Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) travel guide
The Cao Dai religion is a strange mix of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Roman Catholicism, and had a strong political flavour in the past. It was founded in Southern Vietnam in 1926 and has Jesus, Buddha and Victor Hugo as saints, among many others. A Cao Dai temple is a very colourful affair, resembling something from a kids colouring book with pastel coloured dragons snaking around columns, odd religious objects like the Divine Eye and flashing Christmas lights, but it all go very well with the equal colourful robes of the priests. This Cao Dai temple lies right in Ho Chi Minh City, and should not be confused with the main Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh (95 km from HCM City), which can be included in a tour to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Visitors are welcome to attend mass which are held at 12 am, 6 am, 12 pm and 6 pm.
The Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City is a fine example of French colonial architecture. It was designed by the ever-so-famous Gustave Eiffel (yes, the Eiffel Tower dude) and completed in 1891. It still functions as a post office today and it is a great place to send some of those rare postcards. Previously the Vietnamese stamps didn't have any clue on the back, you had to spread glue there yourself. Since the provided glue at the post office was very watery you had to make sure that the postcards were stamped before sending them off, or else you risked the stamps being removed and resold. Oh boy, the good old days.
Cholon is Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown. For the untrained eye things might not look that different to other parts of Ho Chi Minh City, or Vietnam for that matter, but slowly the differences will emerge. Shop signs are written in both Vietnamese and Chinese characters and various Chinese dialects can be heard in the streets. Trading houses are packed with herb medicine and warehouses stock pretty much anything you need to set up a whole garment factory. Wonderful, smoky Chinese temples are scattered through out the area and if you need a to buy outfits for a Chinese circus troupe, luckily that can also be done here. Cholon makes a great and chaotic day trip from the more tourist minded district 1.
Dong Khoi Street is the fine shopping and tourist street. It is here you find up-scale silk tailors, artifacts shops, art galleries and a handful of boring tourist restaurants. Prices are general higher here, but the quality can also be excellent. There is also a shopping center and a bookshop along the street and it is also here you will find Saigon Opera House. Like many other French designed buildings in Vietnam the design for the opera house was inspired from a famous building back in France, in this case the Petit Palais in Paris. Next to the opera house, around the corner, stands the towering Caravelle hotel, which has a magnificent view over Ho Chi Minh City from their rooftop bar, Saigon Saigon Bar.
A Hindu temple in Ho Chi Minh City is such an odd sight that it intrigues a visit. The entrance is the most fascinating part with a traditional Hindu tower covered with different versions of the Hindu goddess of disease and rain, Mariamman. The temple was built in the late 19th century by the Tamil community which came with the French, when Vietnam became a part of French Indochina. The Tamils were original from South India, where the French had some enclaves at Pondicherry and Karikal. Nowadays Mariamman temple is also used by Vietnamese and Chinese, "for why not, if it works".
When you have named the city after the guy, you better have a museum about him as well. So this museum is a celebration to the father of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. The displays go way back to when he was still called by his real name, Nguyễn Tất Thành, and he was an ordinary cook's helper on a ship to America. He even lived in New York for some years. Later when he got involved in the independence movement he changed his name to Ho Chi Minh, which mean "He Who Enlightens". The museum contains a lot of pictures and other patriotic stuff, and is a hit for Vietnamese school classes. Most of the texts are only in Vietnamese, but you don't need words to enjoy the display of Ho Chi Minh's personal watering can! There are some cool modern HCM art on the top floor too.
Ho Chi Minh City is not just speeding motorcycle, advertising signs and new office buildings, the city still have some hidden ancient gems, like the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Phuoc Hai Tu). This ancient Chinese temple, built around the turn of the 20th century, is dedicated to the Taoist "god of the heaven" and stand in strong contrast to the surrounding concrete. The interior is wonderful dark and dirty, and the air is dense with incense smoke. Along the walls are fierce looking characters, who all get their part of attention from the steady flow of worshipers.
Though Pham Ngu Lao is technically only one street, the name normally refers to the whole backpacker ghetto area southeast of Pham Ngu Lao street. When independent travelling was slowly picking up in Vietnam, residences in the Pham Ngu Lao neighbourhood were renting out cheap rooms illegally. Today, the block constrained by the streets Pham Ngu Lao, Bui Vien, Hem 28 Bui Vien and Do Quang Dau is chockablock with cheap hotels, cafes, tour agents, counterfeit DVD vendors, fake outdoor equipment shops, bars and persistent photocopied-books sellers. Every night, confused backpackers get dropped off here by the many open tours and buses from Cambodia, but it only takes a moment to feel at home here among gangsters, hustlers, and friends. It is a vibrant madness with a strong flavour of Vietnam, which is only outdone by Khao San in Bangkok and maybe Kuta Beach in Bali in terms of backpacker density.
During the Vietnamese War the palace was home to the South Vietnamese President. When Saigon fell in 1975 to the North Vietnamese Army, a tank crashed through the gates and the NVA troops ran into the office to the waiting South Vietnamese president, who had only been sworn in days before. The North Vietnamese seized power and a long process started to reunite Vietnam, which involved reeducation of hundred of thousands of South Vietnamese who had supported the South Vietnamese government and their foreign allies. The palace, which was previously known as the Independence Palace, got renamed to Reunification Palace. Today it is a museum and the interior has been kept intact since 1975. You can see the president's office with strange decorations like elephant foot baskets and stuffed animals. The rooftop has a display of the helicopter evacuation done from the American embassy (which no longer exists) in the last days before the fall of Saigon.
During the 1980s every communist-friendly country had their share of so-called Russian markets, which were markets catering for foreigners who at the time were mostly Russians. The original Russian market in Ho Chi Minh doesn't longer exists, but has been incarnated into a new market named "Saigon Square" in down town HCM City. Some of the stalls owners are the same from the old Russian market, and though the selection isn't as "Russian" as it use to be, you can still find reasonable cheap t-shirts, designer knock-offs, imported Chinese counterfeits and outdoor equipment. You don't get overcharged as badly as in Ben Thanh market, but you still need to bargain hard.