Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is Vietnam at high-octane. A city pulsating with culture and commerce, it’s a dizzying, delicious whirl. Here are DirectAsia.com’s top reasons why you can't miss out on a trip to this charming, chaotic city 1. HCMC by scooter
Want a super-cool way to get your bearings? Explore the famous streets on the back seat of a Vespa, fast. For day tours try xotours.vn with an emphasis on the sights, food or shopping, or build your own special tour. For longer excursions there’s also vietnamvespaadventures.com. Motorbike helmets are compulsory in Vietnam.
Local note Coffee shops are a huge in HCMC, prices from 33 cents from a street vendor, to $3 or more at the top-notch places. The most popular local brand is Deep-roasted Trung Nguyen.
2. Facts of War
The Vietnam War is recent history that won't – and can't – be ignored. The War Remnants Museum sheds light on the harshness of war,
“Although it has received criticism for its alleged propagandist tone, it remains one of the most visited museums in the country, attracting more than half a million visitors a year. Retired military vehicles such as "Huey" helicopters, attack bombers and even an M48 Patton tank dominate the front yard while, inside, a harrowing selection of text and photographic exhibits tell the story. Open 7.30am-noon and 1.30-5pm.” Traveller.com.au
Housed in the Gia Long Palace, where Ngo Dinh Diem spent his final hours in power before his assassination in 1963, Ho Chi Minh City Museum also documents the country's bloody past with artefacts and photographs.
3. Cu Chi tunnels You don't know what hemmed in means until you've experienced this complex network of underground tunnels, located about 30 km from Ho Chi Minh City. During the Tet Offensive of 1968, these tunnels housed the Vietcong guerillas’ operational HQ and were instrumental in defeating American forces. Try viator.com for a guided tour to explore the tunnels first hand.
4. Reunification Palace Also known as the Independence Palace, much of this intriguing building remains as it was in the 70s. Perhaps the most fascinating relic is in the garden - the tank that crashed through the gates of the palace on 30 April 1975, indicating the fall of the regime in Saigon.
5. Celebrated Structures
Built between 1863 and 1880 by French colonists, the neo-Romanesque Notre-Dame Cathedral is impressive. Opposite lies the Gothic-styled Saigon Central Post Office designed and built by French architect Gustave Eiffel (now, what was that tower he built in Paris…?)
Built in the 1900s by Taoists and Buddhists, the Jade Emperor Pagoda is inspiring in ambition and scale. If you see one Vietnamese pagoda, it should be this one.
For a taste of the luxe-life, head to the glossy Hotel Continental in the heart of Lam Son Square. This affluent area is one of the city's most prominent addresses. This was the spot for French high society, and you can still sip cocktails on the hotel terrace. For a deeper cultural experience, there’s the Municipal Theatre – a gorgeous century-old building with a host of local and international dance, theatre and opera offerings.
Local note Movies are inexpensive and a good place to cool off on a steaming hot day – older theatres cost less.
6. Cook up a storm After trying Vietnam’s fragrant, delicate food, you can learn to make it. Many major hotels offer generic cooking lessons, or see saigoncookingclass.com for a range of options.
Local note The best classes involve a chef who will help you source ingredients at a local market, then you’ll learn to cook a range of gourmet and street food. You’ll also likely receive a recipe pack to dazzle your family or friends back home.
7. Markets, Markets
The two famous markets in HCMC are Cho Ben Thanh (in District 1 across from the bus station) and Cho Lon. Cho Lon is a vast Chinese market and has less tourists. Bartering is the way to go, so offer a price that you think is fair, and enjoy.
Local note If you can’t see a price or it’s not clearly marked, be careful – that goes for everything, everywhere.
8. Off the Beaten Track
Vung Tau, the Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc Island, Phan Thiet, Can Tho and Mui Ne are all accessible. Take a boat or express water taxi for a refreshing break from the city. HCMC is also a great launch pad for travelling through quieter, rural southern Vietnam. If you’re after a longer adventure, take the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This famous 1950s military-built route spans the length of the country. Starting in Ho Chi Minh City, it weaves slowly northwards through challenging rural terrain.