Punctuated by numerous steel and concrete towers, interspersed with food carts, pagodas and churches at street level, and divided by a never-ending river of traffic, Saigon, officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, is at the heart of Vietnam’s resurgence on the world stage. Though the hawkers can be relentless hagglers, and you swear that you’ll get run over by a transport truck one of these days, Saigon is a destination that never fails to impress newcomers with its surprising blend of tradition and modernity.
Further easing any potential annoyances is the absurd affordability of this place, as steaming bowls of Vietnamese Beef Stew for $0.75 USD, large bottle of Heineken for $1 USD, and a/c budget hotel rooms for $10 USD will have your wallet breathing a sigh of relief. With budgetary concerns allayed and a beautiful city waiting to be explored, let’s get out there and see some sights!
And how do we do this without getting flattened crossing the street? Just remember, one step at a time crossing traffic, keep a steady pace, maintain eye contact with the drivers, and you’ll be fine!
Unbeknownst to most visitors to Southeast Asia, Vietnam has a substantial contingent of Catholics in its population, and Saigon is no exception to this fact. Located in District 1, not far from the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao is Notre Dame Cathedral. Entry is free, so feel free to explore the grounds of the church, most of which was imported from France when it was built between 1863 and 1880. Just be respectful if mass is going on, and you’ll be fine!
Next, check out the Reunification Palace, which has largely been left and maintained in state since it was taken over by the forces of the North back in 1975. Observe the splendour that the South Vietnamese president lived in while walking through the many opulently designed rooms (including his recreation room and private movie theatre!). Downstairs contains the war room and air raid bunker where the president and his men spent many nights of bombardment riding out onslaughts from the North Vietnamese air force, and planning offensives and counteroffensives against their opponents.
Finally, save the most sombre destination in Saigon for last, as you attempt to understand the hellish nature of war at the War Remnants Museum. It starts off benignly enough, with displays of tanks, planes, and armoured vehicles outside, and glass cases containing machine guns, grenades and anti-personnel mines. The place takes a decidedly darker turn on the upper floors, as pictures detailing torture procedures, civilians blown apart and scorched by bombs, and the devastating legacy of Agent Orange deformations are shown. You’ll leave not choosing which side was right, but deciding that war should never be an option, except as a last resort, when one’s back is against a wall.
Sweltering in the heat of a Southern Vietnam wet season day? Fortunately, there are many water parks that you can visit to get some badly needed relief from the tropical sun. Dam Sen Water Park is close to the city centre, and there are new slides added regularly. While the park is a steal of a deal at 110,000 dong ($5.50 USD), do take care on the slides, as the design has led to unaware people bumping their head.
For those who wish to catch up on the Hollywood blockbusters that they’ve missed while on the road, Vietnam offers some truly exceptional value here as well. Sit in a thoroughly modern and state of the art theatre, while only paying $6 for a 3D movie ticket. Add in snacks, and it’s possible to see a movie for less than $8-9, whereas just the ticket back home will run you 50-100% more than this cost!
End your day off sightseeing by having post-sunset drinks on the 54th floor of Vietnam’s highest tower, the Bitexco Financial Tower. Happy hour runs from 5 – 8 pm, and it comes with free nuts, olives, and a killer view of one of Southeast Asia’s most dynamic cities.