The clash of East and West in Ho Chi Minh

Also known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is most populated city and biggest business and financial center in Vietnam. It started as a small fishing village in the middle of the forest, inhabited by Khmer people. During the 17th century, the region started accepting Vietnamese refugees fleeing the civil war in their home country. Khmer King Chey Chettha II of Cambodia allowed their settlement in area of Prey Nokor, residing in southern part of Indochina. Big waves of refugees that populated this area eventually outnumbered the Khmers and Vietnamized the whole region.

In the second half of the 19th century Saigon was colonized by the French, until it gained independence as a part of South Vietnam almost a century later.
South Vietnam, with help of USA and other anti-communist allies, fought in Vietnam War against North Vietnam allied by Soviet Union, China and other communist countries. Saigon’s fall on 30th of April 1975 marked the end of the war. A year later it was merged with province of Gia Đinh and two districts, to make Ho Chi Minh City. The name Saigon is still widely used amongst the populace, but generally referring to urban parts of the city.

After four decades, it has managed to recover and thrive. Combination of different influences made an incredible mix of East and West, most apparent in architecture. Ornate temples, pagodas, French Colonial style buildings and glass skyscrapers speak of turbulent and rich cultural history.

Today, Saigon is second most dynamic city in the world (after Bangalore, India) regarding infrastructure, innovation, investment, etc. and biggest economy center of Vietnam. Due to incredible architectural diversity and rich culture, Saigon is also a tourist attraction (especially for photographers and history buffs).

If you find yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, these are some of the must-see places:

Jade Emperor Pagoda

Very atmospheric Taoist temple, built in 1909. The rooms are filled with numerous statues of nightmarish divinities and distorted figures, from both Buddhist and Taoist legends. Main sanctuary belongs to the luxurious Jade Emperor, defended by the Four Big Diamonds, his loyal guardians who are said to be hard as diamonds (hence the name).
The intricate woodcarvings and statues seem to appear and disappear it the thick, pungent smoke of huong, giving the temple that atmospheric feeling. The numerous statues representing multiple faiths and Chinese characters in the main hall saying “The light of Buddha shines on all”, symbolize the very nature of Buddhism – we can all coexist peacefully.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

Officially named “Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception”, the cathedral was constructed between 1863 and 1880 only with materials imported from France. Red bricks and Romanesque architecture were never seen in Vietnam back in those days, and the locals were amazed by the unique and imposing presence of the cathedral and its two 58 m tall bell towers. It was the most beautiful sacral structure the French have made in the colonized countries. Tiles and bricks broken by the elements and war were replaced with local materials, so today we can see the original red bricks still remaining bright in color and the somewhat lighter, restored areas.

In front of the cathedral stands a white marble statue of Virgin Mary, famous for the event in 2005 when the eyewitnesses reported seeing it shedding tears. Catholic Church denied this “miracle”, but that didn’t stop people from coming to see it for themselves, and making such a massive commotion that the police had to intervene.

Cu Chi tunnels

A big network of connecting underground tunnels in Cu Chi District of Saigon makes just a small part of much bigger network that connects distant parts of the country. These tunnels were used by the Viet Cong soldiers in the Vietnam War and had a vital role in resisting American forces. The soldiers would hide, and depending on the circumstances, sometimes live in the tunnels, communicate and exchange food and supplies.
There were numerous, but unsuccessful attempts by the American army to blow up the parts of the network and lure out the Viet Cong defenders by throwing gas in chambers. Design of the tunnels, trap doors and air filtration systems were crafted too good for that approach to work. They also tried to enter and research the tunnels but traps, explosives, environmental conditions and various poisonous species of animals made it impossible.

Today, the 121km long complex of tunnels in Cu Chi District is a memorial park, where you can see some of the gear Viet Cong soldiers used, enjoy a meal they would’ve eaten and wander the safer parts of the intricate underground network.

War Remnants Museum

From “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes” to “Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression” and lastly to War Remnants Museum; the name changed but the essence is the same – exposing war crimes of  France and America on Vietnamese soil, especially America. The exhibition consists of military equipment (aircrafts, artillery, defused ordnance, etc.), photography and data on war atrocities, effects of napalm, phosphorus bombs and Agent Orange on human health.
About half a million people visits War Remnants Museum every year, most of the visitors coming from foreign countries.

Saigon Central Post Office

Another delight for the lovers of architecture and photographers. Built between 1886 and 1891, this is another piece of history from time of Second French colonial empire. As it is perfectly preserved, walking through the chambers feels like stepping almost 130 years back in history. And it’s always nice to surprise someone with a postcard, we shouldn’t let that be a thing of the past.

Binh Tay Market

Binh Tay Market, Ho Chi Minh (HDR) by kobori88, source: flickr 

Get your fresh seafood, vegetables, fruit, meat, textiles, lacquerware and various other things at Binh Tay Market, a major business hub for locals and Vietnamese farmers from all over South Vietnam. Besides getting a necessities and some nice piece of cloth, you can try domestic delicacies and feel the atmosphere of a busy day in Vietnam.
Market was built with great financial support of a single man – Chinese businessman known as Quach Đam (1863-1927).

One of the best ways to get to know the people and Saigon itself is to just wander through its streets. There are a lot of notable temples and historical places that haven’t been mentioned (the list is quite long). Besides that, visiting parts of the city besides the tourist areas gives a whole new dimension to the experience. You can probably also stumble upon some fascinating places only locals know about.

There are few things to note before traveling to Saigon:

  • It can get very hot and very humid, thus it’s better to come during the dry season – from December to April.
  • Tap water is not for drinking, but there are plenty of vendors selling water on the streets
  • Traffic tends to get hectic, so you better watch out while crossing the streets, and prepare for some waiting game if you are in a taxi. If you need to get through the city it’s better to use Uber or some other similar app to avoid scams.