In recent years, Vietnam has become one of the most popular exotic destinations, welcoming millions of travelers, inquisitive tourists, and even digital nomads from all over the world throughout the year. And rightfully so, as there is plenty to see and do in this expansive country. Between the numerous natural wonders dotted across the map, to the bustling urban gems imbued with culture and history with an added pinch of modernism, Vietnam has plenty to offer to the enthusiastic modern traveler.
One city, though, will always stand out as a prominent multicultural hub that attracts travelers from around the globe – Ho Chi Minh City. Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh is a place where traditional Vietnamese culture and cuisine meet the fast-paced modern way of life. Here are some of the best things you can do on your grand exploration tour of Saigon!
Visit Saigon’s landmarks
There are many reasons why you should book a trip to Vietnam, and Saigon’s cultural and historic landmarks are definitely one of them. Upon touching down in this bustling beehive, you will immediately notice the not-so-subtle blend of historic landmarks, legacy buildings, and modern architecture. And every landmark has a tale to tell.
Among the most prominent sightseeing opportunities is the Saigon’s Notre-Dame Cathedral, erected in the 1880s by French colonists. This architectural landmark is located on Paris Square, and even though it bears no apparent resemblance to the monumental cathedral in Paris itself, it does boast the same name because of the “Peaceful Notre Dame” statue overlooking the square.
A more modernistic city landmark, the Independence (Reunification) Palace, is also a place of significant historic value. The Palace has seen some truly extraordinary, history-shaping events, particularly at the end of the Vietnam War, as it served as the allied command’s headquarters. The most notable one being the fall of Saigon itself in 1975, when a North Vietnamese tank rolled through its gates and thus solidified the North’s victory in the war.
If you are interested in more French Colonial architecture, though, then be sure to visit the Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office. Erected in 1891, this architectural gem was the brainchild of Gustave Eiffel himself, a man who designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The building still serves as the city’s post office, and is a truly astonishing sight to behold from the outside, and from within. Visiting these and many other cultural and architectural landmarks will allow you to unravel the country’s intricate past, and even delve deeper into its bloody 20-year war with the US.
Discover the region’s bloody past
It might not seem like an uplifting field trip at first glance, but learning about the Vietnam War still remains an important part of the Vietnam experience. Here, the bloodiest decades of the 20th century are forever preserved in various walking tours, underground crawling tunnels you can visit around Saigon, and of course, the largest collection of war memorabilia displayed at the War Remnants Museum.
The museum tour is a deeply sobering experience, one that aims to educate every visitor on the events that transpired during that time, and preserve the collective memory of the fallen. You will also get the chance to inspect the elaborate war machinery used throughout the two decades, immaculately preserved in their displays.
Along with the meticulously preserved tanks and artillery armaments, you will also get the chance to delve deeper into the inhumane aspects of the war, forever preserved in their “tiger cages” exhibits. These cages served as prisons for political enemies, traitors, and POWs, sometimes holding more than 10 people at a time. Interestingly, you will also find a French guillotine here from the war that the South Vietnamese and the French forces used to execute these prisoners. These and many more exhibits are why you shouldn’t skip the War Remnants Museum on your Saigon adventure.
Join the motorbike culture
In Ho Chi Minh City, as well as throughout Vietnam, the motorbike is the primary method of transportation, and has become an inextricable part of the daily lifestyle. Immediately upon touching down, you will notice hundreds of motorbikes whizzing past you in every direction, en route to another landmark, popular street food cart, or venturing outside the city’s borders.
Needless to say, you need to embrace the motorbike culture if you want to experience Saigon in all its shining glory. Some of the best guided motorbike tours such as The Sights of Saigon specialize in city-wide exploration that emphasizes the educational aspect of every landmark. Your guide will tell you the intimate stories of the city and help you imagine the intricate tidbits of history that shaped the city, and the nation as a whole.
But the biggest benefit of a motorbike tour is that you will be able to visit all of the must-see spots around the city without wasting any time – after all, Saigon is an expansive place, so you need to have a detailed itinerary. Make sure that your tour includes a professional English-speaking guide, a motorbike and the necessary protective gear, free snacks and refreshments, and of course, free transportation from and to your hotel.
Taste the street food delicacies
Much like every other urban gem in the country, including the nation’s capital Hanoi, Saigon thrives on its street-food culture. Packed to the brim with food carts and stalls, eating out in Ho Chi Minh City is a true cultural experience. There are numerous street food markets scattered around the city, with Ben Thanh Market one of the most popular options with locals and travelers.
Located in the very heart of the city, in District 1, Ben Thanh is a place where you will find everything from street food to clothes, jewelry, trinkets, and of course, famous Vietnamese Coffee. While there, be sure to try pork or chicken Pho, arguably the most well-known national dish. In its purest form, Pho is a simple dish consisting of beef or chicken broth, sliced meats, rice noodles, and various spices and herbs. And it’s utterly delicious.
A staple of Vietnamese cuisine and breakfast-time favorite among the locals, Pho is a dish you want to taste early in the morning when it’s at its freshest. Visit the Ben Thanh Market before 9am to grab your bowl of warm Pho and experience the metropolis in its unusually calm state.
If Pho wasn’t satiating enough, take a Bánh mì sandwich to go and visit the breathtaking Tao Dan Park for a rejuvenating stroll. You can choose from a variety of Bánh mì iterations, but the base ingredients you should be looking for are pork sausage, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, cabbage, and daikon. While strolling the Tao Dan Park, be sure to grab a cup of fresh Vietnamese Coffee at the Pham Ngoc Thach coffee factory, as well.
Saigon, nowadays known as Ho Chi Minh City, is a vast multicultural center and a top tourist destination in the country. With so much to see and do in this bustling beehive, be sure to use these tips as a guide to a well-organized exploration tour that will allow you to experience Saigon like a true local while learning about the rich history of the city and the nation as a whole.