Ho Chi Minh City

Prey Nokor

What is today known as Ho Chi Minh City began as the Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor. The village was situated on swampland and remained in the hands of the Khmer (Cambodians) for many centuries until floods of Vietnamese immigration arrived during the 17th Century A.D. The immigrants first came in 1623 with permission from the Cambodian king, but later waves came uninvited, while Cambodia was too weakened by a war with Thailand to stop them.

Early Saigon

In 1698, Prey Nokor, and the whole lower Mekong river delta, was formally annexed by Vietnam and became known as Saigon. Prey Nokor had been the Khmer’s most important sea port, and its loss isolated them from international commerce on the South China Sea. Saigon was a great gain to Vietnam, however, and soon grew into a major settlement.

French Saigon

After more than a century and a half under Vietnamese rule, Saigon fell to an invading coalition of French and Spanish forces in 1859 and then became part of the colony of French Indochina. Under French rule, Saigon was filled with Western architecture, and French villas still remain in the city to this day. French immigrants also filled Saigon and accounted for nearly 10% of the population by 1929.

When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940, Saigon and French Indochina came under the administration of Vichy France, but within a matter of months, the Japanese had taken control. Technically, the Japanese and Vichy France “co-ruled” Saigon, but it was Japan that truly ran things.

In 1945, the Communist Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent and soon began a guerrilla war against the restored French colonial government. Capitalist Vietnamese declared their own state in 1949, with its capital in Saigon, re-establishing the former Vietnamese emperor until the Republic of Vietnam was declared in 1956. In 1954, the French relinquished control of Vietnam and left the Viet Minh in control of North Vietnam and the non-Communists in control of South Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh City

During the 1940’s, the U.S. had supported the Viet Minh against the Japanese. During the 1950’s, they supported the French against all rebels. During the 1960’s, the United States defended South Vietnam against incursions from the Communist North. On April 30th, 1975, however, the U.S. ended all involvement in Vietnam, and the Viet Minh took Saigon, renaming it Ho Chi Minh City in 1976.

After the “Fall of Saigon,” which the victors called the “Liberation of Saigon,” many Saigon residents fled to the U.S. and elsewhere, creating a Vietnamese diaspora. While in this sense the city shrank, it grew in that its borders were expanded to include its suburbs and its whole province. Today, Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam, having eight million inhabitants, and is the nation’s economic hub, accounting for 20% of national GDP. The city also attracts many tourists, especially to its French District, museums and its numerous cinemas. 

Ho Chi Minh City attractions are a vibrant mix of old and new, with well-preserved colonial structures and war relics from the devastating Vietnam War as well as sleek skyscrapers, elegant sports clubs, and expansive shopping malls against a metropolis backdrop. Great for immersing in the local culture, no two districts are the same in Ho Chi Minh City and there are plenty of ornate pagodas and Buddhist temples to visit and photograph as well.

Drawing millions of tourists each year, Ho Chi Minh City is also fitted with a wide array of accommodation options of varying price range and styles while unique modes of transportation such as motorcycle taxis and cyclos make it relatively easy to explore the city centre and beyond. Ho Chi Minh is also home to a large number of pagodas, temples and the War Remnants Museum. It also includes the historical sites such as the Cu Chi tunnels, located in a rural district far from the center, that were used by the Viet Cong guerrillas to move around under the city during the Tet Offensive.

1. Binh Tay Market

The Binh Tay Market offers a lot of a little of everything, including fresh produce and local handicrafts. The Binh Tay Market is located in Saigon’s Chinatown area and is actually a distribution hub for many of Saigon’s clothing and food items, so visitors may discover that some of the items available in the hundreds of the market’s stalls may only be for sale to wholesalers. Visitors who arrive at the Binh Tay Market early in the morning may get a chance to peruse the fresh food items that are available in the outdoor “wet market,” including fish and produce. There is also a food court in the Binh Tay Market where visitors can sample local delicacies and street food.

2. Saigon Opera House

This elegant building, which is also known as the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, was completed in 1897 and designed by French architect Ferret Eugene. So it is probably not surprising that the Saigon Opera House bears some resemblance to the Petit Palace in Paris, which was built during the same year. From the time it opened until 1955, this 800 seat structure provided entertainment for French colonists. But then in 1956, the Vietnam government began using the structure for its Lower House of Assembly. It was not until 1975 that the beautiful building was once again used for its original purpose. Although the Saigon Opera House is not technically open to the public for visits, anyone who wants to see the interior of this stunning building can do so by purchasing a ticket to a performance.

3. Jade Emperor Pagoda

This small pagoda was built in 1909 by Vietnam’s Cantonese community and is one of the city’s most interesting sites. It is also known as the Tortoise Pagoda because there is a pond in the temple’s courtyard that is filled with turtles. The Jade Emperor Pagoda contains some fascinating items, including a statue of the Jade Emperor and an idol of the goddess of fertility, Kim Hua. Besides a popular tourist attraction in Ho Chi Minh City, this is also a working temple, so it is typically bustling with activity and its air filled with the scent of burning incense.

4. Bitexco Financial Tower

When the 68 story, 262 meter (859 foot) high Bitexco Financial Tower was completed in 2010, it became the highest building in Vietnam. Today, its Sky Deck, which is located on the 49th floor, is a popular tourist attractions in Ho Chi Minh City where visitors can enjoy amazing 360 degree views of the city and of the Saigon River. The Bitexco Financial Tower has two restaurants on the 50th and 51st floor that also provide amazing views of the surrounding area. In addition, this skyscraper is famous for being the site of the Bitexco Vertical Run in which competitors race from the lobby to the Sky Deck. Another unique feature? This tower’s helipad is not located on its roof like on most buildings. Instead its helipad cantilevers from the 52nd floor.

5. Dong Khoi Street

For those searching out the best shopping and dining experiences in Saigon, Dong Khoi Street is the place to go. This street is home to elegant old colonial buildings, high end boutiques, famous brand name stores, lovely cafes and restaurants and luxury hotels. Some of the more well known buildings on this street are the Opera House, the Saigon Central Post Office, and the Notre Dame Cathedral. The well known Givral Café, which had been a popular fixture in the area since the 1950s, can also be found on Dong Khoi Street, but it is not the original structure. That building, which had been a popular gathering spot for international journalists, photographers and writers during the Vietnam War, was demolished in 2010. Now a new Givral has opened up close to the original location.

6. Ben Thanh Market

The Ben Thanh Market is filled with a large number of stalls where visitors can pick up inexpensive souvenirs and local handicrafts. But this bustling market is not just for tourists. It is also where the locals shop for their daily needs, including produce, coffee and clothing. For the best deals, though, it is important that visitors compare prices and to also bargain with vendors before purchasing items. The Ben Thanh Market, which was built in 1870, is also an excellent place to enjoy Vietnam’s local street foods. At night, the indoor stalls in the Ben Thanh Market close, but the surrounding area livens up as restaurants and outdoor stalls selling various goods open for the evening crowd.

7. Saigon Central Post Office

The Saigon Central Post Office is not just a stunning building; it is also one of Ho Chi Minh’s oldest structures. Construction on this building, which was designed by Gustave Eiffel, began in 1886. This concourse of this grand building features several painted maps, and there is also a mosaic of the country’s former president, Ho Chi Minh, at the end of the large hall. This building, which features an elegant high vaulted ceiling, a beautiful tiled floor, and old-fashioned phone booths, is an actual working post office and is free to visit. There are also shops in the Saigon Central Post Office where visitors can purchase postcards and other souvenirs.

8. Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

The Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, which is located in District 1, is arguably Ho Chi Minh City’s most famous landmark. With its two tall bell towers, it is definitely one of its most visible. The cathedral was originally built between 1863 and 1880 and was constructed on a site where a Vietnamese pagoda once stood. All of the materials for the red brick Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral were imported from France. For many years, it was known as the Saigon Church, but then in 1962, the structure was elevated to a basilica. Its name was also changed to Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica at that time, and it also became the chief cathedral for the country.

9. Independence Palace

Designed by architect Ngô Viết Thụ, this property was once the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam. In 1975, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the main gate, effectively bringing the controversial Vietnam War to an end. Today, Independence Palace, also sometimes called the Reunification Palace, is a historic landmark that appears almost frozen in time. In fact, two of the tanks that were involved in the original seizure of power still remain on the grounds and a replica helicopter can be found on the building’s roof. In addition, the rooms have been preserved in their late 1960s, 1970s style. There are also many interesting sights in this five story building, including a bunker basement that features a warren of tunnels and a telecommunication center.

10. War Remnants Museum

This museum offers Westerners a different view of the Vietnam War than they are probably used to hearing and seeing. The War Remnants Museum, which opened around 1975, was originally called the Exhibition House for U.S. and Puppet Crimes. That name was changed to the Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression in 1990 before finally being changed to its current moniker in 1995. Most of the exhibits in this museum are related to the Vietnam War, but there are also some dedicated to the first Indochina War. Outside are US armored vehicles, artillery pieces and infantry weapons on display.

11. Saigon River

The Saigon River, with its constantly running ferries, river taxis, and motor-canoes, offers one of the most tempting invitations to the city’s sunset charms. And there is no better place than a seat at The Deck for a sunset cocktail.

12. Gia Long Palace

There is no dearth of inspiration in this scenic area for those with historical sensibilities as the building itself offers an interesting insight into many political events that shaped the history of this city.

13. Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine

To remind yourself that this is indeed Vietnam, not France, head to the first private traditional Vietnamese medical museum. The six storey building features traditional architecture and a tremendous collection of Vietnamese potions and remedies dating back to the Stone Age.

14. Cu Chi Tunnels

You can not leave Ho Chi Minh City without visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels.

In order to combat better supplied American and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War, Communist guerrilla troops known as Viet Cong (VC) dug tens of thousands of miles of tunnels, including an extensive network running underneath the Cu Chi district northwest of Saigon. Soldiers used these underground routes to house troops, transport communications and supplies, lay booby traps and mount surprise attacks, after which they could disappear underground to safety. To combat these guerrilla tactics, U.S. and South Vietnamese forces trained soldiers known as “tunnel rats” to navigate the tunnels in order to detect booby traps and enemy troop presence. Now part of a Vietnam War memorial park in Ho Chi Minh City , the Cu Chi tunnels have become a popular tourist attraction.

15. Day trip to the Mekong Delta

It is not only the most significant agricultural and fishing region throughout the country, but also one of the popular tourist destinations where you can enjoy a cruise on boats and sampans, try fishing, taste fresh tropical fruits directly from the local gardens, say hello to morning floating markets, view the daily activities of the residents along the tributaries of the Mekong River and more. 

Saigon Opera House
Jade Emperor Pagoda
Dong Khoi Street
Ben Thanh Market
Binh Tay Market
Bitexco Financial Tower
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
Independence Palace
War Remnants Museum
Saigon Central Post Office
Gia Long Palace
Saigon River
Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine
Cu Chi Tunnels
Mekong Delta

In addition to providing underground shelter, the Cu Chi tunnels served a key role during combat operations, including as a base for Communist attacks against nearby Saigon. VC soldiers lurking in the tunnels set numerous booby traps for U.S. and South Vietnamese infantrymen, planting trip wires that would set off grenades or overturn boxes of scorpions or poisonous snakes onto the heads of enemy troops. To combat these guerrilla tactics, U.S. forces would eventually train some soldiers to function as so called “tunnel rats.” These soldiers, usually of small stature, would spend hours navigating the cramped, dark tunnels to detect booby traps and scout for enemy troops.

In January 1966, some 8,000 U.S. and Australian troops attempted to sweep the Cu Chi district in a large scale program of attacks dubbed Operation Crimp. After B-52 bombers dropped a large amount of explosives onto the jungle region, the troops searched the area for enemy activity but were largely unsuccessful, as most Communist forces had disappeared into the network of underground tunnels.

A year later, around 30,000 American troops launched Operation Cedar Falls, attacking the Communist stronghold of Binh Duong province north of Saigon near the Cambodian border, an area known as the Iron Triangle, after hearing reports of a network of enemy tunnels there. After bombing attacks and the defoliation of rice fields and surrounding jungle areas with powerful herbicides, U.S. tanks and bulldozers moved in to sweep the tunnels, driving out several thousand residents, many of them civilian refugees. North Vietnamese and VC troops slipped back within months of the sweep, and in early 1968 they would use the tunnels as a stronghold in their assault against Saigon during the Tet Offensive.

In all, at least 45,000 Vietnamese men and women are said to have died defending the Cu Chi tunnels over the course of the Vietnam War. In the years following the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Vietnamese government preserved the Cu Chi tunnels and included them in a network of war memorial parks around the country.

Tourism in the Cu Chi Tunnels

Visitors to Vietnam can now crawl through some of the safer areas of the tunnels, view command centers and booby traps, fire an AK-47 rifle on a firing range and even eat a meal featuring typical foods that soldiers living in the tunnels would have eaten.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels (booby trap)
Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels (living quarters)
Firing range at Cu Chi Tunnels
Firing range at Cu Chi Tunnels

1. Pho

Pho is essentially Vietnam’s signature dish, comprising rice noodles in a flavourful soup with meat and various greens, plus a side of nuoc cham (fermented fish) or chilli sauce. A basic bowl contains tai (beef slices), bo vien (beef meatballs) or nam (beef flank), topped with bean sprouts, lime wedges, and fresh herbs such as basil, mint, cilantro, and onions. Depending on the restaurant or roadside stall, you can also opt for more exotic ingredients such as gan (beef tendon), sach (thinly-sliced pig stomach), and ve don (flank with cartilage).

2. Banh Mi

Banh Mi is a unique French-Vietnamese sandwich that is great for when you are in need of a quick meal. It consists of a toasted baguette sandwich, pickled vegetables, pate, butter, soy sauce, cilantro, chillies, and hot peppers. Most banh mi sellers also offer a wide range of meat fillings, including heo quay (roasted pork belly), trung op la (fried egg), thit nuong (grilled pork loin), cha ca (fried fish with turmeric and dill), cha lua (boiled sausages), xa xiu (Chinese barbecued pork), and thit ga (poached chicken).

3. Banh Xeo

Banh Xeo (Crispy Pancake) is similar to a crepe or pancake. It is made of rice flour, coconut milk, and turmeric, which you can fill it with vermicelli noodles, chicken, pork or beef slices, shrimps, sliced onions, beansprouts, and mushrooms. Most roadside stalls, local markets, and restaurants sell a platter of banh xeo, which usually comes with a side of fresh lettuce or rice papers.

Eat like a local by wrapping your banh xeo in mustard leaf, lettuce leaves or rice papers together with nem lui (lemongrass pork skewers), mint leaves, basil, before dipping in fermented peanut sauce.

4. Goi Cuon

Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls consist of thin vermicelli noodles, pork slices, shrimp, basil, and lettuce, all tightly wrapped in translucent banh trang (rice papers). Due to its subtle flavour, goi cuon is usually dipped into ground chillies and a hoisin based dipping sauce topped with crushed peanuts. This popular snack or appetiser is also a healthier alternative to cha gio, which is a deep fried egg roll made with a combination of mung bean noodles, minced pork, and various spices.

5. Mi Quang

Mi Quang (Vietnamese Turmeric Noodles) may be available at most restaurants in Vietnam, but it actually originates from Da Nang. Easily distinguished by its yellow coloured rice noodles, this dish is a hearty mix of bone broth seasoned with fish sauce, black pepper, shallot, and garlic, as well as meaty ingredients such as river shrimp, boiled quails eggs, and roast pork. As with most Vietnamese dishes, mi quang also comes with a variety of herbs, including basil, peanuts, coriander, lettuce, sliced banana flowers, and sesame rice crackers.

6. Bun Thit Nuong

Bun Thit Nuong (Vermicelli Noodles With Grilled Pork) comprises thin vermicelli rice noodles, chopped lettuce, sliced cucumber, bean sprouts, pickled daikon, basil, chopped peanuts, and mint, topped with grilled pork shoulder. Unlike most noodle dishes, it does not come in a soup or broth, but with a side of nuoc cham sauce for diners to mix into for a flavourful ensemble. While bun thit nuong is quite filling on its own, you can also try another variation called bun thit nuong cha gio, which is topped with sliced cha gio (deep-fried Vietnamese spring rolls).

7. Com Tam

Com Tam literally translate to ‘broken rice’ in Vietnamese, and is traditionally served with fried egg, diced green onions, and a variety of meats. While it is a popular choice for breakfast or lunch, it can be enjoyed any time of the day as it is relatively inexpensive. Toppings options include suon nuong (barbecued pork chop), bi (shredded pork skin), and cha trung (steamed pork and egg patty). Com tam also comes with a side of pickled vegetables, cucumber slices, and nuoc cham Vietnamese dipping sauce.

8. Banh Cuon

Banh Cuon, also known as rolled cake, banh cuon is great for when you are feeling peckish whilst sightseeing in Vietnam. A combination of ground meat (chicken, shrimp, or pork), minced wood ear mushroom, onions, Vietnamese ham (cha lua), steamed beansprouts, and cucumbers that is wrapped in a steamed rice flour sheet, its overall taste is surprisingly mild despite the savoury ingredients. For added flavour, you can dip the banh cuon into nuoc cham sauce. Due to its popularity amongst travellers, you can easily spot plenty of roadside vendors selling banh cuon close to tourist sights and nightlife districts.

9. Xoi Xeo

Xoi Xeo (Sweet Sticky Rice) is a sweet-savoury Vietnamese snack that is typically topped with green mung bean paste, soy sauce, and dried shallots. For a more substantial meal, many restaurants now offer a variety of ingredients such as pate, boiled chicken, cha lua (Vietnamese ham), marinated pork belly, or preserved eggs. Xoi xeo can also be enjoyed for dessert, which consists of dried coconut shavings, roasted sesame seeds, and crystallised sugar.

10. Ca Kho To

Ca Kho To (Caramelised Fish in Clay Pot) is a must try if you are a fan of fish, consisting of a catfish fillet that is braised and served in a clay pot. Mostly available in cities in southern Vietnam, particularly Ho Chi Minh, this dish is prepared by slicing a whole catfish into fillets before caramelising it in a thick gravy made with a combination of soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, shallots, garlic, and various spices and seasonings. Ca kho to is known for its intense sweet salty flavour, so this dish is always served with a plate of white rice and fresh greens.

Pho (Vietnam’s signature dish)
Banh Mi
Banh Xeo (Crispy Pancake)
Goi Cuon (Vietnamese Fresh Spring Rolls)
Mi Quang (Vietnamese Turmeric Noodles)
Com Tam (broken rice served with a variety of meats)
Banh Cuon (rolled cake with a combination of ground meat)
Xoi Xeo (Sweet Sticky Rice)
Ca Kho To (Caramelised Fish in Clay Pot)
Bun Thit Nuong (Vermicelli Noodles With Grilled Pork)

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