What to do and see in Saigon

What to do and see in Saigon

(photo by Tu Art)

Ho Chi Minh might be a very cosmopolitan city, but it is still a great portal into Vietnamese life. This is not a city for peace-seekers. You need to immerse yourself in the hustle and bustle, get hypnotised by the tornado of orbiting motorbikes,and find the fast pace of the city thrilling; otherwise, it gets to be too much and your experience in Saigon might turn out to be somewhat suffocating.

Although you might overwhelmed at first by the waves of people coming from every direction, once you get used to the chaos, you start appreciating the magic of the commotion. Only then, when you dive in, you'll be able to soak in the culture, indulge in delicious food, enjoy a vibrant nightlife and get a glimpse into a very interesting history.

Saigon is also a city of contrasts where alleys steeped in history and ancient temples stand next to chic malls and glitzy skyscrapers. The old and new world blend harmoniously to give shape to an intrinsic and stunning urban collage. While the city breathes in modernity, the country's past lives through colonial villas and ornate religious sites.

From Vietnam War sites to temples, a vibrant nightlife, varied cuisine and lively markets, there's no shortage of things to do and see in Ho Chi Minh City.

Reunification Palace (Independence Palace)

When you step into this building, you travel back in time to the sixties. Home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, the Reunification Palace is a landmark in Ho Chi Minh City. This building witnessed the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, after a North Vietnamese Army tank charged through its gates.

War Remnants Museum

Saigon is famous for its wealth of Vietnam War sites, and as such, it is also home to one of the most important war museums - War Remnants Museum. Previously named the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the museum is home to photos and items which illustrate the atrocious and inhumane nature of the war. This is one of the most shocking collections depicting the gruesome reality of the war in Vietnam. Most of the disturbing photos documenting the mass slaughters carried out by US forces come from US sources, and they particularly illustrate the disreputable My Lai Massacre. The best way to access the museum - located in District Three - is by cyclo or taxi.

Botanic Gardens

Founded by the French after establishing Cochinchina as a colony, these lush and superb botanic gardens stand out as one of the finest in Asia. Take a stroll beneath tropical trees, such as Tung and So Khi trees. From here you can easily visit the History Museum, which is one of the major attractions in Ho Chi Minh City.

History Museum

Founded by the Societe des Etudes Indochinoises, this notable Sino-French museum dates back to 1929. Here you will get to admire a collection of artefacts that illustrate the evolution of the cultures of Vietnam all the back to the Bronze Age Dong Son civilisation and the Funan civilisation. This fascinating display of objects will guide you all the way from the remote past of Vietnam to the Cham, Khmer and Vietnamese civilisation.

If you are a history lover, you might also want to visit the Museum of Vietnamese History, which houses an interesting collection of artefacts that document 2000 years of Vietnamese history. After visiting the museum, you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city by enjoying a tranquil moment in the surrounding gardens. Conveniently located in the compact District One, the museum is not far from the main attractions.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Built between 1877 and 1883, the twin towers is an iconic symbol of the city. This neo-Romanesque church boasts 40m-high square towers tipped with iron spires. The Catholic cathedral is named after the Virgin Mary, and thus, it houses a statue of Her, which is believed to have shed a tear once. Also located in District One, the cathedral is just across the Reunification Palace.

Thien Hau Pagoda

Dating back to the 19th century, this beautiful temple is dedicated to the goddess Thien Hau, protector of the sea, and it stands out for its ornate design and statuary. According to local beliefs, Thien Hau can travel across the seas on a mat to rescue people in trouble on the high seas.

Where to shop in Ho Chi Minh

Where to shop in Ho Chi Minh

From original handcrafted souvenirs to fancy items from boutiques, there's something for every kind of shopper and every kind of whim in Ho Chi Minh City. Shopping is one of the most exciting activities in Saigon. Glimmering shopping malls bring the downtown area to life, with a display of international fashion brands - boutique fashion is particularly distinguished in Saigon compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. It is in the markets, however, where you can see the real Vietnam. Markets still play a vital role in the lives of locals and they remain popular amongst visitors.

If you are looking for high-end boutiques, high quality silk, department centres and luxurious items, head to Dong Koi. If you prefer, instead, art pieces and intricate handmade items, head to the shops on the nearby streets of Hai Ba Trung, Le Loi and Le Thanh Ton. If you'd rather shop for cheaper and simpler goods, move westwards to Ben Thanh Market.

Ben Than Market

The best shopping to be had is in Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh's shopping mecca. From knick-knacks, electronic devices to souvenirs, you name it, they've got it and you will be able to find it from one stall to another in the maze of narrow aisles. This is a fun way to spend your day and night. This is where locals buy their fresh fish, fruit and vegetables in the morning. There are also large range of fashion stalls scattered around throughout the day. As the sun sets, a night market brightens up the main hall, housing everything from clothing, apparel and souvenirs. After all that shopping, you might need some energy and luckily a large number of food stalls line the main hall, so you can indulge in some local delicacies.

Dong Khoi Street

Although this street is a colossal display of French colonial buildings, when the Communists took over Saigon in the late 1970s, they changed the name to Dong Khoi, which literally means Total Revolution. The street, however, still retains some of its French past beyond its buildings and that is manifested in its commercial life, art and high quality embroidered silk pieces. There are also quite a few good tailors in the area. From international brands to boutiques, stylish cafes and high-end restaurants, this little French enclave in the city is one of the few places where you can admire what is left of the colonial architecture.

Vincom Centre

With over 250 shops spread out over two separate buildings, Vincom Centre is Saigon's largest shopping mall. This luxurious colonial building comprises many flagship stores for international fashion houses, the likes of Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss.

Binh Tay Market

Situated in a beautiful spot of Chinatown, at the edge of District 5, Binh Tay Market is a great place to soak in the local Buddhist culture and to buy wholesale goods, handicrafts, lacquerware, textiles and fresh produce. Even if you are not interested in shopping, it is worth walking around this market as it is blessed with a vibrant atmosphere and an ostentatious display of Chinese architecture. The market also houses a food fair where you can sample Vietnamese noodles, banh bao (steamed bun with pork filling), and even Chinese sausages.

Diamond Plaza

If you have some extra bucks digging a hole in your pocket, head to the luxurious Diamond Plaza. This glitzy department store houses international brand name goods and fashion boutiques. Even if you are on a budget, it's worth seeing this department, at least to escape the heat at noon.

Saigon Square (in photo)

This two-storey wholesale fashion mall is a bargain hunter's paradise. From t-shirts to men's and women's apparel, swimwear, shoes, handbags, textiles, luggage and jewellery, you can shop till you drop in this department store. Before you start having too much fun, remember to haggle to bring the price down. This might seem counterintuitive at a department store, but the prices are slightly inflated for this purpose, so don't be shy and try to have some fun while you are at it. Compare before shopping as different stalls might sell the same good at different prices.

An Dong Market

Although this is primarily the place where locals buy clothes, the top floor houses fantastic craft stalls. With skilled artisans fashioning traditional handicrafts from lacquer and woodwork, this is the best place to buy crafts.

What to do and see in Hanoi

What to do and see in Hanoi

Located in the north of Vietnam, the capital of country is one of the main destinations for visitors. With a history that reveals periods of French and Chinese occupation, Hanoi is a fascinating place to explore offering a mixture of Eastern, Colonial and French styles. With spectacular street food, a large variety of regional cuisines, historic gems, a tsunami of scooters riding around the city, religious heritage and a new wave of artistic manifestations, you won't get bored in Hanoi.

Apart from the touristic sites, you can see a show at the theatre, go shopping or relax in the parks. There are other activities you can pursue such as cycling and swimming.

You will also have a range of vibrant festivals to choose from, which will open a windows into the culture and religious spirit of the city. An unmissable festival for culture lovers, if you get the chance, is the Co Lao Festival; the highlights of the festival are traditional cheo theatre performances, wrestling competitions and cockfighting. If you visit the city in spring, you will see yourself immersed in the annual elephant festival.

Old Quarter

Riddle with a maze of streets, Hanoi's Old Quarter is the right place to soak in the local culture and experience Asia at its raw. This is also the place where you want to base yourself if you are on a tight budget, as there are plenty of cheap places to eat and reasonably priced rooms here. As you stroll through the historic streets of the Old Quarter, get your eyes ready to see a number of buildings that date back more than 2,000 years, such as Joseph's Cathedral and Huyen.

Vietnamese Women's Museum

Another highlight of the city is this surprising museum which celebrates the strength and sensuality of women. A collection of propaganda posters, costumes, tribal basketware and fabric motifs from the country's ethnic minorities showcase women's role in Vietnamese society and culture, particularly the contribution of heroically brave women during the Vietnam War.

Hoan Kiem

Situated around the colossal Hoan Kiem Lake (in photo), this district houses some of Hanoi's most outstanding attractions, including temples, museums, theatres and restaurants. One of the favourite activities in Hanoi is to walk at dawn with the t'ai chi buffs along Hoan Kiem Lake.

This neighbour also houses Ngoc Son Temple, a quaint temple in the heart of tranquil grounds. This temple is a great place to learn more about Vietnamese history and get a glimpse of gigantic turtles.

West Lake

If you are into that kind of activities, you might want to visit West Lake, which features some excellent restaurants and bars. Located to the north of Hoan Kiem, West Lake is very popular among expats and it houses some great tourist spots such as the Tran Quoc Pagoda and the Museum of Ethology, which pierces together Vietnam's cultural pot of ethnicities.

Ba Dinh

South of West Lake lies Ba Dinh, which used to Hanoi's French administrative centre. Here you can visit one of Hanoi's highlights, the Temple of Literature, where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the world to enter the mystic world of books. This neighbourhood also houses the One Pillar Pagoda and the Botanical Gardens.

Hai Ba Trung

Steeped in tradition, the neighbourhood of Hai Ba Trung is the best place to soak in the local culture and see the real Vietnam. While you admire the traditional Vietnamese life, you can also relax by Thien Quang Lake or take a stroll in Lenin Park. If you are up for some action and you want to indulge your inner shopaholic, there are a myriad of colourful markets and shops in this neighbourhood.

Guided Tours

Some tourists prefer to discover a city through the eyes of a tour guide, and fortunately, there a many different travel companies in Hanoi to cater to every taste and need. These tours are a great way to get your bearings and tick all the major sightseeing attractions from your itinerary. These daylong tours include sides such as Ngoc Son Temple, the Dong Xuan market, the Old Citadel, the Quan Thanh Temple and Tran Quoc Pagoda, the Ethnology Museum, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, the One Pillar Pagoda, the Literature Temple and Quoc Tu Giam.

Vietnam is a backpacker paradise

Vietnam is a backpacker paradise

Boasting some of the best cuisine in Southeast Asia, idyllic landscapes, heart-pumping activities, the largest cave in the world, mesmerising beaches, interesting history and heritage, and all of this for your money's worth, Vietnam truly is a backpacker's paradise.

Ideal for travellers on a budget

While some other countries might be closer to travel to, Vietnam is a great travel destination for a backpacker because it is not expensive. You will probably will spend more money on your travel ticket then in the actual country. This takes the anxiety due to your budget out of travelling, and you can fully enjoy eating whatever you like, visiting as many attractions as you like and enjoying all that this wonderful Southeast Asian country has to offer.

Vietnam is the a great place to visit for the thrifty traveller, where you can find private rooms for just $10 per night, and you won't spend much more on food for the whole day. You can eat out for only $5, having what could be the best meal of your life. Tours that take you to explain major cities such as Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi won't cost much either.

Diverse and top-class cuisine

Thanks to geography, Vietnam has received influences from China and other neighbouring countries, which has led to a very complex, diverse and fascinating cuisine that varies drastically from one region to another. Vietnamese cuisine is particularly delicious as chefs heavily rely on food markets to get their ingredients up to twice a day. Therefore, most ingredients are seasonal and fresh. This combined with intricate techniques leads to dishes that are an explosion of flavours with mouthwatering textures.

Some of the best Vietnamese dishes are to be had from street vendors, which means they are also very economical as well. As a traveller, you will have the opportunity to sample a myriad of traditional dishes, such as pho (noodle soup with beef or chicken), goi cuon (spring rolls), com tam (broken rice), bot chien (Vietnamese fried rice flour cake), banh trang tron (rice paper salad), goi kho bo (green papaya salad with beef jerky), sup cua (Vietnamese crab soup, banh mi, among others. Every dish will amaze you as they combination of ingredients results in an original flavour, topped with some delicate and wonderful gasnish.

Paradisiac beaches

If you escaped to Southeast Asia to enjoy the sun on the sand, Vietnam won't disappoint. With turquoise water framing sandy beaches and beautiful islands, this country is an oasis for travellers. Some of the best beaches can be found in Phan Thiet, Coc Dao, Nha Trang, Hoi An, Da Nang, and Quang Ngai.

Historical sites

Steeped in a very interesting History, like the Vietnam War, the country is scattered with fantastic historical sites, including My Son Sanctuary, Hue monuments, Hoi An ancient town, among others.

If you are interested in the Vietnam War, there are many historical war sites where you can learn more about this tragic event. After decades of conflict, the aftermath of the war was catastrophic for all sides involved.

If you start your tour in South Vietnam, you might want to visit The Reunification Palace in Saigon, which is where the Vietnam war ended. The palace was the capital building for South Vietnam. There's a bunker in the basement which was home to a the strategic command centre for efforts against the North Vietnamese forces.

Also in Saigon, you can visit the War Remnants Museum, which showcases war artifacts, unexploded ordinance, and photo galleries. Northwest of Saigon you'll find the Cu Chi Tunnels, a massive network of underground tunnels that once served as a command post for North Vietnamese forces. This tunnel system housed weapon factories, hospitals and even entertainment facilities.

If happen to go to the beach in Nha Trang, you want want to take a break from the sun and visit the Cam Ranh Air Base, which was one of the most important U.S. Air bases during the Vietnam War.

Culture features

Home to 54 ethnic communities, Vietnam is a wealth of cultures and when you visit the country, you'll be able to get a glimpse of their traditions, fashions, language, lifestyle, customs and beliefs.

Friendly Locals

Although Vietnamese locals don't seem as interested in tourists as their neighbouring Thais, they will be willing to help you if you approach them with a smile. People are particularly welcoming and warm when you visit rural areas, where the sense of community is stronger