Built along the banks of its eponymous river, Saigon or Ho Chi Minh (as it’s now titled) is a busy, colourful city that’s home to more than 8 million people. While Hanoi, in the north, is Vietnam’s administrative capital, Saigon is certainly its commercial centre. Dazzling shop fronts, fancy restaurants and French colonial architecture mingle with the daily realities of street life. For first-time visitors, the frantic pace can be overwhelming, but, with a few tips, Saigon is easy-to-navigate and rewarding to explore.
Where to Go
Where to go, indeed? Ho Chi Minh is bursting with fascinating places to visit. But, if you’re only there for a brief stay, then here are some attractions that you should prioritise.
For a start, head to Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Palace, where the South Vietnamese President lived during the Vietnam War. On 30 April 1975, the North Vietnamese army drove its tanks through the palace gates, signalling South Vietnam’s defeat. Guided tours happen at fifteen-minute intervals, but you can also opt to explore independently. You’ll find the palace, which opens between 7:30am-11am and 1pm-4pm daily, in District 1, at 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street.
Another must-see historical site is the War Remnants Museum. Be warned, though, no detail is spared in its graphic recounting of the brutalities of the war. To find out more about the longer story of Vietnam’s past, visit the History Museum, where you’ll journey through developments since the Bronze Age. It’s set in the Botanic Gardens – a tranquil refuge from Saigon’s constant hustle and bustle.
Where to Stay
Saigon is Vietnam’s biggest city. As a tourist wandering around, you’re likely to find that strangers will approach you with offers of accommodation. Many will be legitimate, but trying to assess this on the spur of the moment is not recommended. It’s a better idea to find a Ho Chi Minh City Hotel before leaving home (or your previous destination) and book in advance. That way you’ll avoid stress and uncertainty.
Arriving in downtown Saigon, you’ll find yourself asking, ‘Have they even heard of road rules here?’ Cars, motorbikes and cyclos whizz this way and that, seemingly travelling according to intuition rather than law. Needless to say, there are rules, but, coming from another country, it can be awfully confusing.
It’s absolutely essential to take utmost care. Don’t cross a road unless you’re certain the coast is clear. Don’t assume that drivers will just get out of your way. Oh, and a word on scooters. Riding them can be tonnes of fun, but don’t jump on one and plunge straight into hectic traffic. Learn to ride somewhere that’s quiet and risk-free before taking on the road, or settle for being a passenger.
Despite its large population, Saigon is small, area-wise, so you can reach many tourist attractions by walking. If you want to travel further, cyclo is the most enjoyable way to go. It’s a good idea to decide on a price before travelling. Expect to pay about 20,000 VND for a short ride, or between 50,000 and 100,000 VND per hour. Most cyclo drivers will be happy to take you on a city tour, providing you with anecdotes and history bites along the way. If cyclos make you nervous, then a taxi’s another option.
Observing local customs
By and large, you’ll find the people of Saigon to be polite, friendly and hospitable. They are fairly tolerant of tourists who aren’t aware of local etiquette. However, it is useful to know a few things. First, dress on the conservative side, particularly when entering temples or other religious buildings. Second, when you’ve finished eating, rest your chopsticks horizontally across your bowl. Third, avoid losing your temper. Vietnamese people consider it a ‘loss of face’ to lose emotional control in public.