History Beneath the City Skyline – The Saigon Story

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Ho Chi Minh City travel blog. Uff, here goes about my favorite city in Vietnam. Touring Vietnam, we stayed in Ho Chi Minh city (or Saigon) for 2 days. It was the biggest mistake on the trip.

Not only did we miss out on popular spots like the Chu Chi Tunnels, the ever-lively city aura that I enjoyed didn’t last long. We needed at least 2 – 3 days more for a better experience. But even more so, it’s a city that I’d love to imagine myself live in one day.

I daresay I loved it better than my Hanoi tour, the capital of Vietnam. Alas, being someone who enjoys the nightlife, I’d be biased. Nonetheless, this Ho Chi Minh travel blog shall give you a more realistic idea.

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog

Unlike most parts of Vietnam (including Hanoi), a considerable population speaks and understands English in Ho Chi Minh city. Apart from the tourist-popular spaces, the small road-portable stalls, Vietnam locals we met, and Grab taxis could at least understand us.

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Walking the bunkers of Independence Palace

It was always broken English with a few highlight keywords, but it helped a long way. Ho Chi Minh City is the commerical capital and it definitely looks it. People’s familiarity with tourism, the skyline views, and the evening rush hour lanes told it all.

However, it wasn’t only the bloom the sparked the city. It was the rest of it intricated so well. The Independence Palace gates perfectly aligning to a T-intersection. The Notre Dame Cathedral surrounded by roadways with the Saigon Central Post Office by its side.

We walked around most places, hopping from a bookshop, to stores, and then to a boutique coffee shop. The best part was that it wasn’t a tourist-dominated place. Daily city traffic pass through these roads and that Post Office still runs today!

Day tours in Ho Chi Minh city

Apart exploring the city, Saigon is popular for day tours. With world-famous sites like the Mekong Delta and Chu Chi tunnels, it makes these trips unmissable. One can opt to go by themselves, but with the sites far, it’ll cost a good deal for transport.

So the budget-friendly option is the package trips that a numerous agencies offer. Not having enough time to cover the city, we had a dealbreaker between Chu Chi tunnels and Mekong Delta. Though one package covered both places on the same day, I preferred detailed exploring rather than speeding across places. So we picked Mekong Delta.

Some people sympathetically eyed us for not picking Chu Chi tunnels, but Mekong Delta turned out to be a fairly sweet trip. I got to hold a python!

Book your Saigon trip in advance! For Saigon, I recommend using our trusted partner, Headout.com. The most-picked Saigon trips are for much better pricing here. Here are my favorite deals for Chu Chi tunnels and Mekong Delta on HeadOut.

Book in advance and grab your deals today!

Landing at the SGN Airport

Our late-night flight from Hanoi delayed – so much for beginning the trip. Thus landing far over midnight at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN airport). Being exhausted, I couldn’t tell much of the airport, except that it was much larger than Noi Bai International airport.

After 10 minutes to find our hotel taxi pickup, it wasn’t much of a hassle. Nor was our stay far from the airport.

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Ho Chi Minh City travel blog: City river view from Saigon Waterbus.

We drove through the quietness of the city. There wasn’t much I could make out – or I was probably just too tired. But something spoke of organization even through the little alleys we passed through. Alighting from the taxi, our hotel was a short walk between buildings from the drop-off point.

As soon as we got off, a young woman out of nowhere came up, asking if I wanted a ‘massage’. I looked at my phone. It was 3 a.m. What the hell? I thought as we ignored and walked to our budget hotel.

Making a small talk with our receptionist whose hair was also messed up, we sunk into our beds and dozed off. Sleeping late, we inevitably woke late almost in the afternoon. We needed the rest too but at the cost of our precious time at Saigon.

Bánh mì for Breakfast and Independence Palace

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Ho Chi Minh city travel blog: The Independence palace!

We freshened up quick and hit the streets. On the way out our alley, we found a travel agency where we booked our itinerary for the following day. There were a few options and we picked the Mekong Delta. I’d studied about Mekong Delta in school and I couldn’t help wanting to see it firsthand.

Walking out of the agency, we planned on visiting the Independence Palace first. Not keen on fancy breakfast, a road stall with buns caught our eye. It was the best start to our day when the vendor spoke in English.

She asked, “Wheech filling?” It turns out, it was Vietnam’s popular local cuisine called Banh mi. The bread was a baguette with fillings stuffed in. Introduced during the French Colonization in Vietnam, it still is a major part of local Vietnamese diet today.

Thus our history class didn’t start at Independence Palace. It began here – with the pork and chicken Banh Mi.

Exploring the Independence Palace

The grand Independence Palace at its entrance itself is something of a sight. The vast space, gardens, and the fountain amidst kicks you back into time to Vietnam’s dark days.

I never had interest in history before, but something sparked when I walked the hallways. The Indochina occupation, Japanese overthrow, French Colonization, Ngo Dinh Diem brutal rule and American involvement – the walls whispered their tales everywhere.

The Independence Palace or also arguably the Reunification Palace today, isn’t only a display of exhibits. No, this place of power was itself attacked twice. Bombed by fighter planes by rebels of the Ngo Dinh Diem rigid rule. And later its gates crashed by 2 military tankers known as the Fall of Saigon.

I never imagined, but the Vietnam’s history immensely intrigued me here. Even long after returning from Vietnam, I still read about its history. There’s simply so much that happened in this prosperous place.

Saigon travel blog: Read my Independence Palace article on Medium.

A Walk past Saigon Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral

After hours of walking the corridors of history, our next stop was the Saigon Central Post Office. Seeing that it wasn’t far, we decided to walk. The tree shades and lawn all the way was a relief from the heat.

As we crossed the road, we weren’t aware of the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. But there it stood, the French-built Church looming over. Unfortunately, a renovation was in place and the main building was hidden beneath temporary support.

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Ho Chi Minh city travel blog: More awkward pictures

Passing it was the Saigon Central Post Office. The exterior neo-classical sight itself was quite a sight. Interiors, the other hand, were another. The high ceilings were of the original structure while the still-functional post-office was far modern.

Still, it was a post office with stacks of paper and packages piled behind the counters. With tourism calling it a must-visit in Saigon, there were postcard sovenir stalls at the center aisle. It was a rare mix of locals going about their daily lives and sight-seers capturing the same with their high-end DSLRs.

Ho Chi Minh city travel blog: There was nothing particular to see apart from experiencing Saigon’s routine lives. And yet one shouldn’t miss it. We didn’t stay here very long.

Streets, Coconut Coffee and the Waterbus Ride

We finally decided to get coffee. Cafes are of course expensive at the business heart of Vietnam. But Vietnam and coffee? Come on, be a sport! I’d say.

We found one a good 15 minutes down the Hai Ba Trung Main Rd. On the way was a second-hand bookstall and we stopped to buy some. It was a while since I picked up a book, but the Independence Palace spirit hadn’t settled. So we picked a few before walking through the evening busy streets.

We entered the Cộng cafe on Hai Ba Trung Rd. opposite to the baby pink Tan Dinh Church. We got ourselves coconut coffee here which was amazing. The only downside was excessive ice. Popular among the locals, its average pricing and environment seemed to remind me of Starbucks.

Except it was the Vietnamese version with much cozy interiors. Exhausted from the continuous day walk, we were glad we ended up here. We took a fair break before hitting the streets again.

Saigon Waterbus Ride

In Singapore, I’d been on the SG River cruise much similar to this. And my hands wouldn’t stop itching until I got on this boat. It was a slow sail along the river that saw the city’s skyline from a different perspective.

Sitting at the Cong Cafe, there were two problems to be dealt with. One, the sun was setting and the last waterbus was our only chance. Two, the taxi prices were absurd! That’s when we booked Grab scooters that cost much less.

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Saigon travel blog: Shot of the skyline from the Saigon Waterbus station.

The scooter ride was nothing short of an adventure with the rider a streetsmart kid zooming past slow traffic. He didn’t even have Google Maps on him. Thanks to him (and the other rider), we made it on time.

Saigon Waterbus: The Saigon Waterbus isn’t a tourist attraction. It’s a public transport means where the whole 10.8 km stretch takes 45 minutes one-way. Check the official Saigon Waterbus site for its schedule.

The evening was a bliss for the red sky with shimmering lights seems only a distant paradise now. The breeze, the skyscrapers, smell of the river. I smiled; it was worth the scooter ride.

Ben Than Market and Beer at Ben Nge

Saigon travel blog: With rain pouring cats and dogs, we lost a lot of time upon alighting the waterbus. We waited an hour before making it to our next stop, the Ben Than Market. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much left to see here – the shops were already closing.

Among the few open ones, there was one with bright porcelain Vietnamese figurines. Pretty-shaped lady figures perfect for sovenirs. The vendor was super-friendly and made the trip worth it. How was she friendly, you ask? Well, we bargained the shit out and the price dropped almost by half!

Maybe we were stupid and could’ve got it for lesser, but it is nostalgic to think of now. From here, the Ben Nge Street Food was only a 10-minute walk away – so off we went! The air was cool with a bit of drizzle.

Walk to the Ben Nge Street Food

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Ho Chi Minh city travel blog: Artwork at Ben Tanh market

Ben Nge Street Food, as seen on pictures, was simply a picturesque food place with variety of local meat cuisines. After a stroll through the place and tough-decision making to pick out of the million tempting options, we picked two dishes from different stalls and settled down.

The plan was to eat less and drink more, which I couldn’t follow all too well. I was way too hungry. But we had a couple of beers along anyway. As the night passed most other customers were tourists as well now.

From here, our hotel wasn’t too far so we decided to walk again. The light buzz, drizzle, and Vietnam’s pavements was quite a vibe. It was a 20-minute walk and the buzz died down as we neared the stay. Exhausting, but the day was ending perfectly. Except for one little thing…

Bui Vien Street. Nothing Else

Steps away from our hotel, there was vivid booming music from the other end of the alley. Glancing at each other, we smiled. Before the curiosity killed we had to check it out. Freshening up and dropping off our minibag, we followed the music.

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Saigon travel blog: This isn’t my picture because our shots were very… different.

Ho Chi Minh city travel blog: That’s when we said, This is it. This was the wild side of Ho Chi Minh city. Bluntly, the Bui Vien Walking street is a madhouse. Extravagant bars, small eateries, stripclubs, live music venues – any adult entertainment you name, the Bui Vien Street had it. Thus called the Red Light district of Ho Chi Minh city.

Adrenaline rushing, we decided to settle down for our next drink here. The rest was history…

I believe you should’ve assumed this by now, but Bui Vien Street is a pretty expensive place. Though not family-friendly, we saw dozens of tourist families walking through here. When in Ho Chi Minh, it seems like an ideal place for party-fanatics to stay close to.

But mind you, some clubs run till 5 a.m. making it impossible to get a good night’s sleep. Luckily, ours a little stowed away and the music seemed distant when we got back. Or maybe we were just too drunk, we’ll never know.

Mekong Delta for Day 2

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Ho Chi Minh city travel blog: Mekong Delta river boat

Remember that day trip we booked to Mekong Delta? Hats off if you do, I’m glad you read this blog so far. Be my guest and join my travel mailing list below. I’d love to tell you more stories. Considering you actually enjoyed reading this post, of course. *gets nervous

Join the Tribe!

I’ll be honest, I can’t promise timely articles. But when I knock your mailbox, it’s for the best stories.

Ho Chi Minh city travel blog: Drowsy from the previous night, we hadn’t a choice but to get our asses up and running. We made ourselves Indomie (an instant noodles thingy around here) and dashed out to the travel agency – our meeting point.

A while from Ho Chi Minh city, we dozed off again enoute Mekong Delta. But we were wide awake on the rustic boat that drifted through the river maze to islands amidst the river.

The Mekong day-trip wasn’t only a day-trip, it boasted Vietnam’s rich agricultural resources. It wasn’t necessarily conveyed in words. The river was proof of how close the rural was in touch with its nature. They depended on it heavily for their livelihood.

The tour we got was another small chunk that added to their daily bread. The whole day trip was passing through the four main islands of the Delta. Every island has its own stories, what it stands for today which our guide explained all along.

mekong delta bees
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Saigon travel blog: Itsy bitsy bees

Unicorn Island, Coconut Candy workshop, Bee Farm, a canal rowboat trip, and the Vinh Trang Pagoda are some places I remember visiting distinctly. Oh, and that Tropical Fruit Garden where they perform South Vietnam’s folk music. The music sounded so different from anything I’ve ever heard!

An honest review: Our passionate guide explained all the way along. Of how locals here ate different types of rats and anything animate. The culture of burying the dead in their own home gardens, and some even in their own houses. But there was so much story I lost track.

It got annoying at some point so I zoned out. The loud boat sounds didn’t help. But as we furthered, the rest of the travelers came out to be great friends later on. An Irish young lady, a hyperactive dude from London, a sweet Singaporean man, a German family (I hope I’m right) and few more.

Ending this Ho Chi Minh city travel blog, away from the city, holding a python over my neck, squeezing into an Auto Rickshaw for a bumpy ride, tasting snake wine (and later chugging a couple more shots). I remember laughing and enjoying the whole day but I look back as I write this and feel the nostalgia hitting hard.

Book your Saigon trip in advance! For Saigon, I recommend using our trusted partner, Headout.com. The most-picked Saigon trips are for much better pricing here. Here are my favorite deals for Chu Chi tunnels and Mekong Delta on HeadOut.

Book in advance and grab your deals today!

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog: Sayonara!

This ends our Saigon travel blog. As promised, we made it back in time by 5. We waves our last goodbyes to the friends we’d made and hurried to check out the hotel. We had a flight to our next Vietnam destination later that evening.

We got another Banh Mi for dinner – we couldn’t afford dinner at the airport. I remember looking out the window as we rode the bus to the airport. The busy streets, people flocking out for the breezy evening, buildings starting to light up.

I also remember a sudden melancholy settling in as the landscape furthered away. I’ll miss this. My mind lingered about. My only regret was not having enough time staying in Ho Chi Minh city. Not three or four, I’d stay here at least a week the next time.

Key tip of this Saigon travel blog – stay long in Ho Chi Minh city. Happy traveling :)

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Manas Patil

Hi there! I'm a 22-year-old dude all the way from India, I love traveling and building itineraries! Sign up and get your FREE COPY of my travel checklist to get the best of your next vacation!

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