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HOP ON TO HO CHI MINH

Exploring Ho Chi Minh City by bus and foot brings one face to face with its glorious past and a future brimming with promise

As someone who loves exploring new cultures and destinations, I found it easy to be drawn to the vibrant energy of Ho Chi Minh City. From its early beginnings as an administrative unit under the Nguyen Dynasty to its status as the center of commerce, economy, and leisure of Vietnam, this city has a rich and fascinating history.

But what truly sets Ho Chi Minh City apart is its unique blend of tradition and modern innovation. It seamlessly mixes historic monuments and a French colonial past with a thriving cultural scene and a reputation as one of Asia's major start-up hubs. It's a city that demands exploration and rewards those who seek out its hidden gems. With its unique blend of history, culture, and innovation, Ho Chi Minh City is a destination that left me wanting more. 

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French Colonial Post Office inside and out

Saigon Central Post Office

It’s probably deliberate that the Hop On-Hop Off buses, which take tourists around Ho Chi Minh City, are stationed in front of the Saigon Central Post Office. Constructed between 1886 and 1891, this majestic edifice that epitomizes the graceful style of a bygone era follows the design by the renowned architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux. From the palmette ornaments to the Roman arches and windows, every inch of the artistic façade exudes an aura of grandeur and sophistication. The vaulted ceiling with wrought iron beams and columns is a true feat of engineering and design.

Despite its historical significance, the Saigon Central Post Office still functions as the central post office of Ho Chi Minh City, with thousands of parcels and letters received and delivered on a daily basis. As I left the building, I saw a handful of tourists sending handwritten letters and postcards, perhaps to their loved ones back home, not only to share their experience but also to be a part of the history and legacy of this magnificent building. 

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The Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral undergoing repairs while the image of the Virgin stands gracefully in front. 

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception)

On my first visit to this cathedral some years ago, I remember being spellbound by the 56 stunning stained-glass windows that depicted characters and events from the Bible. It was like walking into a dreamland of colorful light that illuminated the sacred stories I grew up with. The Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral also houses a real pipe organ, which sadly, is no longer in use due to severe damage and has been replaced by an electronic pipe organ. I can only imagine the awe-inspiring music that must have been produced from it during the church’s early days.

Unfortunately, parishioners, devotees, and tourists will have to wait until 2027 to get inside and marvel at the stunning interiors of this magnificent house of worship. The basilica is presently undergoing much-needed repair and reconstruction. Meanwhile, the façade still serves as a scenic backdrop to countless wedding pictorials, selfies, and portraits of families wearing their Sunday best. 

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                     Top: Vitenam History Musuem. Bottom: Buddha figure inside the Vietnam History Museum 

Hùng Kings Temple

In front of the Vietnamese History Museum, at the end of a tree-shaded lane, the Hung Kings Temple still stands almost unchanged for more than a hundred years. Constructed in 1926 by the French to honor their martyrs of the First World War, then transformed into a revered place of worship by the Vietnamese government, the temple boasts a distinctive Eastern-style architecture. From the front patio, the intricate inscriptions of mythical creatures and layered curved roofs amplifies the exotic charm of the structure.

Once inside, I marveled at the two ancient bronze drums that date back to 2,500 years ago. Adorning one side of the temple is an impressive three-ton bronze elephant statue, given by King Rama VII of Siam during his visit to Indochina in 1930. Within the confines of this serene sanctuary, I cfelt as if I was transported back in time, awestruck by the temple’s beauty and the rich history it represents. 

War Remnants Museum

The Wcr Remnants Museum will take one to a period in history that is often described as one of the darkest: the Vietnam War. Standing at the museum's entrance, my gaze fixated on the remnants of American military might, among them, the lethal F-5A fighter. Yet, it was the UH-1 "Huey" helicopter that commanded attention, its unmistakable form tied to the harrowing experiences of brave souls plunging into relentless combat.

Inside are photo galleries that captured the very essence of war: scenes of death, ravaged landscapes, and the unspeakable atrocities committed during those dark days. But these photographs serve as a relentless reminder—a stark and uncompromising testimony to the toll exacted by conflict and the inescapable yearning for peace. As I emerged from the museum, I earned a deeper understanding of the profound cost of war. It was a sobering realization that in Vietnam, the clamor of battle was replaced by a resolute call for peace. 

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American artillery in front of the War Remnants Museum

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A bar in one of the alleys in Backpacker District.

Bui Vien Street: The Backpacker District

Bui Vien Street, a 1,400-meter-long walking street located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, is a popular destination for backpackers who come to explore the local cuisines and culture, enjoy the vibrant nightlife, and have fun. Bui Vien comprises three main streets: Bui Vien, De Tham, and Pham Ngu Lao, and is also known as the "Backpacker District" by locals. The street is filled with restaurants, coffee shops, hotels, pubs, and bars, and has public Wi-Fi, restrooms, and information desks to serve visitors better. On weekends, no vehicles are allowed on the street between 7 pm and 2 am, allowing for various amusement activities. 

Visitors to Bui Vien Street can explore the street's many coffee shops and restaurants, which include both branded chains and local specialty coffee boutiques. The street is also famous for its vibrant nightlife, with various bars and pubs offering unique and exciting experiences. There are also street art performances, traditional and contemporary music shows, and other activities that facilitate cultural integration and interactions between locals and non-Vietnamese visitors. Whether you are looking for a quiet evening or a lively night out, Bui Vien Street has something for everyone.

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Chicken and Beef Pho.                                                                     Ben Thanh Market.

Ben Thanh Market

Prepare to be amazed at the dizzying array of merchandise at the famous Ben Thanh Market. This market is more than just a shopping hub—it’s a feast for the senses. From morning until night, the market overflows with vendors selling fresh produce, seafood, and an array of Vietnamese street food. Get a taste of authentic dishes such as pho, banh mi, and spring rolls, or shop for traditional items like ao dai, lacquerware, and silk.

Built in the 17th century, Ben Thanh Market was originally located near the Ben Nghe River and served as a welcoming spot for visitors and soldiers entering the Gia Dinh Citadel. After undergoing several renovations over the years, the market's unique architectural style remains a blend of Indochinese and French influences. Its rectangular building features a stunning clock tower, a wooden vaulted ceiling, and open sides. A trip to this bustling and crowded commercial center is a step back in time as you explore this historic landmark that has stood the test of time. 

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From top to bottom: The Bitexco Fiancial Tower, beautiful ao dais inside AO Dai Gallery, a traditional "cyclo" on display at the Saigon Skydeck.

Saigon Skydeck

If you want to enjoy an unobstructed view of Ho Chi Minh City, then a visit to the Saigon Skydeck in Bitexco Financial Tower is a must. Standing at 178 meters high, it offers a breathtaking 360-degree panoramic view of the city. From this soaring height, the waters of the Saigon River twinkle under the sun while the rest of the city’s old sections and new developments spread out into the horizon. On the walls, a gallery of photos traces the city’s development to give visitors a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh’s commercial and industrial progress.

The Saigon Skydeck also features interactive displays and contemporary binoculars to provide long-range sights. A welcome feature is the Ao Dai Gallery, which displays a collection of the Vietnamese traditional wear and the various mutations it has undergone through the years. There are pieces with intricate embroidery, while some are hand painted with whimsical sceneries. The souvenir shop sells some interesting and charming souvenir items for visitors to take home a piece of traditional Vietnamese culture. 

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Inside a government office

City Hall (People's Committee Building)

The stately Ho Chi Minh City Hall was meticulously crafted by the renowned French architect P. Gardes during the transformative years of 1898 to 1908. Originally known as the Hotel de Ville, this architectural marvel underwent a significant change in nomenclature in 1954. Following the momentous reunification of Vietnam in 1975, it was granted its current name, the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee Head Office.

In front, a statue portraying Ho Chi Minh sharing his wisdom with a curious child, greets visitors. Built in the resplendent French Renaissance style, and inspired by the magnificent town halls of France, the city hall showcases a harmonious fusion of architectural brilliance. Its expansive layout features a central hall complemented by stately rectangular wings, creating an atmosphere of grandeur and purpose. It is in the evening that the City Hall truly shines, quite literally. The illuminating lights that dance upon its façade transform the building into a captivating spectacle, drawing admiration from passersby and wandering tourists.

Saigon Opera House

The stately Saigon Opera House once served as the seat of the Lower House of the South Vietnamese government. Following the reunification of Vietnam, the original function of this architectural gem as a center for artistic expression was restored. Providing the stunning environment to various performances, the building’s French Colonial architecture amplifies the performances within its walls.

The opera house carries an unmistakable resemblance to the iconic Petit Palais in Paris. Adding an intriguing touch of antiquity are statues of two graceful women that mirror the aesthetic of the Greek Caryatids of Erechtheion. At the façade’s pinnacle sit two angelic figures paying homage to the lyre guitar. These celestial beings are symbolic guardians of artistic expression and melodic enchantment. The opera house primarily hosts theatrical productions and classical music concerts, so gaining entry for mere visitation is currently inaccessible. But even from the outside, the sight of this architectural marvel is a veritable feast for the eyes. 

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The majestic Saigon Opera House. 

Saigon Opera House

Saigon Opera House
The stately Saigon Opera House once served as the seat of the Lower House of the South Vietnamese government. Following the reunification of Vietnam, the original function of this architectural gem as a center for artistic expression was restored. Providing the stunning environment to various performances, the building’s French Colonial architecture amplifies the performances within its walls.

The opera house carries an unmistakable resemblance to the iconic Petit Palais in Paris. Adding an intriguing touch of antiquity are statues of two graceful women that mirror the aesthetic of the Greek Caryatids of Erechtheion. At the façade’s pinnacle sit two angelic figures paying homage to the lyre guitar. These celestial beings are symbolic guardians of artistic expression and melodic enchantment. The opera house primarily hosts theatrical productions and classical music concerts, so gaining entry for mere visitation is currently inaccessible. But even from the outside, the sight of this architectural marvel is a veritable feast for the eyes. 

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