We travelled from Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, in a slightly rickety, old bus, so we were glad to arrive at our hotel in district 1, the main tourist area. From here, you have access to a limitless number of bars and restaurants, the main tourist attractions, as many travel agents as you could desire, and also the train station/airport are within a short taxi ride.
Our time in HCMC was to be split between work and tourism, with Lee doing most of the work and myself doing most of the sightseeing. I’d read blogs before arriving and was worried that I wouldn’t like HCMC. I’d experienced the not-so-pleasant Indonesian cities of Jakarta, Bogor and Bandung, and I was afraid I’d end up feeling the same here. However, I was pleasantly surprised with what I found and I left HCMC with fond memories.
Top five things to do in HCMC:
Within a few hours, you can walk around the centre of HCMC, taking in
some of the principal buildings (both colonial and modern) and getting a good feel for the city. I started at the Bitexco Financial Tower, then along the pedestrianised walkway leading up to Ho Chi Minh Square, in front of the beautifully maintained City Hall (old Hotel de Ville), a perfect example of colonial French architecture. From here, you can visit the designer shops on Dong Khoi Street, before going inside the Saigon Opera House. Another short walk away from the river will take you to the Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, both well-preserved colonial buildings. Yes, the roads are crazy, and you can feel proud of yourselves when you successful cross them without injury, but for me I enjoyed walking around the city, taking in the different street shops and looking around the different neighbourhoods.
This was my top pay-to-enter activity in HCMC. The 1960s building seems strangely undated and I, for once, actually appreciated the architectural design of that era. This palace was used by the South Vietnam Government during the Vietnam War and was, iconically, the place where the end of the war was proclaimed, with a North Vietnamese tank breaking through the gates. The building is set within nice grounds, which you can walk around and enjoy the shade. Inside, there are many state rooms to look into, including the President’s Office, Banquet Chambers and war rooms. Also, there’s a dance floor on the roof, from where you can take in the views over HCMC. There are plenty of information plaques describing what the rooms were used for and photos showing famous national and international public figures.
This is always rated as a must-do in HCMC, and indeed, it is an interesting museum. In the outside courtyard, there is a collection of American tanks and helicopters, and also a display highlighting the atrocities that were committed at the Phú Quốc Prison, including the use of torture techniques such as the tiger cages. Inside the museum, there are several rooms containing photography relating to the Vietnam War, including the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the use of Agent Orange. The photography is very explicit but moving and shows the true horrors of war. For me, however, I felt that the museum was overly nationalistic, but I suppose that is to be expected.
This is a small museum, located away from the main attractions, but set within a beautifully reconstructed house, with wooden carved walls and ceilings. I walked to the museum, taking about an hour, but the effort was well worth it. First, you watch a video outlining the origins of Vietnamese medicines, and then you’re given a tour of the house, which describes how different remedies are used, and you even have the chance to dress up and have your photo taken in a replica pharmacy. At the end, you can sample various herbal teas, ask advice about herbal medicines and look around the shop.
HCMC has a good skyline and what better way to appreciate it than visiting a roof top bar. Also, it means you can escape some of the noise and madness of having a drink at street level. We chose the Sheraton Hotel for our cocktails, which has a bar on floor 23, providing great views of both the Bitexco Tower and City Hall. We went at night time and it was great to see the city lit up, stretching for miles. The cocktails were expensive, 450,000 VDN for two, but the experience was well worth it.
There are also plenty of other things to do in HCMC, including a walk along Bui Vien Street, exploring China Town and visiting the Museum of Vietnamese History. Also, if you want to escape the city, further afield you can visit the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta, with floating villages at My Tho and Ben Tre.
Before I arrived, I was nervous about spending a week in HCMC, wondering whether I’d be locked up in the hotel room, feeling unable to go out and explore on my own. However, I never felt uneasy about walking around HCMC and I even got used to crossing the road, my tip, follow the locals. What were your experiences of HCMC? Did you love it or hate it?