Saigon: history and culture in a very modern city

by Catherine Ball

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is still known to most Vietnamese people, is a buzzing, modern metropolis with a fascinating but sad recent history

For many people, Saigon brings to mind the horrors of the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese refer to as the American war). The War Remnants Museum at 28 Vo Van Tan, District 3 is a sobering experience, displaying shocking photographs and statistics about the injuries sustained by Vietnamese civilians during the conflict. It is also interesting to take a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, which are about 70 km from Saigon. The network of secret underground tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to move between villages undetected by the US forces, which is amazing as even the most developed tunnels are extremely dark, low and narrow. Tourists are able to enter the tunnels and experience this for themselves - definitely not for the claustrophobic! Bear in mind that both the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels present the war from the Vietnamese point of view and use much more subjective language than is typical in European museums (the ‘devilish American invaders’ versus the patriotic and brave Vietnamese). Entrance to the tunnels and surrounding exhibits is VND 75,000. I booked my trip in the UK through STA Travel, but there are plenty of tour agencies in the Pham Ngu Lao district of Saigon that provide similar excursions.

Where to stay

I stayed at the Hoang Phu Gia Hotel, (19C-19F Bui Thi Xuan, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1), which I would definitely recommend. It is in a central location, but outside of the main backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao. It was clean, with big, air conditioned rooms and friendly, polite staff. Breakfast was included, but differed greatly from the European concept of ‘breakfast’- most of the dishes were fish and meat with fried rice, which was difficult to stomach at 8am!

Travellers who prefer five-star accommodation should opt for the Saigon Sheraton Hotel and Towers (88 Dong Khoi, District 1). If your budget doesn’t stretch to a stay here, you can still enjoy a slice of the luxury by sipping a cocktail or two in the rooftop bar. Drink prices are three times what you would pay elsewhere in the city, but it is worth it for the amazing views over Saigon.

Food

If you are a foodie or suffering from ‘museum fatigue’ then a cookery lesson in the home of a Vietnamese family is a great way to spend the morning. Before the lesson, you will source ingredients from a local market. The stalls we visited were located in the middle of a main thoroughfare- attempting to haggle with traders whilst choking on exhaust fumes was good fun! The kitchens are built for Vietnamese people, who are on average a lot shorter than Europeans, at only 5ft 4” I felt like a giant as I stooped to chop vegetables! I learnt a lot and made some very flavoursome spring rolls. 

Those who would rather be waited on than cook should take a trip to Hoa Tuc restaurant at 74 Ba Trung. The atmosphere is chilled-out and very romantic- diners sit under a canopy lit by tea lights in a peaceful courtyard. The food is pretty good too, with lots of Vietnamese rice-based dishes. Mains start at VND 90,000.

Temples and Parks

Saigon has many temples, whose tranquillity contrasts with the bustling and often manic feel of the city. The Jade Emperor Pagoda, a Taoist temple at 73 Mai Thu Luu Street, is particularly beautiful. The red and gold temple is surrounded by terrapin pools. On entering you will see worshippers lighting incense sticks and chanting prayers in front of elaborately carved statues of deities.

For a spot of people watching, grab a bench in one of Saigon’s parks. Tao Dan Park, at the intersection of Cach Mang Thang Tam and Nguyen Thi Minh Kai is particularly lovely, with topiary bushes and a small temple within its grounds. I enjoyed watching a choir from a local school singing under the bandstand and elderly women taking part in an open-air aerobics class once the daytime heat had subsided. The Zoo and Botanical Gardens at 2 Nguyen Binh Khiem are also relaxing to stroll around, with beautiful landscaped areas, streams and bonsai trees.

Markets

No visit to Saigon would be complete without a visit to Ben Thanh market, which is a hot crowded maze with stalls selling everything from spices to souvenir T-shirts. Binh Thay market in Cholon (the Chinese quarter) is also interesting; it is a wholesale market and the range of goods on sale is impressive. My favourite shopping experience, however, was Saigon 2 market, on the corner of Ngo Van Nam and Le Than Ton. It is great for clothes and shoes buying. Although there are some counterfeit goods available, many western shoes and clothing manufacturers have factories in Vietnam and there were genuine ‘seconds’ for sale at discounted prices.

Traffic and heat

The main two things to be aware of when planning a trip to Saigon are the traffic and the climate. All new visitors to Saigon are amazed by traffic- there are literally hundreds of mopeds zooming around the streets and no pedestrian crossings. Exploring the city by foot can be a frightening experience and bewildered tourists can often be seen at junctions psyching themselves up to cross the road! I found the easiest way to cross was to wait until a Vietnamese person stepped in to the traffic and walk alongside them.

I visited Saigon in May and it was incredibly humid - my clothes were soaked with sweat within minutes of stepping out of the hotel. I coped by punctuating my city walks with breaks in air-conditioned shops and cafes. There are numerous branches of Highlands Coffee around the city, which are usually air-conditioned, and a great if you want to cool down, grab a coffee and consult your guide book.

You are likely to spend a lot of time walking around the city, so my final tip is to set some time aside for a massage. Blue Moon spa is brilliant- it has two branches in the city centre, at 32 Dong Khoi and 24 Ly Tu Trong. A package including a back massage, eye mask and fish reflexology (where you place your feet in a tank of fish that nibble away the dry skin) costs VND 500,000.