Ho Chi Minh City travel guide
Ho Chi Minh City, better known by its former name of Saigon, is a brazen, industrious and dense metropolis, the largest city in Vietnam and the business capital of the country. With a population of five million, it is crowded, noisy and dirty, yet it is also exciting and historic, the essence of the nation.
Located on the Saigon River on the edge of the Mekong Delta, Saigon became the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam and was the American headquarters during the Vietnam War. Two years later the Communist north took control of the country, the city's name was changed to Ho Chi Minh City, and recession and poverty ensued.
Today Ho Chi Minh City has a cosmopolitan and energetic atmosphere, and having actively welcomed capitalism its citizens are clearly business-minded. Although relatively modern, it has still managed to hold onto its historical character, and fine restaurants, smart hotels and chic bars line the sidewalks crammed with noodle stands, markets and shoeshine boys. The buzzing of motorbikes and scooters merges with the cries of street vendors and the urgent business of stall owners, selling barbecued dog, writhing snakes and tropical fruits. The sight of a family of four balanced precariously on a scooter, a squealing pig strapped onto the back of a bicycle, bowed heads topped by pointed lampshade-style hats and orange-clothed monks are just some of the vibrant images the city has to offer.
Although overshadowed by modern and Asiatic influences, a little of Ho Chi Minh City's French colonial charm still remains, evident in the graceful architecture, wide boulevards, and a sidewalk cafe society. It is not for the attractions that one visits Ho Chi Minh City however, but for the vibrancy of its street life, and its proximity to the Mekong Delta.
War Remnants Museum
One room is dedicated to biological warfare, including the effects of the defoliant sprays that were dumped over the country. Another room looks at worldwide demonstrations for peace and international opposition to the war. In the courtyard there are tanks, helicopters, planes and bombs on display.
Address: 28 Vo Van Tan St, District 3
Opening time: Open daily from 7:30am to 12pm and 1:30pm to 5pm (including holidays)
There are several temples of interest in Cholon, including the colourful Jade Emperor Pagoda, the Quan Am Pagoda with its ornate exterior, Phuoc An Hoi Quan Temple, its roof exquisitely ornamented with dragons and sea monsters, and the Thien Hau Pagoda dedicated to the goddess of the sea.
Address: Corner of Tran Binh and Thap Muoi in Ho Chi Minh City.
Transport: From the city centre take bus number 62 enroute to Ben xe Quan 8 and get off at the 13C-13D stop in Thap Muoi street.
Pham Ngu Lau
Known also to be an expat playground, these bars stay open later than most in the city. The prominent Go2 Bar is the most popular among tourists but dozens dot the area. Day trips to the Mekong Delta or the Cu Chi tunnels are easily organised in any of the travel agencies as well as transport to most of Vietnam. Although prices vary the trips usually are the same despite the agency.
Address: Pham Ngu Lau, District One
Transport: The easiest way to get there is to take a taxi from Ho Chi Minh City Centre.
Ben Thanh Market
The market's long history also runs in the family, as permanent stalls are passed down from generation to generation. Some of Vietnam's specialties, such as cobra and scorpion whiskey or Vietnamese silk, can be bought cheaply here. The market is open daily from 8am to 6pm but an outdoor night market and food stalls surround the area until much later.
Opening time: Daily from 8am to 6pm
Dam Sen Water Park
The large wave pool offers more relaxing fun and the wide stream encircling the park is a great place to float under the hot sun. There is also a designated section of the compound for relaxing away from the excited crowds. Avoid public holidays unless you don't mind being a tinned sardine.
Address: 3 Hoa Binh Street, District 11, Ho Chi Minh City.
Opening time: Open daily from 9am to 6pm Monday to Saturday; open from 8:30am to 6pm on Sundays and public holidays.
Ho Chi Minh City stands out as Vietnam's premiere commercial metropolitan and is without a doubt the embodiment of big city life in the country. As such, its major attractions include massive markets in the city's Chinese district, the famous nightlife of District One - still known to locals as Saigon -, various museums, French colonial buildings and older remnants of past emperors.
As with Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City offers a blend of traditional, colonial and modern sites to see. War museums and history museums tell of the recent American invasion and earlier conflicts with European powers, while the Reunification Palace celebrates Vietnam as a nation.
Hidden within this bustling metropolis are also temples, secluded gardens and cloisters that offer a brief reprieve from the whirr of activity. Rural Vietnam is never too far away either, so it's easy to leave the city for some fresh air among rice paddies, to visit a small village or retreat to a tiny temple in the surrounding country before plunging into the city once more.
The frantic construction of modern skyscrapers and office blocks is apparent everywhere you go, and the Saigon Skydeck Tower with its 360° viewing deck is the perfect lens through which to view this sprawling city in its entirety. It is this mixture of metropolitan flair, old-world charm and the ease of escaping to the tranquillity of rural life that makes this space so unique as a meeting place of history and modernity.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Today many of the tunnels have been enlarged to allow visitors the dirty and claustrophobic experience of crawling through a portion of the underground network, past secret trapdoors and booby traps laid against invasion. The two main sites, Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc, are different in that one was constructed specifically for tourists (Ben Dinh) and the other was actually used in war (Ben Duoc). Once full of war traps, their popularity with visitors has turned the area into a tourist trap, with hard-sell vendors a constant hassle among the touring throngs.
Address: Ben Dinh is 22 miles (35km) northwest of Ho Chi Minh City at Tay Ninh and Ben Duoc is 31 miles (50km) in the same direction.
Transport: The tunnels are best visited on a day tour, otherwise a bus from Ben Thanh bus station stops in Cu Chi where public transport services the site.
Opening time: Daily 7:30am to 4:30pm. It is best to arrive before 3pm for the latest, as it gets too dark towards 4:30pm.
There are several towns in the region from where visitors can arrange boat trips if not already on an organised tour. Try to avoid the rainy season as the tides may be too high for canal travel. Local food dishes are a speciality and besides seafood there are opportunities for the adventurous to sample such delights as snake, eels and bats.
Transport: It is best to use a tour operator or local guide to navigate the region.
There are red coloured sand dunes close to town, but beyond those lie much larger white sand dunes which are worth the extra half-hour trip. For a small tip children will rent out sand sleds and demonstrate how to surf the dunes. One of Vietnam's top golf courses also is just outside the city. Mui Ne is a scenic 5 hour motorbike trip from Vung Tau or five to seven hour highway bus ride from Ho Chi Minh City.
Address: Mui Ne, Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan
Transport: Buses from Ho Chi Minh City cost between 105,000-140,000 VND (up to 7 USD), while the total train journey will be around 400,000 VND (around 18 USD). Scooters or motor bikes are available for hire in Mui Ne, but taxis are safer.
The flavours one experiences when dining out in Ho Chi Minh City will linger on the palate long after you've finished eating. Vietnamese cuisine makes use of the freshest ingredients, ensuring a taste sensation every time. Dishes are anchored around herbs such as lemongrass, mint, Vietnamese mint, long coriander and Thai basil leaves with lean, healthy meat like pork, chicken, fish, and various kinds of seafood. Fish sauce and soy sauce are used to season dishes instead of salt.
Visitors will be able to enjoy a wide array of restaurants specialising in cuisines from all over the globe peppered along the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. With everything from French and Italian to good old American burger
s and fries, travellers will find something to suit their taste.
Some of the best areas for dining out in the city are round the Ben Thanh Market where some of the best local fare can be samples, including dishes like mien ga (vermicelli, chicken, and mushrooms in a broth-like soup) and the Vietnamese staple, pho (noodle soup). Dine on a riverboat while you float along the Saigon or grab your meal on the go from one of the city's popular street vendors - the choices are endless!
Serving some of Ho Chi Minh City's finest pho, Pho 24 is a popular chain restaurant serving up Vietnam's staple for a number of years. The choices aren't that exciting, but meat lovers will enjoy the pho with beef fillet and fat brisket, or pho with chicken, while vegetarian options are available too. Open for lunch and dinner.
Address: 358 Nguyen Van Linh, District 7; Website: www.pho24.com.vn
For travellers who are feeling a little homesick, Al Frescos offers good old America fare that most western visitors will enjoy. From ribs, burgers and pizzas to tex-mex, steaks and fries with lashings of ketchup, Al Fresco's has it all. Open daily for breakfast lunch and dinner.
Address: 27 Dong Du, District 1; Website: www.alfrescosgroup.com
With local cane furniture and low lighting and three storeys to choose from Lemongrass makes the perfect location for a romantic dinner in Ho Chi Minh City. Its lunch menu's not bad either. This eatery has been serving local Vietnamese fare to visitors and locals for years and comes highly recommended. Serving healthy and light dishes, the menu is varied, incorporating seasonal flavours and ingredients and catering to all tastes. Try the soup or spring rolls and the deep-fried prawn in coconut batter - delicious! Open daily for lunch and dinner.
Address: 4 Nguyen Thiep St, District 1;
Its nightlife gained notoriety during the Vietnam War for its girly-bars but a lot has changed recently thanks to Vietnam's tourist boom. Ho Chi Minh City's nightlife has grown and diversified considerable, and while not rivalling the range of entertainment of other Southeast Asian destinations, it's still guaranteed to do the job.
With everything from rooftop bars and lounges to pubs and nightclubs playing all the latest dance hits, travellers looking to let loose on a night out on the town will have plenty of options in this bustling, neon third-world city.
Start your night off at a rooftop bar or beer garden from where you can watch the sunset over the busy streets, where the flicker of streetlights and neon begin to come to life before heading out to District 1. Here the funky bars and fashionable clubs can be found, particularly on the streets around Dong Khoi and Hai Ba Trung. Travellers can expect to see many popular spots for expats and other westerners, where party goers can make use of the bar, dance floor pool tables and café. This will be a great way to ease into nightlife scene in Ho Chi Minh.
When you start feeling more confident, why not try your hand at hitting those high notes at one of the many karaoke bars, for a night of fun and singing. Then head over to District 3, where you can attend one of the nightly live gigs, including local rock bands. But if you are after something special and really different, why not hop on one of the many dinner cruises that operate from District 1 and cruise down the Saigon River in style. This is the perfect way to relax and spend a lazy evening.
Travellers should also note that many of Ho Chi Minh City's bars and nightclubs close early by big city standards, around midnight or when the last customer leaves so anyone looking to keep going until the early hours of the morning will be sorely disappointed.
Travellers in Ho Chi Minh City will at first be overwhelmed with the amount of stalls and roadside vendors that cram the sidewalks and street corners, but there are plenty of bargains to be found amongst the usual tourists tat and counterfeit handbags.
Best buys include silk clothing and other hand-woven fabrics, bamboo ware, ceramics and boxes and vases made from lacquer ware, while traditional Vietnamese hats can be found just about anywhere and tailor-made clothing is popular too.
Most of Ho Chi Minh City's shopping can be done from the local markets and street vendors where polite haggling is expected, especially at the Anh Dong Markets in District 5 or the Ban Thanh indoor market in downtown Saigon.
Shoppers looking for something a little more upmarket should head to Dong Khoi Street in District 1 where designer stores, boutiques, antique stores and jewellery stores abound while bargain hunters will also be pleased to know there is a duty-free store on Nguyen Hue Blvd in District 1 which specialises in duty-free items such as perfumes and colognes.
Most shops in Ho Chi Minh City are open daily from 8am to 8pm.
Tan Son Nhat International Airport
Location: The airport is situated four miles (6km) from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Time: GMT +7
Contacts: Tel: +84 (0)8 3 848 5383.
Transfer between terminals: The terminals are in walking distance of each other, taking 10 minutes at most.
Getting to the city: Minibuses and metered taxis are available for transport to the city centre. Make sure the driver is wearing an official name badge and that the meter is on. Most hotels can arrange transport for arriving passengers, but visitors should organise this in advance.
Car rental: Car hire companies at the airport include Avis, Budget, Europcar, Hertz and Sixt but cars must normally be hired with drivers, since travellers without a Vietnamese drivers licence may not drive rental cars.
Airport Taxis: The main taxi queue is on the ground floor. Mai Linh taxi company is authorised by the airport and a trip to the city center will cost you about VND 300,000, including tolls.
Facilities: The airport is small, but the facilities are perfectly adequate. Facilities include tourist information desks, foreign exchange kiosks, a post office, VIP lounges, and a selection of restaurants and snack bars.
Parking: Parking is available at the airport.
This city boasts some of the world's most chaotic traffic, much of which consists of bicycles and motorcycles. It is tempting to want to hire a bike and join in the fray, and they are available, but it can be a nerve-wracking experience piloting your own vehicle. A better option is to flag down a motorcycle taxi and negotiate an hourly rate. Most of the major hotels and restaurants attract concentrations of taxi cabs that can be hailed from the roadside, and taxis can also be ordered by telephone. Most tour operators offer the services of a car and driver for the day.
Ho Chi Minh City is in the tropics, and very close to the sea, so its climate is steadily warm to hot all year, with temperatures averaging between 70°F (21°C) and 90°F (32°C) all year round. Temperatures are slightly cooler between December and April, which is also the dry season. Rains begin in May and become heavy between June and August, but the showers are sudden and short, with the sun usually reappearing fairly quickly. There is a danger of typhoons from July to November. The best time to visit is in the cool, dry season, between December and April.
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