The economic powerhouse of Vietnam and formerly known as Saigon, HCMC is a melting pot of different cultures and political stances. East doesn’t just meet west here – capitalist and communist ideologies have also combined making HCMC a unique and interesting place to spend a few days.
Well-known brands and big businesses are very visible in HCMC – a reflection of its more relaxed attitude towards capitalism and Western brands.
Day 1 – A Whole Lotta’ History
Vietnam has a turbulent yet fascinating history and if you take some time to learn more about it you’ll understand and appreciate HCMC much more. It’s worth mentioning that although incredibly informative, the historical points of view presented at museums and attractions throughout Vietnam can be somewhat biased. So to balance things out, it’s worth doing a little bit of your own background research on the Vietnam War before you get here.
Located a short walk apart from one another, you can easily visit both the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace in the same day. Most attractions in Vietnam are closed during lunch hours so bare this mind when you visit. We suggest going to one in the morning and the other in the afternoon with lunch in between. Both have very reasonable ticket prices so this is a cheap yet interesting day out.
War Remnants Museum
You can easily spend a couple of hours in this Museum which tells the story of the Vietnam War and atrocities that occurred during it. Although some displays can be considered one sided, many of the most disturbing accounts and photographs come from US sources. Outside of the main museum is a replica of the notorious French and Southern Vietnamese prisons located on Phu Quoc and Con Son Islands that includes the brutal ‘tiger cages’ used to house Viet Cong prisoners.
The first communist tanks to reach Saigon arrived here on 30th April 1975 and it’s almost as if time has stood still since. If you are a fan of architecture and design this is a must visit to see the kitsch detailing and period style that still remains unchanged. The building also provides an intriguing history lesson about the fall of the city in 1975.
Day 2 – Outside of the City
Located around an hour and a half out of the city are the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the War. Now a very popular tourist attraction, this incredible network of tunnels is a fascinating place to visit. A multitude of tourist buses leave HCMC every day to go to the most visited Bien Dinh tunnels. However, if you can, hire a taxi, or use the public bus system, to reach the second and much less crowded Ben Duoc tunnel system. From Ben Thanh Bus Station take bus number 13 to Cu Chi Bus Station and from here take bus number 79 to the tunnels – friendly locals and bus drivers are likely to help you out and tell you where to get off.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Unlike the Bien Dinh tunnels which have been widened for tourists, the Ben Duoc site contains 4 segments of original tunnels to explore. You can crawl through the tunnels where the odd bat resides and there are replicas of sleeping, medical and command quarters which reveal just how much was achieved from these underground networks.
Located in-between the two tunnel sites, on the same road is the WAR (Wildlife at Risk) Animal Rescue Station. If you’ve had your fill of history this makes a pleasant change and can be easily visited in the same day as the tunnels.
Cu Chi Wildlife at Risk Rescue Station
Established in 2005 the Cu Chi WAR Rescue Station was the first multi-species animal sanctuary founded in Southern Vietnam. If you love animals and care about conservation this is a great place to visit and hear the impassioned sanctuary director, Lam, talk about the challenges for wildlife in Vietnam. If you want to visit the centre independently you will need to get in touch with Lam and arrange a time and date, contact details are listed on the website.
The same bus that you used to get the tunnels can also drop you off at the Rescue Station.
Tours to the Wildlife Rescue Station can also be organised with tour companies in HCMC. There is no set admittance fee but the centre asks each visitor to make a donation of 200,000 VND all of which goes towards caring for the animals here.
Day 3 – City Sightseeing & Shopping
Despite having hectic traffic HCMC is actually fairly pedestrian friendly. Unlike other major Vietnamese cities, the pavements are generally kept clear so you don’t find yourself forced to join the traffic on the road. This, along with its long stretches of parks and green spaces, makes HCMC a good place to explore on foot.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon
A reminder of Vietnam’s colonial past is the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon located in the downtown of HCMC. The cathedral was constructed by French colonists between 1863 and 1880 with all building materials imported from France.
Saigon Central Post Office
Located adjacent to the cathedral is the historic Saigon Central Post Office. The building was constructed between 1886 and 1891 when Vietnam was part of French Indochina and architecture lovers will delight in the mix of Gothic, Renaissance and French influences on display.
Get away from the concrete jungle for a few minutes by taking a stroll through one of the city’s parks. The 23 – 9 Park is one that most people will visit as it provides a quiet path from the backpacker district to Ban Thanh Market and Bus Station. The park becomes busier at night as many locals come here to socialise and exercise.
Another popular green space is Tao Dan Park, located just behind the Reunification palace. The park offers lots of shaded areas and also boasts some elaborate topiary and plant sculptures.
Ben Than Market
Ben Than has been the city’s busiest market for nearly a century and offers a truly wide range of wares from t-shirts and souvenirs to pigs’ intestines and live frogs! Located in the heart of downtown District 1, the market bustles with activity from early morning to late at night and is a true icon of the city.
HCMC at Night
Pham Ngu Lao / Bui Vien
Often referred to as the backpacker district of HCMC you won’t have to walk far to find a cold beer in Pham Ngu Lao. Bia hoi, Vietnam’s infamous daily-brewed and very cheap ‘fresh beer’, is now increasingly hard to find due to both its short shelf life and an influx of western style bars. But head to Bui Vien Street and you’ll find plenty of small establishments serving bottled beers that are still cheap at around 10,000 VND a bottle. Generally the smaller the bar and the more tiny plastic chairs outside, the cheaper the price. Locals and backpackers flock here every evening resulting in a vibrant atmosphere and some great people watching opportunities!
Have you been to HCMC? Share what you got up to in the comments section below!