The main attractions listed below (if in Saigon proper) can all be walked to and are in District 1 or 3. The tours outside of the city are usually reached by tour bus. You will find many people (tour guides and hotels) sell tours to these attractions outside of Saigon. They are all similar priced and you will be on a bus with many other people who bought a ticket to the same tour from the various companies located around town.
Ben Thanh Market is in District 1 and sells a large variety of goods, fruits and vegetables. This market was first built in 1914. If markets are your thing, you could easily spend several hours wandering this market.
Cu Chi Tunnels are located about 70km outside of Saigon – with the terrible traffic in Saigon getting out of the city will take a long time – allow about 2 hours to reach the Tunnels from the city center. The current price as of mid 2004 was $4 for the half day trip to the tunnels (no food included). Your bus leaves from the main back packers street at 8:30am and returns to the backpacker street (by way of the War Museum where you have the option to get out there) at 2:30pm.
Another popular trip to the tunnels is the full day trip leaving at 8:15am from the backpacker street and returning at 6:30pm. This trip combines the tunnels with another attraction, usually the Caodai temple. This temple is a popular place of pilgrimage, mostly for south Vietnamese – great area for photos as you will be there around their noon time prayer service.
The Cu Chi area was the site of many bitter battles during the Vietnam/American war.
There are a series of tunnels that were dug during the war so as to escape the battles by going underground. Over 200km of tunnels were dug, one branch even led under an American base that was located nearby. From the center of Cu Chi it was a 10-15 hour crawl/walk to the base. The tunnels are narrow and very low – you have to crawl or stoop in most of them. There are different levels some just a few meters below the surface some much deeper. The first level contained many booby traps such as poison laced spikes hidden under a hole camouflaged as the regular earth.
The central area around the Cu Chi village was heavily bombed with agent orange defoliate – our guide said that its only within the last 20 years that the jungle as started re-growing. You can enter one of the caves and crawl through for about 50 meters. One of the sections has lighting. On your tour you will also see the dining facilities and the cook house. Smoke was routed through an elaborate system of tunnels that carried and dispersed the smoke many many meters away from the kitchen. This was to help escape detection by enemy troops. Dirt from the digging of the tunnels was carted several kilometers away from the actual tunnels so as not to arouse suspicion by the enemy.
Your tour will start with a video containing some history of the area and some war time footage. The viewing screen is small so Dave recommends front row seats. Some of the guides have a bad American accent and some have a bad Australian accent. Might take some very close listening skills to be able to understand them! On the tour, your guide will also demonstrate how individuals were able to hide very quickly. Holes in the ground were dug with wooden covers camouflaged with dirt and leaves. You pick up one of the covers, quickly slide into the hole and lower the cover directly on top of the hole. Its next to impossible to know that there is a person hiding in a hole under the ground. If there aren’t too many people in your group you may also jump into the hole as this is a good photo for your friend to take – however beware, they are very narrow so if you are a girthy person you may not want to jump into the hole, as getting stuck becomes a real possibility.
Towards the end of your tour you will see the remains of an American tank – our guide said that relatives of those killed when this tank was bombed, visited this exact location in the late 90’s. He also said US senator John McCain http://mccain.senate.gov visited this tank several years ago as well. This is a solemn reminder of the war. After visiting the tank, you have a chance to shoot an AK-47 into various targets placed against a hillside. Beware, an AK-47 when fired makes quite a racket and even if you are in the vicinity of the firing you should cover your ears or move away. Those firing the guns will be required to use ear protection. Each bullet is something like $1 and AK-47’s fire bullets very quickly, so you can shoot your money away amazingly fast.
At the end of your tour, you will be able to eat some of the roots and drinks that the Cu Chi villagers subsisted on in the tunnels during the war.
Here is an article about the tunnels from several years back: www.mishalov.com/Vietnam_Cu-Chi.html
The Giac Lam Pagoda is recommended. This is among the oldest pagodas in the Saigon area and is located at 118 D Lac Long Quan – outside of central Saigon about 2.5 miles from Cholon (Chinatown). Best to probably show your taxi or cyclo driver this address.
Mekong Delta tours at the time of writing, are about $15 for the full day tour, departing at 7:45am and returning at 7pm. Multiple day Mekong Delta trips are also available. On the full day trip you will drive through rice paddy fields in order to reach Cai Be where you will take a boat to a floating market. The boat will then carry you through a series of canals and you will stop at a local farm where you can sample fresh tropical fruit. The price for this trip includes lunch.
Notre Dame Cathedral is worth visiting if you like seeing large European style churches. Construction started in 1877 – great photos of the outside. Tall statue is in front. The inside is worth visiting if the church is open.
Opera House is an interesting visit for its European leaning styled architecture. Good photo ops present themselves here especially from across the street with a small pool and statue. This is located just down the street from the Notre Dame cathedral.
Reunification Palace is well worth visiting, especially when you consider the admission fee is $1 US dollar and your self guided tour will take at least an hour if not longer. This palace is open daily from 7:30am until 11am, closed for 2 hours and then open again from 1pm until 4pm. This was the presidential palace when the South Vietnamese were in power until 1975 when the north and south of Vietnam was joined as one country. In April 1975 communist tanks crashed through the iron gates in front of this palace.
The palace is surrounded by a tall iron fence and it sits in the middle of large well kept grounds. There are four stories, but the most interesting and eerie is the basement where the war operations were conducted by the president and his staff. When you first enter the basement you will see the interrogation/security room. Its quite stark with only a chair and a wooden platform sitting in the room. The main hallways are painted a shiny gray – muted by the low availability of light. Several rooms are scattered throughout the basement, including the communication room, the map room, the bedroom of the president and the president’s war room where he conducted strategy and made decisions of war. If you are lucky enough to have no one around when you visit the basement, the feeling here is eerie and you might keep looking over your shoulder expecting an imaginary enemy.
The other floors are worth visiting for their 60’s type elegance. The palace was built in the 60’s and still retains an air of a 60’s/70’s flavor. Some of the main rooms are quite elegant – where conferences and meetings by heads of state were held. The third floor contains more rooms and and outside roof which contains a helicopter and a note about the bombs that were dropped there in 1975. There is a good view of the grounds from the 4th floor. Drinks and snacks are sold from a small vendor on the 4th floor.
War Remnants Museum is well worth visiting. It used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes but this name was changed as to not offend tourists from the USA. This museum is a series of 3 or 4 buildings and several weapons of war on display on the museum grounds. It is located at 28 Vo Van Tan Street in District 3. PHONE 9306325. To enter the museum you will have to walk past many book hawkers at the entrance – most of the books they sell are related to the war, however you may find fake copies of Lonely Planet guide books.
It is best to start your tour by walking in a counter clockwise direction. Start in the building on your right which contains hundreds of pictures of the Vietnam/American war – some gruesome some not. Walk slowly and absorb this images – you do not want to rush through this building. Follow this with an inspection of a US tank, several US Airforce planes, several bombs and other weapons of war. Then enter another building that contains more photographs, traps of the war, and a statue of a person made entirely of shrapnel from bombs.
There are several other buildings. One contains a guillotine last used in Vietnam in 1960, there are replicas of the terrible “tiger cages” used during the war, and then before you wrap up your tour, you will walk through a building with more photographs.