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Home : Holidays : Southeast Asia : Vietnam : Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Best

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam Best

With her back turned on a broad plain that stretches west across Cambodia, and with the rich Mekong Delta at her feet, Ho Chi Minh City sits regally on a giant bend in the S¨¤i G¨°n River.

Bulging with a population of nearly seven million, Ho Chi Minh City, is Vietnam??s largest and most exciting city. While Hanoi is the center of government, Ho Chi Minh City is the nation??s economic heart, and money is on the minds of everyone here. Taxi drivers can recite the latest joint venture regulations, and even shirt makers stay in touch with their foreign customers by e-mail. Time is precious, and people are in a hurry, although conversation often takes a small town tone as bakers and bankers compare their ????inside???? information at sidewalk caf¨?s.

Long before traffic choked the center of the city, Saigon had already been christened the ????Paris of Asia???? for its wide boulevards lined with stately trees and magnificent French villas. For a moment you may be fooled by the smells of coffee and baking bread, and by old Renaults sounding their horns at roundabouts.

The best way of all to see Ho Chi Minh City is on foot. Most major tourist venues are in District 1, which is fairly compact and easy to maneuver. Taxis are all metered and very inexpensive. You can get across town for about $2 or $3. Xe om (motorbike taxis, pronounced ????see ohm????) are even cheaper. Cyclos (pedicabs, pronounced ????see-klos????) carry only one passenger at a time. They are slow and somewhat uncomfortable, but a far more charming and intimate way to experience the pace of modern Ho Chi Minh City.


Saigon is not a place where you will easily go hungry, regardless of your budget.

A glut of foreign business people with expense accounts has created plenty of elegant, albeit overpriced restaurants. You will find everything from enchiladas to dim sum here, although I can not imagine why anyone but terminally bored expatriates would even bother. Many of these places are pretentious and offer only passable food.

Most of the Vietnamese restaurants which cater to the business community are quite Westernized. If you insist on a crisp, white table cloth, the best of these is Blue Ginger, housed in a former journalists?? club at 37 Nam Ky Khai Nghia. Viet Nam House upstairs at 4 Nguyen Thiep Street is under the same ownership. Both are magnificently decorated. You can expect fabulous service and live music.

Lemon Grass, at 93-95 Dong Khai Street, is a bit more modest and relaxed, but still fairly good. On most nights, a string quartet entertains diners.

But for those who want to enjoy real Vietnamese food and contemporary Saigon living, forget about all the tourist restaurants with their white linens and bloated prices, and instead dine where the Vietnamese do. . Thanks to cheap food and local whisky everyone makes merry in Saigon every night.

Two blocks behind the National Theater (sometimes called the ????Opera House????) is a street called Thi Sach. Although only two blocks long, it is lined with little restaurants which are packed nightly. At most of these restaurants, seating is at folding tables on the sidewalk. If anyone spots the police, however, you will be unceremoniously packed up¯plate and all¯and moved indoors. All the restaurants are quite good and very cheap. Many specialize in seafood, though you will probably find unusual fare on the menus, like sparrows, wild deer and steamed silk worms.

Don't leave Ho Chi Minh City without trying one of the banh xeo (pancake) places on Dinh Cong Trang Street, one of the most unusual eating experiences in the city. About one block down this little alley you will find hundreds of people eating outdoors around an open-air kitchen. While you may receive a menu which includes a variety of banh xeo and other specialties, it's just as easy to look at what other people are having and point. Except for some seafood dishes, the food is very cheap. Just keep ordering one dish at a time until you have had enough.

The small and sumptuously decorated Phu Xuan offers the traditional culinary specialties of Hue, Vietnamese cooking??s equivalent of Imperial court cuisine. Unlike most Saigon, flavors are rich and subtle, and dishes are beautifully presented. Although a bit more spendy than street food, Phu Xuan is a wonderful and relaxing place for a romantic supper or a small party. In District 3 at 128 Dinh Tien Hoang.

A final culinary curiosity is the Binh Soup Shop at 7 Ly Chinh Thang, in District 3. Before North Vietnamese tanks rolled down the streets in 1975, Viet Kong infiltrators used this little dive as their secret headquarters. While serving up helpings of noodle soup to thousands of unsuspecting Vietnamese and Americans, cooks and waiters here plotted sabotage, and ultimately, the fall of Saigon.

Saigon's Top Sights


You may be surprised to know how many tourists put the former American Embassy at the top of their list of things to see in Ho Chi Minh City. If you are one of them, resist temptation and head first for the History Museum near the entrance to the zoo. This unassuming, musty place, with its grimy glass cases, houses a formidable collection of artifacts from Vietnam??s two thousand years of recorded history. Even a very brief visit will help put many of the other things you will see as you tour Saigon in some kind of historical perspective. The museum also has a water puppet theater and one of the best stocked and most reasonably priced gift shops in the city.

From the museum, head down Le Duan Boulevard towards Unification Palace, the former Presidential Palace occupied for nine years by Nguyen Van Thieu. Tourists stop at the front gate to snap photos by the thousands, but few venture inside. You might find yourself practically alone and wander from floor to floor as though you owned the place. Maps still hanging in the underground military operations rooms remind visitors how close the ????enemy???? was. On the top floor you will find yourself in a party room with a stage and a huge lanai. Below, lavish reception halls and office, a gambling room, and a private movie theater are all self-indulgent and tasteless reminders of why our side lost.

Only a few blocks away is the Former U.S. Embassy. It stands as a scar on the city, closed, silent, an abandoned bunker with some signs of vandalism. As you stand at the gate it is easy to imagine the helicopter removing a fortunate few from the roof, while thousands fought and screamed outside the fence.

Ben Thanh Market should be your next stop. Here, you will find practically every staple commodity imaginable except automobiles and real estate. If consumerism offers intimate glimpses of how people live, wandering among the tiny, packed stalls here will give you some unique insights into modern Vietnamese life. The food court here has delicious and very tasty local specialties. Produce, flowers, and meats are sold on the sidewalks surrounding the building.

A visit to Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City??s Chinatown, can take an afternoon, if not an entire day. Like Chinese districts in San Francisco, London, New York and Bangkok, Cho Lon is one of the oldest and most mysterious parts of Saigon. Cho Lon means ????big market,???? and the best place to begin your visit is at the overwhelming Binh Tay Market. Although it is likely to be hot and crowded, take your time here. The variety of goods here is positively astounding and will give you uncanny glimpses into modern Vietnamese life. Friendly bargaining should save you from 20% to 40%.

Although there are many beautiful pagodas in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the most interesting is the Nghia An Hoi Quan Pagoda on Nguyen Trai. It is certainly one of the most lavishly decorated. Enormous coils of incense hang from the ceiling, looking like great skeletons of Christmas trees. Stand quietly along the shady wall inside for a few minutes to observe visitors dropping in for a quick prayer.

If you have an afternoon or two to escape the frenetic pace of Ho Chi MInh City, several nearby places make interesting day trips. Within sight of Saigon G¨°n, the Cu Chi Tunnels are part of an extensive network of underground passages which extend as far as Cambodia. Built by the Viet Kong, the tunnels played a strategic role in the Communists?? victory. Since the vast network included hospitals, kitchens, dormatories, weapons factories and even classrooms, thousands of guerillas could move themselves and their weapons undetected for great distances. A section of the tunnels is open to visitors. If you are small enough, you can try to wiggle through some of the narrow passageways. Another tunnel system at Ben Duoc was constructed just for tourists to crawl around in. If that??s not enough wartime nostalgia, you can even fire a variety of automatic weapons.

Another fascinating day trip is to Tay Ninh, the center of the Cao Dai religion, which has perhaps two million followers in Vietnam. Cao Dai is a 1920??s invention which took the best of Catholocism and Asia??s great religions, plus a dab of Hollywood. (The sect has bestowed sainthood on Victor Hugo and Winston Churchill, among others.) Visiting the ostentatious but breathtaking cathedral is the highlight of the trip to Tay Ninh. The noon worship service is open to visitors has been compared to a scene from Disney??s Fantasia.

Travel agencies around town offer a somewhat-hurried combination Cu Chi and Cao Dai Temple tour for about ten dollars.


As corny as it sounds, Saigon is a paradise for shoppers. Beautiful handicrafts and deliciously tacky tourist junk are in endless supply. If you love to shop and have at least elementary bargaining skills and a good eye, your money will go a long way and you can enjoy virtually endless retail entertainment. Your bargaining skills will come in handy everywhere except major tourist shops. Generally speaking, anything not marked with a price sticker can be had for about two thirds the price first quoted.

While there are fine shops throughout District 1, there are several streets which are especially good for shopping, particularly Dong Khai, and Le Thanh Ton behind the Rex Hotel. Many shops here sell jewelry, amber, ceramics, antiques, furniture, silk and apparel. The stalls along Le Loi Street between Ben Thanh Market and the New World Hotel sell all kinds of war surplus and hardware items.

Lacquerware made here is practically the best in the world and is still a real bargain. Scores of shops around District 1 sell boxes, trays, desk accessories, vases and other lacquerware items. Rosewood boxes and bowls are especially lovely. These make wonderful gifts.

If your friends at home love tacky tourist crap, you are in luck! You will find an astounding array of toy helicopters made from Coca Cola cans, fake Zippos and cigarette lighters made from hollow M-16 ammunition, and Good Morning Vietnam T-shirts.

HCMC's tailors are reminiscent of Hong Kong's before the seventies. Custom made shirts usually take three to four days and cost seven to ten dollars, not including the fabric. While there are dozens of good tailors in District 1, my pick is Nha May Cuong, who has shops at 59 Ly Tu Truong and at 247 Le Thanh Ton. Mr. Cuong will escort you to Ben Thanh Market to help you select the fabric first. Another fine choice is Albert Thanh, whose shop is at 22 Vo Van Tan Street District 3.

If you are a Coffee lover, buy enough to fill those empty corner of your luggage. Vietnamese coffees are among the best in the world, and very inexpensive. Because Saigonites drink so much of it, the beans on display in scores of shops around District 1 are always quite fresh. Whole beans sealed in a plastic bag will last quite well until you return, and provide a lingering souvenir of your visit to Ho Chi Minh City.