We did Vietnam in 9 days. It gave us enough time to get to the places that we were interested in but it didn’t exactly feel like a relaxing holiday. If you want to do all the interesting historical and cultural things, as well as the laidback holiday type things I would recommend adding a few more days on. Fifteen full days would be a decent amount of time.
We travelled to four main places – Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Hue, Hoi An and Hanoi. We were briefly in Da Nang but only for that evening. This is a rundown of what we got up to in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam up until the end of the Vietnam War. It’s bustling, sprawling and a bit smoggy. When we first arrived, we were struck by the fierce humidity – it was like walking into a bag of popcorn that was fresh out of the microwave. We stayed in the backpacker’s district in a reasonably nice hotel called Seventy Hotel. The staff were helpful and friendly and the room itself was clean and well kept. Unfortunately, on our second day there the air conditioning was turned off by some construction work happening in building next door. It was a particularly painful experience, especially as we had to lug our fat suitcases down four flights of narrow stairs.
Bitexco Financial Tower
This was one of the first tourist things we did when we first arrived in Saigon and easy enough to do when you’re slightly jet lagged. We went up in the afternoon and enjoyed several cocktails in tower’s two bars. One thing I really liked about going here first was that it gave you a really useful perspective of how large and sprawling Saigon is as a city. The city never seemed to end and merely faded away over the horizon into smog and humidity. The drinks we had here were probably the most expensive we had in our time in Vietnam, but it was nice to have a relaxing drink overlooking the city lights. As the sun set, surrounding towers lit up with a multitude of colourful lights and projections.
Ben Thanh Markets
We popped in here on our first day and were quite overwhelmed by the heat in here and the amount of hustling that we encountered. We didn’t stay long here as we didn’t see anything that we particularly liked and we were still largely suffering the effects of jet lag. It’s worth going to and checking out but the items for sale are neither here nor there.
Củ Chi tunnels
I would strongly recommend doing this trip. It takes most of the day, but we managed to also squeeze in the War Remnants Museum at the end.
A lot of what you see at the tunnels has been reconstructed or modified to suit western tourists. The tunnels are a good example of this – they were originally a lot smaller and narrower but have been widened to accommodate the *ahem* wider girths of westerners.
I was struck while wandering around the complex, just how frightening it must have been for American GIs to fight in Vietnam. Their frame of reference when it came to war would have been trenches, tanks and most importantly, an obvious enemy. Seeing the small tunnels where Viet Cong would pop up and attack American soldiers gives you a sense of how there simply was no clear enemy lines, no ‘western front and how disconcerting this would have been.
War Remnants Museum
I don’t know how anyone could visit this museum and not adjust their perspective of war and conflict. Yes, it’s a huge propaganda exercise but it does have some worthwhile pieces and interesting artefacts from the Vietnam War that illustrate the grisly and awfulness of war. There is a massive area devoted to detailing the effect of Agent Orange which shows images of people born with severe birth defects and illustrates the enormous human cost of war on the civilian population and in particularly, the devastating long term impact that this chemical warfare had years after the conflict finished.
When Joe and I first saw this palace we immediately thought the design had been inspired by a New Zealand architecture firm, Warren and Mahoney who are known for designing several 70s Stalinist style buildings for New Zealand universities. The Palace itself is a worthwhile visit and has a rich history. It was the site which marked the end of the Vietnam War when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed it gates during the Fall of Saigon. Most of the rooms have been preserved as they were in the 1970s so it gives you a snap shot into what the decorating style and fashion was around this time. Most fascinating was the bunker rooms underneath the palace with all the technical equipment and maps preserved from the 1970s as well.
Fine Arts Museum
We did this in the afternoon on our last day in Saigon before we departed for Hue. The museum itself is a gorgeous yellow French colonial building and although it is right near one of Saigon’s busy roundabouts, it feels very quiet and laidback. It has a range of artwork – paintings, pottery, sculpture and some weapons. It houses what could quite possibly be the oldest thing I have ever seen – a 4th century statue of Buddha. It also houses a vast selection of art depicting the Vietnam War and various propaganda pieces. Well worth a visit if you’re looking for something a bit more relaxing.
Another market – but this one has air conditioning! Worth going to this during the day and then heading to the night market near the Ben Thanh markets in the evening. Joe bought some fake Dr Dre headphones from here and I bought some pants that were the wrong size.
It was initially quite overwhelming coming from a smaller (although quite sprawled) city of 1.3 million people to a city of 7.3 million people and it took some time to get used too. I personally found Saigon the most humid of anywhere we went, but it did have plenty of cafes and the like to pop into and lap up the beautiful and sweet air con. Learning to cross the road was fun but also quite terrifying. I think we got the knack of it in the end. The trick is to just start walking confidently across and road and let the cars and scooters make their way around you. Saigon was fun city to start our tour of Vietnam in. I would recommend spending 2 – 3 full days here.