We spent an amazing month in Indonesia, climbing up active volcanos, scuba diving in Komodo National Park, trekking with Orangutans in the jungle, and much more, and now it was time to explore another country in South East Asia – Vietnam. Our first stop would be Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it’s often still called. Ho Chi Minh is the biggest city in Vietnam and used to be the capital (of all of Vietnam and then South Vietnam when the country divided) until the end of the Second Indochina War (North Vietnam, Soviet Union, China, North Korea Vs South Vietnam, USA, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand) in 1975. The city was renamed after the general and later president of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh.
We landed at the the international airport and had to get to our hotel in the center of Ho Chi Minh, District 1. Uber had worked well for us in Bali so we decided to see if it was available in Saigon as well. After a few minutes an Uber picked us up and we ended up paying only $3.50 for almost an hour ride (mostly because of the crazy traffic, as the airport was only 7 km away) instead of the $20 the taxi stands wanted. Our guesthouse was very well hidden down a few small alleys and the help of a friendly local finally brought us there. We stayed in the north western part of district one, which turned out to be the place for bars and nightlife. We found some cheap beers for around 50 cents US and food prices between $2 and $3 dollars in a restaurant weren’t bad either.
Right in the center of District 1 in Ho Chi Minh lays the impressive Independence Palace, which was built in current form in 1966 on top of the old Norodom Palace, and was later renamed the Reunification Palace in 1975 when the two warring countries became one again. The old palace was severely damaged in 1962 by rebels in the South Vietnamese army who flew their army planes over the palace and bombed it instead of attacking the North’s army. Instead of trying to fix the damage they tore it down and constructed the new one. We paid the entrance fee of around $1.50 and headed inside.
The palace was used by the president of South Vietnam as a capital building and was set up to show the meeting rooms where he met with his officers and foreign dignitaries during that time. Downstairs you can visit the bunkers that were used during bombings and emergencies and see the old radio equipment that’s still inside. Maps of the country with enemy positions are still on the walls from the 1960s and 70s. On the roof of the palace there’s a helicopter where the president’s would have been and two circles painted to show where two bombs were dropped by a spy that flew over in 1975.
Make sure to visit in the morning before noon or come back after 1.30pm as the palace (and many other sights) close over lunch time.
War Remnants Museum
We wanted to learn more about the Second Indochina War (North Vietnam against South Vietnam and the US) while being in the country and had heard that the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh is a good place for that. The museum is only a short five minute walk from the Reunification Palace and also either open in the morning or after 1:30pm. In the yard of the museum there are various tanks, planes and helicopters that had been used in the war on display. Opposite these there is a reconstruction of a prison and pretty sad information about torture methods used on the prisoners during the war.
The exhibition starts inside the museum, where we learned more about what lead up to the war, what happened during, and the aftermath. The exhibition was accompanied by photos and some firsthand accounts of what happened, entirely from the winning faction’s point of view as is usually the case. Even though a lot of the information and pictures are hard to stomach – especially the effects of Agent Orange on the population – the museum is definitely a must visit to learn more about the war and the official Vietnamese account of it.
We left the museum a bit sad and tried to lift our spirits by exploring more of Ho Chi Minh. We continued walking through the center toward Saigon river. On our way we passed Notre Dame Cathedral, which was built between 1863 and 1880 by French colonists. The architecture of the cathedral is unique compared to its surroundings in the center of the city and attracts tons of tourists.
As it was getting dark, we kept walking around the city center, passing by numerous modern looking buildings and high skyscrapers. We were surprised by how modern and diverse Ho Chi Minh City is.
Cao Dai Temple
There are tons of offices all over Saigon that offer inexpensive day trips out of the city, so we stopped into one to join a trip to a few nearby sights. Our first stop was the first Cao Dai Temple in Vietnam and the world, in Tay Ninh. The drive took two and a half hours and we arrived just in time to see the noon prayers. Cao Daism is the fourth largest religion in Vietnam and was founded in 1926. It’s estimated that 4 to 6 million people practice the religion worldwide. Cao Daism shares values such as vegetarianism, altruism, abstinence from alcohol, and believes in acceptance of all religions.
The temple we visited is the main temple of Cao Daism and was completed in 1955. It was pretty impressive from the outside, colorful and an interesting architectural style. We took our shoes off and entered the temple along with a few dozen other tourists. It was just as beautiful and impressive inside, with a bright blue sky painted on the ceiling and dragons wrapped around the columns. The hall ascends nine levels, each higher than the last, representing the steps to heaven. The level the worshiper sits on depends on their status within the religion.
At noon we made our way up to the gallery, to see the prayers from above. The worshipers filed into the hall and took their place on their steps for prayer. The prayers were accompanied by music and a chorus that performed in the gallery. It was very interesting to see the prayers and the synchronized way the worshipers prayed, bowing in unison when a bell rang. Unfortunately a few rude tourists kept pushing to stand in front and moved a barrier that had been set up to keep people from moving further down the gallery. With the little respect that people were showing, we wouldn’t be surprised if the prayers become closed to outsiders soon.
Cu Chi Tunnels
After the prayers finished we drove another 45 minutes back toward Ho Chi Minh City and stopped at the famous Cu Chi Tunnels. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a huge network of narrow tunnels that where used during the war for different military operations and was a base for the Viet Cong in 1968. The Cu Chi tunnels stretch over 121 km and descend deep under the earth with wells for water, tunnels for ventilation, and escape routes into the river. Before heading down to see the tunnels we had to watch a short movie. It was a black and white propaganda film from just after the end of the war.
A short walk through the forest with an English speaking local guide brought us to the first tunnel. It was relatively easily accessible by a few steps carved in the earth and only around 10 meters long. Even though that tunnel had been made wider for western tourists, it was still super narrow and we had to crouch down to walk through it. We could only imagine how tough it must have been for the fighters to actually stay in the tunnels for days on end when there was an attack.
Walking through the jungle a bit further, our guide stopped and told us we could go into a smaller tunnel if we weren’t claustrophobic. We said we wanted to go, so he kicked the ground a bit and brushed away some leaves, revealing a handle to a tiny opening. He pulled the lid off of the hole which lead to the tunnel and invited us to drop in. We squeezed through the hole and descended a few meters below ground, barely fitting in the tiny tunnel! Crouching down as low as we could, we squirmed through the tunnel, encountering a few bats along the way.
Along the other tunnels we crawled through we came across a meeting room and a tiny hospital. Some of the rooms had traps in the corners, in case the enemy would mange to get inside. The traps were holes that had been dug out and had sharpened bamboo spikes put into them. You wouldn’t know they were there since they had trap doors on top, and we didn’t dare venture too close.
While we could only walk through a small fraction of the tunnels, the longest continuous shaft being 30 meters long, it gave us a very brief and basic idea of what navigating over 120 km of tunnels must have felt like. Visiting and actually going in the tunnels, even if they were enlarged for visitors, was one of our favorite experiences around Ho Chi Minh City.
After our short visit to Saigon it was time for us to head north, with a brief stop in the touristy beach town Mui Ne before heading on to the mountain city Dalat!