Ho Chi Minh City, also knowing as Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam, but 3 days is enough time to explore the city and take a day side trip if you have limited time. Like any large city Ho Chi Minh is very busy, with 10 million people and 5 million motorbikes.
Motorbikes are pretty much everywhere, I really mean EVERYWHERE. I even had to dodge them on the sidewalk. It is entertaining to just pick a big roundabout and watch the traffic and try to understand (luckily) that even with all the craziness they are organized and you don’t see many accidents.
Ho Chi Minh City was Saigon until 1976. After the end of the war the name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City in tribute to the former Communist revolutionary leader and 1st President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But you will notice that many of the locals still refer to it as Saigon.
I normally don’t spend too much of my time in the big cities, and I still had many places that I wanted to visit during my 2 week trip in Vietnam, but the 2 full days in Ho Chi Minh City plus 1 day for side trips was enough to see and do the things I wanted.
I left Florida and arrived in Ho Chi Minh City 32 hours later. Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, I took a cab from the airport and got to my hotel at 11:00 PM. The hotel was small but nice, with a double bed, clean bathroom, AC and well located near the Pub Street. I dropped my things in the room instead of getting some rest and decided to go for a walk. The night life in this area is super alive at this time and I was so excited that I didn’t even feel too tired. Also, considering the time change, it was morning for me.
Explore Ho Chi Minh City by foot
On my first full day in Ho Chi Minh City, I simple got my camera and walked the city without a planned destination. I love to take the first day in a country to just observe the culture and what a normal day looks like, talk to locals, eat street food and feel the different smells, colors and atmosphere of the place.
Visit a Local Market
One of the best ways to experience the local culture and see local life in action, is to visit the local markets. I visited the Ben Thanh Market, also knowing as the Central Market of Ho Chi Minh City, opened first in 1914 and it is located at the heart of the city, with an easy access by foot if you are staying downtown. You’ll find similar things throughout the market: tons of souvenirs, clothes, watches, fruits and veggies, dry goods and some exotic meat and sea food sitting outside the refrigerator. Soak up the atmosphere and enjoy seeing the market in action. If you are interested in buying something, practice your negotiating skills. As expected, the vendors normally start with a price 50% higher because bargaining is expected. I also found that some vendors can be aggressive; they really want to sell to you.
Try Street Food
The food in Vietnam is amazing, and Ho Chi Minh City offers street food pretty much everywhere. From the corner of your hotel, to the Ben Thanh Street Food Market, located close to the Central Market. There are about 25 vendors, and it is hard to choose what to eat, because everything looks and tastes amazing. Another interesting thing is that they have little tables and chairs on the side walk where you can sit and appreciate your bowl of Pho. They are always very busy, any time of the day.
Have a drink at HCMC’s Pub Street (Bui Vien Street)
I am not a beer drinker, but hey, I am on vacation in Vietnam and I am at Pub Street! It is amazing to just order a drink and sit on a small stool on the sidewalk and observe the super alive nightlife. There are many bars and restaurants, including rooftop. This street is a mix of locals socializing, being seen or working hard selling all sorts of things, and tourists having fun. It is a place to observe and immerse in the culture of the younger Vietnamese people.
Grab a short (I mean very short) stool at a short table on the sidewalk, order some food and drinks and enjoy the people watching. If you are looking for peace and quiet, you can definitely skip this area.
Check out the French architecture
Walking around Ho Chi Minh City, you will observe the strong French influence in some architecture, cuisine and even some ways of life, since Vietnam was once a French colony. The Notre Dame Cathedral is much smaller than the original one in Paris, but it has a very similar architecture. Just across the street you can visit the Post Office that was designed by the most famous French architect, Gustav Eiffel.
War Remnants Museum
The War Museum opened after the end of the war. It contains exhibits (tanks, helicopters, jets, bomb casings, etc.) relating to the American/Vietnam War and the first Indochina War involving the French colonialists. You will observe that this museum serves as propaganda for the south. It is poignant that the museum is located in Ho Chi Minh City and focuses on the atrocities committed against the people of Vietnam. The museum relates a classic tale of a vicious enemy, a poor victim (the south) and a hero (the north) that saves the victim. I believe that the museum is there both as a history lesson (lest we forget) and a reminder to an indignant south.
It is not an easy place to visit, as it displays thousands of pictures showing atrocities of the war and the after effects of the Agent Orange on the civilian population of Vietnam. Many of the photos are extremely graphic.
The museum is located at 28 Vo Van Tan, in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Day Side trips while in Saigon
We booked a private tour from our hotel for a day in the Mekong Delta and to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. It was a good choice as we explored at our own pace. For two people, we paid US$100 which included transportation and guide.
Cu Chi Tunnel
The tunnels are located about 90 minutes from HCMC. The site is fascinating, and very educational to visit the tunnels that were used during the War. There are about 120 km of tunnels, and you will see and learn how complex it was, with rooms for cooking, weapons storage and sleeping. You will have the opportunity to walk in one of the tunnels and see how small and dark they are. It is hard to understand how they could live in these tunnels for months.
Shoot an AK-47 or M-16 Rifle
Let me start by saying that I don’t like guns. I feel very intimidated by them. But I got so intriged to shoot them, since they are the real guns used during the War and I knew it would be a unique opportunity. It is not cheap, I paid around US$1.40/bullet. The rifles are secured to the shooting range wall, which limits your range of motion, but ensures safety.
At first I tried the AK47 and I realized I was having fun, and decided to try the M16 and it was pretty awesome! I even shot several rounds on full auto. For a girl that doesn’t like guns, I did it pretty well.
Mekong Delta is a series of tributaries leading from the powerful Mekong River out to the sea with over 40,500 square kilometers. An abundance of water powers this region, often referred to as the rice bowl of Vietnam. The tours offer pretty much the same options. Enjoy the laidback pace as you visit farms growing fresh fruits, coconuts and rice and try the local rice wine if you dare. Float along the canals by boat or cycle the quiet laneways. It was a nice taste of the Mekong Delta, but you also have options to explore more of this fascinating area of Vietnam if you have more time.
Cao Dai Temple
If you have time, please include this temple. It is situated 100 km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City in Tay Ninh province. The Cao Dai Temple is called The Great Temple or Holy See and was constructed between 1933 and 1955.
Cao Dai tries to be the perfect religion, combining Buddhism, Christianity, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Islam.
I didn’t have the chance to visit this temple because of time, but I did visit a smaller version on my way to Mekong Delta, and it was a very intriguing experience.