Ho Chi Minh City is a lot for first-time visitors to take in. It's noisy, hectic, and quite frankly, parts of it are pure chaos, but there's also much to like about this rag and riches metropolis. In a city where old co-exists with new, rich with poor, and traditional with contemporary, sometimes it's hard to know where to look. This walking tour will help.
Total distance: approx 5kms
Starting point: The Opera House, 7 Lam Son Square, D.1
Ending point: Rex Hotel, 141 Nguyen Hue, D.1
Start at the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, better known as the Saigon Municipal Opera House, at Lam Son Square on Dhong Khoi. This beautiful building was constructed in 1897 by French architect Eugène Ferretas. From 1956, the building was used as the home of the Lower House Assembly of South Vietnam, reverting to a theatre in 1975. It was restored in 1995.
Its architectural style was influenced by the flamboyant style of the French Third Republic, with the façade shaped like the Petit Palais in Paris, which was built in the same year. The design of all the inscriptions, decor, and furnishings were apparently drawn by a French artist and sent from France. In 1943, some of the ornate decoration on the facade was removed, but a portion was restored by the government for the 300th anniversary of Saigon in 1998. Today, the capacity of the opera house is 500 seats.
Walk along Dhong Koi, against the direction of traffic, turning left onto Le Than Tonh to admire the impressive Ho Chi Minh People's Committee Building. Another French Colonial construct, it was originally built as a hotel in 1902–1908. Sitting at the top end of Nguyen Hue walking promenade, it it composed of three buildings with embossed statues of animals and people and intricate bas-reliefs on the walls. There is a statue of Ho Chi Minh in front of the main building. From here, Nguyen Hue walking boulevarde stretches before you. This was once a phenomenally busy thoroughfare, but the 30-metre-wide plaza, which runs 760 metres from the People’s Committee Building, towards the Saigon River was pedestrainised in 2015. It's worth popping back here after dark to see the building illuminated.
Return to Dhoing Khoi and continue along the road past boutiques and art studios. After two blocks you will see the Notre Dame Basilica. Take a short detour diagonally right and pop in to the lemon-yellow Central Post Office. Another beautifully preserved remnant of French colonial times, this may be the grandest post office in Southeast Asia and it continues to operate as a post office. The building was designed by Alfred Foulhoux and features arched windows and wooden shutters outside, and more arches, marble floors, and antiquated telephone boxes inside. The architecture may be French, but the large portrait of Ho Chi Minh at the far end of the building is a reminder of where you are. There are are two maps of the region painted on the walls, one showing the telegraph lines that crisscross Vietnam and Cambodia and the other displaying a map of the region in 1892.
Likewise, Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the late 1880s by French colonists, still serves as a religious institution. While Vietnam is largely Buddhist, Catholicism resides here. Located in Paris Square, the Notre Dame name was given after installation of the statue Peaceful Notre Dame in 1959. The Vatican conferred the cathedral status as a basilica in 1962, when the official name became the somewhat wordy Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. Measuring almost 60 metres in height, the cathedral’s distinctive neo-Romanesque features include the all-red brick façade – the bricks were imported from Marseille – stained glass windows, and two bell towers with six bronze bells.
Turn right when you exit the cathedral onto Cong Xa Paris and head towards the park area along Han Thuyen. If you're feeling peckish, or needing caffeine, stop in at Au Parc, around two blocks down. It's a Middle-Eastern-influenced cafe restaurant with a casual seating area upstairs and cafe tables downstairs.
Continuing, Reunification Palace, also known as Independence Palace, is at the end of Han Thuyen. this is where the North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through the gates, signifying the Iend of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. Two of the original tanks used in the capture of the palace are parked in the grounds and although it's still as an event space for important occasions, like APEC summits, it's open to the public and is basically a time capsule from1975. It is set over five levels, with arguably the most interesting being the basement war room, tunnels and telecommunications centre.
Facing the Palace, turn right along Nam Khy Khoi Nghia, crossing the busy intersection at Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. Continue until the next street, Vo Van Tan, then turn left. After a block and a half you will see the War Remnants Museum on your right. Be warned: a visit here can be traumatic. While the museum is an interesting representation of how the Vietnam War shaped the nation, it's also quite graphic and most definitely, sobering.
Take a deep breath and continue heading the same direction on Vo Van Tan until you reach Truong Dinh. Turn left here, crossing back over Nguyen Thi Minh Khai and you will find Tao Dan park , the perfect place to rest, rejuvenate and refresh, with a fresh coconut juice from one of the street vendors. Tao Dan Park covers 10 hectares and is home to over 1,000 big trees, as well as a small Buddhist temple, sports facilities and a replica of Nha Trang's Cham tower.
Continue on Truong Dinh until you reach Le Thanh Ton, then turn left, wandering past the trendy boutiques. You'll reach the fruit and flower section of Ben Thanh market. This is a great place to buy handicrafts, branded goods (some real, some not so) and souvenirs. There's also food, but evenings are better, when the food section spills out onto the perimeter. Browse through the market, or skip past it down one of the streets either side and you will be at a huge, busy roundabout.
Cross carefully, diagonally left on to Huymh Thuc Khang, lined with camera shops. Follow the road a few blocks, past the local market on Ton That Dam, turning right onto Ho Tung Mau. At the next corner, turn left on to Ngo Duc Ke and drop in to the Bitexco Financial Tower. When it opened in 2010, it held the title as the tallest building in Vietnam, but it was quickly overtaken by the Keangnam Hanoi Landmark Tower in 2011. Nevertheless, with 68 floors above ground and three basements, the building streteches 262.5 metres and is the second-tallest building in the city. Supposedly, its shape is derived from Vietnam's national flower, the lotus. Don't be surprised if you can't spot the likeness. The Saigon Skydeck, a glass-enclosed observation deck on the 49th floor, offers superb views across the city.
Cross over Nguyen Hue and continuing on Ngo Duc Ke as far as Nguen Hue and walk along the boulevard to the historic Rex Hotel. Constructed in 1927, this building started life as a car dealership and garage. It was renovated and turned into a hotel between1959 and 1975. Its first guests – 400 U.S. Army soldiers – stayed in December 1961, while it was still under construction. The hotel's fame comes largely from during he Vietnam War, when it hosted the American military command's daily conference. Its rooftop bar was a well-known hangout spot for military officials and war correspondents. The bar here is one of the lowest rooftop bars in the city at only five storeys, but the views are nonetheless spectacular and it feels like you're still part of the city's buzz. It's time to relax with a cocktail in hand, far from the constant beeping roar of the traffic.