This Southeast Asian city, still known as Saigon, is on the rise. While its known for its important role in the Vietnam War, Saigon has freed itself from the bonds of its dark history and has moved forward to become an economic powerhouse.
The commercial hub of Vietnam is teeming with a population of eight million strong that is projected to double in numbers by 2020. With an increasing surge of foreign presence happening due to the city’s investment potential, Saigon is rapidly transforming.
To experience Ho Chi Minh City’s vibrant culture, delicious cuisine and green spaces, whether it’s riding eco-friendly cyclos, canoeing down to floating markets, or celebrating the Tet festival – here’s how you can enjoy Saigon like a local and minimize your environmental impact by following this green travel guide.
Saigon Central Post Office and The Notre-Dame Cathedral: The two most notable colonial relics of the French occupation are opposite one another in the heart of District 1. The Saigon Central Post Office was based of a design by Gustave Eiffel but is mistakenly described as one of the famous architect’s pieces. Write letters to loved ones under the watchful eye of Uncle Ho, Vietnam’s great leader, whose massive portrait is affixed at the back of the gallery. The Notre-Dame Cathedral, Saigon’s most religiously significant site, is best visited during Sunday Mass at 9:30 am, although don’t be disappointed with the lackluster interiors. In front of the cathedral is a small courtyard with a white statue of the Virgin Mary. Take your pictures around dusk when the fiery sky and rustic brick cathedral create a dramatic backdrop in contrast to the snowy statue.
Saigon boasts more greenspaces than the capital of Hanoi. More than a dozen charmingly manicured open spaces provide solace for people wanting to escape the hustle-and-bustle of Saigon’ streets. One of the best parks is tucked away behind the Reunification Palace. Tao Dan Park is a leafy sanctuary in Saigon’s downtown area. Scattered around the park are larger-than-life animal topiaries displaying prominent motifs in Vietnamese folklore like tigers and dragons. The 10-hectare park is also a favorite of city dwellers looking to do some leisurely exercising.
Other parks you may want to visit include Saigon Botanical Gardens – opened in 1865, it’s one of the oldest parks in the world, the Thủ Thiêm Tunnel – a promenade park along the bank of the river offers stunning views of the high-rises and colonial hotels of the city, Gia Định Park – a massive green space near the Airport holds over 700 trees, standing like columns supporting a roof of leaves.
The War Remnants Museum: If this is the only sightseeing stop you make in Saigon, then you’re all set. Formerly known as “The Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression,” the now War Remnants Museum houses exhibits related predominantly to the Vietnam War. It’s an understandably somber experience with graphic photos of war crimes perpetuated by both sides, the devastating aftermath of Agent Orange, and also a display dedicated to the journalists who died in the line of duty. It’s an educational must!
FITO Museum: If romanticizing war is not your thing, venture to this alternative museum to find out more about Vietnamese traditional medicine. You are given an in-depth look into the spiritual side of the Vietnamese philosophy, an aspect of the culture that has gotten lost in the noise of city life. Discover the origin stories of medicinal practices that go back centuries and learn more about the Vietnamese belief-system.
Cyclo Tours – Instead of opting for a motorbike tour, fund the continuation of this dying-breed of transportation. Cyclos look like rickshaws except the bike is situated behind the passenger cart. As the passenger, you get an unobstructed view of the Hire a cyclo by the hour, which is roughly around 50,000 to 100,000 VND. But do tip! It’s hard work biking around in the Saigon heat.
Cooking Classes – Cooking classes tend to be more expensive in Vietnam than anywhere else in the world but for good reason. There is a wide-array of knowledge to be learned and the inventory of ingredients is abundant. You can sift through Saigon’s many culinary offerings however, the most notable is the HCM Cooking Class. This unique cooking class teaches you about Vietnamese culture through the lens of food and medicine. It advertises itself first and foremost as a healthy cooking class. For the class, you travel to agricultural village just outside of the city and are given a tour of a Vietnamese Medicine Garden and Mushroom House. Dietary restrictions are easily accommodated. A class is only $43 for adults and $27.50 for children, which is more affordable than the competition.
AO Show – Cultural performances are few and far between in Saigon. There is the water puppet show… however, the Hanoi performance surpasses it in terms of quality. Skip the sub-par and book a ticket to the A O Show. This theatrical performance is held at the Saigon Opera House. With no existing tours of the Opera House, it’s the perfect chance to explore its interior as well as have some nighttime fun. The A O Show is likened to a Vietnamese version of Cirque du Soleil. An hour-long acrobatic display takes you on a visual journey of Saigon’s rural life. Tickets start at 650,000 VND (about $30).
Tet is Vietnam’s biggest holiday and shuts down every operation in the entire country for a solid week during late January/early February. Technically, the holiday is only three calendar days long but because the Vietnamese travel far-and-wide to reunite with their loved ones for some celebrating, the holiday goes on for an extended period of time. The popular walking street of Nguyen Hue in District 1 is closed off during Tet and decorated with ornate flower arrangements that masses of locals and foreigners alike flock to see. On the actual day of the Lunar Holiday, a fireworks display is set off over the Nguyen Hue district near the river.
During the month of July in Suoi Tien Park in District 9, fruit fanatics can sample all the different species of fruit grown in Vietnam at the Southern Fruit Festival. The selection is top-notch and many of fruits are indigenous to the south.
To celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, held in either September or October, make your way to HCMC’s Chinatown. In District 5, the neighborhood alleys are glowing from the light of colorful lanterns while the streets are buzzing with the fanfare of lion dancers and firecrackers.
Did you know that Vietnamese food is one of the healthiest cuisines in the world? The inhabitants of HCMC are in luck living such close proximity to the Mekong Delta where a lot of the produce is obtained. In Saigon, no vegetarian is left behind and the availability of vegan food is surprising. Ask around for a ‘Quan Chay’ (Vegetarian Restaurant) and I’m sure the suggestions will come rolling in. Hum Vegetarian is the most well-known although if you’re looking for an upmarket dining atmosphere on par, there’s also Huong Sen Restaurant which uses meat substitutes for many of its dishes. Kay’s Vegan is becoming an increasingly popular dining spot, sporting home-cooked meals that are thoughtful and MSG-free. Saigon Vegan is either a hit-or-miss – four out of five times my meals were superb – and even with that one “okay” day, I still keep coming back for the goi cuon (fresh spring rolls with mushroom). It’s all about the luck of the draw but if you get the cooks on a good day, you won’t regret it!
Banh Mi is a Vietnamese sandwich that acts as an all-encompassing dish. It’s something that you can eat for either breakfast, lunch, or dinner, or all three if you prefer! It’s a mobile meal (being a simple hand sandwich) and it’s unbelievably cheap which makes it a very convenient for someone on the go. So far, every banh mi vendor I’ve visited has a vegetarian option on its menu. But the likes of gluten-free bread has yet to come to this country. Bread minus the wheat is actually blasphemous.
Those with gluten sensitivities and intolerances, fear not! The beauty of Vietnamese cuisine is its very inclusive. Many of the dishes are made with either rice flour or tapioca flour so you don’t feel like you’re missing out. Things to eat are banh xeo (Vietnamese savory rice crepes), hu tieu (tapioca flour noodles), goi cuon (fresh spring rolls wrapped in rice paper), cha gio (fried spring rolls wrapped in rice paper), pho (Vietnamese traditional noodles), bun thit nuong (rice vermicelli with friend spring rolls, and pork,) and com tam (broken rice.)
You cannot forget about the coffee culture. Vietnam is becoming a coffee destination and in Saigon, there are plenty of cafés all around that range from 10,000 to 70,000 VND for one cup of coffee. Its rumored that you should be cautious of coffee priced under 20,000 VND since its most likely plain instant coffee and not real roasted coffee. To order a Vietnamese iced coffee, ask for a ‘café sua da.’ The milk that is used is always condensed milk. Too sweet for you? The Workshop in District 1 is a cafe that uses beans chiefly produced in Vietnam while preparing them via international brewing methods like chemex or siphon. They do not offer traditional Vietnamese coffee on the menu.
Nowadays, foreigners mostly frequent Ben Thanh Market but “proper” outdoor markets still live on outside of Saigon’s city center. Head to Xóm Chiếu Market in District 4 to pick up some vibrant produce and fresh cuts of meat. After your shopping spree, make your way to the back of the stalls to eat some street food whose ingredients are locally sourced. The Hòa Hưng Market in District 10 is a less boisterous but more manageable version of the Xóm Chiếu Market should you feel intimidated by its size.
Saigon is the gateway to the country’s southernmost provinces. Take a day trip to the Mekong Delta where you’ll navigate the mighty Mekong via a wooden canoe. Witness everyday, bucolic lifestyles as you drift down the small canals. The highpoint of the tour is being able to sample local specialties, especially the handcrafted coconut candy. However, people do advise that in order to make the trip worthwhile, you should do an overnight tour which includes a visit to My Tho to see the famous Vinh Tràng temple and traditional floating markets.
It’s hard to stomach that less than four decades ago, the thickly forested areas of southern Vietnam were heavily devastated by napalm strikes and poisonous herbicide sprays that wiped out nearly 500,000 acres of fertile countryside. Today, the region is virtually free of all Agent Orange toxins yet the horrors of the war still hang in the air. Take a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, located about an hour outside of HCMC, for a history lesson in the Vietnam War. During the war, a large Viet Cong presence staged an epic engineering feat, digging 250 km worth of tunnels that help them to survive and outmaneuver the enemy. The tunnels are open to the public but just a word of caution: they are not for the claustrophobic.
Planning a little getaway outside of the city? Can Gio is an island that sits in a pool of brackish water where the Saigon River meets the ocean. The island is famous for its furry inhabitants, who are so profuse in numbers that the island has been dubbed “Monkey Island.” Another wild attraction on the island is the salt-water crocodile sanctuary.
The green movement is slowly starting to catch fire in Saigon. The circles that are pioneering these efforts are mainly foreign-invested companies who are being applauded for their environmental protection initiatives. The Hotel Continental, a big-name hotel chain, has pledged their commitment to “green tourism.” And just last year, the World Bank funded a full-scale dredging of the Saigon River as part of a city renovation project.
Last year, Miyata Yuji, the UN campaigner who walked through 20 countries to promote peace and environmental sustainability, visited Saigon. He noted a spiked increase of concern amongst Saigon’s youth about the environment. Of great concern is the proposed metro line, HCMC’s first, which will greatly reduce the number of fully-grown trees in the city. Saigon’s greatest challenge lies in its priorities and how it will find a balance between the needs of economic growth and minimalizing environmental impact.
- Affected by a tropical climate, HCMC only has two seasons: hot and rainy. The hot season is dry, which means that the months between January and April are the perfect time to visit. Fair warning: the thermostat reaches dangerously high numbers come April and heatstroke is something to be concerned about. Between May and November, tropical storms strike the city at a daily, but luckily only for an hour or two at most. Plan your trip accordingly.
- Snatchers are everywhere in Saigon and petty theft is a problem. Do not pull out your phone on the street but if the need arises, stay alert of passing motorbikes. Also be wary of your bag being cut. Keep all belongings close.
- Taxis around Saigon are notorious for scams. If you need an air-conditioned ride, download the ridesharing app Uber, which is significantly cheaper than a taxi or the app Grab Taxi, which dictates an agreed-upon price before you accept the ride. Safety is your main concern when in Saigon.
Izzy Pulido‘s curiosity has taken her all over the world, from fairytale Balkan villages to the misty jungles of the Peruvian rainforest. With forty-five countries under her belt, life is proving to be quite the adventure indeed. You can read and follow her adventures on her blog The Next Somewhere and follow her on Facebook as well!