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A Guide to Ho Chi Minh City

A Guide to Ho Chi Minh City

One of Asia’s most fascinating cities, Ho Chi Minh City has long evoked haunting images of a glorious past rich with saga, stories, and intrigue. The biggest city in Vietnam, it is often mistaken as the country’s capital. The metropolis embraces a wonderful chaos constantly on the move, echoing the thrum of motorbikes, the energy of the daily workings of life, and the sharp aromas of delectable food. Often cited as Vietnam's cultural powerhouse, it effortlessly connects the bonds of previous eras with modern times.

Historical trinkets reside in Ho Chi Minh City’s narrow alleyways with hidden corners revealing old secrets and new experiences, fine Vietnamese silks, street stands bursting with local flavours, and rickshaws weaving their way maniacally through the busy throng of people. The commotion is a musical medley.

Brief history of Ho Chi Minh City: Formerly known as Saigon (and still referred to as such by the locals) the data about the city’s early history is vague. The current city was previously a part of the empire of Cambodia. The Vietnamese came to the region in the 17th century defeating the Champa kingdom, and soon after Saigon was born - a name derived from the Vietnamese word for the kapok tree. As the city grew, trading relations began with France in the 18th century, and many French missionaries and citizens poured into the province’s borders. Subsequently, French military forces seized the area, and in 1862 The Treaty of Saigon declared Saigon as the capital of French Cochinchina.

Saigon was given a facelift and renovated into a prime metropolitan hub with imposing villas, cafes, boutiques, public buildings, steam tramways, and leafy tamarind-covered boulevards. However, colonial rule was harsh, and nationalist movements took root with widespread dissent. After a short-lived capture by the Japanese during WWII, Saigon was returned to the French leading to the First Indochina War. After the war ended in 1954, Vietnam was divided into northern (communist region primarily supported by the Soviet Union) and southern zones (capitalist region, heavily aided by the USA), with Saigon as the capital of the southern district. A constant influx from the communist North threatened to imbalance the political milieu in the South, leading to the Second Indochina War in the 1960s and early ‘70s with an eventual fall of the USA-led South. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the fearless revolutionary leader and politician. 

The Best Time to Visit Ho Chi Minh City 

Ho Chi Minh City has two chief seasons – dry and wet. It stays warm year-round with an average temperature of 28 degrees Celsius.

Dry Season: The dry season runs from December to April, and is viewed as the best time of the year to visit Ho Chi Minh City. The skies are clear, and the temperatures are mild hovering between 21 to 34 degrees Celsius. Humidity is at its lowest during this season. 

The end of January and early February marks the Vietnamese New Year or Tet, which lasts for seven days. Although prices soar and several establishments are closed, it is a joyous time to visit. The streets are festooned with colourful decorations, the scent of incense lingers in the air, and magnificent fireworks fill the skies. The city is alive with a plethora of activities.

Wet Season: The wet season runs from May to November with frequent tropical storms. May is one of the hottest months and temperatures can soar up to 37 degrees. The mercury swings between 26 and 29 degrees Celsius from June onwards and humidity is at its highest. However, the downpour does not last too long and it is possible to get around and continue visiting the attractions.

Sightseeing in Ho Chi Minh City

War Remnants Museum: Formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum primarily documents the war with America, struggles with China, and the French-colonial period. The museum is a significant tribute to Vietnam's history, offering valuable perspectives and examining the traumatic impact of war on the psyche of the local people. The exhibits include the disturbing photography of the devastating My Lai massacre in 1968 where hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians were viciously killed by US soldiers, in an ambush. It is one of the most popularly visited sites in Ho Chi Minh City. 

Visitors first see US armoured vehicles, bombs, infantry weapons including a 28-tonne howitzer, and other artillery pieces on display in the courtyard. A corner on the museum grounds features the infamous prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son islands, with figures that mimic the deplorable conditions of prisoners of war, including the notorious ‘tiger cages.’ Inside the museum, there are exhibits of a collection of grisly photographs showing mutilation, napalm burns, torture, and the dreadful toxic effects of the 75 million litres of Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant, on the Vietnamese people. These include malformed foetuses which are preserved in pickling jars. The museum also displays real war aircraft, and some of the experimental armaments used in the war, such as the flechette, an artillery shell filled with several tiny darts. To balance the show of horrors there is a gallery detailing the international opposition to the war which includes the peace movement in the USA. There are poignant accounts of ex-servicemen, such as Michael Heck, a veteran B52 pilot, among others, who endeavoured to quit serving in the defence forces and fighting the war on ethical grounds.

Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre: The water puppet theatre provides the ideal, cheerful antidote to the despair caused after visiting the war museum. Situated close to the museum, the nightly 45-minute puppetry show details fascinating Vietnamese folklore. 

The art form traces its origins to the 11th century in the rice paddies of the Red River Delta in North Vietnam. Water puppet recitals were enacted by the village folk inside a rice paddy in waist-deep water, to celebrate the end of the harvest. Rice is the staple diet of the Vietnamese people and enacting skits in a paddy field served as an emblematic link to the yield. A pagoda was erected on top to cover the puppeteers’ movements hiding puppet strings. The water whilst serving as a stage also provided an iridescent lighting effect and enhanced musical acoustics.

Modern water puppetry is also performed in a shallow water pool which is equipped with state-of-the-art technology with spotlights, booming sound, and flamboyant set designs with vibrant flags. Eight puppet masters queue up behind bamboo screens resembling a temple facade and control the puppets with long bamboo rods and string mechanisms veiled beneath the water surface, giving the impression of the puppets moving over the water. The marionettes either enter from the sides of the stage or dramatically materialise from the depths of the water. The wooden, lacquered dolls often weigh up to 15 kilograms and are dressed in bright and eye-catching colours. The themes of the shows revolve around parodies of rural life, such as harvest, fishing, festivals, and day-to-day living. Performances also recount Vietnamese folktales, myths, and historical events, peppered with large doses of humorous twists. The programme comprises several acts which flow logically from one to the next with fun pieces such as a fairy dance, boat racing, dragon dance, and unicorns playing with balls. 

A classic Vietnamese orchestra supplements the performances with background music and sound effects and is a huge draw for spectators. Traditional instruments, namely đàn bầu, or monochord, gongs, bamboo flutes, drums, wooden bells, cymbals, and horns add to the programme’s success. The bamboo flute's simple notes may convey the entry of royalty while the drums and cymbals announce more theatrical entrances such as a fire-breathing dragon. Vocalists from Chèo, a satirical musical theatre, augment the puppet show further with story-telling songs. The singers entertainingly shout out to the characters on stage to alert them of threats or reassure them if they are in distress. 

Although the plays are entirely in Vietnamese, the explicit gestures of the wooden dolls and captivating music are enthralling even for foreign audiences. English brochures outlining the story are handed out before the show by ushers dressed in traditional silk tunics.

Jade Emperor Pagoda: Constructed in the early 20th century in 1909 by a Chinese immigrant, the Jade Emperor Pagoda honours the supreme Taoist god, Ngoc Hoang. Taoism is a tradition indigenous to China and for the Vietnamese people, the Jade Emperor is one of the most revered gods in mythology who governs the elements of the earth such as the sky, land, and sea, in addition to all life forms. He is assisted by other celestial beings to make and protect everything on Earth. Locals pray to him for recovery and good fortune.

Spreading over an area of 7500 feet, the pagoda has two entrances. The key egress is buoyed by pink concrete pillars with a single door and a tiled roof. The smaller side entry is supported by two stone doors engraved with red Chinese inscriptions. An oak tree-lined courtyard with hanging orange lanterns leads to a fish pond flourishing with lotus and a second pond overflowing with turtles, some of which have shells marked with writings. The latter has earned an alternative moniker for the temple - Tortoise Pagoda. The shrine is similar to a Chinese religious structure with several paintings on the walls. The brightly-coloured roof is encrusted with gilt woodwork and elaborate yin-tang tiles with diverse statues of grotesque heroes, dragons, birds, and animals, in addition to divinities from Buddhist and Taoist folklore, made from papier mâché. 

Inside the pagoda, over three hundred figurines, some made of cartridge paper, paintings, and altars made of numerous materials, such as wood, porcelain, and cardboard, are scattered across the halls. Of particular interest are two fierce Taoist figures lording over other figurines – a sculpture of the general who defeated the Green Dragon and a statue of the general who defeated the White Tiger. The shrine is divided into three galleries and each is a distinctive architectural masterpiece. The main hall holds the imposing figure of the Jade Emperor draped in opulent robes with a long hanging moustache, and flanked by his guardians, the Four Big Diamonds, so named because of their gem-like toughness. The supreme God is shrouded in a heavy fog of fragrant incense smoke, which scents the air right up to the leafy patio. 

The Hall of the Ten Hells comes next with engraved wooden panels demonstrating the sufferings awaiting those who have committed sinful acts. On the opposite side is a room with twelve ceramic figures of women, in two rows of six, in vibrant attire. Each figurine illustrates a human attribute, good or bad, and signifies a year in the 12-year Chinese calendar. 

Locals come here to pray for several reasons including infertility, marriage, and most significantly health and peace.

Binh Tay Market: One of the busiest wholesale markets in Ho Chi Minh City, the Binh Tay Market is both a sightseeing and shopping destination, offering a thick slice of Vietnamese culture. It is also one of the oldest markets in the city tracing its history back to nearly a hundred years. In ancient times, the thriving New Market area was established for traders to exchange goods burgeoned, spilling stalls onto pavements, and narrowing the streets. A wealthy Chinese merchant, Quach Dam, spent his own money to build the Binh Tay Market in 1928 and subsequently handed it over to the government. Operational since 1930, the market has been a key trading hub for the Vietnamese and Chinese people.

The architecture of the bazaar is laid out in ancient Chinese style with modern French construction techniques. The first sight to greet a shopper is an imposing tower at the market’s entrance with four faces. Each facade is fitted with a large clock. The front of the tower is decorated with blue mosaic while the top is ornamented with embossed dragons and a red tiled roof. Arresting intricate patterns adorn the yellow walls of the market. There are twelve auxiliary gates with one large opening to transport goods. There is an airy and spacious courtyard in the middle with a statue of Quach Dam, surrounded by a lotus pond with fish, stone benches for visitors, a figure of a unicorn, and a dragon spraying water. 

The main body of the marketplace is a compact grid of aisles with an outer wet market and an inner market. The former opens early at the crack of dawn and winds up by 9 a.m. It is filled with fresh ingredients to cook Vietnamese and Chinese food, with an assortment of meat, seafood, fruit, and vegetables. Vendors sit with buckets of eels, bunches of frogs - tied together at the legs, pigs’ ears, and baskets full of hens, dispersed along the street, selling off tables or tarps on the ground.

The indoor section of the Binh Tay Market begins in the small courtyard where one gets a chance to catch a breath of fresh air from the tightly jammed alleys. Preserved varieties of ingredients, nuts, dried fruits, spices, dried seafood, herbs, and snacks, present a food nirvana for a keen shopper. Apart from food, Vietnamese clothing, including the finest yarns of Vietnamese silk, embroidered cloth, and souvenirs such as paintings on rice paper, lacquerware, musical instruments, opium pipes, antique watches, French colonial stamps, conical hats, basketware, bags, shoes, Da Lat coffee and face masks, and multiple types of Vietnamese cookware, can be bought here.

The rear of the market has a food court, to gulp down tasty morsels on the spot. It is recognised as one of the top-rated breakfast spots in the country. Varieties of bamboo shoots, vermicelli, duck, fish noodle soup, Pho soup, a broth with noodles, beef or other meat, and myriad toppings, Pha lau, braised pork, and offal in a spiced stock of five-spice powder, Bánh bao, tiny ball-shaped buns containing pork or chicken, eggs, and vegetables, Bun Bo Hue, made with rice noodles, beef, pork sausage, herbs and spices, and a broth, Com tam, a dish made from rice with fractured rice grains, or sweetmeats such as Bap, corn with sticky rice and thick coconut cream, are just some of the delicious food items that can be sampled here. 

Cu Chi Tunnels: An extensive network of underground narrow tunnels, the Cu Chi Tunnels are emblematic of the Vietnamese people’s stoicism against foreign military rule, sacrifice, and honour. The covert passageways tie in with much of Ho Chi Minh City’s martial past.

The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong, an armed communist organization that fought against South Vietnam and the United States government during the Vietnam War, in the 1960s, to fend off American soldiers. The crisscrossed secretive channels provided a covert cover to snake military combatants of the North Vietnamese through the country without detection. Initially covered by a French rubber plantation, anti-colonial nationalists dug the first tunnels here in the late 1940s to store arms. Subsequently, they became valuable hiding places for the resistance fighters, and over a decade later, the Viet Cong controlling the area followed suit. By 1965, the network mushroomed into 250 kilometres of intersecting tunnels linking guerrilla cells in the region. The tunnels could be as narrow as 80 centimetres wide and high, with multiple levels. The tiny tunnel entrances prevented them from getting discovered and if they were, the bulkier girth of American soldiers proved an impediment to climb down. However, if they did manage to slide down, booby traps awaited them in the dark, including sharpened bamboo stakes, boxes of scorpions and snakes, and bombs made from Coke cans. Smoke vent shafts on the ground were cleverly camouflaged by thick grass and termites’ nests, and pepper was liberally sprinkled around the exhausts to throw sniffer dogs off the scent. Attempts by the American soldiers to toss down grenades proved ineffective. The multi-level tunnel complexes had latrines, meeting rooms, dorms, and rudimentary hospitals where operations were carried out under torchlight with instruments shaped from shards, and often patients were pumped with blood using a bicycle pump. However, the constant use of defoliant sprays and carpet bombing by the US military poisoned the air, and living conditions below ground were appalling. The tunnels smelled foul, there was absolute darkness leading to temporary blindness when exposed to light, and with rice and other crops destroyed, the diet consisted of leaves and roots. It was insufferably hot in the afternoon and the soldiers had to lie on the floor to get adequate oxygen to breathe. Moreover, bats, rats, snakes, and scorpions were unwelcome tunnel dwellers. Nevertheless, the locals pumped morale through troupes that toured the tunnels singing songs with patriotic wordings like "He who comes to Cu Chi, the Bronze Fortress in the Land of Iron, will count the crimes accumulated by the Enemy".

The tours of the tunnels are located on two separate sites - Ben Dinh and, Ben Duoc. The Ben Dinh guided expedition commences in a thatched hut which has a regional map, and a black and white movie overflowing with national pride running in the background. From here, one heads out into the bushes where lethal traps, concealed trap doors, and abandoned tanks, are laid out. There are models illustrating how unexploded artillery was cleverly changed into deadly mines, and a demo of smoke being resourcefully dispersed from underground fires. A nearby shooting range offers the chance to shoulder M16 or AK47 guns, and finally, one can stoop and crawl through a section of the tunnels. Although it only takes 10 to 15 minutes to clamber through, and some sections of the tunnels have been widened to allow easy passage for fuller frames, the humidity and darkness can be upsetting and a sobering experience. 

The Ben Douc experience is like Ben Dinh, but it has fewer foreign tourists. The original tunnels have been expanded considerably, and for an extra fee, one can don a soldier’s gear to skulk through them, followed by a firing round.

Getting around Ho Chi Minh City

There are several options to get around Ho Chi Minh City and although it is not as walkable as Hanoi, it does offer a pleasant walking experience to visitors. 

By Grab: Akin to Uber in India, Grab is a cheap method to travel in the city. The app is easy to download and accessibility is convenient. It can be used to reserve a taxi, car, or motorcycle. The last one is perhaps the most fun way to navigate the town! 

By Motorbike: Synonymous with the Vietnamese experience, motorbikes whir noisily on Saigon’s streets at most times of the day. Riding a motorbike requires a Vietnamese driving licence and visitors with visas valid for longer than three months are eligible for one.

Bicycle: Renting bicycles in Ho Chi Minh City is stress-free and safe as speeds in the city are low and the terrain is flat. In fact, one can get around at the same pace as a motorbike on a bicycle! 

Cyclo: Resembling tuk-tuks, cyclos run completely on manpower and are slow-moving. Several roads in Ho Chi Minh City prohibit their entry as they can be a nuisance in traffic. However, they offer a historic peek into Saigon’s past and taking a xich lo or cyclo takes one to the roads of yesteryear, exploring the beautiful city in the breeze, past its prime highlights.


Ho Chi Minh City’s dizzying chaos pulsates with high-octane energy, transporting one on a thrilling ride. A disorganised whirl throbbing with life and vitality, it draws a keen traveller like a bee to sweet nectar. Call Offbeat Tracks to chart out a guide to Ho Chi Minh City – a city that seamlessly blends the old with the new with its ancient monuments, street markets, and contemporary boutiques and nightspots. Saigon’s beguiling charm only needs to be discovered once for you to visit repeatedly.