Saigon is not an old city, and if you've come to see the sights, you probably won't be happy. In my own case, I only saw some of what is usually suggested, as well as some things that are rarely mentioned:
- Notre Dame is a red brick church with two lean spires:
I didn't find it very attractive, and its visiting hours were too quirky for me to bother with. But it is near two other "sights" I found more interesting: the main Post Office and the Diamond Plaza.
- The main Post Office was clearly built by the French (who put the names of famous Frenchmen, and others, all around its facade.)
Not only is it a lovely building both inside and out, but it includes an old map of Saigon which clearly shows how the Dong Khoi quarter once virtually WAS the city, with Cholon far off by itself:
This is also the best place to buy postcards (3,000 Dong here, usually 4,000 elsewhere.) You might also want to pick up a phone card to use in the phone booths around town (these cards are hard to find anywhere else, though almost all the phone booths require them.) There's also a vending machine that sells canned drinks at their real price (around 5,000 dong) instead of the inflated prices (12,000-15,000) you'll find almost everywhere else.
- The Diamond Plaza is, so far, Saigon's biggest Western style shopping plaza:
Worth seeing if only to have an idea where the city is headed. Westerners probably won't want to buy clothes here (all familiar brands and not, so far as I could see, at all cheaper), but it's a good place to pick up some canned drinks and maybe even to have lunch in their small food court.
- The Ho Chi Minh museum doesn't get as much mention as other local museums, but is in fact rather interesting:
There's a look at the nature around Saigon, some 13th century piroques (found in the Saigon River)
a display about betrothal ceremonies
a quirky look at old pop artists (including the French Arletty), an overview of anti-French and anti-American campaigns that is only a little propagandistic, and a rather interesting look at various folk crafts:
Various types of shrimp traps
It's also where young couples come to have their betrothal pictures taken, which is always an endearing site. Oh, and some large weaponry
- The zoo is just a bit beyond the Opera, in its own park
I love zoos and always try to get to them, and have lots more to say about this one on a separate page.
- The Saigon World Trade Center isn't really a place you'd visit, but, with its minaret-like towers, it's visible from all over Saigon:
Which made it amusing when I was standing right by it, about to take yet another video shot of it:
and a guard shouted for me to stop. Though I knew he wouldn't understand me, I couldn't help yelling back, "But you can see it from all over Saigon!"
- The War Remnants Museum once had the rather tactless name of "Museum of Chinese and American Lies". In its present incarnation, it is less overtly hostile to Americans, though when you see a picture of Bob Kerry and then are reminded how he and his men tore children and old people from their hiding places in order to shoot them.... Well, you might not, if you're American, need any help in feeling a little shame. This, like My Lai and other horrors, was fully aired in the American press, however, and, however disturbing the reminders, there isn't anything new (at least not to a baby-boomer.) What was more surprising was to see the touching homage to reporters from many different countries who'd died in covering the conflict, including Larry Burrows. Respectful mention is also made of two American soldiers who saved some victims of massacres.
Moving beyond the "American War", there are also several exhibits on the previous regimes, including reconstructions of the infamous Tiger Cages and an actual guillotine (brought by the French):
with a picture of a dissident's freshly cut head being held by the hair. Otherwise, there is all sort of war materiel, including helicopters, planes, bombs, etc.:
- I only visited one temple at any length, and that was by accident, but I happened across a number of others:
most outside the Cholon area, which is known for them. Contrasts abound in Saigon, such as modern construction going on right by this old temple:
which also included these, still sacred in the East, if disconcerting to a Westerner:
The Taoist temple I visited was a memorial to members of the Ming dynasty who had fled to Vietnam and who, though they would have once been known as princes, are now referred to as "mandarins".
Three soldiers hats, and a "mandarin"'s shoe and hat
An agreeable enough visit, though no less free of financial pressure than other more secular sights.
A number of other religions are represented in Saigon. Aside from several old churches, I saw more than one mosque:
and a Hindu temple (right across from Fanny's Ice Cream), as well as (towards Cholon) these decorated trucks, I assume for Diwali:
- At some point it struck me: if people in Saigon are so poor, who's patronizing all these markets?
The most well-known market is the Ben Thanh market:
which faces this equestrian monument:
But you can't walk far in the city without finding at least a small market down some alley or sidestreet:
These are always stimulating to stroll through. It's unlikely, however, that most Westerners would buy anything in them. The textiles tend to be low-end, and the fish and fruit, lovely as they are, aren't anything a casual visitor wants to fool with.