Ho Chi Minh City is a busy, bustling city with so many motorbikes you would swear every man, woman and child is driving one at all times. However this city is easy to explore on foot and in my opinion, this is the best way to do it.
Now before you set off on your walking tour please heed this important piece of road safety advice: learn to cross the road like the Vietnamese. It will feel weird, unnatural and scary, but it is the ONLY way to get across the busy roads in HCM because those 500 scooters racing towards you are not going to stop. So here is the key – walk SLOWLY and CONSISTENTLY, do not stop mid-crossing, do not suddenly speed up, just walk and I promise the scooters will go around you. If it makes you feel better wear a brightly coloured top for heightened visibility. Right, now that we’ve got that out of the way, you’re ready to explore Ho Chi Minh on foot!
Start your tour by heading towards the Ben Thanh Market (1). The market is full of all sorts of bargains and curios and you could get lost in here for hours. Across the road you’ll also find Saigon Square 1, a good place to buy jeans, “faux” Northface jackets and other items of clothing you won’t be needing in the 30degree heat of Vietnam.
Take a left at Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa and after a couple of blocks you’ll find yourself outside the gates of the Reunification Palace (also known as the Independence Palace). The Reunification Palace (2) is a must see, once the pimped out pad of the president, it’s full of rich tapestry rugs, opulent furnishings, a helipad, card playing tables, a velvet lined cinema room and even a rooftop nightclub!
After exploring the inner sanctions of the palace, you only need to walk a block to get to the War Remnants Museum (3). This is a deeply sobering but must-see museum giving valuable insights into Vietnam’s history. You can expect to see old military tanks and planes as well as instruments of torture and photos and stories of people affected by the “agent orange” airdropped on civilians by American troops during the Vietnam War. You can expect to spend about 2hours here if you read the plaques, which are available in English and Vietnamese.
When you’re ready to move on, walk back towards the front gates of the Reunification Palace and cross the road to walk through the park opposite it. You’ll come across the Notre Dame Cathedral (4) and the Saigon Central Post Office (5), both brilliant examples of the French colonial influence and architecture. In fact, the Saigon Central post office was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the very same architect who designed the Eiffel Tower in Paris (if you couldn’t guess!). Head inside to see the painted maps on the walls or just take a rest on the varnished wooden benches. Just down the road (cross the road towards the HSBC on the corner and head down Đồng Khởi) you’ll discover another fine example of French architecture – the Saigon Opera House (6).
We’ve almost come full circle now and you’ll find yourself at the other end of Le Loi street. If you walk back along this road, you’ll find yourself back at the Ben Thanh Market. However I recommend one more stop on our tour: treat yourself to a fancy drink at the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel (7). The Rex was a favourite watering hole for American officers during the war and has been given the distinction as being “One of the Best Bars in Southeast Asia” by Newsweek magazine and listed in the well-known book 1000 Places to See Before you Die, by American travel writer Patricia Schultz. So treat yourself to a well-deserved drink and rest your weary feet as you survey the area you’ve just traversed from your vantage point, drink in hand.