A visit to Ho Chi Minh City is an encounter with exotic food, French colonial architecture and memories of war, writes Guy Wilkinson.
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1, Cheap eats
Ho Chi Minh City (also still called Saigon) is famous for its pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup) and pork rolls. Often the best places are shops and stalls named after family members, such as "Aunty" or "Chi" (meaning sister) followed by a number representing their order in the family and, finally, their name. Though many chains, such as Pho24 and Pho 2000, do big business these days, you can't beat family-run outfits for the real deal.
Street food in Saigon
2, War Remnants Museum
Not for the squeamish, the War Remnants Museum documents the brutality of the Vietnam War and, although it has received criticism for its alleged propagandist tone, it remains one of the most visited museums in the country, attracting more than half a million visitors a year. Retired military vehicles such as "Huey" helicopters, attack bombers and even an M48 Patton tank dominate the front yard while, inside, a harrowing selection of text and photographic exhibits tell the story. (Open 7.30am-noon and 1.30-5pm.)
War Remnants Museum
3, Bonsai River Cruise
Though it's true the Saigon River has serious pollution issues, a Bonsai dinner cruise is still a unique experience. Watch the city lights at sunset while sipping a Tom Collins from the deck of a traditional 19th-century dragon boat, take in a show and enjoy a buffet meal in style. Try to pre-book and stretch your dollar for a more boutique cruise if funds permit.
4, History Museum
Ensconced among lush botanic gardens in a beautiful 1929 French colonial building is the history museum, showcasing 4000 years of Vietnamese life and culture, starting from the Bronze Age. The collection includes items from the Cham and Khmer civilisations as well as artefacts illustrating mountain culture, revolutionary periods and even gifts bestowed on president Ho Chi Minh before his death. Not all exhibits are clearly labelled in English, but the setting practically justifies the visit. (Open Tuesday-Sunday, 8-11am and 1.30-4.30pm.)
5, Saigon Central Post Office
This building stands as a reminder of the more than 70 years of French colonial rule (and it's still an operating post office, so you have no excuse not to send a postcard home). Designed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, like the tower), the Saigon Central Post Office was completed in 1891, two years after he finished that famous Parisian landmark. Walk along the pretty patterned tile floor and admire the decorative ceilings.
Saigon Central Post Office
6, Daring food
Fertilised duck eggs, fermented scorpion wine, deep-fried snake dishes: Vietnam is synonymous with cuisine to put hairs on your chest. Try to avoid restaurants prone to killing the snake in front of you (some diners like to feast on the still-beating heart). It's not kind to the snake and it won't increase virility. Reputable hotels can point you in the direction of a good restaurant with such creatures on the menu, or look out for glass bottles of snake wine known as "ruou thuoc" at most markets. Don't worry, the venom is neutralised by the ethanol.
There isn't much you can't buy from a market here, and although haggling is an art form requiring practice, it's still easy enough to pick up a bargain. District 1's Ben Thanh Market is certainly the most famous — there are more than 3000 stalls — but prices can often be inflated for tourists. For a lesser-known alternative, District 1's Tan Dinh specialises in silks and clothing material, while Ben Thanh night market is popular for those who prefer bargain hunting free from the noon heat.
Ben Thanh Market
Since its introduction to Vietnam by French colonists in the 19th century, coffee has become a national obsession that rivals our own. Thanks to the intense humidity, iced coffee, known locally as "ca phe sua da", is generally favoured, and is brewed with a dark roast over a single metal french drip filter called "ca phe phin". Served with sweet condensed milk poured over ice, it's the perfect kick-start. Head to the Tan Tao Park to enjoy an early-morning brew with the locals or order a cup from any street vendor.
9, Pagodas and temples
The kaleidoscopic Jade Emperor Pagoda is widely regarded as the city's most spectacular, but it's one of many. For a dose of southern India's colour, check out Mariamman Temple, built in the 19th century by traders to honour the Hindu goddess Mariamman. For a wealth of Chinese temples, check out Cholon or take a day-trip to the Cao Dai temple at Tay Ninh, which is easily combined with a tour of the nearby Cu Chi tunnels. Incorporating aspects of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and even Catholicism, it was built between 1933 and 1955. (Day tours, including the temple and tunnels, cost about $8.)
Markets aside, there are plenty of options for high-end shopping. The major department stores are found at the central business district's Diamond Plaza or Saigon Centre — though prices won't differ much from home — while locals tend to favour Trai Street, straddling districts 1 and 5 for cheaper goods. Le Cong Kieu is famous for antiques, and the relatively new Vincom Centre opposite the Hotel Continental is a good bet for pricier, high-quality and boutique wares, while fashionistas will love Nguyen Hue Street.