Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, is the business hub of Vietnam, host to many multinational companies and home to eight million souls. If we are asked to describe Ho Chi Minh City, several words immediately come to mind: fast-paced, ambitious, vibrant, industrious and upcoming and arguably free-wheeling. Though Ho Chi Minh City is one of the later cities to economically emerge within the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), it is now comparable to the other established cities within the region. It is also considered as the most advanced city in Indochina, infrastructure wise.
Ho Chi Minh City’s identity lies in its burgeoning commercialism. Considered as Asia’s next tiger, Vietnam’s economy has been consistently registering somewhere between 5% and 7% growth per annum throughout the last decade. Due to this, prices of properties, especially in central Ho Chi Minh City, have been soaring. We were told that brand new apartments located in District 1 are sold at least for more than USD3,500 per metre, while those located in the other districts within the city commands more than USD2,000 per metre. Property analysts opined that the prices will rise even more once the Ho Chi Minh City metro system’s second line is fully completed by 2020.
Tip: It is best for all travellers to check on the current weather in Vietnam before arriving.
As soon as guests enter the centre of Ho Chi Minh city, they are bound to be joined by the flow of traffic dominated by motorbikes cramming the roads, so much so that they tend to take precedence over larger vehicles. Since the majority of Vietnamese rake in USD500 per month on average, motorbikes are mostly within their means. Travellers may want to take note that Ho Chi Minh City’s traffic congestion peaks during the morning (7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m.) and evening (5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.) rush hours.
One characteristic that requires us some getting used to is the road-users’ incessant honking – they seem to have this constant need to prod the vehicle in front to move faster. However, none of the local road-users mind being honked at or take the honking personally. With its left-hand driving, Ho Chi Minh City’s roads benefit from the grid system, a legacy from the French, which colonised Southern Vietnam since 1845. However, the roads seem to have problem coping with the number of vehicles being added onto them every year. With its bewildering traffic system, driving around Ho Chi Minh City is best to be left in the hands of the locals. When travellers plan to cross a very busy and heavily congested road, they need to vigilantly “keep looking to the left and right and walk slowly” – be sure to look both ways before crossing because even though the road might be one way, there are bound to be vehicles coming from other different direction.
The probable best location for travellers to stay in Hi Chi Minh City is District 1, especially around the Opera House, leading towards Saigon River. District 1 is the area where travellers can find the city’s yuppies and upper-class youths hang out at the area’s trendy restaurants and cafes. Travellers making their way to Ben Thanh Market from the Opera House area by foot should briefly stop at the statue of Ho Chi Minh with a little girl on the square in front of the People’s Committee building to take selfies. Those who are unable to find their bearings and require directions should just proceed to the nearby Tourist Information Centre (http://visithochiminhcity.vn/) on 188 Phạm Ngũ Lão Street.
Various shops selling crafts, tailoring, and even galleries are abundant at District 1. A jaunt down Le Loi Street heading towards Ben Thanh Market would offer travellers the opportunity to admire and purchase various goods on sale. As a matter of fact, Ben Thanh Market itself should not be missed, for this is the place that carries a smorgasbord of goods at bargainable prices. Along these streets, we can see why Vietnam is renowned for its textiles, souvenirs, tailoring and paintings.
However, for more authentic merchandise, we shopped at a store called Mystere along Dong Khoi Street that sells Vietnamese handmade crafts and accessories like handbags, cushion covers and scarves made by the country’s ethnic minorities; making a purchase here made us feel like we are contributing our money to the local economy. With some effort, travellers are bound to find goods that suit their respective wants and budgets. Though the exchange rate constantly fluctuates, as a rule of thumb, it is advisable for Malaysian travellers to set every VND1,000 at MYR0.20, or VND5,000 equals to MYR1.00 and calculate from there.
Muslim travellers need not worry because there are a few halal restaurants that exist in the city. It is good to know that Ho Chi Minh City is home to around 6,000 Muslims (majority of them belong to the Champa ethnic group). Though local food is cheap, specialty and imported food like halal and Western dishes are pricey compared to back home, especially when these dishes are served in restaurants located in District 1.
Besides Ho Chi Minh City, Gaya Travel recommends for travellers to venture out of the city to know what lies beyond the whole hustle and bustle. Three attractions that constantly appear on the travellers’ itinerary are Cao Dai Temple, Cu Chi Tunnel and the Mekong Delta, all of them taking more than two hours to reach by car. Once we left the city, we noticed that the Southern Vietnam landscape is rather flat. The journey brought us pass Southern Vietnamese countryside, characterised by expansive rice fields and unperturbed vegetation. Travellers should take note that getting to those places requires vehicles to endure rough and undeveloped roads.
For those who prefer being in the middle of a city that is upcoming and fast-moving, Ho Chi Minh City definitely fits the bill. Though the city is hardly romantic, it evidently carries the direction that Vietnam is taking: to become one of Asia’s economic powerhouses. Travellers who appreciate countries that brim with confidence and new developments would find Ho Chi Minh City intriguing.
What to experience in Hanoi:
Shop at Ben Thanh Market
Considered as one of the major landmarks of Ho Chi Minh City, the place offers countless shops selling rows after rows of souvenirs, clothing, home accessories, crafts and a myriad of other things, including local titbits and Vietnamese ground coffee. It has four entry points where travellers could approach: East, West, North and South. We observed that Ben Thanh is well-organised and sports wider walkways compared to other markets like Cho Lo and An Dong, thus providing better shopping comfort. But if there are moments when travellers need to squeeze through, be prepared to be pushed and shoved by the locals upon encounter.
Constructed and opened during the time of French colonisation, the structure that houses this market is blessed with high ceiling, providing natural air ventilation to moderate the temperature within. The market is only about 15 minutes’ walk from the Opera House – all the more reason for travellers to opt for any of the hotels located close to this landmark.
Savour ice cream at Bach Dang Ice Cream parlour while watching the traffic
Watching the traffic is now part of the lifestyle in this city. Since the ice cream parlour is located strategically at one of the main junctions along Le Loi Street, facing Saigon Centre (the tallest building in the city), the chairs within this joint mostly face the street to facilitate traffic-watching by the patrons, especially during the weekday’s evening rush hour. Witnessing the motorbike-dominated traffic and the ways these road-users negotiate and squeeze their way from any corner makes for an amazing scenery that could only be found in Vietnam.
Browse through the exhibits at The Museum of Vietnamese History
Housing various ancient artefacts and vestiges of past civilisations, travellers to Ho Chi Minh City will definitely be able to learn a bit about Vietnam’s past (all the way to the pre-historic times) through the museum’s exhibits. History and archaeology enthusiasts may be engrossed with the display of relics from ancient civilisations that rose within the current borders of the country such as Oc Eo, a kingdom that traded with many neighbouring nations during its time, including the Greco-Romans. The museum is open from Tuesdays through Sundays beginning at 8:00 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. Admission fee is VND15,000 per person.
Admire the Reunification Palace
First built by the French for the Resident of Indochina on a 20-hectare land, this historical landmark was rebuilt by the Americans in 1966 as the Palace for the President of the now defunct Government of South Vietnam. The original French-built structure was bombed back in 1962. The rebuilt palace is now open to the public and occasionally used as venue for meetings by visiting dignitaries. The name of the palace is changed into Reunification Palace in 1975 to commemorate the joining of both North and South Vietnam.
The architectural style of the palace is signified by the combination of Chinese characters denoting “good future”, “education and freedom”, “humanity”, “wisdom”, “boldness” and “sovereignty”; together forming one whole auspicious character that means “prosperity”.
The President’s palace was also constructed according to geomancy principles. What struck us the most was that the whole building is remarkably well-maintained and stays true to its 1960s mod style interiors that are accentuated with Southern Vietnamese motifs, including the ubiquitous Chinese character signifying longevity. This remarkable building also possesses bunkers and escape tunnels at the basement for the use of the past president, which is linked to the Saigon River, located 1 km away. To learn about the origins of the building, travellers may visit the small museum, which pictorially narrates the sequence of events beginning from the withdrawal of the French up to the period of Vietnam’s North and South Reunification in 1975. Admission fee is VND15,000 per person. The Reunification Palace is open from 7:30 a.m. till 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. till 4:00 p.m. daily.
Take in the glory of French colonial architecture
French Colonial architecture lovers would surely appreciate the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon, which the French built in 1845 in true gothic style. Though Gaya Travel team has never been to Paris, we suspect that the architecture of the cathedral strikes parallel to the original one with its cavernous interior and soaring vaulted ceiling.
Next to the cathedral is the iconic Ho Chi Minh City Post Office, which alludes to the French dramatic style. We admire the vibrant imported tiles used in the interior of the post office.
Contemplate on the horrors of war at the War Remnants Museum
Inside the War Remnants Museum, travellers will be able to witness weapons used by the US Army during the Vietnam War, including a full scale guillotine brought in by the French as punishment to deter insurgence among the subjugated public.
There are also pictorials that recorded the horrors of war, mostly documenting the atrocities that the US Army inflicted on the Vietnamese, especially when torturing the suspects.
Though the museum is not as morbid as the Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh, travellers may still find that some exhibits and pictorials disturbing. Admission fee to the museum is VND40,000 per person. The museum is open daily from 7:30 a.m. until 6:00 p.m.
Explore Cho Lo & An Dong Markets
Also known as Binh Tay market, Cho Lo (pronounced as ‘Che Le’) is located at Chinatown and has been in existence for over 100 years. We were informed that the market offers prices that are far below the ones offered at Ben Thanh because this is the place where the sellers at Ben Thanh Market source their goods wholesale. The atmosphere is gritty and parochial – travellers who love to be immersed among locals and their ways should shop here. We must warn you that sometimes the manner in which the sellers here lure you into their shop may pass as a bit unbecoming: just be wary that some sellers would go as far as grabbing and forcefully pull you into their shops to have you look at their merchandise. The other place that travellers could opt for is An Dong market, which is a tad more organised and better ventilated than Cho Lo, spanning three storeys high. Those who love wooden crafts would appreciate the variety on sale at the top-most floor.
Visit Cao Dai Temple, outside Ho Chi Minh City
Being the third biggest religion after Buddhism and Christianity, Cao Dai (symbolised by the all-seeing eye) established its base in Thay Ninh, located two hours and a half away from Ho Chi Minh City. The Cao Dai Temple sits on a huge estate larger than the grounds of the Reunification Palace, which also contains other structures that serve the needs of the Cao Dai community members living within the area. Travellers opting for this tour need to leave Ho Chi Minh City between 8:30 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. so that they will be able to arrive at the temple before 12:00 p.m., in time to witness the Caodaists, who are vegetarians, perform their group prayers in the middle of the day. The construction of the temple began in 1933 and finished in 1949. It boasts vaulted ceilings that are painted to represent the sky. When travellers intend to take photos, be sure to remain at the side of the temple hall so as not to obstruct the Caodaists praying.
Learn how Vietnam won the war at the Cu Chi Tunnels
To understand how the people of Cu Chi (pronounced as ‘Koo Chee’, located around 40 kilometres away from Ho Chi Minh City) and the local army survived the constant barrage of bombings by the Americans during the Vietnam war, travellers should visit the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, which is a whole series of manually dug underground tunnels covering the total distance of 250 km, complete with living and storage chambers serving as the army’s operational base during daytime, including ventilation systems that allow fresh air to circulate within, cleverly disguised as termite mounds. There are also exhibits showing various traps that Viet Cong employed when fighting against the American soldiers, including other guerrilla tactics and ammunitions.
Travellers who are interested in honing their shooting skills can practice them out at the shooting range located within the grounds, starting at the rate of VND20,000 per bullet. Travellers can also witness the production of rice papers and rice wine during the days of the war, some of them readily packaged as merchandise. The tour culminates with the serving of tea and steamed tapioca, the staple diet for the Vietnamese army during the war. Gaya Travel recommends this tour for its highly educational and eye-opening experience.