Saigon! For me this was it. This was what our trip to Vietnam had been building up to. My love of Miss Saigon the musical (I’ve only seen it 3 times…or is it 4…and listened to the sound track several hundred times!) had planted a seed in my head that one day I would visit this place that was so far from anything I had ever known. This meant Saigon had been on my bucket list for at least 3 decades, long before the term bucket list even existed.
I’m not sure Dougie and the boys were so thrilled with my bursting into song at every opportunity as we roamed Saigon’s streets…or as I reluctantly call it Ho Chi Minh city (it just doesn’t have the same romantic ring to it!)…but here we were, fulfilling another lifelong dream.
Saigon really is a cool city. The capital of the south, with traffic nearly, but not quite, as crazy as Hanoi. It is Vietnam’s business and financial hub, but more than that, it has an incredibly rich history going back hundreds of years. We walked our socks off (or flip flops off) in Saigon, visiting some really awesome places and eating the amazing street food from all over the place.
By this point in our trip we had also become expert at crossing Vietnamese roads: Don’t wait for a gap, just walk out and keep moving slowly, the traffic will move around you like a river flowing around rocks, the key is don’t stop for any reason! All Vietnamese drivers seem to be experts at anticipating pedestrians crossing the road, but stopping really throws them, and is a sure way to get yourself run over.
Without wanting to bore you with the hours of tramping we did round the streets at all times of the day and night, here is our roundup of our favourite Saigon experiences:
The War Remnants Museum
Another dip into the history books, this museum takes an in depth look at the horrors of the Vietnam/U.S. war. The outside area has a whole host of military vehicles, including planes and helicopters, used during the conflict, as well as several types of bombs. Great for boys who love a bit of war machinery!
The exhibitions inside take a more harrowing look at the Vietnam war through the photography displays. There are some very graphic photos, some very moving photos, that some people might say are not suitable for kids to see. I would say you know your own kids and what they can deal with. We told our boys that there were going to be some very difficult images for them to look at, that they didn’t have to look, they could stay outside the gallery rooms if they wanted to or they could look at what they wanted to and they could ask us as many questions as they wanted to. I think it was the right choice. They both handled it all really well.
Another equally harrowing part of the museum broaches the subject of agent orange and the aftermath of is use. It was shocking, but millions of people across Vietnam are still dealing with the effects of agent orange today so, rightly, it should not be forgotten. There are still zones of South Vietnam that haven’t yet been decontaminated, leaving millions of people open to the effects of this toxic chemical. Children are still being born with severe disabilities, or developing terminal childhood illness. It may have been a difficult subject, but it certainly opened our eyes and it taught our children the importance of peace, leaving them with a better understanding that war isn’t just the glorified version you see in the old films.
It was a fantastic museum, definitely not to be missed if you are in Ho Chi Minh.
Ben Thanh Market
This is like any other Asian market you’ve been to…on steroids! Ben Thanh Market has hundreds of stalls crammed into every corner of this large market place building, stacked to the rafters with every possible thing you could imagine! You get pounced on by the vendors the moment your eyes wander in the direction of anything, with offers of ‘good price’. Our kids have become very adept at bartering for what they want, which makes me strangely proud as its not something I’m very good at! The market building itself is one of the earliest surviving structures in Saigon and is still part of Saigon’s fabric, therefore it should be part of any trip here.
The Independence Palace
An impressive building in the centre of Saigon and an iconic symbol for Vietnamese independence, the palace is a must visit place, as much for its magnificent example of 1960s architectural style as for its historic significance.
Construction of the original palace on the site was completed in 1873. The building was used as the home and headquarters of the French Governor of Cochochine and therefore originally referred to as the Governor’s palace. In 1954, as per the accords made on France’s withdrawal from Vietnam, the palace was handed over to the South Vietnam government as the country divided into two separate states.
‘This is all important because?’ you might well be asking! Well, because two pilots from the South Vietnamese air force rebelled in 1962. Instead of heading off on a mission to bomb the Viet Cong, they changed their course and bombed the palace instead! The entire left-wing of the palace was destroyed, and the extent of the damage was such that the palace could not be repaired. Ngô Đình Diệm, the republic’s president ordered the rest of the palace to be demolished and completely rebuilt. That is the building that stands to this day.
But the palace is more famous for this reason: At 10:45 on 30 April 1975, a tank of the North Vietnamese army bulldozed through the main gate effectively ending the Vietnam War. It is the official site of the end of a war that had raged for 20 years.
Visiting the palace, you get to walk through its opulent state rooms on the ground and second floor and see where foreign dignitaries were welcomed, where important negotiations and meetings were held (we didn’t get to visit the first floor as it was closed off on the day we were there). On the top floor was the fun area – the card playing and games room, bar, cinema, and private night club straight from a 1960s Bond movie. From the window you could see the roof top helipad complete with helicopter, but unfortunately we weren’t able to go out to it.
But possibly the most interesting part (that we somehow managed to do backwards (there is an official direction of visit!) was the bunker basement that houses telecommunications and war rooms, in a warren of underground tunnels. Yellowing maps showing territory about to be lost on the walls and 60s state of the art communications equipment are all on display.
After our palace visit we wandered through the extensive gardens and to the Independence Palace café bar for a well earned Saigon beer.
The Notre Dame Cathedral Saigon and the Saigon Central Post Office
Just a stone’s throw away from each other, these two buildings are stunning examples of French colonial architecture and both have now become destinations on the list of any tourist visiting Ho Chi Minh. Even if you’re not a big church fan, if you like Renaissance architectural style you will not be disappointed with the Cathedral. As for the post office, while admiring its splendid architecture, part of the fun is also picking up a post card inside and sending it to someone special in a far flung place. Although it doesn’t take long to pass through these two, they should definitely go on your visiting list.
In Saigon turn down little alleys, head up big roads, go to the market; everywhere you turn you will find some kind of street food: Com Ga and Banh Mi being two of our favourites. Often food is served in places you would never dream of sitting and eating at in Europe in a million years, but here in Saigon they serve not just the cheapest but the the tastiest, freshest food going! Be brave give it a try!
We met a guy, at the street food market, who had a guitar. He asked me to keep an eye on it while he went to order his food and I happily obliged. As both of the boys play the guitar, when he got back we asked if we could take a look. It was brand new, he had just picked it up from the shop. This brief encounter ended with us buying a small travel guitar in the most amazing street.
With a few simple directions, we zigzagged our way through Saigon to ‘Guitar Street’ (guess what they sell there?). Dark had set in, we turned into the street, which had rows of small guitar shops/workshops on either side all lit up, with beautiful guitars hanging from the ceilings. We headed for the same shop market man had recommended and after some time trying different guitars for size, we came away with a beautiful, handcrafted travel guitar for not much more than £60. It was a steal! Even if you’re not in the market for a new guitar it’s fun to walk up the street admiring all the different instruments hanging around.
There is so much to do with or without kids in Saigon, we could have easily spent another week just wandering and discovering. Suffice to say, if you are planning on visiting Ho Chi Minh, you are unlikely to come away disappointed!