Bird's eye view of canals in Ho Chi Minh City. By Aaron Joel Santos
Once the “Pearl of the Orient”, Vietnam's southern hub is still home to many of the wide, airy buildings constructed during its French colonial era, plus a handful of pagodas and other historical sights. HCMC's most popular attractions are centred around District 1's 30-4 Park, with the Reunification Palace looking down tree-lined Le Duan Boulevard just a short walk from Notre Dame Cathedral and the city's Central Post Office.
For more French colonial history, pay a visit to the grand Hotel de Ville, current home of the municipal government. From here, you'll also experience one of HCMC's newest attractions, Nguyen Hue walking street, a large, open, pedestrian-only promenade.
While Nguyen Hue is a good spot to begin your shopping, make sure you continue the retail therapy at Ben Thanh Market, HCMC's most iconic trading center. Around District 1, a host of old apartments and former office buildings have also been repurposed as shopping centers, leading to some surprising retail discoveries. Decades-old buildings like 22 Ly Tu Trong and 42 Nguyen Hue are good examples of these impromptu shopping malls, as are the shops at 3A Station near the riverfront.
Further north, District 3's Turtle Lake stands at the center of a large roundabout, its '60s-era monument bearing a giant concrete lotus rising above a small pond. A few blocks away, the War Museum recounts a tumultuous time in 20th-century Vietnamese history, documenting both the atrocities of the American War and the aftermath of the conflict.
West of downtown, the Chinese neighbourhood known as Cho Lon houses Binh Tay Market, a colossal wholesale trading center, as well as nearby Thien Hau Pagoda, which pays homage to the goddess of the sea amid clouds of incense and burning votive paper. Next door, the colorful Chaozhou Assembly Hall and simple, pale blue Cho Lon Mosque highlight the neighbourhood's intersection of cultures.
Beyond landmarks, HCMC certainly offers visitors a taste of urban Vietnam by way of its traffic. Get in step with the locals by hopping on the back of a motorbike. Tour outfits in the city offer half- and full-day motorbike tours, which help visitors to get a feel for the frenetic energy of the city.
Perhaps one of the southern hub's most important facets is its street food, which draws together countless regional specialties from across Vietnam at dented metal tables and plastic stools across the city for an incredible roadside feast. While the options are plentiful, highlights include Vietnamese sandwiches (bánh mì), southern-style savoury pancakes (bánh xèo) and broken rice (cơm tấm). Cantonese cuisine is also plentiful in the city's Chinese neighbourhood.
Though they may be small and sometimes difficult to find, HCMC has no shortage of contemporary art galleries. Start your artistic adventure at the Fine Arts Museum, once the mansion of one of HCMC's wealthiest residents, before venturing out to other spaces. Popular venues include Galerie Quynh, The Factory and Craig Thomas Gallery.
If you feel the need to escape HCMC's bustle and noise, daylong excursions allow travelers to experience the Mekong Delta's slower pace of life or uncover a bit of war-era history at the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels.
Begin your first day in the southern hub with a visit to the War Remnants Museum. You’ll want to get here early in order to take in all the exhibits –the museum closes for lunch– before grabbing a bite and heading down to the grand Reunification Palace. Take the free hour-long tour of the grounds and then walk over to the historic Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office nearby. In the evening, grab a drink atop one of HCMC's many rooftop bars.
For another day in the city, start your morning with a jaunt to Ben Thanh Market, the city’s most famous trading centre, before strolling down toward Nguyen Hue walking street. Here you’ll find the stunning Hotel de Ville, a building now home to HCMC’s municipal government, as well as the Opera House nearby. Just a block over is Dong Khoi, a popular shopping street, or you can swing back toward Ben Thanh for a visit to the city’s antique street and neighbouring Fine Arts Museum.
For one more day in the southern hub, add on a tour, either in town or just beyond the city limits. Book a motorbike excursion out to the Mekong Delta for a taste of rural life, brush up on your history with a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels or get your dose of local culture by heading out to District 6’s Cho Lon area. A handful of other activities such as cooking classes and spa facilities are also worthy options.
Rainy season in HCMC runs from May to November, however the southern hub is a year-round destination. April and May tend to be especially hot, while cooler weather –relatively speaking, of cours – appears around December and January. Perhaps the only ill-advised time to visit the city would be during Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, as most residents head back to their hometowns for the holiday.
Travellers can arrive in HCMC by bus, train or plane. Tan Son Nhat, HCMC's international airport, sees foreign and domestic arrivals everyday, while various bus companies operate shuttles to the southern hub. As the terminus of Vietnam's north-south railway, HCMC also sees a steady stream of train travellers.
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