Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Bustling, vibrant, sprawling, exciting—Ho Chi Minh City is a haven for those who love that big city feel. As busy at night as it is during the day, you are instantly overwhelmed with places to see and foods to taste, from museums and palaces to markets and street food stalls.
More than that, it’s a perfect base for day trips to the Mekong Delta, the Cu Chi Tunnels and Cat Ba, or Monkey Island. You might approach Ho Chi Minh City with the standard three-day itinerary but, fair warning, you could easily fill five.
Before 1976 and the unification of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City was known as Saigon and, for those who fought for the south during the war, it's still fondly recalled that way. Of course, the Vietnamese capital has had a tumultuous history, as has the rest of the country.
The city was captured by Vietnamese nobles to cut Cambodia off from its trading port in the Mekong Delta. Their victory ensured a couple of hundred years of prosperity before the French colonials invaded during the mid 1800s, causing massive unrest throughout the country.
Then the Vietnam War (or American War, depending on your vantage point) broke out in 1955, with the communist Viet Cong led by Ho Chi Minh from the North fighting the capitalists from the South. Up to two million Vietnamese civilians lost their lives before Ho Chi Minh’s forces drove a tank through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon, declaring victory over the South and claiming the entire country as theirs.
It's important to grasp this basic outline as the deep scars of the war and international influence (and intervention) are still very much visible in the day to day life in Ho Chi Minh City.
History is written by the victors, and in no place is that more clear than the city’s museums, painting the war as a struggle for unification, rather than the violent oppression of half the country. There are two side to every story and living in Ho Chi Minh City are some locals who quietly feel the war was lost and not won.
Take all explanatory plaques with a pinch of salt, basically.
Sights to see in Ho Chi Minh City
- Bến Thành Market: Fresh produce, clothing and hot food are on offer. Haggling for purchases is commonplace - and sometimes essential - but do bear in mind the exchange rate: USD$1 is worth approximately ₫24,000.
- War Remnants Museum: Prepare yourself as this museum provides a graphic display of the impacts of war.
- Independence (or Reunification) Palace: Be sure to make it to the basement for a look at the telecommunications centre - a true snapshot of history.
Day Trips to Take
- Mekong Delta Floating Markets: These tours often require an overnight stay, so be sure to plan your itinerary accordingly.
- Cu Chi Tunnels: Just one hour from Ho Chi Minh City, a tour through the Cu Chi Tunnels will provide more background to the war that still haunts the country.
Places to Eat
- Quan Ngon 138: Try the fried fish and crispy spring rolls.
- Bún Bò Huế 31 MĐC: Tuck into a bowl of bún bò huê.
- Tous Les Jours bakery: On the go breakfasts of French pastries including chicken croissants and blueberry cheese bread.
- Pho Quan: Order the rare beef pho and cafe sua da.
- Quan Bui: A modern take on Vietnamese classics.
Places to Drink
- Bui Vien Street: Settle into a plastic stool and swap some spare change for cool, refreshing beers in the lively backpacker district.
- Pasteur Street Brewing: Saigon is not short of trendy bars and restaurants and this is just one of them.
Planning to spend some time in Vietnam? Read through my two week itinerary for a holiday in Vietnam.