One week in Sài Gòn
We had been to Ho Chi Minh City previously, for a quick 2 night 1 day stop on the end of our first Vietnam trip about 9 years ago, so this time we decided to book a full week so that we would be able to really see all of the sights that this city has to offer.
We were staying about 2 miles (3.5 km) from that main attractions, not a bad walk in each morning, some days it was a little hot, but we did pass a cherry tree that was in full bloom. It must have been one of the few in the city as everyone would stop on the bridge where it was to stop and take photos.
Overall, once we finished with our passport applications at the consulates, it was a nice relaxing week and we managed to get through some of the attractions that HCMC has to offer.
Local Ho Chi Minh City attractions
The former Presidential Palace until the fall of Saigon in 1975, since renamed the Reunification Palace. Very interesting with all of the information about the final days of the war, well preserved and has information clearly posted in Vietnamese, English, and French. Well worth the price of entry - 40,000 Dong/pp ($1.75 USD)
Recommendations - go during the week if possible, we want on a Thursday about two hours before it closed at 5, and there were about 4 people in line for tickets and it was fairly empty as we took our time wandering around. We walked past is on Sunday afternoon and the grounds inside were full of tourists and the line for tickets snaked outside of the ticket office with at least 60 people waiting in the hit sun.
Another of the main sights that people stop to see, same entry cost as the Independence Palace, and contains and excellent exhibition on the photo journalists who covered the war. Worth the price of entry just for that, the rest of the museum is very heavy on the propaganda with a (somewhat understandable) very negative slant on the Americans.
We did this on the Sunday that we saw the long lines and throngs of tourists at the Independence Palace, and although it was crowded it wasn't to bad. When we were leaving, shortly after noon, a tour group of school kids did come in so we were lucky to have missed them.
Saigon Central Post Office
The largest post office in Vietnam, designed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, of Eiffel Tower fame) and completed in 1891. It's a wonderful piece of architecture right in the center of the city, worth taking the time to take a stroll inside and just admire the building. It is still a working post office, and the front is crowded with street vendors selling all sorts of nonsense tsotchtkes to purchase as a souvenir.
Just to the left of the post office is a pedestrian street that has a few cafes and book store after book store. Just like the linked website, most everything there is in Vietnamese but having the book addiction that we do we weren't able to walk done it once without finding and purchasing a book.
Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
Directly across from the post office is the Cathedral, it is currently undergoing renovations and has a wall around it and scaffolding on the sides, so currently you can't get the iconic photo that you'll see on every travel site on Saigon. We didn't bother to check if you could still go inside, I'm presuming that you can and apparently it is quite beautiful.
Another site that has construction, the road directly in front and on the right are all boarded up as Japan is busy building the first subway system in Vietnam, but worth taking a walk around to appreciate. This is another French building, this one completed in 1897, apparently if you purchase tickets you can get a free tour of the inside about an hour before they open the doors for the show. I misunderstood the girl that told me this and thought that she meant anyone could walk around and see the inside before a show, and when we came back to see the inside the guy checking tickets must have felt bad for us as after trying to explain that we needed to buy tickets, he quickly let us in and we joined the tour of the inside that he was giving.
Bui Vien Street
Also called backpacker street, this is in an area where there are lots of bars and hostels. It's just off from a park which is loaded with street vendors selling items from clothing to grilling out squid and beef kabobs. The main street changes to a pedestrian-only street shortly after nightfall and it quickly fills up with people walking up and down the street and sitting on the small plastic chairs drinking beers and enjoying the inexpensive food the restaurants offer.
Recommended local food and bars
Most people stop up at the rooftop bar at the Rex hotel, made famous for the the daily war conferences from the Americans during the war, and it's nice but expensive and I'd almost say it's not worth it. The information about the building and its history posted in the bar are interesting, and in that respect maybe worth the price of a drink.
We found several other places that we would say are the can't miss places of HCMC:
it's just around the block from the Rex hotel, and down a little alley. They have two locations in the alley, one up front and one in the back that has a nice relaxing outdoor rooftop.
The Alley Cocktail Bar and Kitchen
Another bar tucked down a narrow alley, it doesn't open until 5 but the happy hour makes it very easy to relax in the comfortable surroundings and enjoy a few glasses of wine.
Three flights up in a building off the alley you use to get to The Alley bar, it's another small and cozy place to have a drink and the food options looked great.
Small, bright, French food. I don't think that we really don't need to say any more then that, it's worth searching it out.
There are lots of other little bars and places to find, there's a Jazz bar, there's plenty of Aussie bars if you're needing a rugby fix, but the cheapest and most overlooked would probably be the myriad of little shops working out of small doorways throughout the city. They drag out a little display, some tiny stools, and usually a few coolers. They don't always have beer showing in their display, but if you ask quite often they will have nice cold cans in the cooler and you can sit on the side of the street just watching life go by.