Known by locals by its former name, Saigon, the largest city in Vietnam became Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 following the country’s victory over the French colonial rulers (1954 – 1975). The city is named after their independence leader and the most famous and respected personality in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. You will no doubt see his photograph thousands of times during your time spent in Vietnam, hanging over schools, businesses, streets and houses. The city itself is an extreme juxtaposition between the old and the new, technology and tradition, rich and poor; a hectic blur of motorbike upon motorbike which make crossing the road an extremely daring feat!
With a booming nightlife and heaps of culture, the city is the perfect first stop on your Vietnamese adventure. It is also the ideal place to find travel buddies – as most backpackers from here will now be moving in the same direction, northward up the stunning Vietnamese coastline and then west into Laos. This journey is made easy by the cheap ‘open bus tickets’ that tour operators are keen to sell you, allowing you to travel through Vietnam stopping off wherever and whenever you like.
Places to stay
- Pham Ngu Lao:This district is Ho Chi Minh City’s busiest backpacker hub, with bars that stay open as long as you’re standing and hostels aplenty. The further you wander away from the main crossroads, (marked by the looming fluorescent sign of Crazy Buffalo Bar & Nightclub), the cheaper the room. Pioneering the new trend of ’boutique backpacker hostels’ in Vietnam, Lofi Inn Saigon is a great new option for backpackers looking for a clean, modern and comfortable stay. Bright, spacious rooms, free WIFI, lots of activities and a friendly hang out area where you can meet other travellers. With dorm rooms as low as $7 USD, it’s fantastic value for money!
- Co Giang: Southeast from Pham Ngu Lao a sleepy alley of guesthouses lie tucked away, undisturbed by the bars and backpackers. Head here if your budget is a little higher (approximately $10-$20 a night) and peace is what you are seeking.
- Ben Thanh Market: An even pricier option for the flashpackers amongst us, most rooms here are $25-30 but come with all conveniences such as air-con, satellite TV, hot shower and free WIFI.
Things to See & Do in Ho Chi Minh City
- Crawl along a Cu Chi Tunnel: Visit any one of the Tour Agents in Ho Chi Minh and the Cu Chi Tunnels will be high on their list of recommendations. This network of underground tunnels was home to the Viet Cong guerillas during the 1960’s. The American’s job was made difficult by this hidden operations base, which supplied guerrilla fighters across Southern Vietnam with a hideout and a supply network, leading to the American’s eventual withdrawal in 1972. The best trips go via the multi-religious ‘Cao Dai Temple’, where you can watch a colourful ceremony taking place.
- Float along the Mekong Delta: The second most popular tour is perhaps a trip to the mighty Mekong Delta. This can be experienced in just one day… or you can take your time with an overnight stopover in a traditional home stay. Pack your ‘nón lá’, the famous cone shaped hat worn throughout Southeast Asia… or pick one up whilst you’re there, as a day on the Delta can be a sunny one with little opportunity to seek shade. As you boat along the river, visit traditional river villages, sample coconut candy, watch rice paper being made and island hop between the magical named island’s of Tortoise, Phoenix, Dragon and Unicorn!
- Reunification Palace: Previously known as Independence Palace, the ‘American War’ (as it is called in Vietnam) is said to have ended as a tank crashed through it’s gates. A replica of that tank, number 843, can now we seen on the Palace’s lawns. Tours can be arranged, but it’s easier just to wander and browse this 1960’s time-warp at your own pace, with an entry cost of 30,000 Vietnamese Dong.
- War Remnants Museum: Pack your tissues if you’re visiting this Museum, which is home to devastating images of the American-Vietnamese war, taken by famous international photographers. A day out here is an uncomfortable one and certain photos of innocent victims of war cannot fail to move you to tears. Perhaps the most shocking photos are those which portray the damage done by the American Weapon of War, the chemical known as ‘Agent Orange’. It is a must visit in Vietnam if you want to find out more about one of the most significant events of the twentieth century and see the story from the Vietnamese point of view. The museum is closed for lunch 12pm-1:30pm and last entry is 4:30pm. Entry costs 15,000 Dong and it’s an easily walkable distance from Pham Ngu Lao.
- Chinese Temples in Cholon: Here in Vietnam’s largest Chinatown, there are dozens of colourful Chinese Temples to be visited. Wander around, soak up the distinctive atmosphere and sample the delicious Chinese inspired street food.
- Jade Emporer Pagoda: Arguably one of the city’s most beautiful pieces of architecture, this Pagoda locally known as ‘Phuoc Hai’ is definitely worth a look for the intricate paintwork and clever detail. Built by the Cantonese in the 20th Century, the air is heavy with incense and the grounds are alive with worshippers.
- Traditional Vietnamese Massage: Soothe those aching limbs after a walking tour of Ho Cho Minh City with a relaxing massage, performed by a professional blind masseur…
- Ride on a Xe Om: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, by hopping on a Xe Om (known to you and I as a motorbike). The name translates roughly as ‘hugging machine’ and that’s certainly apt as you cling on to your driver for dear life, weaving through traffic and pedestrians alike.
If you’re travelling to Vietnam then remember that unlike most other Southeast Asian countries, you will need to arrange a visa before you arrive. These can be applied for at your nearest embassy at home, or whilst already here such as in Bangkok. The process takes around three days and visa rules are strict, with a fixed departure date and huge fines for overstays!
- By Plane: Budget flights can be found via AirAsia from Bangkok (amongst many others), taking only an hour or so and costing very little, particularly if you book in advance. The airport, Tan Son Nhat, is Vietnam’s largest and has a regular bus service (the No. 152) which will drop you to Pham Ngu Lao or at the bus station close to Ben Thanh Market for a mere 4,000 Dong. Expect to pay another 4,000 for a seat for your bag!
- By Train: If you are already exploring Vietnam, then an ‘express’ train can be caught from Hanoi, with five departures daily. Though this calls itself an ‘express’ service, it takes a minimum of 30 hours, so be sure to pick up a good read!
Where To Go Next
- Phnom Penh: If your Vietnamese adventure has run it’s course, then Cambodia’s capital is just a 6-hour bus ride away. This will set you back around 250,000 Dong.
- Mui Ne: If you’re craving a beach on which to lounge having survived the traffic of Ho Chi Minh, then Mui Ne is the next logical step. Grab yourself a bus ticket which allows you to hop-on and hop-off wherever and whenever, then travel the approx. 5hours North to Mui Ne. (The bus ticket when we checked cost $30 from north to south / south to north)
- Dalat: Located in the mountains and dubbed to by the French as the ‘Alps of Vietnam’, this peaceful town is the ideal location to test out an Easy Rider tour or rent yourself a bicycle and explore the nearby hill tribes and waterfalls. It’s the perfect city break to get away from the fumes of the city.