Complete Guide to HO CHI MINH CITY

(Updated October 2018)

Most travellers arrive at Hồ Chí Minh City (in Vietnamese ‘Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh’ – so I guess thành phố means ‘city’ in Vietnamese) in the Southern, tropical part of Viet Nam. This mega city has about 8.5 million inhabitants – and 7.4 million motorbikes – and is Viet Nam’s largest city and its commercial and industrial center.

Traffic in Hồ Chí Minh City
Traffic in Hồ Chí Minh City.

To get from the airport into the city center is very convenient – you can even take a public bus that goes to the Quách Thị Trang square. But this is rather for the flight back or for possible domestic flights since after the long flight to Viet Nam, you certainly do want to take a cab. To save you the hassle and bargaining, there is a stand at the airport where you pay your trip in advance (the fare depends on the section of town you are going to) so you have to hand the driver only a voucher.

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Morning traffic and two street vendors on Trương Định road.

Since most of the city’s points of interest are located in the neighborhood of the old colonial center, the city could be easily walkable. Why the subjunctive? Because there is the above-mentioned number of motorbikes – and now add a significant number of cars and buses and other vehicles driving on streets with very, very few traffic signals (in Hồ Chí Minh City they at least have some traffic lights, you’ll come to parts where they probably haven’t even heard of such thing) which makes every crossing a big adventure and survival training. And over the day all these vehicles belch exhaust gases so from the early afternoon you feel like breathing air without any oxygen; it’s really bad.

Anyway, to be positive, let’s start the day at a park, namely the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park – which is rather a small forest. It’s cool and nice in the shade of the trees so that you can see many – surprisingly old – folks doing their fitness program like walking and jogging and some sort of Thai Chi where they are waving huge hand fans. There are playgrounds for kids, picnic areas and even two Buddhist temples in the park, and on the Westside, on Cách Mạng Tháng Tám, you’ll find many coffee shops. A fresh start of a long day.

Young pioneers visiting the park
Young pioneers on a field trip to Cong Vien Van Hoa Park

I’m just telling you that there is a Reunification Palace to be seen, I do not exactly recommend to go there because it’s the ugliest concrete building you can imagine – very 70s socialist architecture.

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Some delegation’s souvenir picture in front of Ho Chi Minh City’s ugliest building, the Reunification Palace.

So coming down from the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park turn left and you’ll reach the famous – and enormous – Ben-Thanh-Market which is a tourist market. I don’t say it’s bad, but it’s touristy so beware of fantasy-prices. Actually, I’ve found a good way of estimating a real price: Go to the governmental section towards Phan Bội Châu on the East side. They have fixed prices – no bargaining. So this gives you an idea of how much you should pay for things; if you don’t want to bargain at all, do your shopping here.

As you might know by now, I love art and I go to museums and galleries, so I recommend the Museum of Fine Arts South of Ben-Thanh-Market – and most of all South of  Quách Thị Trang square (whereby it’s not a square but a traffic circle which makes crossing even more interesting), one of the worst places to cross – it’s a circle of never-ending traffic.

How to survive crossing streets in Viet Nam

It’s absolutely terrifying – even for me, and I do walk criss-cross allover the world. But don’t even think about waiting for a good moment to cross, this good moment will never come, so right now is as good as any. Just start walking. Yes, I know that there are hundreds of motorcycles and cars coming, but you start walking. Walk in an even, moderate tempo, don’t run and don’t stop, just walk. This way the drivers can estimate your pace and adapt; if you run or stop, you’ll confuse them. Walk a little angular towards the traffic as if you walk into the traffic (but please do not actually do so!). While observing the traffic, keep walking until you reach the other side of the street. This is how you’ll have to do it for the time being in Viet Nam, so good luck.

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I’d sacrifice my life for art – in Ho Chi Minh City almost literally.

So after you crossed Công viên Quách Thị Trang keep walking one block South to the Museum. In a palatial neoclassicist villa are displayed mainly paintings from different eras as well as statues from the Cham and Funan epoch. The post-war, heavily ideological art with its überclear message deems at bit…bizarre.

Sculpture at the Museum of fine arts in HCMC
A brave farmer (who according to the size of his chest does a lot of work out) with his buffalos.

Quách Phong: Following the communist party's guidance
Quách Phong: “Following the communist party’s guidance” – interestingly a painting from 1938

Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Art  
97 Phó Đức Chính
Nguyễn Thái Bình
Quận 1
Hồ Chí Minh City
Phone: + 84 – 90 – 483 00 90 

Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a. m. to 5 p. m. 

After this highly socialist impact, you might want to discover HCMC’s capitalist side!? The best way to get to the Dong Khoi, a boulevard that used to be already during the colonial era a posh strolling promenade, you better walk along Huỳnh Thúc Kháng. Don’t get fooled by the proximity to the river and refrain from walking down Ton Duc Thang. That way is longer and not as idyllic as you might expect. 

Before you get to Dong Khoi, you might want to hang out a bit on Nguyen Hue, a pedestrian area facing Hồ Chí Minh’s memorial, standing between the legendary Hotel Rex where the American 5 o’ clock conferences during the war took place, and the old town hall that today houses the national committee. 

Ho Chi MInh
Hồ Chí Minh – “Uncle Hồ” – greeting its people and a couple of tourists from his pedestal in front of the old townhall.

This might be a good moment to clear up the confusion about the city’s name: 

Some people call it Hồ Chí Minh City, some people call it Saigon. Some people do it randomly, some do it on purpose. The fact is that the city used to be called Saigon before and was named after the communist party’s leader Hồ Chí Minh after the war. This is very common in these circles: St. Petersburg was named Leningrad after the Soviet revolution (and back to St. Petersburg in 1991). Chemnitz in Eastern Germany was named Karl-Marx-Stadt after WWII (and back to Chemnitz in 1990). So some people, who are not happy with the result of the war, keep calling it Saigon to underline their disapprobation. Some call it Saigon because it’s much shorter. 
I call it Hồ Chí Minh City because it’s the city’s official name.

Next to all the red flags, to the faithful pioneers, to the propaganda and dogma, it seems preposterous to walk along stores such as Luis Vuitton, Prada & Co. Just go and see for yourself. It’s amazing how all this seems to go together nicely.

While there are these high-class stores, there are agreeably few chain restaurants and shops like McDonalds, Starbucks, or Seven Eleven. I appreciated that a lot. Who needs American fast food in the cradle of street food culture?! Who wants Starbucks in world’s seconds largest coffee exporting country?! Viet Nam has its own chains of coffee and coffee products, and while “White Coffee” is just average (and tends to be very sweet), “Trung Nguyên Coffee” is really outstanding. While you are on Dong Khoi – there is one at No. 80.

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Lovely coffee break at Trung Nguyên Coffee on Dong Khoi; while in Vienna you get a glass of water with your coffee, in Viet Nam they serve it with a glass of iced green tea.
Foto Shoot in front of Notre Dame at HCMC
Seeing this couple, I still believed to witness a wedding. After a while I found out,
that the many ‘weddings’ I saw everywhere were simply commercial photo shootings.

Strolling Dong Khoi up North leads you back to colonial times: There is the Theater and the Hotel Continental, then comes the French colonial landmark Notre Dame cathedral, that besides the name has nothing in common with the Parisian relative: instead of Gothic, this one is built in a neo-roman style from stones imported from Marseille.

Finally, there is the neo-classicist Hotel des Postes, that still is a post office.

Hotel de Postes HCMC
On of HCMC’s colonial icons: The Hotel des Postes – a still operating post office.

There are also some Buddhist temples in HCMC but nothing exciting compared to Thailand or even Hanoi. It shows that the South was (was or is?)  pro-colonial Catholic.

A museum worth seeing is the Southern Vietnam Women Museum that on the first floor focuses on the traditional life and on the second floor on the women’s role during the war which was a very active and important one. Let me tell you, Vietnamese women are tough – then and now.

Wallpainting Southern Women's Museum
An excerpt from a wall painting depicting the heroic role of women during the war; and on the upper left the
inevitable Hồ Chí Minh.

Southern Vietnam Women Museum
202 Võ Thị Sáu, phường 7
Quận 3
Hồ Chí Minh
Phone: + 84 – 28 – 39 32 55 19

The Museum is open daily from 7.30 a. m. to 11.30 a. m. and from 1.30 p. m. to 5 p. m.

Cho Lon

Hồ Chí Minh City is also a great gateway for interesting day trips. The first is just around the corner and nowadays part of HCMC: The Chinese borough of Cho Lon. Easily accessible by bus No. 1 from Ben-Thanh-Market.

For obvious reason, the market in Cho Lon is much less touristy than the Ben-Thanh-Market and therefore has more groceries than knick-knack.

On the way back I recommend to walk along Nguyen Trai – it’s a residential street which is already interesting, but in addition on the Northern side of the street you’ll find three beautiful Buddhist temples: Ha Chuong Hoi Quan on No. 802, Hội quán Nghĩa An on No. 676, which I’ve found the nicest for its preciously decorated ceramic gate, and Ba Thien Hau Temple on No. 710.

Roof of a Temple in Cho Lon HCMC
Incredibly artistic decorated roofs in the Chinese borough of HCMC.

Since the bus back to the city center goes along this street, you can just hop on as soon as you’re ready temple watching.

Market in Cho Lon HCMC
Bình Tây Market in HCMC’s Chinatown Chợ Lớn – a vast variety, but Chợ Thái Bình in the city center had the better prices.

By the way, my favorite market in HCMC is neither of the two big ones already mentioned, but a small place at the Western end of the central park (the central park is North of the backpacker district) poetically called Pacific Market Morning (Chợ Thái Bình).
It’s an unimpressive little place but I bought first-rate coffee there at an unbeatable price (after I dared to wake the vendor sleeping behind the counter).

Across the street at 185 D Cong Quynh is the unremarkable entrance to a home for blind people where you can also get an excellent massage at a likewise excellent price.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Well, the famous Cu Chi tunnels – they have to be visited. 

This was one of the things that confused me in Viet Nam – how they deal with the past especially since this past still reaches into the present and affects people’s lives, i. e. they fought a war, they won the war, they live in a socialist system – but they find so many different ways dealing with it.

The first one is obvious and not unusual: pure and utter pride and propaganda.
This is what you get as soon as you reach the site: You have to watch a film that should be called “Viet Nam’s way to socialism for dummies”. It shows in an extremely simplified fashion how happy Vietnamese people were – women in Ao Dais are sashaying over fields, mildly humming cheesy tunes, everything was peaches and cream. Then – tadadadaaa – the American villains came and messed up this harmony. But they didn’t reckon the brave Vietnamese’ – who of course were all devoted communists – resistance….you know the rest of the story. The whole film seems to be filmed in black and white and in a really bad quality to give it a historic touch.

Yes, yes get to see the tunnels and they explain you the traps that the Viet Cong, who were ordinary troops as well as a guerrilla army,  put up in the jungle and the rice paddies.

While Americans had all these high tech mass destruction weapons, the Vietnamese relied on all these quite medieval traps where they covered holes with twigs and leaves and when the enemy fell in the trap, he got impaled on some pointy bamboo sticks.

Then there were trapdoors built after the iron maiden model – all sorts of sharp, spiky stuff.

While our tired and sluggish guide explained all these torments to us, there was a constant gunfire in the background. I thought it was some sound effect to make the visit more realistic and dramatic, but no way, turns out there is a shooting ranch right next to the Cu Chi tunnel memorial.

Now if that’s not empathic and tasteful than I don’t know what is.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Some sort of war Disney Land: Want a souvenir picture with Viet Cong fighters?

When taking an organized tour from HCMC to Cu Chi, usually there is another visit included: They take you to the Cao Dai Temple, and that’s really very nice. While the devotees are all dressed in white, the temple and the premises are very colorful, and so is the faith: Caodaists believe that all religions are ultimately the same and mix the individual aspects willy-nilly.

Cao Dai Temple
 Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad and Confucius are honored at the Cao Dai Temple; and once they are on it, they also throw in Joan of Arc and Julius Cesar.

Friendly Caodaists before service.
Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I’ve visited in Viet Nam? 
Then go to the main post and take your pick!

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