10 things to do in Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam's southern metropolis can be raucous and chaotic, but it has charm and grace in spades if you scratch beneath the surface, writes Kit Gillet

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 August, 2013, 10:26pm


Cu Chi tunnels: an hour outside the city limits, experience first-hand the claustrophobic tunnels used by the Viet Cong to evade detection by the American and Southern Vietnamese forces. The section at Cu Chi is just a few hundred metres, but after crawling on your hands and knees through the ill-lit tunnels for just a few minutes, passing store rooms, schools and dormitories, it is hard to imagine spending weeks on end underground. Above, you'll find examples of the many devastating booby traps employed by the rebels to maim and injure any enemy that passed nearby.

Nightlife: even locals head up to the 23rd floor bar of the Sheraton Saigon, which offers great cocktails and easily the best views of the city at night. On the opposite end of the scale, over the past few years pop-up bars have begun appearing across the city - taking advantage of plots left empty by building works - offering cheap beer, barbecued meats and a great atmosphere. There are currently temporary bars on Pasteur Street and Tai Van Lung. Those looking for all-night options, head to the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham in the backpacker district.

Cholon: encompassing most of District 5 (and some of District 6), the Chinese quarter was once an independent city established by members of Vietnam's Chinese minority, who took refuge from persecution there in the late 18th century. Long engulfed by the growth of Ho Chi Minh, today's Cholon is a world of Chinese touches, temples, tastes and smells. Take a stroll between the beautifully ornate Thien Hau Pagoda, incense-infused Quan Am temple and Nghia An Hoi Quan Pagoda, then head to one of the nearby markets for some dim sum.

French architecture: France started to influence Vietnam's internal politics in the early 19th century, and by 1887 Saigon was the capital of French Indochina. It would lose that position five years later, but for the next 50 years the architecture, cuisine and flavour of the city would be heavily influenced by the French. Simply take a walk through District 1 and you can see the former Opera House, the City Hall (now home to the City People's Committee), the Hotel Continental (where Graham Greene wrote and based parts of The Quiet American), and countless former French villas.

Massage: they're an integral part of any visit. Just be careful what else is on offer. At 118 Pasteur Street, 118 Foot and Body Massage offers great (and legit) massages. Likewise, downtown on Mac Thi Buoi Street, Royal Foot Massage offers good, wholesome massages for a decent price. Alternatively just drop everything for the day and splash out on colonial-era luxury at L'Apothiquaire Spa (lapothiquaire.com).

War Remnants Museum: not for the faint of heart, it offers graphic examples of some of the worst incidents that took place during the Vietnam war and the little-known Chinese invasion that followed, including stark photography, displays of weaponry and the preserved remains of fetuses deformed by wartime chemicals. On the second floor a permanent exhibition displays the work of some of the best photographers who covered the war, including many who died for their efforts.

Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh: in 1919, a lowly Vietnamese civil servant founded a new religion, combining the main tenants of several existing religions - Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism, to name a few. Centered in Tay Ninh, two hours from downtown, the Cao Dai holy land is a spectacle, with airy temples filled with prostrate worshippers (today there are an estimated five million followers), brash and bright imagery taken from the combined world religions, and portraits of Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Ben Franklin and the many others who are considered holy figures by the Cao Dai.

Ben Thanh Market: during the past few years, the city has been inundated with fancy malls selling luxury goods and Western fashion. Head instead to Ben Thanh, a sprawling indoor market that sells everything from household goods and clothing to meat, souvenirs, wood carvings and an abundance of knock-off watches. As night falls, the 100-year-old market expands into nearby streets, where food stalls and revelry dominate until late.

Street eats: the city is blessed with an abundance of culinary options, from those wanting to eat cheap pho (noodles) on the roadside to those wanting fine French cuisine in former colonial villas. For a modern take on Vietnamese classics in a superb setting, head to Cuc Gach Quan (cucgachquan.com.vn). For stylised French cuisine, go to La Villa French (lavilla-restaurant.com.vn), which has a loyal fan base. Alternatively, simply head to the night stalls outside Ben Thanh market, where tables are communal, the food cheap and the atmosphere boisterous.

Notre Dame Cathedral: anyone who has just arrived could do a lot worse than head to the area surrounding the cathedral and Reunification Palace. The twin-spired church was constructed by the French in the mid-19th century, while the palace, from which the last Americans in the city were airlifted to safety at dawn on April 30, 1975, has played a key role in Vietnam's recent history (though it remains an austere and largely uninviting structure). A nice park links the two, where young couples and families gather in the evenings to relax and eat from nearby street stalls.