Inside Asia Tours: Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos

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Monday, 11th May 2015

A method to the madness of Saigon, or Ho chi Minh

Most people will know Ho Chi Minh City (HCM), as Saigon, the city famous for its role in the Vietnam War. Following on from adapting to the name in the vernacular, the reference to the war as the ‘American War’ won’t strike anyone as all that strange, no doubt. 

When you've arrived in Ho Chi Minh, you will immediately realise that way before the Vietnam or American War, the French had their way with this city. It is evident from its French architecture. The old city buildings ease the senses into imagining what the colonial era must have heralded for HCM. The French went out of their way to rebuild Paris in the Far East. The Notre-Dame Basilica in HCM was even constructed entirely of materials imported from France and the Saigon Central Post Office, in neoclassical style, was also a home away from home for French civil servants. 

That said, everything else is as un-French as it can be. There are endless of food stalls lining the streets of the city, their density increasing when you gravitate toward the bustling Ben Thanh Market. Swarms of fast moving motorbikes everywhere, seemingly going in all directions amid a cacophony of honking horns, merchants peddling their wares and simultaneously marketing them (especially at tourists). Life unfolds in all its facets on the sidewalks. 

This is what you came for and there's plenty of it.

Tourism has grown exponentially in recent years and it seems that the Vietnamese are hyper-aware of it. They offer relaxing massages, exquisite food, amid the sunshine, breathtaking country scenery and paradisial beaches. Vietnam has it all and its friendly people make sure that message is communicated, where ever you turn. 

In HCM, the invigorated lure for travellers translates into a chaotic miasma of dazzling choices. My advice? Simply embrace life, as there is no point in evading the bustle. As you push away the locals tugging at you, you will soon realise that perhaps a method to this madness is to work towards ticking off a few of those items on your to-do list. 

Of all markets in this town, Ben Thanh is the largest and most centrally located. Stalls sprawl out over surrounding streets, providing everything in generous quantities, from fruits and vegetables to meats, spices, sweets, clothing, and wristwatches to scorpions in alcohol, tailor made suits, one-day suits, furniture items, hardware and lots, lots more. There are also plenty of souvenir stalls, and bargaining is part of the game, except for in stalls which have fixed price signs. 

Travellers interested in the history of this city definitely ought to include the Reunification Palace at 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street into their schedule. It is also known as the Independence Palace, and was formerly the official South Vietnam’s presidential palace. Outside on the lawn is a replica of the very tank that ended the war on April 30th, 1975, and inside you will find yourself transported to the 1960s, as virtually everything in the palace has been left untouched from the time Saigon was still part of the South. Opens at 7:30 in the morning and tours are free.
Another essential museum to visit is Ho-Chi-Minh Museum. Housed in a monumental French colonial era building, it is dedicated to the life story of the modern day founder of Vietnam after whom Saigon was named; Ho chi Minh. The museum, which will familiarise you with modern history even if through a slightly filtered lens, is located near the docks. (Duong Nguyen Tat Thanh, Dist. 4.) It opens daily at 7:30AM and last admissions are at 4:30PM.  

Far from the madding crowds, you will find Thien Hau Pagoda to be a relaxing spot. Located in Nguyen Trai St, in the Cholon district of HCM, this pagoda is dedicated to the sea goddess Lady Thien Hau, who when she departed, left two giant turtles in her name to keep an eye on things. Be sure to also check out the impressive sculptures in the walls of the courtyard outside the temple.  

Related news stories:
Top tips for taking the Reunification Express (19th February 2015)
Hanoi versus Ho Chi Minh City - which Vietnamese heavyweight is the best? (23rd October 2014)
Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City becoming 1 of the most attractive Asian destinations (14th May 2013)