Monday, August 29, 2011

Places to see in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

I am in Ho Chi Minh City now and as a person having been here many times, it is time to write my little things to do, places to see series about Saigon. Many attractions are concentrated in District 1, officially named Saigon, so a walking tour would make you see many. But a better alternative is cyclo tour. But if you will have one, negotiate the price in advance and clearly without any ambiguity and be careful with your camera and wallet since they can be easily grasped by motorbike riding thieves.

Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica

Saigon city center offers many attractions to visit. I would take Notre-Dame Basilica and Central Post Office as my start point. You may have probably seen the photos of this large cathedral in down town Ho Chi Minh City. Built in 1880 by French, it is a great tourist attraction and a beautiful cathedral from Indochina times. A Saigon photo album is not complete with a photo taken in front of it. Surrounding area is a great place to hang around day and night. It is also walking distance to several other attractions.

All the original construction material of this church was brought from France and the outside bricks came from Marseilles. Vietnam houses the second largest catholic christian population in South East Asia after Philippines and this church is still actively used as the main church of Ho Chi Minh City.

Saigon Notre Damme Basilica with Virgin Mary Statue
Just next to the cathedral, you will see the beautiful Gothic architectural masterpiece, Saigon Central Post Office. Many pass through this tourist attraction without knowing that it is designed and constructed by great French Gustave Eiffel, architect of Eiffel Tower, in Indochina past of Saigon. It is quite Saigon holiday tradition to send a Vietnam / Saigon post card from Saigon Post Office to loved ones around the world. One of those post cards I have sent to my sister is still on her fridge in Istanbul.

Saigon Central Post Office is designed and constructed by Gustave Eiffel
Saigon Zoo And Botanic Gardens
Many Saigon guides will direct you to Reunification Palace or War Remnants Museum from the Notre-Dame Basilica but I will suggest you to take Le Duan Street behind the cathedral all the way up to The Zoo. Saigon Zoo and Botanic Gardens eight oldest Zoo on the planet and a very famous place both for locals and foreigners.

First time I was there, I hand fed the elephants (do not try it yourself it is probably dangerous) and hand fed some deer which was very fun. Other than 260 species of animals and thousands of trees and plants (some of them are a century old), The Zoo also houses Saigon National Museum which keeps a lot of valuable exhibits and documents in two areas: one displays artifacts from the beginning of Vietnam to 1930, and the other displays things about culture and history of Vietnam. This is a great place to pay a visit if you are interested in the long and rich history of Vietnam.

Reunification Palace
This palace is simply known as "President Palace" in Ho Chi Minh City and it was named as Independence Palace until a North Vietnamese Army tank bulldozed through its main gate and ended the Vietnam War. Unified Vietnam renamed it to "Reunification Palace".

On the side of the current palace there was the old "Norodom Palace" built by French colonials in 1873 to be used as the official residence of the governor-general of French Indochina. After French left Vietnam in 1954, the Norodom Palace was handed over to the first president of South Vietnam. Norodom Palace was bombed by two rogue pilots of the South Vietnamese air force in an attempt to assasin the President and badly destroyed! Instead of going to a restoration, this old colonial landmark has been torn down and the structure was built in 1962.

Reunification Palace
The interesting thing about this palace is that it is like a time machine to early 70s. Things are kept so well that you really feel like it was abandoned a few days ago and you are in 1970s. There are several exhibits and photographs about the Vietnam history as well as Vietnam War era. You can read a detailed article about this tourist attraction in Reunification Palace.

The War Remnants Museum

Vietnam is still most known for Vietnam War (they call it American War here) and through some Hollywood movie masterpieces. This museum is mostly about that war and telling the story of the war from the other side. A section displays the results of air raids to Vietnamese Villages with of course full intention of "minimum civilian casuality(!)". You will say " you" when you hear "minimum civilian casuality" after seeing this part. And if you have somehow realized that South Vietnam is less "green" compared to South Thailand, the cause of this phenomenon is also displayed here: Agent Orange! Unfortunately, vegetation destruction is the least harmful thing this gas did in Vietnam.

Another section is about the life of Viet Kong during the "American War". If you have grown up in the western block of the divided world, you have seen them only a few seconds per movie without any story in the Vietnam War movies. So I was watching "Lost" when I first visited this section and I have named it as "The Others". It details the life of Viet Kong through out the war. I suggest you to read the visitors book. An old American man was writing while I was there and after he left I read what he and several people wrote. He was an American soldier in Vietnam when he was 20 and it was his first time in Saigon since 1974!

When I first came here, there was a section showing the Americans against the war in 60s and other western movements against the war. It was not there or I missed it in my second time. Outside the building there are many war relics, helicopters, bombs, planes, etc.

Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market is one of the oldest buildings in Saigon and is popular place among tourists seeking Vietnamese handicrafts, textiles, souvenirs, and  local cuisine. Although it worth to see this place it is best to avoid any shopping here if you have time to pay a visit a little outside central Saigon (District 1) . It is a tiring experience to bargain here and always smiling shop owners here shamelessly deploys tricks to depart you and your money as fast as possible. Prices are always 50% - 100% over for you if you are a tourist so you need to hard bargain. But as I said for shopping, if you have choice (most tours unfortunately brings you to this tourist milking place) avoid to shop here and head to Binh Tay Market in Chinatown.

Ben Thanh Market
Binh Tay Market
This market in the Chinatown, is almost a twin of overrated Ben Thanh Market and largely overlooked by tourists. Everything you can buy in Saigon and Ben Thanh Market are sold here (actually they are largely sourced from here). It is very wise to skip the tourist trap Ben Thanh Market and come to Binh Tay if you want to make significant shopping in Saigon. If you know how to bargain and select quality products, Ho Chi Minh City offers great savings on shopping. Everything I wear in Singapore except some work clothes are from here or District 5 other bazaars with 25% of the price I can buy in Singapore.

Binh Tay Market in Ho Chi Minh City Chinatown

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