Saigon may have a shorter history than the 1,000 years that Hanoi has already racked up, but the city has undergone such changes during the last two centuries that it has developed a unique character. Today’s visitor to Saigon can see atmospheric temples, churches and mosques that testify to the city’s religious diversity, and countless museums that recount the turbulent past of both the city and country. Negotiating the city’s traffic can be tiring, but there are pockets of green such as the botanical gardens where you can get away from the roar of engines.
Recommended Saigon attractions
Reunification Palace: Built in the 1960s for Ngo Dinh Diem, President of the Southern Vietnamese government, this palace was the last place to fall to the forces of the North in 1975. As such it has become the symbol of reunification for Vietnamese, and a major sight for tourists. All visitors are shown a brief video introduction to the palace, and are then led on guided tours of its rooms with retro furnishings. Open: 07:30-11:00, 13:00-16:00, last admission 15:30 (daily); Admission: 30,000D; 106 Nguyen Du Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, tel: +84 8 808 5094, email: email@example.com, website: www.dinhdoclap.gov.vn.
War Remnants Museum: There are literally hundreds of museums around Vietnam that recount ugly conflicts with the French and Americans, but none brings home the tragedy of war more effectively than this one. Rusting tanks and planes clutter the yard, while the news clippings inside unveil the horrors that visited this nation during the 20th century. Perhaps the most poignant exhibits are the deformed foetuses floating in preservative – the result of chemical defoliants like Agent Orange; you’ll need a strong stomach here. Open: 07:30-12:00, 13:30-17:00, last admission 16:30 (daily); Admission: 15,000D; 28 Vo Van Tan, tel: +84 8 930 2112, +84 8 930 6325, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Notre Dame Cathedral: This is one of Saigon’s most recognizable icons. Built by the French in the late 19th century, it dominates the city centre and attracts thousands of visitors each day. There’s nothing much to see inside except when services are being conducted, but the exterior is very striking, particularly the twin spires that soar heavenward. There is a statue of the Virgin Mary in a small garden in front of the cathedral, which some onlookers claim to have seen shed tears. Open: hours vary; Admission: Free; Han Thuyen Street, facing down Dong Khoi (next to the Post Office), tel: +84 8 3822 0477.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum: Lovers of colonial architecture are likely to go ga-ga over the grandiose building that houses the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. Built in 1886 for the governor of Cochinchina, it is a favourite backdrop these days for wedding pics, so don’t be surprised if you arrive to see a photo shoot in action. Inside, the lower floor is dedicated to ancient artefacts discovered in the region, while the upper floor focuses on the Vietnamese victories over the French and Americans. Open: 08:00-17:00 (daily); Admission: foreigners/15,000D, pupils/2,000D; 65 Ly Tu Trong, Ben Nghe ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh city, tel: +84 8 3829 9741, +84 8 3829 8250, email: email@example.com, website: www.hcmc-museum.edu.vn.
History Museum: Like the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, the History Museum is housed in a grand, colonial building though this one also shows Chinese influence. The complex history of the country is covered thoroughly in fifteen galleries, ranging from the Dong Son civilization of around 2,000BC to the present. Look out for the impressive collection of priceless Buddha images from all over Asia, including Angkor. Anyone enthralled by history could easily spend a day here, and there’s a small room which stages occasional water puppet shows as well. Open: 08:00-11:00, 13:30-16:30 (Tuesday-Sunday); Admission: 15,000D; 2 Nguyen Binh Khiem, tel: +84 8 3829 8146, +84 8 3829 0268, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.baotanglichsuvn.com.
Lam Son Square: Situated at the junction of Dong Khoi and Le Loi, Lam Son Square sits squarely in the heart of downtown Saigon. In the centre of the square, surrounded by lanes of non-stop traffic, is the Municipal Theatre, aka the Opera House. Its classic domed front acts as a magnet for cameras, and occasional performances of classical drama and dance are held here. To the north of the theatre is the Continental Hotel, once a favourite hang-out for French colonialists, and to the south is the Caravelle Hotel, which was a base for many reporters during the American War. Open: 24 hours;Junction of Dong Khoi and Le Loi.
Jade Emperor Pagoda: There are lots of ancient pagodas in Saigon where you can watch devout Buddhists making offerings of flowers and incense and muttering prayers. Perhaps the most atmospheric, and certainly the most visited by foreigners, is the Jade Emperor Pagoda in the northeast of the city. Before entering the temple, take a look at the pond to the right that is full of tortoises. Inside there are some fearsome and impressive statues of countless deities, and a constant fog of incense. A small balcony upstairs gives a good view of the roof and the neighbouring houses. Open: 08:00–17:00; Admission: free; 73 Mai Thi Luu St, Ho Chi Minh City, tel: +84 8 3820 3102.
Zoo and botanical gardens: Situated side by side in the northeast of the city (beside the History Museum), this large green area is very pleasant for a restful stroll and an escape from the relentless traffic on Saigon’s busy streets. The shady trees and beds of unusual plants attract visitors inside, and there’s also the option of entering the zoo, where elephants, crocodiles and monkeys will be waiting to greet you.Open: 07:00-21:00; Admission: 8,000D; 2B Nguyen Binh Khiem Str., Ward Ben Nghe, Dist. 1, Ho Chi Minh City, tel: +84 8 3829 3728, fax: +84 8 3822 8309, website: www.saigonzoo.net.
Cho Lon: Meaning ‘big market’, this is Saigon’s Chinatown, and like other Chinatowns worldwide, it’s a buzzing, congested scene of frantic commerce from dawn till dusk, especially in the main market, called Binh Tay. While it’s fascinating to just wander the streets and eye the endless range of products on sale, don’t miss Cho Lon’s atmospheric temples, such as the Thien Hau Pagoda on Nguyen Trai and the Quan Am Pagoda on Lao Tu. Open: 24 hours; 3kms west of the city centre.
De Tham: Saigon’s budget district, aka Pham Ngu Lao, has a different feel to the rest of the city, and it’s the only area where you’ll see more Westerners than Vietnamese. This is hardly surprising as the region is a one-stop centre for cheap accommodation, cheap food and cheap tours. Like Khao San Road in Bangkok, it’s now becoming a tourist destination in itself, as well-heeled travellers lodged in hotels on Dong Khoi take a trip here to see how the other half live. Open: 24 hours; 1km west of the city centre.