Explore: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
First stop of my solo trip diaries: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Originally, Mark and I were supposed to explore Ho Chi Minh City together, but since the odds weren’t in our favor, I ended up going there by myself. I added up a few more places on my itinerary, ending up visiting neighboring cities like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Bangkok. It was a fast paced trip, and as much as I wanted to spend more time, I was only given a few days off, enough to just barely scratch the surface of each city.
I spent two days in Ho Chi Minh, exploring the city and taking my time to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. While there are still many things to learn, being there was definitely a great first step for me to have a bit of a perspective of what Vietnam is all about.
It took me a whole day and a motorbike to cover all the tourist spots. There are no beaches or nature trips involved, only landmarks and museums that would give you more appreciation of the country’s history, specifically the Vietnam – American war. Here’s how it went.
TIP: To appreciate the tour better, I highly recommend that you read up a bit of history specifically the events that took place during the Vietnamese War (the 1950s – 1970s). Ho Chi Minh City is not a very touristy place, but it definitely holds a lot of stories. The attractions are mostly centered around the war since the city played a big role during the decades-long conflict with North Vietnam (Communists) and South Vietnam (backed by the US). It’s also home to shopping centers where you can buy clothes and bags for a very cheap price.
How to go around:
I originally intended to tour everything by myself, walking around from one block to another, but as I’ve mentioned in my previous post, I decided to rent a motorbike outside of Independence Palace to tour me around. Spoiler alert: it didn’t turn out so well.
That being said, I highly suggest that you either book a tour at your hostel or use the Grab app to book motorbikes to bring you around. Here’s a comparison of each ‘tour’ options:
- Arranged Tour: Definitely safe, will surely cover everything but can be a bit more expensive.
- DIY Walking Tour: Everything is walkable and it’s fun to explore the place by yourself. Not for those who hate walking as this would require you to cover at least 15 km. or more.
- DIY Tour x Grab: Easiest way to go around. Fixed price and cheap. You would need wi-fi to book your trips, though, and I’m not sure if all drivers can understand English that well.
- Drive around town: There are a lot of cheap motorbikes for rent. Honestly, I think this would be the best way for you to explore Ho Chi Minh City as motorbikes are already embedded in the country’s culture. Downside: if you don’t know how to ride a motorbike OR if you don’t know how to deal with roads that are really crowded with bikes, then this is not for you.
This would ultimately depend on your preference and your level of confidence, but these are the most common options for you to explore the city. While I was confident that I can do the DIY Walking Tour (I really don’t mind), I wasn’t so keen on using maps and I felt like motorbikes are much more convenient for me at that time, that’s why I ended up renting out. However, if I could redo this all over again, I would probably go with DIY Walking Tour and a bit of booking with Grab. As much as I would love to rent a motorbike myself, I don’t know how to drive and the number of people on the road can be honestly overwhelming.
WARNING: I know I’ve told my story of getting scammed a number of times, but I’d like to reiterate: BEWARE OF MOTORBIKES ON THE ROAD OFFERING TOURS. While they might seem nice, most of the scams happen at these kinds of transactions and it would be best if you just stay away from it. If you need a ride, you can always book one with the Grab App. Functions a lot like Uber but for motorbikes and taxis. They have fixed rates that could also help you on budgeting. Not a sponsored post, I promise. I just swear by its functionality.
Where to go:
Independence Palace / Reunification Palace
Address: 135 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam (Click the link for the map)
Entrance Fee: 40,000 VND (1.75 USD)
Opening Hours: 7:30 AM – 11:00 AM, 1:00 PM – 4:00 PM
Recommended for: People who have a bit of a background or are interested in the country’s history
Highlights: Historical Location; Vintage architecture and interiors
A monument in itself, the Independence Palace is like a time capsule — complete with its relic looking interiors and 1960s inspired architecture. More than its aesthetics, Independence Palace is one of the most go-to places in Ho Chi Minh City because of its history. It has become a symbol of the end of the bloody Vietnam War.
Originally built in the 1800s during the French occupation, the building is embellished with a vintage French flair, with accents that blend perfectly together with the Vietnamese feel. Although it was transformed during the war to maximize its space and accommodate more functions, the look of the building is still heavily influenced by France, as seen on the choices of interiors.
Independence Palace / Reunification Palace is now a museum, but during the war, it has served as an important architecture in Vietnam. It has bunkers, underground headquarters, and a helipad, all of which were created to serve the occupant of the palace — the Vietnamese presidents.
Saigon Central Post Office
Opening Hours: 7:00 AM – 9:30 PM
Entrance Fee: Free
Highlights: Shops; French Architecture
Worth the visit if: You don’t mind the crowd and would like to check out the architecture
Bustling with an energetic crowd, the Saigon Post Office is one of the few relics of the French occupation. Designed by Gustave Eiffel in the 1800’s, the place has become one of the most visited areas in Ho Chi Minh City. Most nooks and crannies of the area have been converted into souvenir shops.
TIP: Don’t buy souvenirs in the area. Best to visit the marketplace for souvenir shopping as the prices are much cheaper.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Highlight: Romanesque Architecture
Perfect for: Selfies
Located just across the Saigon Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral is another symbol of the French occupation, standing tall since the 1800s. Masses are held at the church regularly, with English services conducted every Sunday at 9:00 AM.
NOTE: Not worth the visit if you’re not into churches and architecture.
War Remnants Museum
Opening Hours: 7:30 AM – 12:00 NN; 1:30 PM – 5:30 PM
Entrance Fee: 15,000 VND (0.66 USD)
Recommended for: People who would like to understand the Vietnam War; Those who are curious of how the war unfolded in Vietnam
Displaying photographs of the war atrocities, the War Remnants Museum is a truly eye-opening place to visit. It tells the stories of those who were devastated by the decades-long war, and how it had affected millions of lives. As I have mentioned in the earlier part of this post, it is best to read a little bit of history before going to the museum. While most of the photographs would touch your heart with its harrowing details, knowing the stories behind it would help you create a deeper connection to your visit.
As much as I wanted to talk about the war, I know I’m not the best person to tell the story as I am no expert. However, for the sake of giving you guys a brief background, here’s a bulleted form of everything that I know which might also be helpful for you (fact checked with Britannica article):
- After France left Vietnam, the country was divided into two: North Vietnam (Hanoi area) and South Vietnam (Saigon area)
- The war started in 1954 and lasted until 1975. While many countries played a part during the war, the prominent ones are Vietnam (of course), the US and its allies, and the USSR.
- The war was a part of the larger on-going Indochina conflicts as well as a ‘manifestation’ of the on-going Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.
- After overthrowing the French occupants, the people from North Vietnam (together with their allies in the South known as ‘Viet Cong’) wanted to unify the country under a communist regime modeled after China and the Soviet Union. The people from the south, on the other hand, are fighting to follow the democratic model like that of the US. This somehow explains how they were able to get the allies during the war.
- The war started to become bigger in the 1960s, when the support from the US for South Vietnam poured in, stationing more than 500,000 personnel in the country. China and the Soviet Union, on the other hand, supported the North by providing weapons, supplies, and advisers. The war has inflicted major damage in the country because of the heavy bombings and the aggressive methods that both parties had carried on. More than 2 million civilians from both sides died during the war, and some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. An estimate of 200,000-250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers was tagged as casualties.
- In 1975, the North successfully invaded Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of General Ho Chi Minh.
Perfect for: Hanging out (if you have a motorbike) and selfies
Honestly, this was one of the mysterious stops during my trip with Nim, my tour guide. I never knew the story behind the lake, until I researched further on the internet (thanks, Google). From what I’ve gathered on this blog, the Turtle Lake was created as it was believed that there was a dragon living underneath Saigon. The lake marks the tail of the said dragon, believed to bring good luck and security to the city.
Museum of Vietnamese History
Entrance Fee: 15,000 VND (0.66 USD); You can add 5,000 VND to take photos inside the museum
Opening Hours: Tuesday to Sunday; 8:30 AM – 11:00 AM, 1:30 PM – 5:00 PM
Highlights: Artifacts, a glimpse of the Vietnamese History outside of the war
Created in the 1920s, the Museum of Vietnamese History was originally founded by France. Featuring artifacts that showcase the evolution of culture in Vietnam, this 2-storey building would be the perfect place to have a glimpse of what Vietnam was like before the war. Stories are told with a variety of photos and memento, as well as paintings that depict the history of the country.
Bonus points for its vintage look and Instagrammable spots. I didn’t pay for the additional 5,000D for the photos, but I think you can still sneak some pictures inside (LOL).
Jade Emperor Pagoda
Entrance Fee: Free
Opening Hours: 7:00 AM – 6:00 PM
Highlights: Exquisite wood work
This has been, honestly, one of my favorite stops of the tour. This was the first Taoist temple that I have ever visited, and it amazed me how different it was from the faith that I grew up with. I have always been fascinated with other people’s beliefs and witnessing that in person was truly breathtaking.
The pagoda boasts beautifully carved wood foundations, as well as elaborately decorated phantasmal divinities. It is a sight to behold, showing designs and details that could only be achieved with hard work. The pagoda was created in 1909 but is continuously visited by tourists and worshippers alike until today.
While it’s okay to take photos inside, I highly suggest that you refrain from using flash and just skip doing “snaps” or “Instagram stories” while touring. This is a place of worship for these people, and it is only apt that we respect it as if it was our own.
During the trip, my tour guide decided to have a quick stop at the Saigon River. Stretching out for hundreds of kilometers, there isn’t really much to see in the area, aside from the busy port and the silhouettes of the buildings. Either way, it’s a nice stop to just breathe and take a break.
Saigon Opera House
Entrance Fee: Free
I was only able to check out the facade of the place. Much like the other stops, the Opera House boasted French architecture and a little bit of history. I don’t have much to say about the place as I’ve only seen the outside, but apparently many tourists are keen on checking the theater anyway.
Ben Thanh Market
One of the most famous markets in the city, Ben Thanh Market is a crowd favorite for its cheap souvenirs, clothes, and bags. You can buy a whole lot of items and haggle with the store owners to get everything else at a lower price. Buy in bulk and ask for discounts!
If you’re looking for the infamous cheap Northface bags, they also have it here. Although I’ve read on blogs that the cheapest ones are located at Saigon Market located at the other part of the city.
Bui Vien Street
Dubbed as the ‘backpackers’ area, Bui Vien is crowded with bars and restaurants that cater to mostly Western visitors. You can also find a lot of hostels in the area and it’s just a couple of blocks away from the bus stations. If you want to party and dance the night away, this would be the perfect place to visit. Although beware of walking by yourself as some parts are a bit dark. If you are partying in this side of town, make sure to book a motorbike going home especially if it’s late. One of the guests from the hostel that I stayed was robbed on the nearby street as she was walking by herself at 2:00 AM. Better be careful than sorry.
While Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t sound like the most exciting place to explore, it’s definitely an interesting place to visit. It’s very reminiscent of Manila with its crowded streets and architecture, but just like Manila, it also has its treasures that are ready to be explored.
I highly suggest touring Ho Chi Minh City if you are into history and seeing other people’s culture. FOOD is also another thing that you have to look at when visiting Vietnam, but I’ll save that for another post. 🙂
How about you? Have you been to Ho Chi Minh City? What are your thoughts and what else would you like to know? Share it in the comments and I’ll do my best to reply to you!
More about my Solo Trip
Finding Strength in Vietnam (the story of how I got scammed)