Still often referred to by it’s old name, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a clamorous, chaotic sensory feast. Motorbikes honk in a tidal wave across clogged intersections, locals crouch on street corners slurping steaming hot bowls of Pho (noodle soup); and the sultry air is thick with exhaust fumes and exotic spices. Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s commercial hub and largest city, and it’s a place where old abuts new with striking contrast. Temples huddle amid skyscrapers and designer shops, locals cast bamboo fishing rods into the languorous Saigon River, and in places, the city feels almost European, with its elegant French colonial architecture and wide, tree-lined avenues. Adding to the fascinating cultural jolt are a clutch of intriguing tourist attractions, from the poignant War Remnants Museum and captivating water puppet shows to colorful markets and the time warp of the Reunification Palace. Not far from the city, the famous Củ Chi tunnels are a must-see attraction, and the lush waterscapes and small villages of the Mekong Delta provide a fascinating glimpse of rural life.
1 War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum is one of the most popular museums in Vietnam, with harrowing exhibits related to the horrors of war in this battle-worn nation. The museum primarily focuses on the Vietnam War, however some exhibits relate to the first Indochina War with French colonialists. It’s a good idea to start on the top floor and work your way down, so you cap off your experience with the lighter exhibits on the ground floor. Most of the displays are photographic images, and some of these are confronting – especially the graphic shots of child Agent Orange victims. Artifacts on display include a guillotine and the “tiger cages” used for Viet Cong prisoners. Many argue that the museum’s approach is biased, however the exhibits poignantly portray the brutality of war. The museum also includes a fascinating display on the work of war photographers, from both sides, who lost their lives during the conflicts. Period military vehicles and weapons are displayed in the museum’s courtyard. After touring the countryside and the Củ Chi Tunnels, you’ll find these exhibits even more moving, but note that some of the exhibits are not suitable for small children.
2 Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre
The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre is perfect for families with young children and anyone who enjoys light-hearted traditional entertainment. Water puppetry originated in rural villages in the Red River Delta and has been performed in Vietnam for more than 1,000 years. The captivating 50-minute show provides a window into the country’s culture. It’s presented in Vietnamese, but the strength of the puppet characters, both people and animals, transcends the language barrier. Live music enhances the experience; the talented musicians play traditional instruments such as bamboo flutes and two-stringed violins. The theater is air-conditioned, and if you’re sitting in the front row, be prepared for some gentle splashes.
3 Thiên Hậu Temple, Chinatown
The atmospheric 19th-century Thiên Hậu Temple is one of the top sights in Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown (ChoLon) and one of the oldest Chinese temples in the city. Dedicated to the Lady of the Sea, Thiên Hậu, this evocative temple is visited by local worshippers as well as tourists, and many of the materials used in its construction were brought from China. Clouds of incense billow in the air, candles flicker on altars, and shafts of sunlight pierce through the partial roof as you enter the green wrought-iron gates and stroll across the small courtyard. From here, you can see the altar, with statues of the goddess, and the intricate porcelain dioramas adorning the roof depicting scenes from 19th-century Chinese life. According to legend, the goddess left two turtles to guard the temple in her absence. On the 23rd day of the third lunar month, a parade takes place in the neighborhood featuring a figure of Thiên Hậu, who is believed to save seafarers stranded on the high seas. Entry to the temple is free.
While you’re visiting China Town, it’s also worth stopping by the hectic Binh Tay Market, which sells everything from fresh produce to Chinese trinkets. The area is also home to some beautiful examples of classical Chinese architecture.
4 Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon and the Post Office
A fine example of Neo-Romanesque architecture, the red-brick Notre Dame Cathedral is a distinctive landmark in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Its twin square towers rise almost 60 meters above the city, capped by iron spires. Built from 1877 to around 1883, the cathedral was intended to be a place for the colonial missions to worship and a symbol of the power of the French colony. The exterior consists of red bricks from Marseille, and the clock between the two bell towers was built in Switzerland in 1887. Notable features of the interior include 56 squares of stained glass by Lorin from Chartres, France, the 12 pillars representing the 12 apostles, and one of Vietnam’s oldest organs. To see the interior, try visiting in the morning or attending a Sunday mass.
Across the street, the French colonial-style post office, completed in 1891, was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the French architect of the Eiffel Tower. Today, the post office is still in use and is a popular meeting place for locals.
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