Still often referred to by it’s old name, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a clamorous, chaotic sensory feast. Motorbikes honk in a tidal wave across clogged intersections, locals crouch on street corners slurping steaming hot bowls of Pho (noodle soup); and the sultry air is thick with exhaust fumes and exotic spices. Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s commercial hub and largest city, and it’s a place where old abuts new with striking contrast. Temples huddle amid skyscrapers and designer shops, locals cast bamboo fishing rods into the languorous Saigon River, and in places, the city feels almost European, with its elegant French colonial architecture and wide, tree-lined avenues. Adding to the fascinating cultural jolt are a clutch of intriguing tourist attractions, from the poignant War Remnants Museum and captivating water puppet shows to colorful markets and the time warp of the Reunification Palace. Not far from the city, the famous Củ Chi tunnels are a must-see attraction, and the lush waterscapes and small villages of the Mekong Delta provide a fascinating glimpse of rural life.
8 Museum of Vietnamese History
Within the grounds of the botanic gardens, the Museum of Vietnamese History unveils the country’s cultural evolution from the Bronze Age to the early 20th century. The exhibits are organized chronologically and include artifacts from Vietnam’s former ethnic groups, including the Dong Son, Funan, Khmer, and Cham civilizations. Particularly interesting are the stone and bronze sculptures, Angkor Wat relics, and the well-preserved mummy. For an extra fee, you can attend a water puppet show in the museum’s small theater, with performances held every hour (except during lunch). Almost as interesting as the museum exhibits is the building itself, which dates from 1929 and fuses French and Asian architectural styles. After viewing all the museum exhibits for an hour or so, you can enjoy a relaxing stroll around the botanic gardens.
9 Jade Emperor Pagoda
Built in the early 20th century, the evocative Jade Emperor Pagoda (Chua Phuoc Hai) sits in an unassuming neighborhood a few blocks away from the Botanical Gardens. The temple was built in honor of the Taoist god, the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang, and within its dimly lit interior you’ll see many representations of both Buddhist and Taoist deities. As you step inside, incense shrouds the many local worshippers, and candles illuminate altars brimming with offerings. Of special note are the intricately carved panels of woodwork and the many elaborate dragon and animal sculptures adorning the roof. At the temple’s entrance, masses of turtles swim in a pond, some with inscriptions on their shells, and for this reason, the temple is often called the tortoise pagoda. Locals come here frequently to worship, so it’s important to be respectful when you visit.
10 Ho Chi Minh City Museum
Near the Reunification Palace, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum occupies an impressive Neoclassical building, formerly known as Gia Long Palace, that was once home to the Cochinchina’s governor. It’s worth a stop for an overview of the city’s history and a gawk at the grand architecture, which includes Oriental and European flourishes. The museum traces the city’s past with exhibits on the struggle for independence, nature and archaeology, trade, village handicrafts, currency, and the culture of Saigon. Interestingly, the building sits on a network of tunnels and bunkers, which served as escape routes for past dignitaries, though these are closed to the public.
11 FITO Museum
Although it’s a little challenging to find if you’re traveling without a guide, the first Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (FITO) occupies a beautiful old five-story building framed by bamboo. It’s worth a look for anyone who is interested in alternative medicine or wants to soak up some Vietnamese culture away from the main tourist trail. The museum displays thousands of items relating to Vietnamese traditional medicine, from the Stone Age to the present day, including books, documents, herbs, and implements used in preparing the medicines. You can also try your hand at grinding up some of the ingredients. The presentation begins with a short film on the history of Vietnam’s traditional medicine, and herbal cures are available for purchase before you leave.
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