Visiting Vietnam

War Museum, Saigon

5 Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Our last stop in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City. The city was known as Saigon for many years until it was renamed after the end of the Vietnam War. Interestingly, locals still often refer to it as Saigon. This is Vietnam’s largest city with about 10 million inhabitants.

Ho Chi Minh City view

View of central Ho Chi Minh City. The central tower has an observation deck for tourists.

The first thing we noticed on our drive into the city from the airport was how different it felt from Hanoi! Ho Chi Minh City felt much more vibrant, fashionable and modern – with lots of marquee international stores and young people on scooters going everywhere.

Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam

View of Ho Chi Minh City from the observation deck mentioned above.

We spent two days here. Our first day was spent exploring the sights in the core downtown area (on foot) and on our second day we took a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, about 70 km (45 miles) outside the city.

War Remnants Museum

This is the main tourist attraction in Ho Chi Minh City. It tells the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese people and their Communist regimes.

War Remnants Museum Saigon

Exterior view of the War Remnants Museum.

War Remnants Museum Saigon

The courtyard of the War Remnants Museum is filled with various U.S. Military equipment.

Of course, horrific tragedies occurred on both sides and no one was innocent in this conflict. The whole war was an unfortunate disaster that caused pain and suffering on both sides.

War Remnants Museum, Saigon

A sign post in the War Remnants Museum.

Saigon War Remnants Museum11

Prisoner cages.

Vietnam War Map

This map shows the areas of heaviest fighting during the Vietnam War (areas in black).

Saigon War Remnants Museum12

A display inside the War Remnants Museum.

The museum is large and well organized, with exhibits on several floors and outside the main building. Plan at least two hours for your visit, and if you want to read everything, even longer.

 

Jade Emperor Pagoda

This temple takes the cake for weirdness for those of us less initiated in the Buddhist and Taoist religions – with crowded, smoke (incense) filled rooms.

Jade Pagoda, Saigon

Exterior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Exterior detail at the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

It’s hard to describe, although Lonely Planet does a pretty good job: “this is one of the most spectacularly atmospheric temples in Ho Chi Minh City, stuffed with statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes”.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Interior view of Jade Emperor Pagoda with a variety of figures.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Another view in the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

Jade Emperor Pagoda

One other view of the interior of the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

The temple is not old, having been constructed in 1909 in honor of the supreme Taoist god (known as the Jade Emperor), Ngoc Hoang. It is crowded with strange-looking figures and jumbled rooms. Definitely worth a visit!

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

This basilica was built between 1863-1880 by the French during the period of French colonialism in Vietnam. One of the vestiges of their occupation is this beautiful (and out of place) cathedral located in the heart of the city on a pretty square.

Saigon Notre Dame Basilica

A view of the Basilica in Ho Chi Minh City. The statue of Mary in the foreground supposedly shed tears in 2005, stopping traffic in this busy area.

All of the materials for this cathedral were imported from France.

Saigon Notre Dame Basilica1

Interior view of the Basilica.

Central Post Office

Right next to the Cathedral is another relic of the French era, the Central Post Office. This building was constructed in the late 1800’s and contains two beautiful paintings on its walls (maps of Saigon and the larger region) and a variety of shops.

Central Post Office Saigon

Exterior view of the Central Post Office.

Central Post Office Saigon

Interior view of the Central Post Office.

There is a tourist office here where we arranged for our tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels (see below).

Cu Chi Tunnels

These relics of the Vietnam War are less than 45 miles outside the city, but took about 90 minutes to reach due to traffic getting out of the city. They are well worth the effort. We did this as part of a day tour (our group had about eight people).

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City

Entrance to the Cu Chi Tunnels.

The extensive tunnel systems served as communication and transportation networks to aid the Viet Cong in fighting the South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. There are two main tunnel areas that can be visited: Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh, our tour went to Ben Dinh.

Cu Chi Tunnels

A main entrance into one of the bunkers at Cu Chi Tunnels.

Some rooms were large enough to be used as conference rooms and hospitals.

Cu Chi Tunnels

One of the war rooms in the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Hospital display at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

There are 250 km (155 miles) of tunnels here, some are two levels deep. It must have been quite an engineering feat to dig these tunnels and lay out the system in a stealth manner.

We were shown secret entrances, disguised air vents, and treacherous booby traps.  We had the opportunity to crawl on our hands and knees through tiny tunnels that had lovely bats flying around you!

Hidden entrance to Cu Chi Tunnels

A hidden entrance to the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels

A typical corridor in the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City

Cramped space in the Cu Chi Tunnels!

Cu Chi Tunnels air shaft.

Concealed air shaft to the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Booby trap – watch your step or you could end up falling on these huge spikes.

Be sure to wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty! After spending time crawling on our hands and knees in the tunnels in a damp humid climate we gained an appreciation for what it must have been like to live in these conditions for months or years.

Ho Chi Minh City is a great place to visit, be sure it’s on your itinerary in Vietnam.

 

Visiting the Charming Village of Hoi An (with a Day Trip to My Son ruins)

From Hanoi, we flew to Da Nang, a city on the central coast of Vietnam and kind of like the “California” of Vietnam – the winter weather here was sunnier and warmer than Hanoi. The setting is quite pretty with green mountains surrounding the city and long stretches of beachfront and resorts along the South China Sea coast, making it somewhat of a vacation destination. Da Nang is the 5th largest city in Vietnam and a major port.

Da Nang, Vietnam

A snapshot of Da Nang from our taxi.

Our purpose in coming to Da Nang was to visit the UNESCO World Heritage town of Hoi An, a picturesque village just about 30 minutes south by taxi. Several centuries ago, when Vietnam was just being “discovered” by European explorers, Hoi An was a major port and trading hub for much of Asia.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A view of the village of Hoi An with the river boats.

Japanese Bridge. Hoi An, Vietnam

The 18th century Japanese covered bridge, the symbol of Hoi An.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A temple in Hoi An.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A street scene in Hoi An.

Hoi An is now a primary tourist destination—with well-preserved 15th-19th century architecture and lots of shopping and restaurants along the Thu Bon River. Speaking of shopping, good values can be found here – I got a wooden ship (junk) model for $25 and my daughter bought a couple pairs of custom made leather sandals and my son bought a leather wallet, made overnight after they copied the best features of his current wallet!

Hoi An18

My ship model. A bargain for $25.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Some fashionable shoes for sale in Hoi An!

The Thu Bon River is the lifeblood of Hoi An – providing a highway for transportation, access to the sea and sources of food. We took an hour tour along the river – very enjoyable, with views of homes, boats and daily life along the riverfront.

The Ban River, Hoi An, Vietnam

Demonstration of how to cast a net on our Thu Bon River cruise.

The Ban River, Hoi An, Vietnam

Our river boat guide.

Thu Bon River, Hoi An, Vietnam

View along the Thu Bon River.

The evenings are when Hoi An shows its best, with the decorated lights along the river, and lively sounds coming from the restaurants, shops and bars around the town.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An comes alive at dusk, with the tourists looking for food and drink after the day’s adventures.

Hoi An, Vietnam

A dusk river boat ride.

Hoi An, Vietnam

One of the many tailors in Hoi An.

My Son Ancient Hindu Temples – A Good Day Trip from Hoi An

Another thing we did while in Hoi An was hire a taxi to take us out to the My Son ancient ruins, another UNESCO World Heritage site, which was about 37 kilometers (20 miles) distant. These are ancient Hindu temples, constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

View of the ruins of My Son.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

One of the better preserved temples at My Son.

Most of the temples were built out of brick rather than stone. There is a large visitors center and interpretive signs in English at the major temples. The ruins are some distance away from the visitor’s center, and you can either walk or take a cart ride provided by the park.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Another temple at My Son.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

This ruin has been restored; the UN is providing some funds for restoration of these temples.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Detailed carved writing (with some bullet marks) can be seen on this stone.

While this site in its current state does not compare to the ruins found in Siem Reap, it is nonetheless interesting, partly for the history and partly because there was significant fighting here during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, much of the site was destroyed during bombing runs by the U.S. Evidence of this can still be seen in the bomb craters.

My Son Ruins17

Bomb crater (the mud hole at bottom of photo).

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Some ruins are still covered by dense jungle foliage.

Unexploded land mines are still in the area too, so don’t wander off the main paths.

My Son Ruins, Hoi An, Vietnam

Going out on patrol in this dense jungle must have been no fun (some ruins can also be seen).

It was rainy the day we visited and I can only imagine how miserable it would have been to slog through the humid, wet jungle for days and weeks on end constantly in fear of being shot or captured. Plan about 4 hours for the round trip from Hoi An, which leaves about 2 hours for the site visit.