Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is Vietnam at its most dizzying: a high-octane city of commerce and culture that has driven the country forward with its pulsating energy. A chaotic whirl, the city breathes life and vitality into all who settle here, and visitors cannot help but be hauled along for the ride.
From the finest of hotels to the cheapest of guesthouses, the classiest of restaurants to the tastiest of street stalls, the choicest of boutiques to the scrum of the markets, HCMC is a city of energy and discovery.
Wander through timeless alleys to incense-infused temples before negotiating chic designer malls beneath sleek 21st-century skyscrapers. The ghosts of the past live on in buildings that one generation ago witnessed a city in turmoil, but now the real beauty of the former Saigon’s urban collage is the seamless blending of these two worlds into one exciting mass.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Ho Chi Minh City.
To understand the US invasion of Vietnam, and contextualize its devastating impact on the country's civilians, this remarkable and deeply moving museum is an essential visit. Many of the atrocities documented here are already well publicized, but it's rare to visit a museum such as this, where the victims of US military action are given the space to tell their side of the story. While most of the displays are written from a Vietnamese perspective, much of the disturbing photography of war atrocities come from US sources, including the images of the My Lai massacre, where more than 500 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians were brutally killed by US soldiers. Even travellers with little interest in the war should not leave the city without visiting. Its absorbing exhibits give visitors an invaluable insight into a defining chapter in the country’s history – and a deeper understanding of present-day Vietnam as a result. Allow at least a couple of hours for your visit. The museum, which was formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, primarily deals with the American War, but the French-colonial period and conflicts with China are also documented. US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons are on display outside. One corner of the grounds is devoted to the notorious French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son islands. Artefacts include that most iconic of French appliances, the guillotine, and the notoriously inhumane ‘tiger cages’ used to house war prisoners. The ground floor of the museum is devoted to a collection of posters and photographs showing support for the antiwar movement internationally. This somewhat upbeat display provides a counterbalance to the horrors upstairs. Some of the images on show are very upsetting, in particular photos of widespread destruction from US napalm bombs and the horrific toxic effects of Agent Orange on Vietnamese citizens. Many visitors may need to take a break between exhibits. The museum also offers the rare chance to see some of the experimental weapons used in the war, which were at one time military secrets, such as the flechette, an artillery shell filled with thousands of tiny darts. Upstairs, look out for the Requiem Exhibition. Compiled by legendary war photographer Tim Page, this striking collection documents the work of photographers killed during the course of the conflict, on both sides, and includes works by Larry Burrows and Robert Capa. Tickets and other practicalities Tickets to enter the museum are 40,000d for adults, and 20,000d for children aged 6-16. Children under 6 enter free. The War Remnants Museum is in the former US Information Service building. Captions are in Vietnamese and English.
Built in 1909 in honour of the supreme Taoist god (the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang), this is one of the most atmospheric temples in Ho Chi Minh City, stuffed with statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes. The pungent smoke of incense (huong) fills the air, obscuring the exquisite woodcarvings. Its roof is encrusted with elaborate tile work, and the temple's statues, depicting characters from both Buddhist and Taoist lore, are made from reinforced papier mâché. The multifaith nature of the temple is echoed in the shrine's alternative name Phuoc Hai Tu (福海寺; Sea of Blessing Temple), whose message is clearly Buddhist. Similarly, the Chinese characters (佛光普照; Phat Quang Pho Chieu) in the main temple hall mean 'The light of Buddha shines on all'. Touring the temple Inside the main building are two especially fierce and menacing Taoist figures. On the right (as you face the altar) is a 4m-high statue of the general who defeated the Green Dragon (depicted underfoot). On the left is the general who defeated the White Tiger, which is also being stepped on. Worshippers mass before the ineffable Jade Emperor, who presides – draped in luxurious robes and shrouded in a dense fug of incense smoke – over the main sanctuary. He is flanked by his guardians, the Four Big Diamonds (Tu Dai Kim Cuong), so named because they are said to be as hard as diamonds. Out the door on the left-hand side of the Jade Emperor’s chamber is another room. The semi-enclosed area to the right (as you enter) is presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell; to the left is his red horse. Other figures here represent the gods who dispense punishments for evil acts and rewards for good deeds. The room also contains the famous Hall of the Ten Hells, carved wooden panels illustrating the varied torments awaiting evil people in each of the Ten Regions of Hell. Women queue up at the seated effigy of the City God, who wears a hat inscribed with Chinese characters that announce 'At one glance, money is given'. In a mesmerising ritual, worshippers first put money into a box, then rub a piece of red paper against his hand before circling it around a candle flame. On the other side of the wall is a fascinating little room in which the ceramic figures of 12 women, overrun with children and wearing colourful clothes, sit in two rows of six. Each of the women exemplifies a human characteristic, either good or bad (as in the case of the woman drinking alcohol from a jug). Each figure represents a year in the 12-year Chinese astrological calendar. Presiding over the room is Kim Hoa Thanh Mau, the Chief of All Women. Upstairs is a hall to Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy, opposite a portrait of Dat Ma, the bearded Indian founder of Zen Buddhism. Outside, a small pond seethes with turtles, some of which have shells marked with auspicious inscriptions. Tickets and other practicalities The temple is free to visit, but a number of donation boxes are dotted around the sight. There is no strict dress code, but, to be respectful, opt for clothing that covers the shoulders and drops below the knee. The temple tends to get busy most days, so arrive early to avoid the worst of the crowds.
Built between 1877 and 1883, Notre Dame Cathedral enlivens the heart of Ho Chi Minh City's government quarter, facing Ð Dong Khoi. A red-brick, neo-Romanesque church, it has twin bell towers that are both topped with spires and crosses that reach 60m. This Catholic cathedral, named after the Virgin Mary, was closed for renovation at the time of research, but when it reopens you'll be able to admire its stained-glass windows and interior walls inlaid with devotional tablets.
Believed to be the oldest temple in HCMC (1744), Giac Lam is a fantastically atmospheric place set in peaceful, garden-like grounds. The Chinese characters that constitute the temple's name (覚林寺) mean 'Feel the Woods Temple' and the looming Bodhi tree (a native fig tree, sacred to Buddhists) in the front garden was the gift of a Sri Lankan monk in 1953. Prayers are held daily from 4am to 5am, 11am to noon, 4pm to 5pm and 7pm to 9pm.
Surrounded by royal palm trees, the dissonant 1960s architecture of this landmark government building and the eerie ambience of its deserted halls make it an intriguing spectacle. The first Communist tanks to arrive in Saigon rumbled here on 30 April 1975 and it’s as if time has stood still since then. The building is deeply associated with the fall of the city in 1975, yet it's the kitsch detailing and period motifs that steal the show. It's also known as the Independence Palace.
The inner walls of this sanctuary, famed as the repository of a sacred relic of the Buddha, are adorned with paintings depicting the Buddha’s life. However, this 1956 building is most notable for its dramatic history. In August 1963 truckloads of armed men attacked the temple, which had become a centre of opposition to the Diem government. Today it's again a peaceful Buddhist refuge, with a large seated Buddha statue and a 32m-high seven-tier tower in its complex. Visitors must wear appropriate clothing (no shorts).
With its airy corridors and verandas, this elegant 1929 colonial-era, yellow-and-white building is stuffed with period details; it is exuberantly tiled throughout and home to some fine (albeit deteriorated) stained glass, as well as one of Saigon's oldest lifts. Hung from the walls is an impressive selection of art, including thoughtful pieces from the modern period. As well as contemporary art, much of it (unsurprisingly) inspired by war, the museum displays pieces dating back to the 4th century.
A grand neoclassical structure built in 1885 and once known as Gia Long Palace (and later the Revolutionary Museum), HCMC’s city museum is a singularly beautiful and impressive building, telling the story of the city through archaeological artefacts, ceramics, old city maps and displays on the marriage traditions of its various ethnicities. The struggle for independence is extensively covered, with most of the upper floor devoted to it.
Delightfully fronted by greenery and opening to an interior blaze of red, gold, green and yellow, this is one of the most beautifully ornamented temples in town, dating from 1902. Of special interest are the elaborate brass ritual ornaments and weapons, and the fine woodcarvings on the altars, walls, columns, hanging lanterns and incense coils. From the exterior, look out for the ceramic scenes, each containing innumerable small figurines, that decorate the roof.
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