The first thing to strike you about Ho Chi Minh City will be how the streets teem with family laden scooters, and how bicycles, cars and carts weave seamlessly between pedestrians as they go about their business with colourful determination. Yet beyond this frenetic welcome is a city brimming with a wealth of history, art and culture, one that is home to a distinct blend of Southeast Asian, Chinese and French influences.
More commonly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh is located in southeast Vietnam and has a population of just under 9 million. The capital of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1975, Saigon played a pivotal role in the Vietnam War when it served as the headquarters of U.S. military operations. Today a place where timeless incense-infused temples sit alongside chic designer malls and sleek 21st-century skyscrapers, it offers a dizzying adrenaline-fuelled assault on the senses that instantly commands attention.
The heart of the city is adorned with elegant tree-lined roads and historic French colonial buildings. The main sites in the city centre include the Reunification Palace, City Hall, the Opera House and City People’s Court. Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Palace, built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, is an impressive landmark in Saigon.
Downtown you’ll find the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, the most impressive cathedral in Vietnam and modelled on Notre-Dame Paris. Built between 1863 and 1880 by French colonists using materials shipped over from France, the cathedral is the religious centre for Vietnam’s 6.2 million Catholics.
Adjacent is the Ho Chi Minh City Post Office, one of the city’s most photographed tourist destinations. Inside, if you’re lucky, you’ll find 88-year-old Duong Van Ngo, the only remaining public writer who for almost 30 years has penned letters for those who cannot write themselves. You may even ask him to help you pen yours.
Not to be overlooked is the War Remnants Museum which comprises a series of themed rooms and exhibits with graphic photographs and accounts documenting the atrocities of the Vietnam War. In the grounds American tanks, bombs and aircraft are displayed, as well as a mock-up of a POW prison. This is the most visited site in the city for good reason and offers sobering insight into a difficult and prolonged war, as well as a better understanding of the history of the city.
A special find is the Ho Chi Minh City Book Street located in District 1, a pedestrianised alley lined with libraries, photo displays and book stores. Seek out the Temple of Ten Thousand Buddhas in District 5, a secluded, off-the-beaten-path attraction renowned for its enormous display of ornate statues of Buddhist deities. For a treat, head to the Saigon Skydeck at the Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City that offers spectacular 360-degree views from the bar on the 49th-floor.
But eating is what you’ll want to do in Saigon and the city boasts some of the best street food in the world. Try typical Vietnamese dishes such as Pho soup and French-influenced Banh Mi. For a glimpse of the city’s nightlife visit Bui Vien Backpacker Street, which is lined with bars, food stalls and nightclubs. The Ben Thanh Market is the place to go if shopping for clothes, spices and locally handcrafted souvenirs is your interest.
Whichever it is, drink in this pulsating city from every available angle, it certainly warrants an in-depth look and appreciation and will very quickly have you swept up in its infectious energy.
The Essential Details for booking your visit to Ho Chi Minh City
Getting there: There are no direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City from South Africa, but convenient connections with Emirates, Qatar and Singapore Airlines make travelling there easy. On the ground, Vietnam remains a very affordable option for South Africans.
Visas: South African passport holders can apply online to receive a 30 or 90 day single or multiple entry visa on arrival. This must be done in advance.
Accommodation: You will find a variety of accommodation that ranges from top-end hotels to hostels and self-catering apartments. The most popular districts with tourists are District 1, 2, 3 and 7.
Getting around: Tickets can be purchased for the local bus and there’s an app that shows you their routes and running times. That said, Grab (South East Asia’s Uber) is likely the best way.
Don’t miss: A Vietnamese Egg Coffee from Little HaNoi Egg Coffee Goc Ha Noi in District 1.
This story first appeared in the newly released SA and Beyond printed magazine. Read my other published articles here. I travelled by my own account on a personal visit, all opinions and images are my own.