Backpacking Vietnam – First stop Ho Chi Minh City

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In October this year we left Frankfurt to travel through Vietnam for three weeks. Our backpacking adventure started with a flight from Frankfurt Airport to Ho Ch Minh City, with a short layover in Dubai. As this was our first trip to Asia we were pretty excited and did not really know what to expect.

Prior to the trip, we had agreed on a rough route, but only booked a hotel for the first two nights in Ho Chi Minh City. We wanted to have flexibility in timing of our stays and retain the possibility to change our travel itinerary. As we were travelling during the off-season it was never a problem to find appropriate accommodations via and two or three days in advance to our arrival at the next destination.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Backpacking

We spent an amazing time in Vietnam, enjoying the unbelievable beautiful landscape, friendly people, and delicious food.

Trekking through the terraced-hill countryside of Sa Pa, relaxing on incredible beaches along the coastline, cruising in Ha Long Bay or experiencing the irresistible buzz of cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – Vietnam’s spectacular variety ensures there is something to suit every traveller.

Arrival in Ho Chi Minh City (former Saigon)

After a 16 hours journey we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City in the evening. When we left the airport we were overwhelmed by the humidity. We quickly caught a taxi and drove to the Sonnet Saigon Hotel, an economy basic accommodation situated in District 3 (€95 for two nights). The ride from the airport to our hotel took about 20 minutes and cost about VND220,000.

After our belongings had been taken to our room and we had quickly changed clothes, we were dying of hunger. In the elevator down to the reception hall we met a Vietnamese guy from the US who offered us a ride to a location he was just heading to. Once we arrived at the place we realized that it was a club. As we did not feel like partying but were craving for food, we jumped back into the cap again and drove to to District 1. This is the central urban district of Ho Chi Minh which is home to most of the major sights and a lot of restaurants. The taxi ride was quick and amazingly cheap, about VDN30,000. Once we had satisfied our hunger we were overtaken by exhaustion and returned back to the hotel, postponing our exploratory tour to the next day.

After a great night’s sleep we had a splendid breakfast at the hotel the next morning. Vietnamese people ususally do not start the day with toast and marmelade like most of us do in Europe, but with dishes we would attribute to lunch time. These include the traditional noodle soup Pho, Mien (glass noodles) and Vietnamese dumplings as well as fresh spring rolls. If you want to stick to bread and eggs in the morning, all hotels also serve continental breakfast. But give it a try, it is really delicious and definitely healthier than our European dishes.

City Facts and Impressions

Since the reunification in 1975, Ho Chi Minh City is the official name for the urban area of the former Saigon, including the suburbs. Most Vietnamese people of the South still call the city Saigon. They aslo refer to it as “the city” and “scooter/motorbike city”.

The city is divided into 19 inner districts and five suburban districts. The heart of the city is located in Districts 1 and 3; District 1 is the busiest district where most sights can be found whereas District 3 is much quieter, but still close at hand.

The city’s official population is about eight million, but the unofficial population is estimated to be nearly ten million people.

During our stay the humidity in Ho Chi Minh City was pretty high. Especially on the day of our arrival we were a little bit overwhelmed by the climate. But what else can you expect after a 14 hours flight with a plane’s air conditioning system. But we got used to the weather conditions pretty quickly.

We were more struggling with all the scooters in the city that did not seem to follow any traffic rules. The blasting of horns is constant and crossing a road was a real adventure. Even traffic lights did not seem to slow them down sometimes. But we quickly learned that they normally dodge pedestrians as long as you do not make any unexpected movements and cross at a steady pace.

Locals like to tell visitors that Saigon has more motorbikes than people. I would not take this statement for granted, but at least it feels like this could be true, when you are strolling through the city. In 2014, the Department of Transportation counted almost six million registered motorbikes in the city (The Saigon Times).

Ho Chi Minh City’s architectural style is of Chinese to French influence, two countries that once ruled over Vietnam. The period of Chinese colonization lasted from 111 BC to 938 AD as well as a 20-years occupation by the Ming dynasty army (1407–1427). The French colonial rule started in the mid-19th century and ended with the independence under the Geneva Accords of 1954.

The architecture has evolved from the colonial times and the reunification until today. More and more skyscrapers and modern buildings are added to the skyline. It is a city of contrast with its street stalls vs. western style bars, boutiques vs markets and high class hotels vs. shabby guesthouses, to name just a few.

Ho Chi Minh City with its mismatched buildings, maze of overhead wires and hectic roads is a really fascinating destination. It conveys modern Asian city lifestyle linked to historical developments.


We had one day to experience Ho Chi Minh city as the second day of our stay was reserved for a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, about 40 km away from the city. Thus, we had a pretty tight schedule, but in the end it was manageable, with some limitations. These are the notabel attractions in District 1 we paid a visit to:

Reunification Palace

The colossal white building situated on a 12 hectares area represents the architecture of the 60ies. Today’s building was constructed in 1962 by architect Ngo Viet Thu and served as residence of the South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu from 1966 onwards. The architect combined modern architecture with traditional Eastern philosophy. He made the overall structure resemble an ancient Chinese ideogram meaning “luck”. In 1975 tanks of the North Vietnamese military broke through the palace gate symbolizing the official end of the war.

You should schedule some time to visit the four floors, including the heliport on the roof top from which you have some nice views, as well as the series of underground bunkers in the basement. The palace is definitely worthwhile a visit. It is fascinating to stroll through the floors looking into the different office and reception rooms as well as the private bedrooms. The interior remains almost the same as it was 40 years ago. It is like going back in time. We did not join a tour, but managed okay as there are plenty signs in English.

To the right of the building you will find a F5E fighter plane which bombed the palace on 8th April 1975 and two of the original tanks used in the capture of the palace on 30th April 1975.

Ticket prices: VND30,000; Opening hours: 7.30-11am and 1-4pm (Monday-Sunday)

You can team up your visit to the Reunification Palace with a trip to the War Remnants Museum which is only a few minutes walk away.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Just a few hundred meters away from the Reunification Palace you come along the iconic Roman Catholic church with its Gothic arches and red bricks. It is located at the end of the Dong Khoi which leads to the riverside of Saigon.

Completed in 1880 this church is one of the few important and lasting leftovers of the French colonialism. In 1900 the Neo-Romanesque building got its two spires and therefore enlarged by 17 meters. In front of the church is the Our Lady of Peace statue, shipped from Rome and installed by Bishop Pham Van Thien in 1959. In the morning local Catholics come to pray in front of the statue.

Opening hours: 8-10.30am and 3-4pm (Monday-Sunday)

Central Post Office

Opposite the Notre Dame Cathedral, a classic example of French colonial architecture is just waiting to be visited. Built in the late 19th century, the Central Post Office of Ho Chi Minh City is one of the oldest buildings and has become a significant landmark of the city. The structure is reminiscent of a classical European railway station.

Inside the post office it was pretty busy – the post office does not only attract tourists, but is still used for its intended purpose. It offers all kinds of classical postal services, telephone boxes, a large collection of special stamps as well as foreign money exchange. The arched ceiling makes the room look quite large. On the walls are painted maps of Vietnam from French colonial times and a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh.

Unfortunately only after our visit, we read about another very special attraction at the post office: Mr. Duong Van Ngo. Mr. Ngo is in his mid-80s and has been working at the post office since he was 17 years old. He is the last professional letter writer/translator. He speaks and writes both in French and English. So sad we did not know about him before, would have loved to come by and say hello. But it seems we captured him in one of our photos, even without knowing it.

People’s Committee Hall

After our trip to the post office we continued along the Dong Khoi Street. The main street leads to the river side and houses most of the city’s 5 star hotels and designer boutiques. We took a side trip to the People’s Committee Hall at the Le Thanh Ton Street. The colonial building which is not open to public is quite impressive from the outside. Especially at night, when the construction is illuminated it looks really impressive.

In front of the city hall there is a square including a small yard with trees and flowers and a statue called “Uncle Ho and children”. The memorial of Ho Chi Minh was made to show the respect of the Vietnamese people to their greatest leader. The place is a popular hangout in the evening.

When we did our night photography session we went to the Rex Hotel’s roof-top bar, just next to the People’s Committee Hall at the Nguyen Hue Boulevard, to escape the rain. It was really nice up there: silence from the scooters, nice view of the surrounding buildings, good cocktails and live music.

Saigon Opera House

Now back to our day tour through the city: After our stop at the People’s Committee Building we went back to the Dong Khoi Street continuing our walk towards the river side. We did not need to walk that long to find the next photo spot: the Saigon Opera House, also known as Municipal Theatre. Opened in 1900 as a cultural centre the venue hosted ballets and musical acts as well as other performances until the end of French colonial government.

Afterwards the building functioned as a government office for the Lower House Assembly of Southern Vietnam until the end of the war in 1975. After the reunification the house was restored to its original purpose of use. Nowadays the opera house hosts cultural and entertainment acts as well as high profile events. The building is open to public during performances only.

It is a really beautiful building and was one of our personal highlights during our night photography session.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Travel, Asia, Saigon
Saigon Opera House
Bitexco Financial Tower

After our stop at the Saigon Opera House we continued our stroll along the Dong Khoi Street until we arrived at the river side. From there we headed for the Bitexco Financial Tower.

The 262-metre skyscraper dominates Ho Chi Minh City’s skyline since its completion in 2010. Inspired by Vietnam’s national flower, the lotus, the tower is a symbol of beauty and growth. It is located in the Central Business District offering office space as well as shopping and dining opportunities.

There is an observation deck Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor. As it was pretty misty when we arrived, we only wandered through the ground floor. There are some shops and cafés as in every shopping wall around the globe.

Observation deck – Ticket prices: VND200,000; Opening hours: 9.30am-21.30pm (Monday-Sunday)

Ben Thanh Market

Our next stop was just a short walk away from the Central Business District, the Ben Thanh Market. This central marketplace is the oldest surviving market of the city and offers a great atmosphere. It is a pretty bursting and bustling space and we were overwhelmed by the amount of goods offered. We just had the feeling this place provides you with everything you could ask for, e.g. clothing, shoes, jewellery, electronics, tableware, dried fruits, coffee, foodstuffs in general… Keep in mind that they might have set prices high for tourists, so do not forget to bargain vigorously.

If you need a small break try one of the food stalls or enjoy some fresh fruits inside the building or in the adjacent streets. It seems the market has outgrown the former structure and spills over into the streets, so that the entire area around the marketplace is quite lively and busy as well.

Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple

Only three blocks west of the Ben Thanh Market we came along a very pretty and colourful Hindu temple. Built in the late 19th century by Tamil immigrants, this temple dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Mariamman is reputed to have miraculous power. It is today visited by the small remaining Hindu community as well as local Vietnamese and Chinese citizens. The Rajagopuram, the grand entrance tower, is 12 meters high and decorated with statues. Mariamman is housed in a shrine in the middle of the temple, flanked by her two guardians Maduraiveeran on the left and Pechiamman on the right. On the walls of the temple you come across statues of other deities as well.

Opposite the temple, we took a break and enjoyed two delicious Vietnamese Iced Coffees at the Tropicland Coffee & Juice Bar.

Free admission

  • There is a really great Sushi place in Ho Chi Min City, Ichiban Sushi. It is a modern sushi bar with an occidental flair. The menu offers a variety of tradional as well as fancy sushi creations. The food is thoughtfully presented and of high quality. You need to try the Mexicali rolls and the Mr. Van maki sushi – so yummy. A fantastic taste experience in a nice setting.
    204 Le Lai Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
  • Tropicland Coffee & Juice Bar: Opposite the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple you will find this hip coffee place. Very friendly and attentive staff, who serve you coffee with a fortune quote attached to the cup.
    58 Truong Dinh, Ben Thanh, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam


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