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. A must do on your Vietnam and Cambodia tour is understanding the history of this region.

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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 it’s 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 every 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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Getting a visa for Vietnam:

A Vietnam Visa is not needed for a stay of 2 weeks or less and can be got on arrival, but do take with you proof of onwards travel. If you plan on staying longer than 2 weeks then you will need a visa before you travel, this is a relatively simple process we did at the embassy in Bangkok a few weeks earlier. However, you can also get your visa for Vietnam online which is probably much more convenient in all honesty and much simpler than queuing up in a tiny room for over an hour just to hand a form in!!

One thing to bear in mind is that it is different for everyone!! Our Aussie friend found this out recently when we visited Vietnam for a holiday. Australians need a visa and should apply for one online at least 5 days before travelling. Aussies can get one on arrival but they must buy an “approval letter”, these can be done at short notice if you pay more but you should still do then at least a couple of days before travelling!

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

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1 parent" id="comment-4062">
    sunsetsandrollercoasters

    Saigon is so different from anything I’ve experienced. That traffic!! I’d love to visit the War Remnants Museum. It would be so interesting to see how they felt and experienced the war. It’s so sad. The French architecture there is amazing. I had no idea there was a link between Vietnam and France.

      li class="comment byuser comment-author-nic-hilditch17hotmail-co-uk bypostauthor odd alt depth-2" id="comment-4072">

      Yeah, it’s a culture shock for sure and such a wild place. Yeah, part of their colonies just as England, Holland, Spain, Portugal etc had their colonies all over too. Cambodia was also part of the French Colony of “Indo-China” too.

    li class="comment even thread-odd thread-alt depth-1 parent" id="comment-4057">

    I love Vietnam and Saigon. But gently caution anyone regarding accounts of war and “attrocities” committed by one side or the other when viewing through the lens of only one side. The Vietnam War was an ugly war as is all war. The attrocities committed on all sides were an abomination. It was the start of full scale guerrilla warfare, involving women and children used as weapons of war. It is interesting to be in Vietnam and see the war referred to as the American War. If one is really being accurate with history, the war started LONG before the American armies became involved … beginning in 1946 in French Indochina and lasting until 1954. Read the history, but that conflict and settlement led to the Viet Cong and then in the 1960s the American’s seeking to bolster the South Korean army.

      li class="comment byuser comment-author-nic-hilditch17hotmail-co-uk bypostauthor odd alt depth-2" id="comment-4059">

      I agree and actually that was the point I was making here. Despite the UK not being involved to the extent of the US or Australia being aligned politically with those countries as well as exposure to US media/ movies etc I have only ever been exposed to the US version of events. As I mentioned both sides are to be taken with a degree of skepticism, especially given the nature of BOTH countries to use war and propaganda. However I was specifically talking about this being our first real exposure to an “alternative” version of events. I think the point many make here is that yes the war was going on beforehand, but the US didn’t need to intervene and they did so, as they have since, for reasons other than just bringing peace to the region.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1 parent" id="comment-4056">
    Jim Jones

    I still call it “Saigon,” I’m old school. Regardless of what you call it – looks like a fascinating city. The pace seems so hectic and frantic, but I’m sure they also take time to relax and enjoy life. I love how it’s a hodge-podge of Eastern and Western culture and food. So eclectic!

      li class="comment byuser comment-author-nic-hilditch17hotmail-co-uk bypostauthor odd alt depth-2" id="comment-4060">

      Yes, us too as do most people in Vietnam, I mean it’s a bit strange. It’s like saying Bill Clinton City or Tony Blair city. Not sure that would fly!! Yeah, it’s a really interesting and fun place to explore if a bit wild at times!

    li class="comment even thread-odd thread-alt depth-1 parent" id="comment-4054">

    I spent just a couple of days in Saigon a few years ago after 6 weeks exploring the rest of the country and I think I was just too tired to enjoy it. The French architecture is gorgeous and we loved the food but we found the pace and the humidity really exhausting. I feel like I need to visit again at the beginning of a trip when I am less worn out!

      li class="comment byuser comment-author-nic-hilditch17hotmail-co-uk bypostauthor odd alt depth-2" id="comment-4061">

      It was kind of the opposite for us. We just arrived in Vietnam from a sleepy town in Cambodia to Saigon and were preoccupied sorting our bikes to appreciate it much. We really enjoyed Hanoi kind of because it was the end of an incredible but tiring 7 weeks in Vietnam!

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-4051">
    Due Hien

    Wow!! I didn’t know much about Saigon until now. Thanks for the in-depth guide for visitors who may want to explore the place. One thing that amazed me the most was the number of bikes on the streets. And, not forgetting the pictures. Nice shots!!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1 parent" id="comment-4048">

    Ho Chi Minh is indeed such a contrasting city. Busy, bustling, with small businesses on every corner and streets. And so much history and memorials from the war. We much preferred Hanoi, but there is something definitely fascinating about Saigon.

      li class="comment byuser comment-author-nic-hilditch17hotmail-co-uk bypostauthor even depth-2" id="comment-4049">

      Yeah, it’s really a crazy place to be but so interesting too. Yeah we prefered Hanoi too in many ways and ended up staying up there longer and on a couple of occasions. However it’ interesting to see the contrast between them both. Hanoi is still busy but not like Saigon!!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-even depth-1 parent" id="comment-4047">

    Oh my! I don’t think I could handle the rush hour with all the motorbikes. I probably would get a bit of anxiety if I got caught in that ,and if I did I’d be wearing my mask that I carry around with me on my travels. I didn’t realize you needed a visa if planning to stay longer than 2 weeks, so will make sure to look up the rules before I make my visit.

      li class="comment byuser comment-author-nic-hilditch17hotmail-co-uk bypostauthor even depth-2" id="comment-4050">

      Yeah it’s crazy for sure but there is a technique to crossing that pretty much involves just walking at normal pace and putting your hand out. Don’t run or hesitate, just keep going and they will go around you!! It takes a bit of courage but it works! Yeah, that is for British passport holders so be sure to check for your passport as my Aussie mate got caught out as they can’t get in without a visa for any length of stay!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1 parent" id="comment-4037">
    Sam Peach

    So interesting that they have French architecture and influence here, I would have never known! Also, those streets look insane! I have never seen so many people on a road with scooters at once – must be incredible in real life.

      li class="comment byuser comment-author-nic-hilditch17hotmail-co-uk bypostauthor even depth-2" id="comment-4038">

      Yeah I never expected that either, was a cool surprise! Yeah, the bikes are crazy!!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-even depth-1 parent" id="comment-4036">

    Looks like you are having a wonderful time and making some AMAZING memories. I love seeing these photos and hearing of your trip to Vietnam! You might even consider selling your photos – they are so beautiful 🙂

      li class="comment byuser comment-author-nic-hilditch17hotmail-co-uk bypostauthor even depth-2" id="comment-4039">

      Aww, thank you very much! Yeah indeed these places are ones that we will never forget, so much life and culture around every corner!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1 parent" id="comment-4035">
    pappasw

    I hate to admit it but I know very little about Saigon. I had no idea it was occupied by the French for a long period of time and has beautiful building with French architecture. I have heard that the amount of bikes made getting around a little crazy but the photos you have are like nothing I have seen before. It does look like a fantastic trip.

      li class="comment byuser comment-author-nic-hilditch17hotmail-co-uk bypostauthor even depth-2" id="comment-4040">

      We had no idea either, infact this area along with Cambodia was known as “Indochina” by the French, but of course, I always thought that meant China!! But it was such a lovely surprise to see the architecture here. The bikes though are another thing, there is a real technique to crossing the street here!!

    li class="comment odd alt thread-even depth-1" id="comment-4030">
    Hoang

    I love life and human in Ho Chi Minh city.

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