of my favourite places was a little Banh mì kebab stand that makes the best little sandwich for 30,000 Dong ($1.50) and served up ice cold bottled Bia Saigon for 25,000 Dong. I sat here for several hours, ate a couple of sandwiches and had a few cold ones just doing what I like doing best, people watching.
They came in all shapes and sizes, anybody and everybody was out and about all dressed to kill, to see and be seen.
Finally it was back to the hotel for some shut eye before the morning bus to Dalat. I managed to see the places I had wanted to in the short time I had in Saigon. There are many other places to visit outside of Pham Ngu Lao but I guess I’ll do those when I make it back here hopefully sometime in the near future.
Saigon is a wonderfully vibrant and exciting city. I’ll be back… for sure.
The Roving Photographer
March 26, 2016