Late last year, we embarked on our third international trip to date by visiting the largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Formerly and popularly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is considered the country’s largest economy owing to its rich commercial district and its history of being a strategic seaport to the Southeast Asian seas. HCMC also played a vital role in the Vietnam War back in the ’70s, where the Viet Cong fought American oppressors for the country’s independence led by Chairman Ho Chi Minh, to whom the city was renamed after.
On our first day, just a few hours after our arrival, we went on a city tour. The metropolis comes bustling early in the morning when shops open and the motorcycle-riding populace zooms along the streets (sometimes even the sidewalks so watch out!) as they go about their daily routine.
For our first stop, we went to Bình Tây Market, the largest of its kind in the entire city. Shoppers can enjoy buying goods ranging from Vietnamese food and spices to bags, dresses, scarves and the traditional Vietnamese clothing ao dai. Filipinos will definitely be reminded of their own Divisoria while shopping at Bình Tây. As a bonus, some Vietnamese sellers have even learned how to recognize Pinoy shoppers, so don’t be surprised when you hear the occasional “Bili na.” and “Mura lang.”
From the noisy market, we headed to a quieter destination, the Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu or The Pagoda of the Lady Thien Hau. With its interiors decorated by ancient Chinese artworks, incense sticks and coils, this Chinese temple dedicated for Thien Hau, the Lady of the Sea, is the perfect place where Buddhists and Taoists can pray and meditate. Tourists of other faiths can take in the fine decorations, take photo opps at the huge altar, and relax at the temple’s quaint courtyard.
Our next stop was one of HCM’s must-see destination, the War Remnants Museum. Visitors can go on an educational trip as they learn about the country’s struggle during the Vietnam War, the side of the story rarely told in most films about the topic. The large museum contains exhibits like anti-war paintings and artworks, original defused artillery, photos depicting the horrific injuries sustained by victims, and various war diorama. If you look hard enough, you just might stumble upon the jar containing preserved fetuses which have been deformed by the notorious chemical Agent Orange used during the war. Outside the building also lies the a display of wartime vehicles such as tanks, helicopters and fighter jets. Perfect for those bad-ass, military themed photos.
Not far from the museum is another famous HCMC landmark, the Reunification Palace. Formerly known as the Independence Palace, this site used to be the home and office of the South Vietnamese president during the war. Starting from its large, sprawling courtyard, we slowly made our way up the building by touring each of the president’s chambers. It was really entertaining to see the rooms where the president held meetings, welcomed guests, and made important wartime decisions. There’s even a huge theater and movie house inside. After climbing and touring four floors, we headed to the wide open roof deck of the building where we took a short break. We were also offered a nice view at the top since we could see the entire palace grounds. The highest skyscraper in the city, Bitexco Financial Tower, is even visible from the top. The next site we visited is a true testament to Vietnam’s history of French colonization. The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica was built by French colonists from 1863-1880. With its tall towers, it bears a slight resemblance to the Notre Dame de Paris, although the one in HCMC has red brick walls. In front of the church also stands a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary where visitors can take photos with the cathedral in the background. For our last stop, we dropped by the Saigon Central Post Office, just a stone’s throw away from the church. The iconic building was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the same man who designed the world-famous Eiffel Tower, which explains its magnificent architectural design. The post office is still operational for those who want to send a postcard or two, but the building’s interior, which slightly resembles the Grand Central Station in New York, is also worth noting. A large portrait of Ho Chi Minh looms in the back, as if observing. Near the entrance are antiquated phone booths (still working!). Visitors can also do their shopping here as there are many souvenir stands inside the building.
By the time we were done, the sky was turning dark and the sun was already setting in the horizon. Worn but full of knowledge from our jam-packed city tour, we all retreated to our hotel to rest, getting ourselves ready for the next day’s longer and more tiring tour.
Visiting Viet Nam requires no Visa for Philippine passport holders and ASEAN citizens. However, for citizens of countries that require Visa, you have two options: Apply Visa at Vietnamese Embassy in your home country or apply an e-Visa online.