Originally part of the kingdom of Cambodia, Ho Chi Minh City was a small port town until the late 17th century. By the 18th century, it had become part of Vietnam and the city renamed Saigon and was the provincial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty. However, in the second half of the 19th century, control over the city passed to the French, and Saigon became the capital of French Cochinchina.
This was a period of much infrastructural and architectural development, during which Saigon earned the epithet “Paris of the Orient.” In 1954, the city has proclaimed the capital of South Vietnam. The ensuing war between the US and the Communist North lasted until 1975 when North Vietnam took over Saigon and renamed it Ho Chi Minh City. Populated by almost eight million people, the city has long been the hub of manufacturing, entertainment, and cuisine in Vietnam.
2 DAYS in Ho Chi Minh City
Morning Begin the day in Lam Son Square, in the heart of the city, where stands the elegant neoclassical Municipal Theater between the city’s most famous hotels: the Continental and the Caravelle. From here, walk one block west to admire the elaborate facade of the People’s Committee Building. Just two blocks north of here, the Notre Dame Cathedral, with its iconic twin spires, is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. Spend the rest of the morning in the sprawling Independence Palace (p68), South Vietnam’s wartime command center. Don’t miss the basement, with its telecoms center and tunnels.
Afternoon Visit the War Remnants Museum, which recounts the horrors of the Vietnam War. As a welcome contrast, afterward, peruse the Ben Thanh Market (p70) for some souvenir shopping and hard bargaining. Then head to the Saigon Skydeck at the top of the Bitexco Financial Tower to soak up the panoramic views, and see how many of the city’s main sights you can spot
Evening Have a sundowner at the EON Heli Bar above the Saigon Skydeck, followed by dinner at one of the many fine restaurants around District 1, then simply wander around and soak up the bustling atmosphere of the street life at night, especially around Ben Thanh Market.
Morning Head north of the city center to the ornate Jade Emperor Pagoda. Stop by the Le Van Duyet Temple, dedicated to General Le Van Duyet, one of Vietnam’s many national heroes. On the way back toward the center, check out the Museum of Vietnamese History to find out about the country’s complex past.
Afternoon Make your way to Cholon, or “big market”, the largest Chinatown in Vietnam. Dive straight into the frenetic Binh Tay Market before heading to the ancient and atmospheric temples in the backstreets. Don’t miss Quan Am Pagoda, home to a plethora of deities, or the intricately decorated Thien Hau Pagoda. Round off the day with a visit to District 11 and the tranquil lakeside Giac Vien Pagoda (p78), one of Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest places of worship.
Evening Take a taxi, or a motorbike taxi if you’re feeling adventurous, back to District 1 for dinner at Xu Restaurant Lounge (p67). Then enjoy a stroll along the river before a nightcap at an iconic hotel bar in Dong Khoi, such as the rooftop Level 23 Wine Bar at Sheraton Saigon (88 Dong Khoi)
JADE EMPEROR PAGODA
One of the city’s most ornate pagodas, this wonderfully atmospheric small house of worship honors the King of all Heavens, Ngoc Hoang or the Jade Emperor – the chief deity of the Taoist pantheon. Built by the Cantonese community in 1909, it is filled with exquisite wood carvings and reinforced paper-mâché statues of various Buddhist and Taoist deities.
The pagoda’s pink facade is quite simple. In contrast, the tile roof is an intricate work of art, as are the large wooden doors, richly carved with images of gods and men. Most remarkable, however, are the vibrantly colorful and gilded images of Buddhist divinities and Taoist deities inside the temple, including an elaborate statue of the Jade Emperor himself. Just about every surface is embellished with beautiful tiles and carvings, most of which are dense with religious imagery and symbols, and shrouded in a haze of burning incense
CAO DAI HOLY SEE
As the center of Cao Dai, a religion founded in 1926 comprising a mixture of many Asian and some Christian beliefs, this vast complex draws millions of worshippers. The main attraction is the Great Divine Temple, which has an unusual mix of Asian and European architectural elements
The spiritual centerpiece of the Cao Dai complex, the Great Divine Temple was built between 1933 and 1955. Its vividly decorated three-tiered roof, stained-glass windows, and a kaleidoscope of colors make for an unusual, striking building. Amid the vibrant pinks, greens, and yellows of the decor are carvings of writhing serpents and dragons, lotus motifs, and a multitude of Divine Eyes, gazing from all directions. The chief symbol of Cao Daisim, the all-seeing Divine Eye represents supreme knowledge and wisdom. The prayer services, attended by hundreds of clergy in highly colorful robes, are held four times daily and are a breathtaking sight. Visitors are welcome at the noon prayer service, as long as they are careful not to disturb the worshippers.
As well as the Great Divine Temple, the complex houses administrative offices, residences for hundreds of priests, and a hospital of traditional Vietnamese herbal medicine that attracts people from all over the country for its treatments
A superb French colonial building, the Municipal Theater, or Nha Hat Thanh Pho, was built in 1899 as a concert hall for the French. Sometimes still referred to as the Saigon Opera House, the hall also served temporarily as the headquarters of the South Vietnam National.
a staircase leads to the entrance, flanked by two huge columns shaped like Greco-Roman goddesses. Winged figures and exquisite scrollworks grace the eaves, and the grounds are scattered with lovely fountains and statues
While the interior is not as ornate, it is a fine setting for a range of performances, from traditional Vietnamese theater and Western classical music to rock concerts and a regular hour-long cultural show. Program details are posted on the box office billboards and online.
Saigon Central Mosque
Although the four gilded minarets of this neat white and pastel-blue mosque can be seen from the streets surrounding Dong Du, most passersby miss this hidden gem. Built-in 1935 by South Indian Muslims, it offers a glimpse into the lives and beliefs of Vietnam’s 75,000 Muslims and provides a peaceful rest stop while visiting Dong Khoi. Visitors are welcome to sit inside its cool, well-tended interior, or on the shaded verandah outside. Just remember to take off your shoes before you enter and to dress modestly. There are a number of halal street food stalls just outside the mosque.
In Lam Son Square, the historic center of Ho Chi Minh City, adjacent to the Belle Époque Municipal Theater, is the famous Continental Hotel. With its stately facade, the Continental is the grande dame of hotels built during French rule and retains the majesty of its past. It is set around a courtyard, which is well-shaded by frangipani trees. Inside, the red-carpeted staircases retain their original tropical hardwood. The structure, for the most part, has been spared the “modernization” visited upon some other historic buildings in the city, and wears its elegant patina of age well The hotel has earned a place in the annals of history for attracting many illustrious visitors since its completion in 1886.
During the Vietnam War, top-flight journalists, including Walter Cronkite (1916–2009), would stay here and spend many hours on the famous terrace bar, which they dubbed “The Continental Shelf.” The great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861– 1941), French author André Malraux (1901–76) and British writer W. Somerset Maugham (1874–1965) are other guests of note. It was British author Graham Greene (1904–91) who immortalized the Continental in his atmospheric novel The Quiet American (1955). He was a resident of the hotel for several months so it is no surprise that he captured the spirit of the time and place so well.
People’s Committee Building
Designed by French architect P. Gardens and completed in 1908, the People’s Committee Building, once known as the Hôtel de Ville, is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. It was outside this building in 1945, that thousands of people congregated to establish the Provisional Administrative Committee of South Vietnam. Today, it is still the house of the city government and sits regally at the city’s center. Contrary to popular belief, this striking building has never been a hostelry, nor is it open to the public. Modeled on the City Hall in Paris, it comprises two stories, with two wings off a central hall and a clock tower. It is capped with a red-tile roof, and its fanciful yellow and-cream-colored facade is most often described as “gingerbread.” Though it retains an obviously Parisian appearance, the building fits in well with the cityscape, especially at night when it is magnificently floodlit
Unfortunately, there is no way for the general public to see the chandelier-bedecked interior today. However, the square in front of the hall, featuring a statue of Ho Chi Minh cradling a child, is a popular vantage point from which to take photographs of this beautiful building.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum
Once the French governor general’s residence, this, like many of the city’s buildings, looks as though it may have been shipped in pieces from France and reassembled here. In a neoclassical style and painted in light grey with white trim, the museum generates a commanding presence. The spacious halls, with high ceilings and chandeliers, are a popular backdrop for wedding photographs or wedding photographs. Spread over two rambling floors, the museum purports to represent 300 years of the city’s history. However, its original name, Revolutionary Museum, is a more accurate indicator of what to expect. The first floor has somewhat scattered displays of pictures of Saigon during French rule, old maps, and crumbling documents from the time the city was founded in the 17th century.
Also here are relics from Vietnam’s natural history and traditional wedding costumes. The second floor is devoted to Vietnam’s struggle against imperialism. Weapons such as AK-47 rifles and improvised bombs are showcased here, along with photographs of soldiers, letters from the front, and political manifestos. Many of the obligatory engines of war, including a Huey helicopter, a jet fighter, and an American-built tank, can be seen on display in the gardens outside. The museum also has an extensive collection of Vietnamese currency.
Bitexco Financial Tower
Since opening in 2010, this has become a major landmark and an emblem of the city’s rejuvenation. Once the tallest building in HCMC, its slender, tapered shape with a helipad jutting near the top is visible from everywhere in the city center. The main attraction is the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor, which offers panoramic views of the city center and the Saigon River flowing through it. The observation deck provides information about the history and culture of the city. Binoculars are fitted in the glass walls for visitors to use. From this vantage point, 584 ft (178 m) above the ground, many of Ho Chi Minh’s best-known sights are easily seen, including the Municipal Theater, the People’s Committee Building,
and Ben Thanh Market. The bird’seye view also gives an idea of the frantic pace of the city’s development, with new highrise blocks appearing all around. The tower also has many highend stores for shopping enthusiasts as well as a range of fine restaurants, cafés, and a cinema.
Located in the center of the city, the Rex Hotel has played an important part in Ho Chi Minh City’s history ever since its construction in the 1950s. Originally built by French colonial developers, it quickly became a focus of the social and military activities of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. It was from here that US military officers gave the daily press briefings that became known as “The Five O’Clock Follies,” due to their blatantly selfserving nature Today, with its very popular rooftop bar, the Rex continues to serve as an important gathering place. Plenty of corporate conclaves are held here, gamblers flock to its popular casino, and there are innumerable weddings celebrated in the central court.
Notre Dame Cathedral
The basilicastyle Notre Dame Cathedral, or Nha Tho Duc Ba, is the largest church ever built during the French Empire. When it was completed in 1880, its 40m (120ft) spires made it the tallest structure in the city. At first glance, it seems to be brickbuilt, but in fact, the facade is made of red tiles brought over from Marseilles and attached to granite walls. Stainedglass windows from Chartres were installed, but destroyed during World War II and later replaced with plain glass. The two bell towers, added in 1895 and topped with crosses, each house six bronze bells. The cathedral’s interior remains relatively unadorned, but the ambient lighting creates a beautifully calm atmosphere.
s a statue of the Virgin Mary. Made in Rome, it was brought to Vietnam in 1959 and given the name Holy Mary Queen of Peace, in the hope that she would bring peace to the war-torn country While the city’s Roman Catholic community is no longer a political force, droves of worshippers still throng the church. The belfry, open on Sundays, affords lovely views quarters, built around a sunny atrium, are lavishly furnished with glittering chandeliers and elaborate antiques. Not to be missed is the lacquer painting depicting scenes from the Le Dynasty. In the basement is a bunker and military operations center, with radio transmitters and maps. Oddly, the third floor also has a gambling room.
Central Post Office
Designed by the French architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux between 1886 and 1891, Buu Dien Trung Tam or the Central Post Office is one of the most attractive buildings in the city. Its massive facade is bright yellow with cream trim and features carvings of the faces of famous philosophers and scientists, below which are finely engraved inscriptions. In all, the building is no less than a temple to the art of communicating by mail.
The interior is vaulted like the inside of a railroad station and supported by wrought iron pillars painted green, with gilded capitals. The floor tilework is intricate, especially in the foyer where huge antique maps illuminated by chandeliers depict the city and the region. One of the maps shows the city in 1892, and another portrays the region in 1932. A large portrait of Ho Chi Minh gazes over the daily bustle. Wooden writing benches are available for patrons’ use, as is a kiosk selling souvenirs and stamps. The entire hall is cooled by overhead fans.
Set in spacious grounds, the historic Independence Palace (also known as Reunification Palace) is a prominent symbol of the country’s political history. During the 19th century, the building was the site of the Norodom Palace, former residence of the French governor general. It was later occupied by South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem and named the Presidential Palace.
named the Presidential Palace. In 1962, much of the building was destroyed when Diem’s own air force bombed it in a failed assassination attempt. It was rebuilt soon after, but Diem was killed before he could move in. It was in this former palace’s International Reception Room that succeeding President Van Thieu received potentates and presidents until he boarded a chopper from the rooftop helipad and fled before North Vietnamese troops took over Saigon. In 1975, the South surrendered to the North, and the palace gates were knocked down by a North Vietnamese Army tank. The photograph of this event has become emblematic of the reunification of Vietnam.
Today, the interior remains largely unchanged, with high and wide corridors that open onto cavernous lobbies and reception rooms. The living quarters, built around a sunny atrium, are lavishly furnished with glittering chandeliers and elaborate antiques. Not to be missed is the lacquer painting depicting scenes from the Le Dynasty.
In the basement is a bunker and military operations center, with radio transmitters and maps. Oddly, the third floor also has a gambling room.
Mariamman Hindu Temple
Dedicated to Mariamman, an incarnation of Shakti, the Hindu Goddess of Strength, the incense-filled Mariamman Hindu Temple caters not only to the small community of Hindus in Ho Chi Minh City but also to the many local Vietnamese Buddhists, who worship here either courting good luck or driven by superstition.
Built in the late 19th century, the temple is quite small but still beautiful, and superbly maintained by the government. The bright, coral-colored wall of the facade is surmounted by numerous images of deities, cows, and lions, all painted vividly in pink, green, and blue. Over the entrance, a stepped-pyramidal tower covered with more sculpted images, mostly depicting female deities, rises from the rooftop.
Inside, an imposing statue of a red-robed lion guards the entrance, which opens into an uncovered portico that surrounds the main sanctuary. Three of the courtyard’s walls are inset with altar nooks in which images of various gods and goddesses rest. Set in the center of the portico, the sanctuary itself is slightly raised. Made of stone, it recalls the architectural style of Angkor Wat and forms the setting for the multi-armed representation of Mariamman. The goddess is surrounded by many attending deities, including Ganesha, the Hindu Elephant God, as well as two female deities on either side of her. Two lingams (Hindu phallic symbols of Shiva) also stand before her
The altar is surrounded by numerous incense burners and brass figurine oil lamps. Worshippers hold incense sticks in both hands while praying. In the rear of the sanctuary is a prayer wall where the faithful press their heads in the hope that the goddess will be able to hear their prayers clearly.