Ho Chi Minh City is the business and financial hub of Vietnam, with a prominent history going back hundreds of years. The Khmers originally settled the region, with the Vietnamese taking over in the 17th century. The French conquered Saigon, as it was then known, in 1859, and made it the capital of Cochin China in 1862, which resulted in numerous elegant architecture and broad boulevards that are still present to this day. At the peak of the Vietnam War in 1969, the city had 4.5 million inhabitants who were all evacuated when Saigon and the rest of the South fell to North Vietnam in 1975.
The city has recovered in the 30 years since then, with the current population at over 7 million. It was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the spiritual leader of Vietnamese Communism, but residents were so reluctant to adopt the new name that authorities kept the official name but the city centre is still called Saigon.
Today, Ho Chi Minh City is a popular tourist destination due to its fascinating culture, classic French architecture, and sleek skyscrapers as well as ornate temples and pagodas. The city is also filled with rooftop bars that overlook Saigon and beyond, while fantastic restaurants offer a combination of French, Chinese, and, of course, local Vietnamese cuisine.
How to get there
There are frequent flight options from Ha Noi in the north and Da Nang in the central area, as well as routes from the many provincial and international airports both inside and outside Vietnam. Vietnam is big. Hanoi is some 1,600+ km from HCMC in the south.
What to see
Ho Chi Minh City attractions are a vibrant mix of old and new, with well-preserved colonial structures and war relics from the devastating Vietnam War as well as sleek skyscrapers, elegant sports clubs, and expansive shopping malls against a metropolis backdrop. Great for immersing in the local culture, no two districts are the same in Ho Chi Minh City and there are plenty of ornate pagodas and Buddhist temples to visit and photograph as well.
Drawing millions of tourists each year, Ho Chi Minh City is also fitted with a wide array of accommodation options of varying price range and styles while unique modes of transportation such as motorcycle taxis and cyclos make it relatively easy to explore the city centre and beyond. From the ornate Mariamman Hindu Temple to the informational War Remnants Museum, there seems to be an endless list of what to see in Ho Chi Minh City.
Chu Chi Tunnels
The Chu Chi Tunnels are part of a massive war museum that offers a sneak-peek at the underground life of Vietnamese soldiers back in 1948. Located 70km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, the historical site comprises more than 120km of underground tunnels with several trapdoors, living areas, kitchens, storage facilities, armoury, hospitals, and command centres.
After the end of the war against French invaders, the Chu Chi Tunnels were also utilised and expanded during the American War by incorporating effective air filtration systems, which helped Vietnamese soldiers survive the Chu Chi carpet-bombing by the Americans. As they were built so deep underground, military tanks could pass overhead without causing any damage to the tunnels.
Today, it is one of Ho Chi Minh’s most iconic attractions where visitors can enjoy activities such as following the claustrophobia-inducing routes of the underground army, firing an M16 assault rifle, as well sampling meals that the underground soldiers had to live with years ago. The tunnels have been coated with cement and widened so it is not quite the harrowing experience it would have been all those years ago, plus there are emergency exit points every ten metres for safety. Still, during the 100 metres of tunnel you get a sense of what it would have been like during the war.
Prior to entering the underground tunnels, visitors are presented with a short film of the Chu Chi Tunnels so that they have an understanding of how the tunnel system actually works. There is also a shooting range on site. Those who want to fire an M16 rifle are required to pay per bullet with a minimum of 10 bullets.
The Chu Chi Tunnels are a 40-minute drive from Ho Chi Minh City. Note that the crawl through the underground tunnels may not be suitable for visitors with respiratory difficulties or claustrophobia.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the late 1880s by French colonists, is one of the few remaining strongholds of Catholicism in the largely Buddhist Vietnam. Located in Paris Square, the name Notre Dame was given after the installation of the statue ‘Peaceful Notre Dame’ in 1959.
In 1962, the Vatican conferred the Cathedral status as a basilica and gave it the official name of Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. Measuring almost 60 metres in height, the cathedral’s distinctive neo-Romanesque features include the all-red brick façade (which were imported from Marseille), stained glass windows, two bell towers containing six bronze bells that still ring to this day, and a peaceful garden setting in the middle of downtown Ho Chi Minh City District 1.
A Virgin Mary statue also stands in front of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, which locals claimed to have shed tears in October 2005. While this incident was refuted by the Catholic Church of Vietnam, thousands of visitors still flock to this statue in hopes of witnessing a miracle.
Aside from its status as one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most prominent attractions, Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral still serves as a religious institution for the local population. The best time to visit is during Sunday mass at 09:30. As with any holy places around the world, do dress appropriately and refrain from disturbing the worshippers when you’re exploring (and photographing) Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.
The iconic Reunification Palace made its name in global history when in 1975 a tank belonging to the North Vietnamese Army crashed through its main gate – thus signifying the end of the Vietnam War. This image is one of the most famous pictures depicting the Reunification Palace, which has seen a rich and varied history and once served as the base of the US-backed Vietnamese General Ngo Dinh Diem during the Vietnam War, until his assassination in 1963.
The palace is like a time capsule frozen in 1975 with two of the original tanks used in the capture of the palace parked in the grounds. Originally the site of the Nordom Palace also known as the Governor’s Palace its first role was as a home and workplace for the then French Governor of Cochin China. The Reunification Palace is a landmark not to be missed by any tourist visiting Ho Chi Minh City. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, the palace hides secret rooms, antique furniture and a command bunker within its eerie corridors. The Reunification Palace is still in use to host occasions including APEC summits and national events of significant importance.
The Reunification Palace is a five-storey building with the basement housing a warren of tunnels, a war room and telecommunications centre. The war command room still has maps on its walls and period telecommunications equipment on display, whilst adjoining basement rooms feature war propaganda materials. Other areas of interest are the third floor featuring a card playing room, a fourth floor which once had a casino and was used for entertaining guests and a rooftop terrace with a heliport.
The Reunification Palace entered the world history books in 1975 when a Vietnamese Air Force pilot (who was also a communist spy) flew an aircraft over the palace with an attempt to bomb it. Although no real damage was caused this was a significant step towards the fall of Saigon and the ending of the Vietnamese War.
On 30th April in 1975 at 10:45 a North Vietnamese Army Tank rammed the main gates and entered the palace grounds before hanging its flag on the balcony to declare victory for the communist party and thus ending the Vietnam War. Meanwhile staff escaped from the rooftop minutes before the palace was overrun, known as Operation Frequent Wind this was part of history’s biggest ever helicopter evacuation and included the departure of General Thieu.
War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum once known as the ‘Museum of American War Crimes’ first opened to the public in 1975.
It’s a shocking reminder of the long and brutal Vietnam War with many graphic photographs and American military equipment on display, including a helicopter with rocket launchers, a tank, a fighter plane, a single-seat attack aircraft and a 6,800kg conventional bomb.
All these weapons were used by America against the Vietnamese at some point during the infamous war that lasted from 1945-1975.
One of the most talked-about exhibits are the ‘tiger cages’ in which the South Vietnamese government kept their political prisoners. These small cages are only 2.7m x 1.5m x 3m each and were sometimes used to keep up to 14 prisoners in. There is also a guillotine used by the French and the South Vietnamese to execute prisoners from opposing political groups. Brought to Vietnam by the French; the guillotine was last used in 1960.
Also featured are grisly photos that show the disfigured bodies of locals who had prenatal exposure to strong pesticide and chemical sprayed, best known by the name ‘Agent Orange’. Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs believed that there were 500,000 children born with birth defects while as many as 4.8 million people were exposed to it from 1961 to 1971.
The War Remnants Museum is in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City and is run by the government. It is open all year round from 07:30 to17:00. A visit to this war museum is a disturbing experience for most people and may not be suitable for children (though they are allowed to enter).
Cao Dai Temple
The Cao Dai Temple was finished in 1955 when the Cao Dai Army was formed following the Japanese occupation of Indochina. Caodaists believe that all religions are ultimately the same and seek to promote tolerance throughout the world.
The Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad and Confucius, in addition to Joan of Arc and Julius Cesar are all honoured at this temple.
There are nine hierarchies of worship including a pope, cardinals and archbishop with festivals, rituals and prayer all practiced regularly. The temple is similar in design to a Christian Cathedral featuring side aisles and an altar, as well as a long central nave, all positioned as they would be in a Christian Church, there is even a high dome decorated with clouds and saints.
The main focal point is a Divine Eye symbolising God, which has the Ying and Yang icon in its pupil. Ceremonies take place daily with two services accompanied by musicians and a choir singing in English to traditional Vietnamese music.
Worshippers at the Cao Dai Temple strive for world peace and harmony with beliefs steeped in a number of world religions. Followers must obey the five virtues of Confucianism – humanity, obligation, civility, knowledge and reliability and have belief in the Buddhist principles of rebirth and karma.
Watching Caodiasts pray is one of the major highlights when visiting the temple as they dress in long flowing robes of white for lay followers, yellow, blue or red for priests whilst bishops have the Divine Eye embroidered on their headpieces. During worship men are seated on the right and women on the left with all devotees seated in orderly rows. The building is a combination of Neo-Gothic, Baroque and Oriental design and is very ornately decorated including dragon wrapped pillars, seven-headed cobras and ceilings of sky blue.
Visitors are permitted to watch from the galleries and may take photographs, knees must be covered and shoes removed before entering. Silence is requested when a service is taking place. The Cao Dai Temple is one of 1,000 Cao Dai Temples located in Vietnam.