One day in Ho Chi Minh City without the time to wander
If you’ve only got one day in Saigon in which to savour the city and don’t want to find yourself collapsed in a ball of over-sightseed stress by the end of the day, you’re going to have to make some fairly tough decisions about what to do and where to go in order to get the most out of your 24 hours.
Luckily, despite the city’s vast and growing size and its potential to overwhelm, visitors are presented with a relatively navigable list of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City even if time is short. Many of the main Saigon attractions are located within a manageable walking distance of each other in District 1 of the Ho Chi Minh City metropolis and getting around – if you manage to avoid getting splattered like a bug whilst crossing the road – needn’t be a problem.
With that in mind, the following list of recommendations for your one day in Saigon, is intended to go some way towards making your time in the city less a sweat-drenched blur of scooters and exhaust fumes and more an intriguing hotfoot around this fascinating and vibrant place.
Cultural Park and Ben Thanh Market
They get up early in Vietnam, and in this, the country’s engine room, there really is no exception. If you can, spend your morning like a local, rise early to take in the city as it gears up for another day of putting that fast-paced Vietnamese work ethic into practice.
Have a pre-breakfast stroll through Saigon’s Cultural Park, to see the Tai Chi-practicing local old folk and early morning badminton enthusiasts loosening up, before walking down to Ben Thanh Market to grab some sustenance for the day ahead.
Amongst the tourist souvenirs and clothes, the coffee and the fruit and vegetable sellers, there are plenty of food stalls inside, each offering delicious and cheap Vietnamese food. Do-It-Yourself spring rolls, rice pancakes and juicy roast shrimp are just some of the must-try dishes that will have your day’s schedule already going off on a food-seduced tangent before you’ve even hit noon.
Post-Breakfast – Midday
Reunification Palace and/or War Remnants Museum
Fully sated and probably too full to walk, you’re not going to want to be exerting yourself too much with a belly about to burst. Take a leisurely walk back towards the Cultural Park and you will be left a tempting distance from the Reunification Palace.
Originally built in 1865 as the residence of the French Governor General and later rebuilt after being bombed in a failed assassination attempt on President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1962, this is the place the Vietnam War officially ended on 30th April 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks broke through the palace gates and after almost 20 years of fighting, the Communist flag was raised above Saigon.
The tanks that broke through can still be seen on the lawn out front, while inside, things haven’t changed since 1975. The conference room, reception rooms, ballroom, card playing room, movie theatre and residential quarters across five floors and over 100 rooms, can still be seen in their post-evacuation state. In the basement, perhaps the most interesting sight is the network of tunnels comprising the telecommunications centre and war room from where the government’s downfall was presided over.
Entrance is from 07:30 until 11:00 and 13:00 until 16:00, while the palace remains open until 12:00 and 17:00 respectively. An hour or so after breakfast until noon should be enough for a quick walk through one of the most historic of Saigon attractions.
On the other hand, if you have to call upon some of your imaginative reserves in order to fully appreciate a visit to the time warp that is the Reunification Palace, the same certainly can’t be said for the War Remnants Museum.
Known variously as The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government, the Museum of American War Crimes and then simply the War Crimes Museum in the past, these former names are a much more accurate primer for what you can find inside.
Housing military equipment from planes and helicopters to guns and bombs, the museum is noted for its galleries and multimedia section chronicling the stories and images of victims of the American action. It’s all there, up front, with no imagination necessary.
It is often said that the museum offers a decidedly anti-American bias in its exhibits, and while this may be true in terms of the balance of argument put forward, the evidence of the horror the country endured during its war years, certainly acts as a graphic statement against the horrors of modern warfare.
The War Remnants Museum is open from 07.30-12:00 and 13:30-17:00.
Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office and Ice Cream
Given the opening times of the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace, if you decide you can’t leave Saigon without seeing them both, you’re going to have at least an hour to kill from noon until their afternoon opening. A siesta in the park opposite the palace maybe? Or walk the short distance to check out Notre Dame Cathedral (designed by Gustave Eiffel of eponymous tower fame) and the French colonial architecture of the Saigon Central Post Office.
If by now you are starting to feel a little drained, it may be a good time to find a comfy spot to chill out for an hour or so. Ho Chi Minh City has a wealth of street-side cafes that are ideal for people watching and it is a great place to sample some of the finest naturally made ice cream this side of Italy.
One of the most well-known places to head to is the excellently named Fanny ice cream bar a short walk south east of the Reunification Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral area. With flavours as exotic as cinnamon, passion fruit and even lotus flower on the menu, if you don’t leave without brain freeze you haven’t stayed long enough.
Amongst other choices of the ice-cream venue variety are Cafe Kem X-Cream, situated around the corner from Fanny, with its snooze-inducingly comfy sofas and terrace view. While Kem Bach Dang, one of the oldest and most popular ice-cream cafes in Saigon, has been indulging locals in its current location to the sound of passing scooters since 1979.
Ben Thanh Night Market, Acoustic Bar and Pham Ngu Lao
Maybe it’s starting to go dark round about now. You’ve seen a few of the must-see sights and given yourself a little time to chill. You had a mighty breakfast and you’ve sampled a little of Saigon’s famous street food throughout the day, as well as having got obscene over your ice-cream, but you’re feeling hungry again and have a craving to buy an I love Vietnam T-shirt and a Spongebob Squarepants balloon. If this is the case, head back to Ben Thanh Night Market any time after 6:30 and get eating like a local. Grilled fish, shrimp in coconuts, lobster, noodles, spring rolls, and Saigon Beer, most things good about Vietnamese food can be found here. It’s cheap, delicious, and you’ll be wishing you weren’t leaving so soon in order to fit in more.
As well as the food there are souvenirs galore and, being that Vietnam is the world’s second largest coffee exporter after Brazil, there is no shortage of coffee stalls if you feel like sampling the local stuff. There are also plenty of friendly folk lurking in the crowds ready to relieve you of your wallet, camera and anything else valuable that isn’t safely stowed. So be safe and be happy is the mantra to repeat.
Full again and time to party, Ho Chi Minh City’s nightlife is varied enough to cater in some way for most nocturnal tastes however exotic they may be. One of the most popular venues in town if you are looking for live music, is the always rocking, never dull Acoustic Bar. Open from 19:00 to 23:00, 7 days a week, it plays host to some of Vietnam’s best rock ‘n’ roll talent. If you’re looking for well-honed rock covers to politely mosh out to, then this is the place to be. There are also open mic nights and live acoustic nights throughout the week.
But what to do at 23:00 when Acoustic Bar closes? If you’re not already beaten by your hectic day and you still have gas in the tank for partying, one final stop before you hit the sack could be Saigon’s backpacker area around Pham Ngu Lao, where you will find plenty to keep you distracted till dawn. There are bars, clubs and street food, with gutters to collapse into if it all gets too much. And it often does around this part of town. There’s the party and the sleaze, the expats, the backpackers and the ladies that want to be their special friends. There’s the cheap alcohol and the occasional trouble that can come with it. But travel responsibly and the area can be an excellent place to party like it’s 1975 and close out your hectic but rewarding one day in Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City is a great place to visit. Whether you’ve only got one day or a whole week, there are plenty of things to see and do, from touring the sights, to chilling in the cafes or just soaking up the atmosphere on the street. This is a city in transition. If you want to see 21st century ambition and history colliding, Saigon is the place for you.