Home to nearly nine million people and just as many motorbikes, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is wonderfully frenetic. However, a morning travelling low and slow on foot and by vintage cyclo revealed a quieter side to this Southeast Asian metropolis on the Lonely Planet Experiences Cyclos and Markets Tour powered by Urban Adventures.

On a sunny Saigon morning, we made our way to the elegant Central Post Office, a late 19th-century beauty built during French colonial times for the tour. Part of Ho Chi Minh City’s allure is that it’s a city in transition, a wonderful mix of old meets new, with century-old heritage buildings next to steel and glass skyscrapers. That eclectic mix was on display at the tour starting point, where a brand-new McDonald’s sat next to the pale yellow neo-Baroque post office.

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We headed inside with a breakfast sandwich in hand, hardly knowing where to look first. There were gorgeous vintage tiles underfoot while old maps hung on the walls all under a soaring arched ceiling. Cuteness overload came in the form of a kindergarten class learning about how the post office works by sending letters to their parents.

Shoes on the tiled floors.
The tiled floors of the post office © James Pham / Lonely Planet

We met up with our group just outside and walked across the street to the stunning Notre Dame Cathedral, modelled after its Parisian namesake. The rose-coloured bricks imported from Marseille are as colourful as they must have been when the church was inaugurated in 1880.

Cyclos through Ho Chi Minh City.
The tour puts travellers on individual cyclos  © James Pham / Lonely Planet

From here, we hopped on individual cyclos, a throwback mode of transportation introduced to Indochina in the early 20th century. We found the cyclos quite comfortable, pedal-powered by the affable driver perched atop a bicycle in the back. While cyclos are fast disappearing, a casualty of modern transportation, they’re ideal for seeing the sights at a nice, leisurely pace with your hands free to take photos.

Bikes pass the The Thich Quang Duc Memorial.
The Thich Quang Duc Memorial © James Pham / Lonely Planet

We cycled along the tree-lined boulevards, a vestige of French urban planning, to the Reunification Palace for some insight into Vietnam’s more recent history. Previously the offices of the former regime, we learned that the Vietnam War officially ended when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through these very gates on 30 April 1975. A short ride led us to the spot where a monk named Thich Quang Duc famously self-immolated in 1963, protesting the government’s persecution of Buddhists. Over a slow Vietnamese drip coffee in the tranquil gardens, our guide told us that this act was significant because it brought the Chinese and later the Americans into the fray.

Brighly coloured flower fill a market.
Ho Thi Ky Flower Market  © James Pham / Lonely Planet

Another highlight of Ho Chi Minh City is its vibrant markets and we hopped off our cyclos for a closer look. We walked through the Ho Thi Ky flower market bursting with colourful blooms from the cool Central Highlands and the fertile Mekong Delta, picked our way through a busy neighbourhood market where goods spilled over into the narrow walkways, and strolled along a row of shops selling all sorts of pets. The antique market was also eye-opening, a snapshot of Old Saigon with its Khmer statues, old coins, and vintage appliances.

We bade “tạm biệt” to our hard-working cyclo drivers in front of the iconic Ben Thanh Market, in operation since 1914. From there, we drifted into the Saigon sunshine, some of us retreating to the Phở 2000 right across the street in search of a President Clinton-endorsed bowl of noodle soup and clean bathrooms while the rest headed into the Mother of all Markets, gleefully getting lost in its concentric circles of retail heaven.

Tour highlight:

Seeing the city from the vantage point of vintage cyclos, making up 30-40 minutes of the tour and driving past everything from reproduction painting galleries to the busy backpacker’s area. 

Perfect for:

History buffs and photographers. 

Don’t forget:

Comfy walking shoes, a camera, and a hat (plus cash to tip your guide and cyclo driver). 

Final word:

Cyclos are increasingly rare and the drivers almost never speak English, so being able to take in the cityscapes by cyclo and then stopping to hear commentary and walking through markets made for a great balance.

Lonely Planet Experiences, in partnership with Intrepid Travel & Urban Adventures, are a new range of multi-day, day and half-day tours offering amazing experiences in the world’s best-loved destinations. 

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