Exploring Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)

February 06, 2015  •  5 Comments
-by Vlad-
Good morning Vietnam!
After a quiet and calm stay in Siem Reap, we headed to the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon), Vietnam's largest city. We decided to try something different and take a 'hotel bus' instead of flying. Two rows of small 'pods' consisting of two tiny mattresses and a curtain were provided for $19 apiece. Not bad for a 14-15 hour bus ride, especially when we left at midnight right? Well there were a few catches. First, the beds weren't as spacious as we thought, but it was still a lot better than being stuck in a seat that only reclined seven degrees like on a normal bus. Second, the roads were mostly unpaved, so the ride to the border was bumpy. Third, the hotel bus was only for the first eight hours, after which we had to switch to a regular seater bus and spend an hour suffering through a chaotic and unorganized customs process. Lastly, we made the mistake of having a large meal before our journey. Let's just say this made the ride even less pleasant.
When we finally reached district 1 (city centre) in Saigon, the traffic immediately stood out. Scooters rule this city with hundreds upon hundreds of riders traveling every each way. Heading the wrong way down a one way street, parents with up to three kids on a scooter, and constant honking are common sights and sounds on the streets of Ho Chi Minh city.
After we spent a day and a half recovering from a bus ride from hell we set out to explore the city. One of our sightseeing days took us to the the Reunification Palace. This was where the South Vietnam president lived and strategized during the American War (which is what the 'Vietnam War' is known as here).  The fall of Saigon took place here on April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its walls.  From here, we headed towards the Saigon Notre Dame basilica, a smaller, reddish version of the famous Paris landmark and wrapped the day up walking around the city. Since Vietnam was under the French rule for a hundred years, it is not hard to miss some french influence on architecture.
A few days later we took a day trip to the Cu Chi region, about a two hour van ride from Saigon. It was here that we got a glimpse of what jungle warfare was like during the American war. We crawled through tiny tunnels that were used to move around the region and saw booby traps used to thwart the enemy (think camouflaged pit lined with bamboo spikes). We thought the tunnels were tiny but our tour guide informed us that what we experienced were the ones that were enlarged to fit non Vietnamese size tourists. The real versions were much smaller and stretched for many kilometers at some points. Imagine spending days and weeks here at a time? Sadly, we didn't last the entire 100m tunnel before we complained of sore knees, humidity and mild claustrophobia and decided to exit along with vast majority of tourist.
What started out as a rough arrival turned out to be a pleasant visit to the busy city of Saigon. On December 24, we bid adieu and took a flight to spend Christmas up north in Hanoi. 
Geography: Vietnam is located on the east of the Indochina Peninsula in South East Asia.  
Population: 90.5 million in Vietnam, 7.4 million in Ho Chi Minh City. 
Demographics: In Vietnam 85.7% Viet (Kinh), 1.9% Tay, 1.7% Tai, 1.5% Muorng, remainder is others. 
Currency: Vietnamese Dong, 1 USD  = approximately 21,000 VND.
Official Languages: Vietnamese.
Religion: In Vietnam 45.3% Indigenous Religions, 16.4% Buddhism, 8.2% Christianity, 29.6% not religious.
Best Known for: Colonized by and under French rule from mid 19th century to 1954; Vietnam War (or as it's called in Vietnam - American War); communist government; very high economic growth rate in the recent years; some of the best known dishes are pho, bun cha, steamed rice cake, morning glory, as well as french influenced croissants, sandwiches and coffee. 
What We Noticed: lots of motorbikes and disorderly traffic; honking; busy streets; sidewalk vendors; conical Vietnamese hats; French influences in architecture and cuisine. 
Interesting Facts: Vietnam's media sector including internet is regulated by the government, such websites as Facebook have been blocked in the recent years.
The route of our bus ride. "Hotel bus" for 8 hours from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, followed by another 6 hours of torture on a regular bus. 
This is our "luxurious" hotel bus. The only way to get my phone to charge was to rest the charger on my foot. Comfy. 
Our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City cost us $30 a night. 
Modern skyscrapers and motorbike traffic. Motorbikes are the most popular mean of transportation in Ho Chi Minh City.
A nicely decorated street near the Reunification Palace.
The Reunification Palace.
One of the many meeting rooms used to host dignitaries.
The Saigon Notre Dame Basilica looks more European than Asian. It was established by the French colonists and constructed between 1863 and 1880. Unfortunately it was not open for viewing.
Saigon Opera House aka Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City is another example of French Colonial architecture. 
This guy would balance his plate of baked goods for sale on his head. I couldn't believe how heavy it was. 
Trying to sell, first baked goods, and now coconuts. Gotta pay for this trip somehow. 
Colorful buildings on the streets of Saigon. 
Vietnam's Telecom. Such intertwined electric cables are visible around the entire city. 
Exploring small alleys of the city. Walking through these you can look into people's houses which are often extremely small and make NYC apartments look super spacious.  
Mobile vendors sell everything from fresh flowers...
...to feather dusters. I'm not even going to ask what kind of feathers these dusters were made of.
At a local produce, meat and fish market. As seen on this lady, the iconic conical hat is still widely used in Vietnam. 
Nothing like sitting on the table which your goods are being sold on.  Skinned frogs that were still moving. This took away Edyta's appetite for a few days.
Colorful herbs and spices. 
Many types of rice.
Life in Ho Chi Minh City happens on the streets and sidewalks. We saw no supermarkets but instead plenty of street vendors.  What to do with trash? Why burn it on the street of course.  
Who's up for a cup of street tea?
Who needs take out containers when you have balancing skills like this guy?
Stopped for a few spring rolls beside this guy's 'market'.
Child safety at its best.
A delicious bowl of vermicelli. Don't forget the fish sauce.

Cu Chi Tunnels

Look who popped out of the ground.
An example of a tunnel entrance in the jungle now enlarged for the tourists' viewing. 
Check out these bamboo booby traps.
Our tunnel entrance.
That smile quickly disappeared after just a few minutes in the cramped tunnel. 
So that's a wrap for Saigon. What do you think of this city? Would you like visit it? If you have been here, what was your impression of it? 


The Notre Dame Basilica does not look like it belongs in a Vietnamese city at all. As for the telecom wires - look so hazardous! I wonder if city fires are common. I also like how innovative the Vietnamese are with their life hacks - very impressive, albeit dangerous... In any case, I would love to visit Saigon - the city looks so busy and colorful, despite the mess.
@Nikki - thanks for your comment! Glad our post brought back some travel memories. Sounds like it was a bit of a different world not too long ago.
@Lady Astin - "beautiful mess of a city" - very well put, perfect description for Saigon. Oh yeah, Vlad said the exact same thing about helmets... pretty insane. :-)
Lady Astin(non-registered)
Saigon, what a beautiful mess of a city! Your photos totally capture the Vietnamese life. The balancing act of these vendors is astounding, at one time we counted a family of 5, that right 5 people on a motorbike...pure insanity...oh, and the only one wearing a helmet was the dad driver! Child safety not on top of their list! :(
Fabulous photos and blog...takes me back. I can't believe how much more modern Saigon looks. Love ths street vendors and motor bikes...was more cyclists when I was there years ago. The tunnels made me clastrophobic too. Thanks for sharing...wish there was a way to do this when I travelled...still have hand written journals, etc...this is so much more efficient.

Continue enjoying your adventures!

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