A guide to Saigon: The crazy, chaotic and claustrophobic second city of Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh City!

Known as Ho Chi Minh city since the late 70’s the city is still often referred to as Saigon by pretty much everyone…even VC vets we’ve spoken to! Saigon is a busy, bustling, crazy kind of place, it almost makes you feel like you can’t get your breath at times. With the worlds largest number of motorbikes buzzing around, bright propaganda screaming down at you and street selling shouting in every direction it can be a hard city to gel with. But get below the surface, discover the back alleys, street food and unique blends of culture and you will be hooked! Here’s our list of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City!

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Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City:

Independence Palace

The palace that sits here has been through many eras in the history of Vietnam, or rather the land that surrounds it. The present day construction was built in 1966 on the site of the former Norodom Palace, which was built by the French after they took control of South Vietnam and became their seat of power.

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Going through the eras of the Japanese coop, it was finally destroyed when bombing made the building suitable only for demolition during the Vietnamese/ American war. But the palace is most famous for the iconic role it played in the war itself. The site of the end of the war itself during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates! For historical significance this must be top of our things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.

Entrance price: 30,000 / £1.07 / $1.32

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War Remnants Museum 

An important and interesting museum this place documents the various stages and stories in the Vietnamese/ American war. Heavily influenced by the communist government and propaganda machine at play in Vietnam it is possibly quite a hard place for Americans especially to visit. But at the same time having grown up in Britain, watching US films and media coverage it was refreshing to hear about the conflict from the side perceived as being the “enemy”. The differing stories here and moving images make it one of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.

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Now I am not taking sides, in fact I am still very much learning about the war and what happened passed what I learnt from growing up watching Forrest Gump over and over! But its hard to see passed the idea that America were an invading and occupying force in a land where most didn’t want their intervention. Here in the various exhibitions, of course clearly swayed towards North Vietnam, you can really see some of the atrocities perpetrated by the Americans here. Some of the images are quite distressing and upsetting. Piles of innocent people shot dead, villages burnt to the ground, bodies scorched by Napalm and deformed babies as a result of Agent Orange. A really eye opening and sobering place to visit.

Entrance price: 15,000 / £0.53 / $0.66

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Notre Dame cathedral

After the temples and domination of Buddhist culture in Thailand and Cambodia it came as somewhat of a surprise to see so many churches in Vietnam. But considering how long France ruled this region it seems only natural that they left behind some of their culture (see bread and cheese also!!) Notre Dame cathedral is a prime example of this, the church was built by French colonists between 1863 and 1880.

All the building materials used were carved in France and transported across the world over to Saigon. The church is one of the most well known and prominent of the remaining colonial architecture that dominates areas of the country as well as being one of the largest and most beautiful examples.

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Discover the stunning French architecture of the city 

After discovering the wonderful Notre Dame cathedral your appetite for this beautiful French architecture just might have been whetted. Well never fear, Saigon is full of it and some of the examples here are amongst the best in the country. Some highlights include the Post Office, complete with communist style war memorial statues outside just to complete the typically Vietnamese blend of styles and eras! The bright yellow facade and ornately decorated interior, including several old maps of old Saigon, make it a wonderful building to visit.

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Also on this list is the city hall which stands behind the state of Ho Chi Minh. Despite being off limits to visitors the exterior of the building still offers a particularly wonderful view! The Municipal Theatre is also one of the cities most ornate examples of French architecture and sits on of the of the cities most beautiful streets. Have a wander around the city and see what you can find!

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Explore the side streets and back alleys 

Saigon is busy and often feels a little claustrophobic, dodging bikes, street carts, hawkers and hurtling trucks often people find it hard to fall in love with this mystical city. But take a walk along many of the tiny streets, a reminder of the Hutongs of Beijing in China, where life seems to go at a different pace and normal rules seem not to apply. Even in such a busy and increasingly modern city people still life in quite a traditional way here, but often if you stick to the main streets it can seem hard to find. Some of the things to see in Ho Chi Minh city might not seem obvious at first, but search them out and you will be rewarded with a different city!

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Here generations live in the same house, tradition states that when a woman is married she moves in with her husbands family and often you have Great Grandparents, Grandparents, Parents, Kids and their kids all living in one small and cramped house! But with tradition comes a unique family bond where everyone shares responsibilities and brings the children up as well as looking after the older generations. Walk down any side street and you will see homes wide open, living rooms, kitchen and even bedrooms on the ground floor and open. Many people even use the front section of their house as some kind of shop!

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Head out at rush hour and dodge 7.2 million bikes!

Want to see something crazy, take life into your own hands and play real life frogger! Well here it is! Ok, maybe don’t try to cross the road in rush hour but despite what might seems like a strange inclusion on this list once you do see it you will be amazing, mystified and entranced all at the same time. That’s right, there are an estimated 7.2 million bikes on the streets of Saigon and at rush hour they all descent at once. It might not strike you as one of the things to see in Ho Chi Minh city, but its crazy, trust us!

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Stand by any one of the many intersections and you won’t believe what you are seeing! Somehow people never seem to crash in this city too, they skillfully wear their way through traffic, often carrying the most crazy things on the tops, sides and any other available space with them (just wait until you get out into the country to really see some crazy loads on scooters!).

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Visit the Ho Chi Minh statue and discover the city covered in Propaganda and capitalist shops! 

Saigon is an interesting city, named after the communist leader of Ho Chi Minh you can’t help but think that decision was mostly to spite the South Vietnamese and America given the importance of this city to them. A once strong hold of the south the city now is covered in propaganda, hammer and sickles and the ultra communist Vietnamese flag. Around almost ever corner it appears, in a typically soviet looking style the blocky and bright posters with their loud slogans even in Vietnamese are easy to understand. Another of the more obscure things to see in Ho Chi Minh city but for us one of the most fascinating.

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But one of the strangest things here is the clash of the communist iconography against the backdrop of the youthful and modern city of Saigon. The consumerism and shops from capitalist society sit side by side with the hammer and sickle. A strange sight at first but the more you delve into the country the more you begin to see how this communist country is moving into the future and might just be the model example of how this ideology can work alongside our modern world?!

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Nicola Hilditch-Short

Nic is one half of the Roaming Renegades, a passionate traveller, climber, adventurer, photographer and artist who has a B.A in Fine Art and M.A in Design & Art Direction.