Ho Chi Minh city highlights and travel guided

Ho Chi Minh City Overview

Ho Chi Minh City, previously named Saigon, is one of Asia's most dynamic and rapidly developing cities. It moves at a dizzying speed with swarms of motorbikes beeping and swerving, new buildings popping up seemingly overnight and a population that seems to be constantly on the go. Despite the constant throng of activity and the somewhat urgent rush of the government to modernise, the city has retained a unique character owing to the spirit of its population and the fine balancing act between tradition and modernisation.

Ho Chi Minh city overview
Ho Chi Minh city overview

Ho Chi Minh has seen more than its fair share of turbulence and its political and social standing within Vietnam has made it a prime target for invasion over the years.

Starting out as part of Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh city has gone through many incarnations which still echo throughout the city. It became part of Vietnam in the 17th century under the rule of the Nguyen Lords. Looking at the highrise buildings and fast-paced life today, it is hard to believe that this city started out as a small fishing village named Prey Nokor originally inhabited by Khmer people. In 1698, the area was taken over by the Vietnamese and construction of a citadel began. The French colonial era began in 1859, and the city began its rise through the ranks to become the capital of Cochinchina. Under the French colonial rule, the city took on a European feel with an influx of French architecture and art. The French legacy is still present in present day Ho Chi Minh and can be seen in the colonial style buildings and tasted in the delicious food.
 
In 1954, after the Geneva Convention divided Vietnam into North Vietnam and South Vietnam, Saigon became the capital of the South.  

The Second Indochina War brought much unrest and destruction to the city, whole areas were destroyed during the fighting. In 1975, North Vietnamese troops took Saigon and consequently renamed the city Ho Chi Minh City after the revered leader.

From this turbulent time onwards, Ho Chi Minh City has been at the forefront of Vietnam's development and has been catapulted into modernisation at breakneck speed. One of the unfortunate consequences of this is the loss of many heritage sites and iconic buildings which have been replaced with ultra modern buildings in an effort by the government to keep up with the times.

Today, Ho Chi Minh is a charming medley of modern high rises and shopping malls weaved with traditional Vietnamese culture and the echoes of the French colonial era. It is this chaotic combination, along with the unique character of the population that creates the intoxicating, unmatched character of Ho Chi Minh City.

With a population of over 8 million residents, it is no wonder that Ho Chi Minh is a city that appears to be constantly alive with activity. The majority of the population are Vietnamese (Kinh), with the largest ethnic minority community being Chinese.  However, as with any large city, the population is becoming more international each year.

Each year, the city draws millions of tourists, both foreign and domestic. This is due partly to the diversity of the city and what it has to offer, and partly to its distinctive charm which seduces its many visitors.

See and Do

Ho Chi Minh is divided among 19 districts with zone one being the epicentre. It is an affluent area with a high concentration of restaurants and bars and as a result is more expensive than neighbouring districts. It is a highly popular destination due to its large number of recreational activities. As you move further out of the city centre, the districts become less modern and have different attractions, such as Chinatown in district five.

One area of District One that is famous for its French colonial buildings is Dong Khoi. Although many of the impressive buildings have already been replaced by new developments, some magnificent examples of French architecture still remain. Over the years the street has gone through many transformations which reflect the evolution of the city itself. The present incarnation is one of affluence and glamour with what remains of the grand French buildings sitting alongside shiny new tower blocks and international brand name stores.

Paris Square, Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral. Ho Chi Minh city
Paris Square, Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral. Ho Chi Minh city

Some of the highlights of the street can be found in Paris Square which is home to the Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral. Construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral began in the early 1860s and was completed in 1880. It has two peaked bell towers that pierce the sky and give the building its imposing silhouette. The building still functions as a Catholic Cathedral today. Opposite sits the equally as splendid Central Post Office. The architecture is distinctly French with Gothic and Renaissance influences and could easily deceive visitors into thinking they are not only in a different era but a different country altogether. Inside the post office are two fascinating maps, one depicting the Saigon of the past and another showing the postal route between Vietnam and Cambodia.

Further down the street, towards the Saigon River, is the regal looking Opera House. Originally built at the beginning of the 20th century to entertain French colonialists, the theatre was later used as the Lower House Assembly of South Vietnam before being restored to a theatre again between 1975 and 1995. As well as the striking architecture, the Opera House is a stage for many different performers from all over Vietnam and around the world.

Parallel to Dong Khoi is Nguyen Hue which becomes a pedestrian only street every Saturday and Sunday between 6 pm and 1 am. This allows people to stroll the streets at their leisure without the disruption of the fast, loud motorbikes which usually dominate the roads. The street offers access to all of the fabulous buildings of the Dong Khoi area as well the nearby wharf. Due to the wide, spacious streets, the Nguyen Hue walking street is the perfect place to hold cultural events and activities and many people enjoy meeting here to socialise.

Another impressive, albeit more modern, architectural feature of district one is the Bitexco Tower. The tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City, it stands at a staggering 262.5 meters high and can induce feelings of dizziness just by looking up at the towering structure from below. Although the building is very modern in its design, it is based on the national flower of Vietnam, the lotus. The 68 floors are divided into different sectors including a business area, an entertainment area and even a helipad which juts out of the 50th floor. One of the biggest draws is the unrivalled view of the city which can be enjoyed from the Skydeck or the drinks lounge. The view is especially spectacular at night when the city twinkles with the charm of the busy streets.

As well as the impressive architecture on display in district one, there are some great outside spaces which offer a great spot to get away from the rush of the city. The Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens are the largest green space in the city and the largest of its kind in the country. The botanical gardens are highly impressive and are home to thousands of species of species of plants including some rare and endangered species. Unfortunately, the zoo leaves a lot to be desired, and although there are some beautiful animals, many of the living conditions are substandard. The gardens, however, are a fantastic place to enjoy a bit of greenery and escape the noise of the city. They are particularly beautiful in the early morning when the sun begins to break through the gaps in the trees, and people are warming up for the day ahead.

War Remnants Museum, Museum of Vietnamese History, Cu Chi Tunnel System. Ho Chi Minh city

Although Ho Chi Minh City is undergoing rapid development and modernisation, the history of the city, and of Vietnam, is kept alive in its many museums. The Museum of Vietnamese History is a must-see attraction for anyone interested in the history of Indochina. The building is located on the grounds of the Botanical Garden making for a great day trip. The artefacts date back as far as the prehistoric period and take visitors on a discovery of cultural evolution through Vietnam's many transformations.

Another of Ho Chi Minh's top museums is the War Remnants Museum which is located in district three. This museum illustrates the atrocities and tragedy of the Vietnam War. The displays here are direct and extremely provocative making for an eye-opening and emotional experience. The outside area sets the scene with a display of weaponry and machinery and model of the tiger cages used to hold Viet Cong prisoners. The ground floor has more positive and hopeful ambience as it houses a display in support of the international anti-war campaign. The second and third floors are an intense and disturbing illustration of the ravages of war, in particular, the destruction caused by US troops. Although the displays can be harrowing, they offer an insight into what Vietnam and it's people have endured and survived and it also serves as a brutal reminder of the cost of war.

Another place brimming with historical significance is Reunification Palace which is located in District 1, a short distance from the War Remnants Museum. The exterior aesthetic of the building is well suited to its political role throughout history. Perhaps the most dramatic scene to take place here was the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank bulldozed the main gates, stormed the building and took control of Saigon. It was after this that Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. Still a governmental building, the building comprises of meeting rooms and reception rooms which are used for official events. The basement houses war rooms and telecommunications systems all connected via a maze of tunnels which allow visitors to imagine the talks of tactics that once took place here.

Located on the banks of the Saigon River, the Ho Chi Minh Museum plays homage to national treasure and his work. The building was previously a French customs house known as Dragon Wharf but now houses many artefacts relating to the life of Ho Chi Minh. The captivating story of the leader's life and accomplishments are illustrated by the photographs and personal effects on display.

One of Ho Chi Minh City's most popular historical destinations is the Cu Chi Tunnel System which allow visitors to experience the hardships the Viet Cong soldiers faced in the extensive labyrinths of tunnels. The tunnels stretch across the country, reaching in some places as far as Cambodia. They played a pivotal role in the defeat of US forces, providing a place for soldiers to live, send communications and stage unexpected attacks. Visitors to the tunnels can ascend into the claustrophobic tunnels and explore the underground quarters getting just a feel for what it must have been like for the soldiers that lived and fought here.

Culture and Art

The three most popular religions in Ho Chi Minh City are Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. There are, however, a number of Catholics, Hindus, Muslims and followers of other religions. This multireligious demographic is reflected in the city's many temples.

One of the most famous temples city is the Jade Emperor Pagoda which is located in District 1, just back from the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe River. Built by the Chinese community in 1909, the pagoda is dedicated to both Buddhist and Taoist deities. A cloud of incense smoke constantly envelopes the pagoda, swirling around the intricate carvings and sculptures. The main focus of the alter is the majestic looking Jade Emperor who is surrounded by his guardians. Also in the pagoda are a statue of Kim Hua to whom women pray for fertility and the more sinister Chief of Hell and his assistants.

Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda, Xa Loi Pagoda, Xa Loi Pagoda. Ho Chi Minh City

Another captivating pagoda is Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda which is located in District 5. As you enter the pagoda, the intense colours jump out from the walls, the bright red and rich gold, all accented with green and yellow. The ornamentation is equally as beautiful with spirals of incense which hang from the ceiling, red lanterns and detailed sculptures. The pagoda is dedicated to Quan Cong whose statue stands behind the main altar.

The largest pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City is the Xa Loi Pagoda which was built in 1956. It was once the headquarters of Buddhism in South Vietnam but is perhaps most famous for the raids that took place there in 1963 during which approximately 400 monks and nuns were captured and incarcerated. A number of self-immolations also took place at the pagoda in which monks tragically lit themselves on fire in protest of the Diem regime. Although a reminder of the difficulties faced by those who once occupied the pagoda, today it is a peaceful place of worship which houses a large gold statue of Buddha in seated meditation atop a lotus blossom.

The Mariamman Temple is a Hindu Temple which was built in the late 19th century by Indian traders and is dedicated to Mariamman, the Goddess of Rain. The outside of the building is crowded with colourful sculptures depicting different gods. Inside the temple, is a beautiful statue of Mariamman and her guardians to whom people make offerings of incense and fragrant flowers.

The Saigon Central Mosque is a very distinctive looking building and is easily distinguishable by its unique blue, white and green exterior. The mosque was built 1935 for worshippers from South India who were residing in Saigon. The cool verandas and peaceful ambience are welcomed rest in the busy, humid city, and there are plenty of halal street food vendors selling tasty treats just outside.


Cholon, Fine Art Museum, Ben Thanh Market. Ho Chi Minh city

One area of Ho Chi Minh that has a unique culture is Cholon, also known as Chinatown. It is one of the biggest Chinatowns in terms of area and has many interesting places to visit. Binh Tay Market is a jam packed, thriving wholesale market, the stalls always overflowing with an abundance of goods. Also in the area are the Chinese pagodas of Thien Hau and Quan Am.

Thien Hau Pagoda is dedicated to the Goddess of the Sea and was founded by Chinese merchants and sailors in the 1970s to thank the Goddess for her protection at sea. The roof of the pagoda features many small figurines of gods and legends, and the entrance is bordered with beautiful lanterns. Inside the pagoda, is the alter dedicated to Thien Hau which is surrounded by incense burners, releasing wisps of fragrant smoke.

Also close by, in Cholon, is Quan Am Pagoda which was founded by the Fujianese community in the late 19th century. It is dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy. The wonderfully ornate pagoda houses a beautiful statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Quan Am, as well as many other deities. 

Another fantastic place to immerse yourself in the culture of Ho Chi Minh City is Ben Thanh Market. This place is bursting at the seams with culture from the delicious local food to the stacks of wholesale goods piled high all around waiting to be bargained for. It is a fantastic place to pick up some souvenirs or even just do a spot of people watching. With so much going on and so much to offer, it is not only a centre of commerce but also a centre of culture.

As well as a rich cultural tapestry, Ho Chi Minh city also has a flourishing art scene. There are many interesting art galleries showcasing the top pieces from artists past and present. The Fine Art Museum is a great place to see the evolution of art throughout Vietnam's. From the Cham art of the 7th century to contemporary art, the museum features many interesting displays. The building is a colonial style villa, with eye-catching tiled floors and stained glass.

There are also a plethora of art galleries dotted throughout the city. Dong Khoi and the surrounding area have a number of galleries selling both original and reproduction pieces. One notable gallery on Dong Khoi is Apricot Gallery, whose well let walls showcase some fantastic examples of contemporary work. There are also numerous other galleries specialising in anything from contemporary pieces to wartime propaganda.

Food and Drink

Being the modern, multicultural city that it is, Ho Chi Minh has an abundance of delicious food, both Vietnamese and international, just waiting to be tasted. It would be a crime not to sample a steaming hot bowl of pho or grab a freshly prepared banh mi as you explore the streets. But what other delicacies does this vibrant city have to offer? Some of the best food is the simplest food, and Com Tam is certainly that. Com tam or broken rice is served all over the city with a variety of different toppings. Recognisable by the smell of meat grilling on the hot coals and the steaming vats of rice, these restaurants are a lunchtime favourite. The dish is often served with large, juicy pork steaks, eggs, meatloaf, shredded pork skin, egg and Vietnamese pickles. As well as being immensely satisfying, this dish is extremely well priced.

Bun Mam, Goi Quan. Ho Chi Minh city
Bun Mam, Goi Quan. Ho Chi Minh city

Another lunchtime favourite is Banh Tam Bi, a creamy, slightly sweet, coconut dish. Thick tapioca noodles are served over a layer of rice with a mixture of pork strips, vegetables and fresh herbs all topped with a  coconut milk sauce. One of the most popular places for a bowl of banh tam bi in Ho Chi Minh City is Banh Tam Bi Dong Thap, on Nguyen Trai Street.

Noodle dishes are certainly a speciality in Vietnam, and locals often stop to enjoy a steaming hot, spicy bowl of Bun Rieu. This dish has a crab base stock to which rice vinegar and tomatoes are added, resulting in a spicy and sour flavour combination. Noodles are added to the soup and then topped with chunks of pork, crab, blood jelly, tofu, vegetables and aromatic fresh herbs. Once the dish has been constructed it is can then be tweaked to meet individual tastes with the range of different sauces.

Ho Chi Minh also has some fantastic seafood on offer. Bun Mam is a traditional dish that incorporates the classic combination of steamy broth and filling noodles with delicious seafood. The broth is flavoured with the pungent fermented fish sauce, mam tom and served with a delicious range of seafood, pork and vegetables. Ca Kho is a catfish dish served in a clay pot. The fillets are marinated in a thick, sticky sauce made of shallots, garlic, soy sauce, fish sauce, and sugar. This is then served with a portion of hot, white rice. A popular shellfish snack is oc, a ion of shellfish that can be cooked in a variety of different ways according to preference. These tasty morsels can be purchased inexpensively from any of the roadside vendors and are well worth a try.

There are also plenty of tempting street food snacks to pick up on the bustling city streets such as Banh Xeo and Banh Khot, fried rice cakes and rice crepes stuffed with delicious fillings, Banh Beo meaning water fern cake or Goi Cuon, fresh spring rolls.

Ramen and Sushi bars, Sky bar, The deck Saigon - Riverside restaurant. Ho Chi Minh city
Ramen and Sushi bars, Sky bar, The deck Saigon - Riverside restaurant. Ho Chi Minh city

As well as all of the delicious Vietnamese foods on offer, Ho Chi Minh has food from all over the world, including the Chinese food available in Cholon, the Japanese District with its Ramen and Sushi bars or the many Western restaurants. It would be easy to plan a whole trip just around eating, and it's no surprise that many do. 

Ho Chi Minh is equally as lively and eclectic by night. The youthful and energetic vibe of the city means that there is always plenty to choose from when it comes to the nightlife.

A glass of cheap and refreshing bia hoi is a great way to start any night. This infamous drink is sold across the city on the sides of pavements crowded with tiny plastic stools. Bui Vien Street is one of the best-known beer spots and is popular with travellers and the younger Vietnamese generation. If the freshly brewed local beers aren't to your taste, there are plenty of other options with craft brews becoming increasingly more popular and many establishments serving wine and cocktails. A great way to enjoy a drink and take in the city is at one of the many rooftop bars.

When the bia hois and bars wind down, there is still plenty to do as the nightclubs and music venues will be kicking into action. The music on offer varies greatly from establishment to establishment, but there is always something going on and it usually lasts until the early hours of the morning.

Festivals and Events

As with the rest of Vietnam, Tet is the biggest festival in Ho Chi Minh. Tet marks the Vietnamese New Year holiday during which businesses and schools will close, and many Vietnamese people will travel home to visit their families. The preparations for Tet see Ho Chi Minh City adorned with traditional New Years decorations which bring colour and excitement to the streets. This is a great time to learn more about the Vietnamese Tet traditions such as giving lucky money to children and the preparation of customary food. For many Vietnamese people, Tet is a time to gather with their families and take the time to enjoy good company and good food. This does mean that during Tet the city becomes eerily quiet as business close and the usual rush of traffic quietens to a trickle.


Nguyen Hue flower street in Tet, Tet Nguyen Tieu. Ho Chi Minh city

Coinciding with Tet is the Spring Flower Festival which takes place in different locations across Ho Chi Minh City. Local artists bring a wash of colour to the streets as they show off their finest floral creations. Tao Dan Cultural Park also has a range of different activities on offer including music, food stalls and games. It really does bring the city to life with the energy of Spring and a New Year.

Just after the excitement of Tet, on the 15th day of the new lunar year, is Tet Nguyen Tieu, the lantern festival. This high spirited festival is celebrated mainly in Cholon, the Chinese area of Ho Chi Minh City, and sees the streets alive with colour, drum music and dancing. Red lanterns line the streets and seem to bob on the energy that rises up from the celebrations below. One of the highlights are the handmade lanterns which families display outside of their houses. The dragon dances and parades that fill the streets are also a captivating sight.

The Southern Fruit Festival is another colourful festival that brings excitement to the streets of Ho Chi Minh. Held in early June, this festival brings not only the colourful hoards of fruit but also craft markets, parades and performances to amuse festival goers. It is a fantastic way to celebrate and learn about the delicious produce of South East Asia but maybe discover some new varieties too.

The Mid-Autumn Festival held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, is another chance to see the streets buzzing with activity and celebration. Although this festival is primarily for children, it can certainly be enjoyed by adults too. One of the most exciting elements of the celebrations are the lion dances which appear from nowhere, drawing crowds from all around, before slipping off into the night again. Once again the streets are decorated with colourful lanterns and decorations and the roads fill with entertainment.

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