Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC or even Saigon. Call it what you will. The biggest city in Vietnam has many names. All are still used today, despite the Vietnam War ending in 1975 and the city’s name being changed to honour Ho Chi Minh. With a population of over 8 million people and a motorbike population almost as high it is the busiest city in Vietnam as well as its business capital. If you thought Hanoi traffic was bad, HCMC takes it to a new level of crazy.
Despite the city being so large the majority of the sites to see in HCMC are all found in District 1 and are pretty much within walking distance of each other. It’s only a 3km walk to take in the War Remnants Museum, Reunification or Independence Palace, Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, Opera House, Rex and Continental Hotels and the People’s Committee building.
War Remnants Museum
For a truly harrowing introduction to what occurred in Vietnam during French rule and later the Vietnam War a visit to the War Remnants Museum is a must. It certainly isn’t one for small children. Make sure you allow yourself a good couple of hours to see everything. Previously called the Museum of American War Crimes that should give you an idea of what you can expect to find inside. They changed the name when Vietnam and the USA normalised their relationship in 1995.
Outside there is a small collection of tanks, aircraft and unexploded bombs but also an area that shows the worst type of conditions the South Vietnamese kept political prisoners in. These include “tiger cages”, barbed wire cages, no more than 2 foot high. There are also many shocking photographs and accounts from the 1950-60s.
Inside the main building, you’ll find much more about the Vietnam War. Some of what you see is obviously propaganda and you’ll find little on what the North Vietnamese Army was accused of doing. However, I doubt you will not be affected by the exhibition on the effects of Agent Orange and other chemicals used during the war. This defoliant has had long term impacts on both the Vietnamese population and Americans who were fighting there. Vietnamese Red Cross figures estimate over a million people suffer deformities and health problems as a result, although the American government disputes these numbers. American servicemen have also experienced a higher incidence of some types of cancer. 3rd generation children are still being born with deformities indicating the damage caused goes deep into their DNA and that the problem won’t just disappear.
There was also an excellent photo exhibition of photographs, “Requiem”, taken by mainly Western war photographers who died recording what was happening. Some of these photographs come from the film rolls found in the cameras alongside their bodies. The knowledge that the photographers gave their lives to show “back home” what was happening in the war adds to the poignancy of the exhibition. Click this link for a small sample of the photographs. For more photos look at the work of Larry Burrows or Henri Huet.
The Reunification Palace, also known as the Independence Palace, was the home of the President of South Vietnam and is just a short walk from the War Remnants Museum. On 30th April 1975 NVA tanks crashed through the front gates, effectively bringing an end to the Vietnam War. Replicas of the two tanks can be found inside the grounds with the originals in museums in Hanoi. One of the most famous photos from the fall of
The palace itself is, to my mind, a bit of a letdown. Instead of something grand and opulent like so many palaces the world over, it looks more like a hotel from the 1960s. Hardly the place for the ruler of a country.
The French Influence
With Vietnam having been part of the French Colonial Empire it is unsurprising to find many buildings built by the French. Three relatively famous ones are the Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office and the Opera House. All three are within easy walking distance of the Palace and each other.
Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral
Much like its namesake in Paris Notre-Dame Cathedral was surrounded by scaffolding when I visited. Unlike Paris, this is just for renovation work. Amazingly rather than use local materials when it was built, everything used in its construction was
In 2005 the statue of the Virgin Mary in front of the Cathedral made headlines and attracted thousands of people when she is said to have shed tears. The Catholic Church was quick to deny this miracle as traffic chaos descended on the area.
Central Post Office
Famous as an example of Colonial architecture the Post Office may or may not have been designed by Gustave Eiffel. Internally you can see why it may have been accredited to him with its steel construction. But, official records indicate it was actually designed by another Frenchman, Alfred Foulhoux. Although still a working post office it is usually full of tourists taking holiday snaps, like the ones below.
Municipal Opera House
A final example of French architecture is the Opera House. Built in 1897 it has seen used both as intended as a theatre but also where the Vietnamese lower parliament sat from 1956-1975.
Two hotels are synonymous with Saigon and the Vietnam War. The Hotel Continental and the Rex Hotel. The Continental was used by both Newsweek and Time magazines and the English author, Graham Greene, was a long term resident in Room 214. It was based here in 1951 he came up with the idea for his novel, The Quiet American.
The rooftop bar of the Rex was the site of infamous, daily briefings by the US military during the war. The correspondents took to calling these briefings “the Five O’clock Follies” where they lamented the disparity between the truth and official reports. Today the rooftop bar is open for good views across the city.
Drinks with a View
When night rolls round one of the best things you can do in any city is to find a rooftop bar and soak up the views from on high. HCMC has no shortage of views to choose from. If you want the highest bar then the EON Heli Bar on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Tower is for you. For me, I wanted a view that took in this unusual tower with its helipad rather than a view from inside the tower. It’s also enclosed which isn’t something I want for my rooftop bar.
For one of the cheapest views checkout The View Rooftop Bar. You’ll find it on the 9th floor of the Duc Vuong Hotel on Bui Vien Street. It’s in the backpacker district too, so there are plenty of restaurants around if you get peckish.
More upmarket is the Air 360 Sky Lounge on the 22nd floor of the Ben Thanh Tower. Much closer to the centre as the photos show and much more expensive as a result. Still not expensive by Western standards though; Happy Hour cocktails will cost you about £5 each.
One Last Thing – Apartment 42 Nguyen Hue
One final place that is an absolute must, if you like tea or coffee, is a visit to Apartment 42. This apartment block has been converted into many cafes and work spaces that all front onto Nguyen Hue. Pick a cafe from outside, then try and hunt it down when you go in. Take the stairs for a chance to explore a little more before you find the cafe of your choice. For me, it was the Partea Tea Room. It has a huge selection of teas, lovely cakes and you even get to choose which tea cup you use. Outstanding.
If you are looking for things to do outside of HCMC then look here for some ideas.