We spent three full days in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon), the largest city (but not the capital) of Vietnam. Timeless (read: small and dark) alleys crisscross between the busy streets, and old buildings full of character share the city with giant shiny shopping malls. We experienced it as a lively city, hectic and full of traffic, although at the same time relaxed and full of people having a great time. You can’t get around the street vendors selling sunglasses, jewelry and food, and motorbikes are everywhere, yet while walking through the various parks in the city, we had a sense of serenity. You seem to forget the bustling manner on the streets and see people relaxing, playing badminton, rollerblading, jogging and learning their kid how to ride a bike. We liked it!
So, what to do in Ho Chi Minh City?
We spent our first day walking around the city and exploring some of the major tourist attractions. We passed by two of the must see buildings in Ho Chi Minh City: the Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral, situated across from each other. We saw a man with a tower of donut-like pastries on his head and a freshly wedded couple taking wedding pictures in front of the mighty cathedral. The cathedral seemed to be closed and we just took a peek inside the Central Post Office, so these two were scratched of our list in about 15 minutes.
Next, we visited two museums of the wide range offered in Ho Chi Minh City. We’d do them both again if we had to start over our visit, so we recommend you to visit them too. The first one being the Reunification Palace. The entrance fee is 30,000 VND per person, which gives you acces to the palace and the surrounding grounds. Tickets can be bought between 7h30-11h and 13h-16h. We walked by the majestic fountain before the palace, and reached the army tanks lined up on the grass. After taking some pictures, we entered the Reunification Palace itself. It’s quite interesting to see how they lived and worked here. We didn’t pay a guide to show us around, so we just wandered through the building, accidentally overhearing some facts from random guides showing groups around the palace. In total we were about 45 minutes on the grounds.
The War Remnants Museum on the other hand, was something totally different. Although it started as well with paying an entrance fee (15,000 VND per person, ticket office hours: 7h30-11h30 and 13h30-16h30) and checking out some army tanks lined up in front of the building, once we passed them, it got real. Left in front of the building, you could see remnants of the cells and folter equipment used by the French and American forces invading Vietnam. Foltering techniques are meticulously described and photos of victims make it all the more real. Especially the tiger cages still make my stomach turn when I get reminded of them. It all seems surreal.
Inside the main building, the proper order is to go from the upper to the ground floor, as indicated by the numbers. On the upper floor there’s the Requiem Exhibition, a display of the last pictures taken by both foreign and Vietnamese journalists and photographers before becoming victim of the conflict. The numerous photos capture the war and its victims up close. Another memorable, but horrible photo exhibition is the one displaying the (still lasting) consequences of Agent Orange and napalm bombs, among others. The children of people that got in touch with the chemicals suffer physical deformations of all kind, just like their children and maybe generations longer. Everything is displayed uncensored and the fact that the end of it all was only 40 years ago, makes it all the more real. It really got to us. After about one hour and a half however, we reached the ground floor, which shows the evidence of international support for the antiwar movement. This sort of counteracts all the horror you’ve seen before and tries to end your visit on a positive note.
To learn even more about (what we call) the Vietnam war, we booked a half day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels through our guesthouse (225,000 VND in total). The tour seemed to be organized by a tour company called YTC. We were picked up on foot at our guesthouse at about 8h00 in the morning. After moving us from the mini van we had to board to a normal bus, we finally left for our two hour drive to the Cu Chi Tunnels. We made a pitstop at a workplace for victims of Agent Orange, where we could see the people at work and buy some handmade souvenirs. Mickey, our tour guide, collected another 110,000 VND entrance fee per person from everyone on the bus, in order to decrease waiting times when buying the entrance tickets.
We started off with a short video on the war and the Cu Chi Tunnels, followed by some more explanations by Mickey. Next, he gave us a tour around the grounds of this “open air museum”, showing us the differently hidden entrances and reconstructed chambers of the underground village we call the Cu Chi Tunnels. We even went down and crawled our way through a tunnel. You could crawl on for several more meters, while the tunnel grew smaller, but we were glad to breath fresh air again after only a couple of minutes down there. Image people living there for 28 days in a row. We saw what kind of traps the Vietcong made for their enemies and what kind of tricks they used to throw them off their scent. All through the tour we heard different kinds of gun shots. At the end of the tour we could see where they came from: a shooting range where visitors can try a range guns for a considerable amount of Vietnamese Dong. The noise was terribly loud, and I really couldn’t see the fun in it, but a large part of our group seemed eager to cough up the money and give it a go. Brecht shot 10 rounds with an M1 Garand for 300,000 VND.
Our tour guide Mickey was funny, passionate and spoke decent English. Unfortunately the group was too large (more than 40 people) and not everyone could see and/or hear everything at all times. I, for example, missed the part about the traps, as I couldn’t see Mickey demonstrating them. Oh, and they forgot to tell us we had to bring lunch. At the shooting range there is a small shop where you can buy ice cream and cookies, but no decent lunch.
We loved our visit to Ho Chi Minh City, although Ngoc Thao Guesthouse didn’t really live up to our expectations. However, the vibrant city with its beautiful buildings made up for that. Learning about their gruesome history just has to be part of it, otherwise you haven’t really visited Vietnam.