Travel Tales · Vietnam

Travel Tales: A Ho Chi Minh City Walking Tour (plus some travel tips)

This is Part Three of my Vietnam-Cambodia trip. See the other parts here:
Part One: The breathtaking Angkor and the laid-back Siem Reap
Part Two: Tonle Sap and the Angkor’s great circuit

We left Siem Reap at 7 PM; we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 at 9:30 AM. Our flight back to Manila was going to be at 1:00 AM, and as we didn’t have a lot of time, we decided to just take a walking tour of Ho Chi Minh.

We left our bags at the hotel where Bryan and Juli were staying. (A tip: get a hotel at Pham Ngu Lao Street, a haven for backpackers.) While they were in the Cu Chi Tunnels, we took a cab to Dong Khoi Street.

Dong Khoi is home to some lovely French-colonial buildings and historic five-star hotels. The first building we saw was the exquisiteย Municipal Theater.

Municipal Theater / Opera House. The sky was overcast when we arrived.

Andy just couldn’t resist. ๐Ÿ™‚

If we only had the time, we could have watched a show here!

Caravelle Hotel, headquarters of diplomats and journalists during the Vietnam Way. The Municipal Theater is in the foreground.

We walked on toward Rex Hotel and the People’s Committee Building.

A garden beside the Rex Hotel. The Rex Hotel was another headquarters during the Vietnam War, and it was mainly where the US military gave press briefings. To the left, you could just see the Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City.
Statue of Ho Chi Minh cradling a child, with the People’s Committee Building in the background. The building is supposedly modeled after the City Hall in Paris.

It started to rain, but luckily we were near a mall. It’s no Mall of Asia or Greenbelt, but who’d want to go to such massive malls in this place? ๐Ÿ™‚

Vincom Center, a mall with elegant boutiques.

When the rain abated, we walked further on to the lovely Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame Cathedral.

Right beside it is the General Post Office. Between each window is an inscription of famous philosophers and scientists (like Laplace and Descartes).

Post Office

The facade would make you think that Platform 9 3/4 would be inside…

The beautiful interior of the Post Office building

…but it’s way better than that! A large portrait of Ho Chi Minh guards the hall.

Even the phone booths are so lovely! (Pic taken by Andy)

It was a long walk to our next stop, but it was not an exhausting one. See why.

We had lovely tree-lined boulevards to walk through.

We walked some more to get to theย Reunification Hall. This used to be the former residence of the French governor general, then the South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem in the 1950s toward the Vietnam War. The Reunification Hall was bombed in a failed assassination attempt and was rebuilt, but Diem was captured and killed before he could move back in.

Reunification Hall

Now it has become a museum of sorts where you could see where presidents entertained diplomats and other dignitaries, and where battles were strategized.

A sitting room or meeting hall. Notice the huge ivory tusks.
The projector room behind the theater
Here’s where President Nguyen Van Thieu escaped from North Vietnamese troops in 1975. The English writing on the left says, “At 8:30 AM April 8th 1975 First Lieutenant Nguyen Thanh Trung flew F5E and threw down two bombs at the right target here.” It caused no permanent damage. A North Vietnamese tank destroyed the palace gates, ending the Vietnam War and symbolizing the reunification of North and South Vietnam under a communist government.

We walked on a few blocks to the War Remnants Museum.

War Remnants Museum
Unexploded ordnance at the War Remnants Museum

We stayed here the longest. I have very few pictures of this place, but I don’t need pictures to remind me of what’s in there. It has many, many pictures of scenes from the Vietnam War and the harrowing effects of Agent Orange attacks.

Some pictures to be found here: pictures of American soldiers who are about to kill innocent civilians, Vietnamese corpses,ย one whole wall of pictures showing Sen. Bob Kerrey’s alleged war crimes, a room on the effects of Agent Orange on the landscape and on people, photojournalists’ pictures of the war moments before they died, and (on a positive note) before/after montages.

Three floors of these heartbreaking pictures later, and Andy and I just had to sit down and rest. We were left wondering why some people have to take such terrible measures to destroy perceived enemies.

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A Word of Caution Re: Ho Chi Minh Taxis

I’ve been warned about this several times, but I did not know what exactly I was going to deal with: cab drivers who rig their meters to jump every five seconds, and who insist that you paid 10,000 VND when you actually gave 100,000 VND. Even Manila cab drivers aren’t that evil. But you’re in a foreign country; sometimes you wonder if there’s anything else you could do.

Needless to say, when we got to Jade Emperor Pagoda, I was seething, and I couldn’t concentrate on the different and numerous images of the Buddha. All I wanted to do was to pray to the Buddha for karma to strike, and then I was angry with myself all over again because dammit, karma is a Hindu doctrine.

Sadly, while the people I met in Ho Chi Minh (mostly vendors and restaurant owners and workers) are actually quite warm and enthusiastic, this fiasco ruined my trip somewhat. If you’re going to the city, take a Vinasun or Mailinh cab, and absolutelyย nothing else, even if it has started to rain.

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Jade Emperor Pagoda. It’s quite dense with religious imagery and incense fumes, and its rooftop is a work of art.

Anyway, we returned to Pham Ngu Lao towards the evening, met Bryan and Juli, took a bath at the hotel, had dinner, and went to the Ben Thanh night market.

Here’s one thing I learned while I was there: apparently it was well-known that Filipinos haggle a lot. At least that’s what I understood when I tried to buy a couple of wooden bracelets — when I told the vendor that I was Filipino (and not Malaysian, as she’d thought), she immediately agreed to my price. Then I realized that I may have asked for a price that is relatively too high for a Filipino. I don’t bargain too well — I’m impatient when it comes to haggling for such a long time, and I feel bad about reducing the vendors’ earnings for the day! Honestly I’ve never been very good at bargaining and open-air shopping, even in Divisoria. ๐Ÿ™‚

Fruits, painted porcelain plates, and neatly-arranged flowers are just some of the stuff you can buy at the Ben Thanh Night Market.
Cityscape near the Ben Thanh market.
Pham Ngu Lao Street at night.

And then it was our flight back to Manila — thankfully, Cebu Pacific was delayed by only about fifteen minutes. Needless to say, it was an unforgettable experience.

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Some tips when traveling in Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap:

  1. Learn about night buses and reservations to save yourself some precious tour time. Jasmine Lodge, where I stayed in Siem Reap, arranged our bus ride for us on our way back to Ho Chi Minh.
  2. Decide how many days you want to spend in Angkor. You can do the inner circuit in one day, but three days will allow you to see almost all of the temples.
  3. Again, be careful with the Ho Chi Minh taxis, and (obviously) look both ways before crossing the streets there because there are many motorbikes.
  4. The backpackers’ area in Ho Chi Minh is at Pham Ngu Lao St., District 1. Chat with other travelers who could give you tips on where to go and how much to pay. (Also, eye candy! Come on.)
  5. You can even haggle for the price of your Ho Chi Minh hotel room! But best do it in person and not through email.
  6. This should go without saying, but always smile and be gracious. ๐Ÿ™‚
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4 thoughts on “Travel Tales: A Ho Chi Minh City Walking Tour (plus some travel tips)

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