Things to Do in Southern Vietnam
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a network of underground passageways that run to more than 120 miles (200 kilometers) in total length in this area alone. Work by the Viet Cong commenced in 1948 as a means of shelter from the French air attacks during the Indochina conflict.
The network provided vital access and strategic control over the large rural area surrounding Ho Chi Minh City; over the following two decades the tunnels became a complex underground city including hospitals, defenses and living quarters. This meant despite all the bombings in the area many of the local people could still continue to live underground. In its prime and at its most impressive the Cu Chi Tunnels stretched from the southern Vietnamese capital all the way to the Cambodian border to the west, and in places was dug to 3 stories deep.
Much of the original tunnel system was destroyed in bombing raids during the 1970s but existing parts have been restored and opened.
Let the spirit of Ho Chi Minh City lift you up and carry you through this network of colorful bustling activity. Cho Ben Thanh, or Ben Thanh Market, comes alive every evening with a thrum of tireless energy that never ceases to enthrall.
This is the most celebrated and regularly visited of the markets. It is also the most central, located in one of the liveliest parts of the city where the streets and alleyways surrounding the market place fill with food stalls.
At Ben Thanh Market you can expect to find almost everything that the locals might need in their day to day lives: from fresh meats and vegetables to clothes, domestic items, pots, woven baskets and bamboo ladders. This is a feast for the senses.Take in the sounds: the excited chatter of shoppers and the pitch of vendors’ voices rising into the steaming night.
Breathe in the sweet spiced air - chili, tamarind, ginger - and witness the bright array of colors from exotic fruits to beautiful silks.
The Gothic twin bell towers of this classic cathedral stretch high into the skyline, marking this as a destination for those looking to escape the buzz of Ho Chi Minh and find some quiet contemplation. Saigon Notre-Dame’s striking red façade and towering stone archways were constructed with materials imported from France in the 1800s. But its unique architecture is not the only draw to this iconic city landmark. In 2005, visitors reported seeing tears flow from the eyes of a statue of the Virgin Mary here, making it a destination for Catholics on religious pilgrimage.
Few major cities count the post office among their top tourist attractions, but the classic interior of Saigon Central Post Office continues to be a favorite destination among travelers visiting Ho Chi Minh City for the first time.
Completed in 1891, the design of this architectural landmark mimics an old world European railway station with mile-high ceilings, a larger-than-life portrait of Ho Chi Minh and a centrally located clock face. These rich details are what manage to draw even the travelers who arrive with plans to purchase stamps or mail postcards, to pause and soak up the brilliant interior, which includes hand-painted maps of the old city.
Opened in 1975, just a few months after the liberation, the War Remnants Museum is one of the most popular attractions in the city. Laid out in 8 themed rooms are different aspects of the war from imprisonment, to chemical warfare and military might.
In the grounds there are military equipment, weaponry and aircraft on display including fighter planes, helicopters and tanks. Some of the exhibits are shockingly gruesome, explicit photos and prisoner cages detail a war-torn history. This is the story of the Vietnam War told from the other side which mixes the atrocities of war with the reality of military hardware.
The Reunification Palace is an important site of political and cultural significance, built by the French in 1868 to mark the newly established colony of Indochina.
In 1945, it briefly became the headquarters for the Japanese after their defeat of the French. In 1962, two Vietnamese rebel pilots bombed the palace - the president survived but the palace did not. He commissioned a new one to be built. It was renamed Independence Palace and the design became a Modernist icon. In 1975 the palace was the symbolic site of the triumphant liberation of Saigon. Vietnam was then reunified; since then the building has been known as Reunification Palace. Today it is a working government building as well as having areas open to the public. Tour the private quarters, the president's former office and the War Command Room. You get a real sense of what happened here and its importance in Vietnamese history.
East meets west at this stunning example of French Colonial architecture in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. The gleaming white municipal theater, which is home the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet and Symphony Orchestra, was built in 1897. Its well-lit façade casts a brilliant glow on nearby city streets. Visitors can file into the 1,800 seat theater to catch regular dress rehearsals, or buy a ticket for one of the weekly cultural shows the theater is known for. On weekends, free public performances take place on the opera house steps and the nearby park offers travelers a perfect spot to stop and enjoy the music.
The Cholon neighborhood, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, is dotted with traditional Chinese-style pagodas and temples, including one of the neighborhood’s most popular places of worship, the Thien Hau Temple. Built by Cantonese immigrants in the early 19th century, this temple honors the goddess of the sea, Thien Hau (more commonly named Mazu).
Located on a busy street, it would be easy to walk right past Thien Hau, but it’s well worth stopping in to see the architecture and interior. On the outside, the temple roof is adorned with delicately worked porcelain figures depicting scenes from Chinese legend. You’ll find even more of these porcelain dioramas on the interior walls of the temple as well. Before you even step through the exterior gate of the temple, the smells of burning incense should already be apparent. Dozens of huge conical coiled incense hang from the ceiling over the main worship area, permeating the space with a smoky haze and an intense odour.
Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown district, dominates the west bank of the city, boasting the attractions of Quan Am Pagoda, Thien Hau Temple, Binh Tay Market and numerous teahouses. Visit this long-established Chinese community (the largest of its kind in Vietnam) and soak up the fascinating culture, architecture and sights.
Quan Am Pagoda - a Chinese-style Buddhist temple - features beautiful courtyards, gardens, a pond and a Jade Emperor. At Thien Hau Temple, dedicated to the goddess of the sea, check the stunning carved porcelain ceiling designs. Cholon Mosque and Cha Tam - the catholic cathedral - as well as the thriving Binh Tay market also add to the rich texture of this historic community.
Built at the turn of the 20th century and dedicated to the Taoist god, Emperor Jade Chua Ngoc Hoang (or the God of Heavens), the Jade Emperor Pagoda is a working temple that’s widely considered to be one of the finest and most atmospheric in Ho Chi Minh City.
Beneath a roof adorned with elaborate depictions of dragons, birds, and animals, this fascinating pagoda is filled with exquisite gilt woodcarvings and reinforced papier maché statues of various Buddhist and Taoist deities.
The statue of the Jade Emperor, shrouded in robes and flanked by his guardians, resides in the dramatically named Chamber of 10 Hells. Out the door and to the left of this main chamber is a semi-enclosed room presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell, sitting alongside his red horse, while the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, an important part of any Taoist temple, has an altar on the top floor.
More Things to Do in Southern Vietnam
At the heart of Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese district, the central Binh Tay Market is a popular spot among visitors and tour groups thanks to the backdrop of picturesque French-Chinese architecture. The modern market was built in 1928 after the original burned down. A Chinese businessman Quach Dam funded the reconstruction, and you can find a memorial to him at the center of the market. The ornate statue of Quach Dam that was the market’s original centerpiece now resides at the Fine Art Museum. Binh Tay is Ho Chi Minh City’s largest market, comprising four city blocks. During a visit here, you can peruse a mind-boggling array of wares, everything from pottery and flowers to cheap souvenirs, noodle stalls and vendors selling bulk rice and wholesale produce.
As a main water supply, the Saigon River is critically important to the residents of Ho Chi Minh City. Spend a few days in Ho Chi Minh, and you’ll discover it’s a young, modern city on the move. In contrast, cruising along the Saigon River gives you a glimpse of a more rural Vietnam, where life moves at a slower pace, much like it did decades ago.
The best way to experience the river is by plying its waters in a traditional Vietnamese junk boat. Many such tours offer a meal -- usually lunch or dinner -- along the way. While it’s possible to see the river for the river’s sake, you can also use the river to get to the popular Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet Cong to infiltrate the area surrounding Ho Chi Minh City during the Vietnam War.
While the portion of the river seen by most tourists is in southern Vietnam, it actually starts in southeastern Cambodia and flows south over a 140-mile (225-kilometer) distance.
Southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, where the Mekong Delta meets the South China Sea, Can Gio Mangrove Reserve is a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. Said to be the “green lungs” of the city, the area is an important natural wetland that attracts numerous bird species like migratory spot-billed pelicans and painted storks, and acts a nursery for many types of fish and marine life like crabs and shrimp. Boat trips to the reserve include wildlife spotting adventures in Giant Bat Lagoon, a paddling excursion to Rung Sac Guerilla Base, and a stop at Vam Sat Eco Park, where you can visit a crocodile reserve, spot monkeys playing in the trees, and take a hike through the mangroves to spot birds and other wildlife.
Located just south of The Independence Palace, Tao Dan Park is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s largest and most serene parks known for the more than 1,000 large and mature trees that populate the space. The park is home to unique plant sculptures of various animals like dragons and tigers and replicas of Nha Trang's Cham Tower and Hung King Temple. The street Truong Dinh bisects the park, and on the northeast side of the street, you can find a modern sculpture garden.
Many locals visit the park early in the morning to walk or practice tai chi, and the nearby Tao Dan Cafe is known as the “bird café” for the groups of birdkeepers who congregate here to show off their cages of songbirds. At the northern corner of the park, you can see the historic building of the former Cercle Sportif, a colonial-era French sporting club that is now the Worker’s Club, with a swimming pool and tennis courts.
Bach Dang Pier is located next to the ferry terminal and close to the Renaissance hotel in central Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a popular launching point for boat trips along the Saigon River.
From the area, visitors can get involved in all manner of trips and activities. From accessing various parts of the city to explore, to weaving through its canals on a sunset dinner cruise, both tourist and trade boats bustle in and out of Bach Dang Pier throughout the day and night. Some operators also arrange trips to attractions further afield, such as the Cu Chi Tunnels.
As well as being a good place to find out more about tours and activities available on the river, Bach Dang has an appeal all of its own, with a number authentic coffee shops, bars, and eateries on offer. It’s a bustling area where you’ll find locals doing tai chi in the mornings and sipping drinks overlooking the river come the early evening.
The Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (or FITO Museum) is housed in a unique traditional building in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 10. It offers an in-depth look at the fascinating world of traditional Vietnamese medicine, which is heavily influenced by Chinese philosophy.
The museum features a collection of almost 3000 items in relation to traditional remedies, some of which date back to the Stone Age. Visitors can browse the vast and detailed displays of some of the instruments used to prepare traditional medicines, such as mortars and pestles, grinders, and knives. There is also a large collection of books and documents on the subject.
Particularly interesting are the items found in traditional pharmacies, such as scales, printing molds, medicine cabinets, and a variety of pottery and ceramic pieces. The FITO Museum is also fitted with audiovisual equipment, which it uses to screen a documentary about the history of traditional medicine in Vietnam.
The colorful cafes and cheap hostels of Pham Ngu Lao Street may attract a budget-friendly crowd, but the well-heeled set know that Dong Khoi Street, with its elite boutiques, French architecture and trendy cafes is the premier commercial center of the city to see and be seen.
Travelers can wander through up-market shops selling silks and other handmade items, or comb through the stocks of high-end luxury brands at more mainstream stores. Visit the polished storefronts and quaint cafes off the hidden side streets for a less touristy vibe, and head to the nearby opera house, Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office to take in some of the city’s most popular sites.
Dozens of inexpensive guest houses, cheap pubs and local restaurants line the sidewalks of this street that’s popular among younger crowds and the backpacker set. Known for its noise, traffic and pure chaos, Pham Ngu Lao draws travelers looking to experience the energy of Ho Chi Minh without a filter.
Travelers can satisfy their hunger with a traditional bahn mi or even a plate of western-style bacon and eggs at one of the many cafes along this bustling street. Those looking to bunker down and watch the world pass can grab a seat at an outdoor table for cold beers and incredible people watching. And while Pham Ngu Lao offers an in-your-face taste of the city, travelers can still escape the chaos by walking a few blocks to the nearby park that’s filled with plenty of peaceful green space.
Giac Lam Pagoda is widely recognized as an important and historic pagoda, the oldest temple in the city. Built in 1744 on an undeveloped area of jungle, it has since been consumed into the west of the city.
Originally thatched, the buildings have undergone significant remodeling at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Historically significant, it is now protected as an official cultural heritage site. In the main garden stands a famous bodhi tree donated by Sri Lanka to the temple in 1953, in its shade stands a statue of bodhisattva Aralokiteshvara. In the grounds also stands a 32 meter (100 foot) high seven story hexagonal stupa; in total there are over 100 statues to admire. There is also an eerie and worth seeing funerary chamber with photos and shrines dedicated to former monks of the temple. At the main altar, Buddhists pray for peace and good health.
Paris Square may be a bit on the touristy side, but it’s the perfect hub for travelers looking to explore the key landmarks of Ho Chi Minh City in a single stop. The Saigon Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office are all within walking distance and the tree-covered parks, Versace Plaza and bustling cafes make for perfect places to people watch.
Find local workers gathering under the shade of towering trees while enjoying an al fresco lunch. And as the sun sets, watch street vendors, local traders file into the streets as church-goers head off to evening prayer. No matter the time of day, Paris Square is a perfect place to relax with a cold beer and a warm meal while the city passes by.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Ho Chi Minh City is housed in a French colonial-era building that was once the mansion home of Chinese-born Mr. Hoa, the wealthiest man in Saigon at the time. As well as displaying fascinating modern art and historical pieces dating back to the 4th century, the building itself is of interest, with period details such as elaborate tiles, stained-glass windows, and even a working antique lift.
The museum is arranged across three levels and features a varied collection, including sculptures and ceramics, plus oil, silk, lacquer, and traditional woodcut paintings incorporating different styles. There is also a collection of ancient Buddhist and Hindu wood and stone figures, with larger statues scattered around the grounds and in the museum’s central courtyard (accessed via the rear of the building).
Often included as part of a tour to the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels, Cu Chi Wildlife Rescue Station is a rescue and rehabilitation center for rare wild animals that have been confiscated from illegal animal traders in Ho Chi Minh City. The types of animals taken in include bears, gibbons, pangolins, cobras, sea turtles, and monitor lizards, among many others. The center is run by local non-governmental organization Wildlife at Risk, and it’s the first multi-species rescue station in the South of Vietnam. Visitors can make arrangements to tour the center, meet many of the animals, and even help with feeding or preparing food for the animals.
Within the Can Gio Mangrove Reserve, Vam Sat Salt-Marsh Forest Ecological Tourist Zone is located within a section of forest between the Vam Sat and Long Tau Rivers that was destroyed during the Vietnam War, now regrown and protected as a wilderness park. Visitors here can explore Bat Swamp to fish for crab or spot for flying foxes hanging from the tree branches, and there’s a crocodile farm where you can take a boat tour and toss fish treats to the hungry reptiles. A 50-foot-tall wildlife observation tower offers a great vantage point for birdwatching or taking panoramic pictures of the marsh wilderness, and at Monkey Island you can stroll island trails among thousands of monkeys.
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