Ho Chi Minh City is the commercial capital of Vietnam and a major economic hub of South East Asia with it’s proximity to the Mekong river and Vietnam’s expansive coastline. It is one of two starting points for most travelers, going either North-South, or South-North to Hanoi, the capital. With plenty of tourist police and a fairly compact design, Ho Chi Minh’s cultural sites are easily accessible.
I walked along Pham Ngu Lao street, the tourist center, but detoured into the 23/9 Park where I watched old women exercise to Tai Chi and dance music. My first stop was Ben Thanh Market for a walking tour. After a little searching, a small group of us found the guides, a couple of students who wanted to practice their English. They walked us through parts of the huge Ben Thanh Market then to Nguyen Hue street, which is actually a massive paved open space for people to gather. Nguyen Hue is a good place to get orientation relative to the Bitexco Tower.
Next, we headed to the Central Post Office a spacious converted train station catering to normal business at the windows and tourist souvenirs at it’s center, then Notre Dame Cathedral, built by the French during their colonization of Vietnam.
The guides offered us choices on a final destination. I chose the Independence Palace, then was told the guide would wait for me to finish the visit, but I told her to not wait. The palace was quite large, elegant and sturdy with lavish meeting rooms, underground bunkers and tunnels, and helicopter pad on top. Despite it’s fortifications and defenses, the palace, which was the headquarters of the South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam-American war, still fell, as memorialized by tanks positioned outside besieging the building.
Wanting to learn more details about the visceral sight, I walked a short distance to the War Remnants Museum, a 4-story building, retelling the Vietnam-American War through the voice of the victors. “History is told by the winners” wasn’t a new concept to me, but as an American, it was a unique experience in appreciating the conflicts and contrasts between what I learned in school and what the Vietnamese teach their children.
Having delved deeply into Vietnam’s past, I wanted to get a broader overview of the city itself, so I headed to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum where I learned more about Vietnamese day to day life and customs over the centuries. Following the city museum, I decided to learn more at the larger Museum of Vietnam History, located next to the Saigon Zoo, which I knew was open later than the rest of the city’s attractions, but it was nearly deserted and most of the park was understaffed.
I found myself walking back along Le Dun Street, drawn by it’s elegant layout crossing Ho Chi Minh City University where I grabbed dinner at the student restaurant. Recharged, I headed toward the Saigon River, and walked down Ton Duc Thang Street until reaching the ferry, where the roads widened alongside a riverside park. I walked toward the Bitexco Tower until I passed the Saigon One Tower, the previous tallest building in the city, but I wanted to see Ho Chi Minh City from Bitexco, so I went up to the restaurant, bought a cheap drink, listened to a band and took pictures of the city.
Back on the ground, I found Nguyen Hue street much more vibrant and colored with people out and about, including women wearing Áo dài, traditional silk dresses.
Landmarks like tall buildings are a good way to stay orientated while wandering around and also conserve battery life on your phone. Unless you carry enough backup batteries for a full charge, you might get lost without GPS.