Ho Chi Minh City is the hot, pulsating metropolis of Vietnam.
1. Walking tour
I strongly suggest taking the Trails and Tales walking tour on the first day that you get here. Adam, an expat teaching English in HCMC organizes an informative, fast paced 3 hour orientation to this great city. Crossing the streets in HCMC in a big group is a great safety net as you practice navigating your way as hundreds of motorcycles whizz around you.
You will get a crash course on the history of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh who is regarded as the Father of Vietnam. Stop at all the major HCMC sights such as the Reunification Palace, Post Office, Saigon Notre Dame Basilica but you also get some interesting added extras – experience the refreshing sugarcane drink, nước mía, from the street vendors, an interesting Hindu Temple and the Memorial of Thich Quang Duc – a monk who burned himself in protest of religious inequality on a street in HCMC.
The walking tour is free, however, by the end of this great tour it seemed only fair to give him a generous tip for taking the time and effort to show us this lovely city.
2. War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum provides an interesting (albeit, what some might argue, one-sided) look at the Vietnam War. What I found most profound and heart-wrenching were the images taken from the last reels of film found on the cameras of slain war correspondents. The stories and pictures of the devastation that Agent Orange wrecked on generations after the war made me very emotional. Our trip to the War Remnants museum was a very sobering view of the atrocities of war but also a reminder of the resilience of the Vietnamese people.
HCMC has got something for everyone! If you want to buy Vietnamese trinkets and souvenirs as well as handbags, spices and coffee without the ridiculously high mark-ups found in other Vietnam tourist destinations (Hoi An, Hanoi) then go the Ben Thanh Market. You are still going to pay a high tourist mark-up but at least they open to haggling and bargainingJ. Take water with you as it can get suffocatingly hot inside. There is also the Ben Thanh night market which is an open-air market in the evening, it’s a bit calmer and has a nice atmosphere. For clothing you can try Saigon Square, they are not as open to bargaining but it’s nice to browse in the air-conditioned mall. High-end fashion boutique stores can be found all along Dong Khoi street. If you are looking for authentic 100 % pure silk scarves and ties go to Khai Silk on Dong Khoi Street. The Vincom Towers is a huge modern shopping mall with all the international brands and some good restaurants; we stopped at what is the equivalent of a Walmart to get all our food and coffee gifts to take back home.
HCMC has amazing restaurants scattered all over, fabulous modern eateries offering traditional but also fusion Vietnamese food. Propoganda Café was an absolute treat from their fresh spring rolls to dessert of rice pudding with fresh mango. The Dining Room is a good choice for fine dining. Quan Bui had amazing authentic Vietnamese food. All these places were pricey by Vietnamese standards but comparable to the prices we would pay here in SA for a standard meal.
5. Great Base for some interesting day trips
The Cu-Chi tunnels make a great day trip from HCMC, you can do either a morning or afternoon tour. We also did a full day tour to the Mekong Delta. I will cover these day trips in a separate post.