15 Feb 2016   |   Lists

Top 10 Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

For the pure poetry of the word, it’s hard to beat Saigon for the name of a destination. Consider the two syllables, escaping the throat as breathy exhortations... Sai Gon. The best marketing firm in the world couldn’t come up with a better name for an exotic location, and never mind the politics. No one in Saigon does. Go ahead. Say it.

But what to do when you get there? Plenty. The city is a melange of stately old French architecture, agglomerations of local construction, and sleek new towers jutting with helipads and blazing with Vegas-style light shows. The city’s attractions span a gamut from heritage and war to natural history and shopping.

And so here are the top 10 things to do in Ho Chi Minh City... whoops, Saigon.

Cu Chi Tunnels. Forty years after the war ended, the base from which the Viet Cong launched its attacks on Saigon is today a memorial to perseverance, tenacity and coverage. Though cadres burrowed through more than 200 kilometers of clay back in the day, just a few short stretches are open to tourists today. And that’s enough, even for those really into so-called Dark Tourism. Outside the tunnels, exhibits showcase the booby traps cadres set for American soldiers, bomb craters, trenches, munitions shops and disabled American tanks. It’s hard to believe these peaceful, leafy forests were once upon a time anything but.

Cu Chi Tunnels (Video by Karryn Miller)

Vespa Adventure. Just weaving through Ho Chi Minh City’s districts on the back of a 1960s Vespa is an experience in itself, but Vietnam Vespa Adventures is more than just a chauffeur service. The bubbly guides and drivers have let go of the shackles of the country’s wartime past, and are set on introducing visitors to a progressive Saigon. Eat fresh seafood al fresco at a street food stall, sneak into a speakeasy for open-mic night, and dance shoulder to shoulder with a local crowd to the beat of a Vietnamese rock band, on your journey through Saigon after dark.

Seeing Saigon by Scooter (Image by Vespa Adventures)

A O at the Opera House. Created by the first (and only) Vietnamese artist to sign long term with Cirque du Soleil, the A O My Village show has many of the trappings of an acrobatic performance. There’s the preternaturally agile artists, the precarious balancing acts, and the odd feat that has you looking away in case it doesn’t work. However instead of opting for an elaborate set, bamboo -- and lots of it -- is the mainstay prop of the show. The woody grass, along with some impressive choreography, tells the story of Vietnam’s urbanization within an hour long performance. Just as interesting as the entertainment is the show’s venue, the Municipal Theatre. The grand building was built by the French in 1898. 

River Cruise. For a taste of the Mekong River, without having to traverse all 4,350 km (2,700 miles) of it, Les Rives speed boat cruises is the best option from downtown. The day-long trips reach the outskirts of the Mekong Delta. Along the way ramshackle housing of corrugated iron gives way to scenic countryside, while smaller boats helmed by ladies in conical hats make way for overloaded ships barely bobbing above the water. Stops at a local market; pagodas and temples; and a farmer’s home replete with a wartime bunker, make for a diverse introduction to life in the Delta.  http://lesrivesexperience.com/tours/mekong-delta/ 

View of Ho Chi Minh City from the Saigon River (Image by Karryn Miller)

Reunification Palace.  Once the Presidential Palace of South Vietnam, now Reunification Palace, this imposing 1966-built structure is a real time warp. Left largely as it was on that fateful day of April 30, 1975 when a Russian-built tank crashed through the front gate of the palace grounds, the stately rooms, dance floors, casinos and a fascinating warren of wartime operations rooms in the basement evoke both pathos and nostalgia. Tanks and fighter planes notwithstanding, the outdoor grounds are a lovely bastion of green space in an otherwise clamorous section of the city.

Reunification Palace (Image by Karryn Miller)

Ben Thanh Market. If there’s but one market to visit in all of Vietnam, Ben Thanh is the one. Chock-a-block with more than 1,000 kiosks and stalls, and as many hawkers selling everything under the sun, a journey into the depths of Ben Thanh is a rollicking ride through the ways and means of Vietnamese commerce. Tourists are fair game for inflated prices on everything from North Face knock-offs to socks, but haggling is de rigeur. The hungry can feast on some of the city’s best street food. And aficionados of architecture can gaze about the airy reaches of the 1914-built structure.

Ben Thanh Market (Video by Jim Sullivan)

Botanical Gardens / Zoo. Located at 2B Nguyen Binh Khiem St. in District 1, the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens has held its ground for more than 100 years and now stands as one of the oldest zoos in the world. It was brought to life by Admiral Pierre de la Grandiere who was commander of the French forces in the 1860s. Today, it houses more than 550 animals and an extensive array of flora and fauna — orchids, cactus, bonsai and more sprinkled throughout the grounds. It’s also home to the Museum of Vietnamese History with artifacts from the culture and history of South Vietnam and a monument dedicated to the Vietnamese soldiers killed during World War I.

Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. Built by the French in the 1880s, this pearl-gray palace today houses the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. The exhibits plumb the city’s historical depths, telling stories of the animals that once flourished here (tigers, crocodiles, cobras, several primates) and the people who called the area home (Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham). Old maps trace the evolution of the city. Dioramas show what the city looked like back in the 19th Century, when the Gia Dinh Citadel defined its boundaries. Through one of the age-old tunnels leading away from what was then known as Gia Long Palace, the first leader of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, escaped in 1963 with his brother, Nhu, but were promptly captured and executed.

Museum of Ho Chi Minh City (Image by Jim Sullivan)

War Remnants Museum. Luring travelers from all over the world, a trip to Ho Chi Minh City would not be complete without a visit to this museum. Outside, visitors are greeted by physical remnants of Vietnam’s past; from the battle tanks to the giant aircrafts, tiger cages and guillotines used by the French and South Vietnamese. Inside, a series of themed rooms and photography displays decorate the walls from photojournalists documenting the progression and the aftermath of the war. A day spent here gives onlookers a glimpse into this country’s dark past. 

War Remnants Museum (Image by Tuong Vi)

Walk Dong Khoi Street. A walk down Dong Khoi Street is a walk through 150 year of Saigon. Known to the French as rue Catinat, and during the era of South Vietnam as Tu Do, the street has always lorded its high-end appeal and fashionable shops over the rest of the city. It was, and still is, the place to be seen. And to see. From the colonial-era marvel of the Majestic Hotel at the river’s edge, past the Reverie Saigon, now the country’s most luxurious hotel, through Lam Son Square past the Opera House to the imposing Notre Dame Cathedral, this is the walking tour du jour. The stately Main Post Office was built by Gustav Eiffel’s firm from 1886 to 1891. Construction on Notre Dame, which British novelist Graham Greene thought ugly, was begun in 1877.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica (Image by Karryn Miller)