By the time we arrived in Ho Chi Minh, otherwise known as Saigon, we were feeling like quite seasoned Vietnam travellers, negotiating road crossings with more confidence.
We had 3 days and wanted to focus on Vietnam War learning experiences for all of us. The obvious first place to start was the War Remnants Museum, and when I saw pictures of the planes and tanks outside the Museum I knew we were onto a winner for L who has become quite plane obsessed during the trip.
From the very trendy Hammock Hotel in Ben Thanh we set out on a big walking day.
We were headed first to the War Remnants Museum, the route took us past the Independence Palace also known as the Reunification Palace and we admired the famous gates where at the end of the Vietnam War, during the fall of Saigon, a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through the gates.
L’s eye’s lit up when we arrived at the Museum, we had to spend half an hour outside first, admiring all the planes, fighter jets and helicopters. There are also tanks but he is less interested in those.
In the end we agreed to go inside to cool off and come back out later to see the planes again!
The War Remnants Museum was confronting, interesting, thought provoking and very emotional. We were shocked and disturbed by images of children affected by Agent Orange, victims of Napalm and injured and killed civilians. The exhibits are a bit one-sided and anti-American, but show the horrors of war no matter what side you are on. A balanced museum it may not be, but many of the exhibits and interviews were from the Americans themselves. There were rooms that were too much to take in for L & S and they waited outside some of the exhibits when they’d had enough. But they took a certain amount in, what stuck with them the most was learning about Agent Orange which came up again the next day on our visit to Cu Chi Tunnels.
We spent several hours at the museum and finished with a quick visit to the mock POW prison outside, with the infamous Tiger Cage.
Over the next few days we heard many discussions and opinions on the Museum. Americans who said they felt ashamed or embarrassed to be an American in Vietnam. People who found it too upsetting and left in tears. And the cynics that claimed it is all propaganda. Well maybe, but the war definitely happened, so did the chemical attacks and we know there are many still suffering terribly from the effects of Agent Orange. We felt it was well worth a visit and a good forerunner to our visit to the Cu Chi tunnels the following day.
After a long morning we were ready for lunch so we headed to the Cathedral area and found the popular Propaganda Bistro. Here they serve tasty, fresh, Vietnamese food in colourful surroundings.
Just around the corner from Propaganda Bistro is Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, built in the late 1880s.
The tourists buses are in and out dropping off loads of tourists to see the Cathedral.
Across the road, tourists also visit the Saigon Central Post Office, constructed between 1886 an 1891, it is worth a quick look for its interesting architecture and the large painted maps on the walls.
Write a post card and post it from the post office, just to say you did.
Cu Chi Tunnels
A trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, in the Cu Chi district outside Ho Chi Minh, was high on our must do list for Vietnam. We considered options for travelling independently but it was easier in the end to book with a tour. We chose this tour with Get Your Guide. We aren’t usually big fans of doing tours, we like to be independent, but one advantage is the ability to learn more from a good guide. Our guide was a Vietnam War veteran with lots of good stories to tell.
The tunnels were used as hiding spots for Viet Cong soldiers during fighting, as well as being essential communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon stores and living quarters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong and the Cu Chi tunnels are part of a much wider network of tunnels that underlie much of Vietnam.
During a visit you can see how they disguised entrances and air holes and how they managed to disguise smoke from cooking areas. Displays show a number of booby traps they used to discourage the enemy from entering the tunnels. For an additional cost you can have a chance to try shooting an AK-47 and other machine guns, not our thing at all, it was noisy for the young kids visiting, and felt wrong to be glorifying war and playing with guns. It’s also very expensive.
Finally towards the end of the tour you get to the bit you came for! The opportunity to crawl through a section of the tunnel, about 50 – 100 metres long. Once inside it was narrower, lower and far more claustrophobic than we expected. During the section of tunnel there are a number of exit points so if you feel you’ve had enough you can leave at the next one. The guide moved incredibly fast. It wasn’t possible to walk bent over all the way, as we descended to lower levels, we ended up crawling on hands and knees.
Just when we’d decided we’d had enough and were ready to find an exit, we arrived at the end. A number of our group didn’t go into the tunnel or didn’t make it to the end, so we were proud of ourselves. We were also hot, and very relieved to be out!
Ben Thanh Street Food Market
At the end of the tour we were dropped off at the Ben Thanh Street Food Market. This covered market area is open from 9am to midnight. There are seating areas at each end and lanes lined with food stalls, selling Vietnamese specialities as well as variety of international treats. Great for families and groups, everyone can order from the stall they like and eat together. There are also several bars so you can have a drink with your meal, and ice cream stands for afterwards. This is street food, in a sanitised, easy for the tourist to handle way, but still delicious and lots of fun. We came here the following afternoon too.
On our final day in Ho Chi Minh we had ambitious plans involving a walk to see the tallest building, Bitexco, Ho Chi Minh Statue and a visit to the Independence Palace. This all proved a bit much as L wasn’t feeling well and we were all tired. We knew we had a big 3 days coming up on our Mekong River trip to Phnom Penh, so after walking to Bitexco and the statue, we cut this day short and headed back to the hotel to rest. Sometimes you have to leave something for next time!
3 days is a good amount of time to spend in Ho Chi Minh, allowing for a day at the tunnels. Location of your hotel is crucial, we chose to stay in the Benh Thanh area because we wanted to be able to walk to many of the main sites. Sometimes accommodation seems cheaper further out, but the cost of taxis or transport adds up quickly and wastes time. We liked The Hammock Hotel Ben Thanh, their family nest was perfect for our family of four. With extra touches like a free to use laundry upstairs, and free beer and soft drinks too!
For more posts about our time in Vietnam see our Vietnam page. Next up we take the slow route to Cambodia via the Mekong River Delta.