The name Saigon was used officially in 1698, when Lord Nguyen Phuc Chu sent Mr. Nguyen Huu Canh to this region to create various districts and to form a government for this southern outpost. Because of its strategic location for trade and commerce as well as military importance, Saigon continued to grow and became a bonafide city. By 1772, Mr. Nguyen Cuu Dam began to fill many of the canals to form streets.
In the mid 19th century, the French with the aid of the Spanish invaded this port city and destroyed the fort. This event was the precursor to the long struggle between the people of Vietnam and France leading to the historical defeat of the French in 1954. In the years after the defeat of the French, Vietnam was divided into two separate countries and Saigon became the hub of resettlement for many as people from north and central Vietnam immigrated south.
In the 60's and 70's, Saigon was bustling with commerce and business. It was the cultural center and the capital city of South Vietnam. Already heavily influenced by the French in terms of culture and style, the city had an air of a French provincial town with a Vietnamese twist. Saigon was dubbed the "Pearl of the Orient" by the foreign press. The city was alive with activities and cultural diversity that rivaled any Asian city at the time.
After the fall of South Vietnam to communism in 1975, the city and many of its inhabitants were in a state of chaos and turmoil. In 1976, the new government renamed the city Ho Chi Minh City and shut its door to the rest of the world. Although recognized world wide as Ho Chi Minh City, to the people of Vietnam, the city is still lovingly referred to as Saigon.
The Reunification Palace is beautiful in its ugliness, a 1960s monstrosity designed with the help of Soviet architects. Most people will remember the image of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates on 30 April 1975 signifying the fall of Saigon. The tank still graces the front lawn. Rooms open to the public remain exactly as they were in 1975, showing where important meetings were held during the war, as well as some of the private quarters of the president and his family. Most fascinating are a series of underground tunnels housing a telecommunications centre.
Nam Ky Khoi Ngia, District 1
Tel: (08) 3822 3652.
Opening hours: Daily 0730-1100 and 1300-1600.
War Remnants Museum
Formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, the name has been toned down so as not to offend its US visitors and is now the War Remnants Museum. This is not a museum for the sensitive as it houses instruments of torture and hundreds of photographs of atrocities committed during the 20th century and, in particular, the Vietnam War. Visitors cannot fail to be moved as the exhibits provide a context for a period of history many only know from old newsreels and Hollywood movies. At the front of the museum is a small collection of military hardware and, most interestingly, the mobile guillotine used by the French colonists to dispense justice throughout the country before World War II.
28 Vo Van Tan, District 3
Tel: (08) 3930 5587.
Opening hours: Daily 0730-1145 and 1330-1715.
Notre Dame Cathedral
The twin towers of Notre Dame Cathedral have been a familiar landmark in Ho Chi Minh City since the 1880s. In front of the cathedral in a small garden is a delicate statue of the Virgin Mary. The interior of the cathedral is rather plain, unlike most French cathedrals, with no stained glass but it is a cool escape from the heat outside.
Dong Khoi, District 1
Opening hours: No formal times.
Across from the Notre Dame Cathedral, the vast Post Office was also built in the late 19th century in European style. The interior has hardly been touched since it was built and is dominated by a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh. The building always seems busy but most people are just visitors rather than customers.
2 Cong Xa Paris, District 1
Tel: (08) 3829 9615.
Opening hours: Daily 06:30-21;30.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum
Housed in the former building of the Government of Cochinchina, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum (formerly the Revolutionary Museum) contains artefacts, such as weapons, uniforms, medals and old photos, from the period of Communist struggle against the French and the Americans. Unfortunately, the exhibits are only labelled in Vietnamese but some are self-explanatory. Outside the museum is a collection of military hardware including a tank and a helicopter.
65 Ly Tu Trong, District
Tel: (08) 3829 9743 or 3829 9741.
Opening hours: Daily 0800-1600.
Located in Saigon's Botanical garden and Zoo, the museum opened its doors to the public in January 1, 1929. Originally, the museum was named Blanchard de la Brosse. In 1956, the museum was renamed Bao Tang Quoc Gia - National Museum. And finally, in 1979, the government renamed it Bao Tang Lich Su - Historical Museum.
Buddha status with 1,000 eyes and 1,000 arms . The museum houses many historical artifacts including three wooden stakes from the battle between Ngo Quyen and the Han invaders, granite tablets with intricate carvings, and uniforms of mandarins and kings of yesteryears. A statue of the Buddha with 1,000 eyes and 1,000 arms is also part of the museum's collections. According to the curator, many of the artifacts dated back to the 6th and 7th century.
Nguyen Binh Khiem, District 1
Tel: (08)3 829 8146.
Opening hours: Daily 0800-1120 and 1330-1620.
Cholon is in District 5 and is a maze of narrow streets, bustling with people. Most of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese live here and they are the largest single ethnic minority group in the country. Merchants began to settle in Cholon in the 1770s, although many ethnic Chinese fled the country in 1975.
The Thien Hau Pagoda is one of Cholon’s must-sees. It is dedicated to the goddess Thien Hau, protector of the sea. Photographers are spoilt for choice with the ornate decoration inside the pagoda and the statues of Thien Hau. It is popular with worshippers (the air is always heavy with the smell of incense) and there are regular festivals during the lunar calendar.
Binh Tay Market throngs with people from early morning and the gloomy, narrow walkways are crammed with consumer items and exotic foodstuffs. The sound of bargaining, quite often in Chinese rather than Vietnamese, and the calls of the vendors constantly fill the air. This is one of the best places to see the locals going about their daily lives.
Chua Ngoc Hoang (Jade Emperor Pagoda)
Located in Dakao, first district, the temple was built by Cantonese Buddhists who settled in Saigon in the 19th century. The architectural style is heavily influenced by the Chinese of southern China.
4 guardians - Tu Dai Kim Cuong
The Taoist deity (Emperor of Jade) is enshrined here along with his 4 guardians (Tu Dai Kim Cuong). The major attractions to the shrine are the elaborate carvings of the various deities as well as its unique architectural style of the interior. This temple is also home to the Hall of Ten Hells where there are carvings of various scenes of the various levels of hell.
Giac Lam Pagoda
Giac Lam Pagoda, formerly called the Cam Dem, was built in 1744. It is now standing as the oldest pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, the first classic Buddhist training centre for Gia Dinh area and the south.
Giac Lam Pagoda is a representative of the ancient pagodas in the south, and contains historical, cultural, architectural and religious sculptural values. It was constructed of various kinds of wood largely available in the region and located on the top of a hill under the shade of trees in a spherical design and close to nature. The two-tier gate, prominent in the garden-pagoda architect, was placed right on the lane leading to the yard of the pagoda. It harmonises with western decorations of square pillars, and Indian and Khmer cultures of lions, lotuses, and Nagar snakes. However, the Vietnamese national culture is the strongest felt with a terra cotta vase made in Song Be and placed in the highest position in the pagoda. On the New Year - the point of time when the sky meets the earth - the residential monk would stick the scroll with wishes for a peaceful world and happy life for people on the "magic heaven supporting pillar". This is an expression of the harmony between religion and life.
Among the 118 ancient statues at the pagoda, 113 were made of bronze and wood. The Arhat statues bear strong influence from the Chinese sculpture. Various decorations of Giac Lam Pagoda become special with sophisticated designs carved on wood. The nine dragons are carved to hidden in clouds and spraying water in a manifestation of blessing to the agriculture-based area, breathe the warm life to the holy atmosphere of the pagoda. In 1998, the pagoda was recognized as a national historical and cultural relic.
Vinh Nghiem Pagoda
In the old days there was a pagoda named Vinh Nghiem in the former Bac Giang province, now Ha Bac province, in the North. The pagoda belonged to the Truc Lam Buddhist Sect whose three founders were King Tran Nhan Tong, Phap Loa and Huyen Ton Quang Da.
In 1964, the Buddhist movement against had many Buddhist followers, descendants of Vinh Nghiem from the North. That is why the constitution of the former VietnamUnitedBuddhistChurch allowed the Buddhists of northern origin to establish a region called Vinh Nghiem.
It is noteworthy for its ancient Asian architecture with a seven-stories tower, which houses various Buddha statues and a bell presented by Japanese Buddhists during the Vietnam war to pray for its early end.
Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market is situated at the intersection of Le Loi Avenue, Ham Nghi Avenue, Tran Hung Dao Avenue and Le Lai Street, 700m south-west of the Rex Hotel.
At first, the market was situated near the Ben Nghe River Dike. After being moved many times, it is now standing in the centre of the city where consumers can conveniently find all sorts of products.
According to Vuong Hong Sen, author of "the book Saigon of the Past", in 1912, the French filled a pond, the Boresse, into a solid foundation of 12,000m² and built a market on it. The market was close to a landing stage (Ben) of the old city (Thanh), hence its name of Ben Thanh. The opening ceremony for the market in March 1914 was a big festive event.
At present, the front of Ben Thanh Market faces Quach Thi Trang Square; its rear faces Le Thanh Ton Street; its right, Phan Chu Trinh Street and its left, Phan Boi Chau Street. At all of its four sides, there are bustling trading shops. Located at the centre of the city, Ben Thanh Market is always loaded with varieties of goods, such as consumer goods, cakes and candies, food and foodstuff, and particularly high-quality fruit and vegetables. Goods are displayed in a very attractive way that always catches the eyes of the buyers. They meet all requirements for the customers' daily life or for their families. The market has four gates that are very convenient for the market-goers. For all of its advantages, Ben Thanh Market is one of the most attractive tourist sites in the city for both domestic and foreign visitors.
Ben Thanh Market is a huge covered market in central HCMC. It is one of the best places to buy coffee, but do try the stalls inside before buying, as the outside stalls are more expensive. Also if you are buying a reasonable quantity you can usually get a couple of free coffee filters. Vietnamese coffee is really delicious, I'm surprised it is not more widely available in the West.
Apart from coffee, you can get almost anything in the market or the shops surrounding it. You will have to bargain, unless the prices are written on the goods, but that is all part of the experience. And afterwards you can have a bowl of delicious noodles.