Private Tour of Ho Chi Minh City
Good morning Phu My port. We arrived early in the morning at Phu My (pronounced “Foo Me”) port Vietnam only to be faced with an overcast, wet and drizzly day. But that wasn’t going to dampen our excitement or enthusiasm, as today we were going on a private tour in Vietnam to learn about the culture and history.
Previously known as Saigon, today the name is Ho Chi Minh City and everywhere friendly faces and warm greetings meet you.
We were met at the port entrance by guide Ms Hang (Hanna) and driver Mr Lac from Best Price Travel and bundled into a modern air-conditioned vehicle to commence our journey into Ho Chi Minh City, some 55km (34miles) away. Hanna greeted us and explained our itinerary for the day in Vietnams’ largest and most populated city. We would be seeing some beautiful French architecture, enjoying some exotic food, recalling the memories of war and learning about the culture of the people.
During the drive with the assistance of her tablet, Hanna introduced us to Vietnam, its people, food and culture with easy to understand local knowledge. The drive from the port to the city is about one and half hours. Along the way Hanna informed us Saigon had a key role in the Vietnam War and much of the history was explained to us. Widely referred to in the past as “Paris of the Orient” and “Pearl of the Far East”, the city is well known for its French colonial landmarks from the French colonial times. Hanna showed us many photos and also explained the wedding traditions, the seasons and much more.
There are only two seasons in southern Vietnam, wet and dry. The rainy season is from May til the end of the year and dry season lasts until around April. Throughout the day the weather changed from overcast and drizzly to sunny and then quickly from a few drops of rain to a torrential downpour. But it was warm. In June it can get up to 37°C (99°F) and is the second highest month for rainfall with 311mm (12.272 inches).
Despite four decades since the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, the essence of the city remains unchanged. The city is adorned with wide elegant boulevards and the French Colonial tourist spots in District 1 are a short distance from each other. The air is filled with cacophony of horns beeping from the swarms of motorbikes whizzing past and calls from street hawkers.
Our first stop is the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, a beautiful red brick neo-romanesque catholic cathedral with twin towers, topped with iron spires. Named after Virgin Mary, the cathedral, built between 1877-1883 faces Dong Koi Street and is near the Post Office. The cathedral has had basilica status from the Vatican since 1962 and is the most symbolic church in the city. Remarkably every red brick used in the building was shipped all the way from Marseile to Vietnam, all the tiles and marble were imported also. It is not uncommon to see brides having their wedding photos taken here with the stunning basilica and statue of Virgin Mary as the backdrop.
With Hanna’s assistance we made our way across to Saigon Central Post Office, known as Eiffel Post office. Designed by French architect Gustave Eiffel, this is one of Vietnam’s oldest and largest post offices. Built 1886-1891 it is still a working post office. The Gothic styled building features a long domed ceiling with looping arches, walls adorned with French colonial maps, a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh and beautifully elaborate tiled floors. The antiquated telephone boxes made from timber on opposite sides of the building remind us of the times before email and mobile phone. This is wonderful glimpse back and a reminder of the importance Post Office’s played before today’s technology came into play. I have to keep reminding myself that this is still a working post office.
We were then taken to the Reunification Palace, previously named the Independence Palace, one of the most historic, tragic and retro places in Ho Chi Minh City. Built in 1966 this classic landmark building of the era was the Presidential Palace until 1975. Since that time it is like it has been frozen in time. Even though the building’s traditional design and retro architecture is typical 60’s design, it is the historic events that took place here that give it the biggest tourist appeal.
Today the building functions as a museum, with many remembering vividly a tank crashing through the gates, it is like visiting a time capsule. The palace, set amongst lush tropical gardens and spacious green lawns, hides secret rooms with antique furniture and eerie corridors leading to the command bunker which still has the maps on its walls and a row of vintage 70’s pastel coloured phones.
The basement houses a labyrinth of tunnels, telecommunications centre and the command room, supposedly exactly as it was left. Visiting the palace is like walking through a time warp. The card playing room, featuring a kitsch circular lounge, meeting rooms, official reception rooms, even the cinema all look like everyone only just left the building. We saw the impressive banquet hall, the First Lady’s reception room, the cabinet room, the Ambassador’s chamber, the salon and the rooftop heliport, all reminders of the various important events that have taken place here. I loved how the outside low, symmetrical façade with its stone curtain of pillars resembles bamboo which symbolises protection. A visit to the Reunification Palace showed us Saigon’s turbulent past and a reminder of the location that marked the Fall of Saigon resulting in the end of the tragic Vietnam War.
Regardless of whether you have an interest in War or not, we recommend a visit here as a ‘must do’ for anyone visiting Ho Chi Minh City. But be warned, the Reunification Palace is very popular so expect large crowds.
We were very lucky that Hanna and Mr Lac took us around the city, somehow avoiding big crowds all day, for which we are very grateful.
Mr Lac drove us back but further along Dong Koi Street to the Hotel Continental and the Saigon Opera House. A 500 seat building, this was used by the Lower House Assembly from 1956 and became a theatre again in 1975. Built in 1897, its style is influenced by the French Third Republic to replicate the façade of Petit Palais in Paris. Seen in the same photo is the Caravelle Hotel which opened Christmas Eve 1959. Built with features like bullet proof glass in the windows, state of the art air conditioning and its’ own private generator it became a communication hub during Vietnam War and the location where the Caravelle Manifesto was presented. In the 60’s this hotel was home to Australian & New Zealand Embassies and CBS, NBC and ABC. In 1964 a bomb exploded, fortunately while all the foreign journalists were out and there were no fatalities.
Also nearby is the Rex Hotel. During its’ construction in 1961 it was billeted to 400 US Army Soldiers who held a belated Thanksgiving dinner on the rooftop. Daily military press briefings hosted by the American military command, at the rooftop bar bought the Rex to fame and became a regular hangout for war correspondents and military officers during the Vietnam War.
Another building in French colonial style is the Ho Chi Minh City Hall. Built 1898-1908, the elegant building offers great photo opportunities as it is set in a spacious landscape garden. This is one of the oldest, biggest and most beautiful French styled buildings and a prominent city landmark.
Curious to know what the locals eat, wear and use daily, the answer is always at the local market. So Hanna took us to Ben Thanh Market, an exhilarating experience. Built in 1870 from a wet market created by street vendors, Ben Thanh is the oldest surviving market of this vibrant city. Ben Thanh is a cluster of busy stalls and narrow aisles where you can find everything from colourful scarves, lacquer ware, textiles and wooden souvenirs to authentic cuisine, nuts, coffee, spices and fruit vendors. In the morning trade is bustling and the market atmosphere is a real hustle.
And now for some food. Vietnamese food is said to be some of the most delicious food in the world, but for me, who is not very adventurous with food, it is also very confronting. Here you’ll find eating stalls where you can get a taste of hawker style cuisine. The market is known for real Vietnamese food that is anything local from bubble tea, wok fried noodles and meat to seafood. All the food is freshly made to order or you can cool off with a cold drink.
It was fun watching all the locals eating lunch at Ben Thanh market, sitting side by side on their little plastic chairs at the tiled countertops as the food is being prepared and cooked directly in front of them. Large pots with noodles simmering, woks sizzling and gas bottles busy cooking some of the delicious local dishes where the smell increased the appetites of the locals. The market is big and hard to navigate at times and surely best to avoid during the hottest part of the day, but as it’s well worth a look, a local guide is a bonus.
Now it is our turn to eat and we are eager to try some authentic Vietnamese food. Mr Lac drives us to Viet Village Restaurant and we arrive at a beautifully renovated French colonial villa where Hanna has arranged a wonderful lunch for us. A five course feast of fresh, local cuisine, the food was outstanding and beautifully presented.
Our lunch consisted of:
Gỏi Ngó Sen Tôm Thịt (Lotus Rhizomes Shrimp Salad)
Bánh Mì Sandwich Cuộn Tôm Chiên (Deef Fried Rolled Sandwich With Fried Shrimp)
Canh Laghim Thịt Bằm (Lagumes Soup With Minced Pork)
Cá Chiên Xốt Chua Ngọt (Fried Fish With Sweet & Sour Sauce)
Gà Nướng Xốt Cam (Grilled Chicken With Orange Sauce)
Bó Xôi Xào Thịt Bò (Sauteed Spinach With Beef)
Cơm Trắng (Steamed Rice)
Bánh Flan (Flan Caramel)
With the volume of traffic and wide variety of local food, Vietnam on your own can be intimidating. We are so grateful to have had a private tour with Hanna as our local guide to navigate the traffic, avoid the crowds and showcase the scrumptious food and beautiful city sights for us.
Before heading back to the port we have time for one last stop. This time something very special. We stop at the Jade Temple, built in 1909, one of the five most important temples in Ho Chi Minh. Near the entrance is a pond filled with tortoises so this temple is also referred to as Tortoise Temple. It is a peaceful walk in such a tranquil place in the midst of a busy city. This really feels like we are miles away from the hustle and bustle. Inside, the temple is filled with intricate carvings and grotesque statues. There are also two large red horse statues, which we learn are to take prayers to the Gods, one for women and the other for men.
It is dark and cluttered, yet mesmerising with several locals bowing and praying. In another hall is the goddess of fertility, Kim Hua and 12 figures of women representing human characteristics, either good bad in another hall are where childless couples pray for an offspring. This temple is very much in use by the locals who come here to prayer or make offerings of flowers and light candles and joss sticks. This small temple could get cramped with worshippers coming and going. This temple is really atmospheric and adding charm, the pungent smoke of the incense fills the dimly lit passageways.
Ho Chi Minh is the nation’s economic core and the focal tourism centre of Vietnam. A first time visitor needs prior knowledge of the local culture, currency, climate, etc for a stress free trip. That is where an informative local guide is a blessing. Hanna was extremely informative and never tired of our many questions about this bustling metropolis. Our day was well planned and allowed for plenty of time to immerse ourselves at each stop. Hats off to Mr Lac, our intrepid driver, for navigating the chaotic streets of the city to get us safely to our various destinations and for ensuring our timely arrival back to the port. We were sure that one day would only provide a mere glimpse, but instead with our Best Price Travel tour, we experienced a fascinating insight into the culture, history and daily life of the locals and saw what the city truly has to offer. This tour has given us a greater understanding of Vietnamese life, food and beliefs. If you have longer than a day you might want to check out what else this spectacular city has to offer.
Has this inspired you to try a private tour? What sights in Ho Chi Minh City would you like to visit?
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*Steve and I received a complimentary private tour, but as always, all opinions are our own.