Having just come across the border from Phnom Penh, the first thing we noticed about Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) were the motorcyclists. There were just so many of them! And there weren’t any tuk-tuks. If someone wasn’t on a motorcycle, they were in a car or taking a bus/taxi.
The second thing we noticed was how clean the streets were. Rubbish had been swept away and the thick, black electrical wires running from pole to pole were bundled together. Most things appeared to be sold in shops and not by street vendors, leaving plenty of room to walk down the footpaths.
The city was easy to get around – we just hopped on a bus from our friend’s place into town and then walked everywhere. Or we used Grab taxi – Southeast Asia’s answer to uberTAXI.
Here’s a list of places we visited while we were in Saigon:
1. Reunification Palace: aka Independence Palace. “It looks exactly as it did in the newsreels,” said my dad, as we walked through the gates. He was referring to the press coverage from the morning of 30 April 1975, when the Viet Cong took over the site. And it’s true. The building is a beautiful example of untouched 1960s architecture. It’s airy and open, and you think you’re floating as you wander across each floor – that is, until you see the military helicopters and the tanks below, as well as other reminders of its violent past.
The history of the site goes like this: it originally housed the residence of the French governor-general of Cochin-China and gradually expanded to become Norodom Palace. After the departure of the French, the residence became home to the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. His own airforce bombed the place in 1962 in an attempt to kill him. Still alive, he commissioned a new residence for the site (including a bomb shelter underneath). This is the building you see today. President Diem never saw its completion in 1966 as he was finally assassinated by his troops in 1963. It was the succeeding South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu that moved in and named the new building, Independence Palace. Then the Viet Cong took over the site in 1975 and renamed it, Reunification Palace.
The building also incorporates Eastern philosophy, to the point that it’s shaped like the ancient ideogram meaning ‘good fortune’. I particularly liked the room on the top floor. It was originally designed by the building’s architect – the Paris-trained, Vietnamese-born Ngo Viet Thu – to be used for meditation, “where the head of State could find calm and reflect with due care before taking decisions about the country’s future” (said the information panel in the room). Instead, President Thieu used it as a party room to entertain 100 or more guests and installed a dancefloor!
Note: the Palace closes for a two-hour lunch break. Be sure to check your watch before you head there.
2. Bén Thénh Market: this colourful and vibrant market is located within the slick lines of a cream and mint French colonial market hall. Bén Thénh Market sells everything from fruit and vegetables to textiles and handicrafts. My dad bartered down the price of a hat and some bananas. He probably paid more than the locals, but he enjoyed the haggling experience. It was tempting to buy Vietnamese arabica coffee or ginger tea, but my backpack simply had no room to carry anything extra. Not to worry – I took away plenty of photos.
Note: The Market is located one block down from the tourist agency we used for our day visit to see the floating markets at Cai Be on the Mekong River.
3. Jade Emperor Pagoda: using my smartphone, I ordered a Grab taxi to collect us and we drove across town to the Jade Emperor Pagoda, a Taoist pagoda built in 1909. We zigzagged our way from outer Saigon to inner Saigon, crossing canals and travelling along tree-lined streets.
We weren’t sure if the taxi had delivered us to the correct location, but through a little gate, we spotted the pagoda. An enmorous sprawling tree spread out its thin branches to canopy the entire courtyard. A pond full of little turtles by the front entrance to the temple entranced children and selfie lovers.
Inside, the pagoda was compact yet bursting with mystical statues and artefacts. Wooden cravings stretched across the walls and the golden bodies of the statues shone under the dim lighting. There were many people around, praying in the compartmentalised rooms and offering incense (huong). None of them seemed to mind us lingering around, soaking in the scenery and watching as they poured vegetable oil over the candles at the end of each prayer.
4. Central Post Office and Book Street: next to the Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica is the Saigon Central Post Office, built between 1886 and 1991. Inside the grand pink building is an even grander concourse, complete with historic maps of South Vietnam, Saigon and Cholon on the walls.
The tiled floor and green-painted wrought iron are both striking in their elegancy and simplicity. The wings of the building house souvenir shops and the centre still functions as a postal service. It’s here that you can buy souvenir Vietnamese and French colonial philatelic collections or old coins.
Outside, communist statues of men and women flank either side of the entrance. We saw two couples set their camera on timer and rush in front of the building to have their photo taken. The girls were wearing traditional dresses. We ended up taking the photo for them and discovered the women were from Taiwan – they had hired the Vietnamese dresses for the day.
Next to the Post Office is Book Street. We met with my friend, who had the leads of her two little dogs in each hand, and together we wandered down the short pedrestrian street. People stopped to stare at her dogs (pet dogs are not common), although some people were brave enough to pat them. We bought a few postcards from the one of the boutique shops and marvelled at all the books in Vietnamese.
5. Nguyen Hue Square: this pedrestrian-only promenade stretches from the City Hall down towards the Saigon River. We started at the statue of Ho Chi Minh City at the top of the square. A few school kids approached my dad and asked if they could have a photo taken with him. Apparently, they needed to speak with a foreigner as part of their school project and a photo was proof of their accomplishment.
Nguyễn Huệ Square is also home to many French colonial buildings, including the City Hall, as well as the Rex Hotel and a luxury shopping mall. It takes about 10 minutes to walk the whole thing – that is, if you don’t stop for a bite to eat or a drink along the way.
Note: always be vigiliant as pickpockets can be about.
Transport: we found it easy to get around town. We downloaded the Grab taxi app onto our smart phones (I had bought a local simcard at the airport while the others relied on wifi). You pay the taxi driver in cash, so we didn’t have to link a credit card. The taxi comes to wherever you are and uses satillite navigation so that you take the fastest route. You also know the price before you hop in, which is super helpful and means you don’t have to scramble through the foreign currency at the last minute and risk being ripped-off.
We also found the bus system straight forward, and cheap! Mind you, we only took buses during the day. Once on board, the bus attendant comes to collect money from you and gives you a ticket. The bus we regularly took cost VND 5,000 in small notes (about 30 cents).
Museums: plan your itinerary wisely! Most museums are closed on Mondays and some close at lunchtime everyday.
Photo: Reunification Palace, sometimes referred to as Independence Palace, in Ho Chi Minh City, often referred to as Saigon by the locals.