Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it was known before the Vietnam War, really enjoys a rich motorcycle culture. No one has visited the place without being amazed at the sheer number of motorcycles there. If you’re riding a taxi or bus, there’s an army of scooters surrounding your vehicle. If you’re exploring on foot, they’re right there zipping past you as you attempt to cross the street. Every establishment you visit, you will probably find a row of motorcycles parked right outside.
To truly appreciate the motorcycle culture, it’s best to go around the city on one. Most tourists get a taste of this by riding a xe om or motorcycle taxi. But it’s really WAY better if you rent one for the day and navigate the streets yourself.
During our visit there, Art and I decided to rent one and explore on our own. Many travel agencies on Pham Ngu Lao street, the backpackers district, rent out motorbikes for as little as $3-5 a day. Though we did get lost a couple of times, it was still great to go around on our own without having to rely on packaged tours. Here are a few places you can check out on a DIY scooter day tour.
1) REUNIFICATION PALACE
The Reunification Palace, formerly known as the Independence Palace, served as the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. As the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon, this structure is a major landmark in Ho Chi Minh City. Guides here now offer daily tours to visitors. The Palace is noted for its striking 1960s architecture, the creation of Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu.
Included in the tour are visits to conference rooms, the Presidential Receiving Room, basement tunnels and war room, telecommunications center and the residential quarters, as well as a back terrace complete with helipad. Visitors can watch a video presentation of Vietnamese history (available in several languages).
106 Nguyen Du, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, City Center/ District 1. Hours: Mon to Sun from 7:30 am to 11:00 am and 1:00 pm to 4:00 om
2) SAIGON NOTRE DAME BASILICA
Officially known as the Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception, the Notre Dame Basilica is one of the landmarks of interest in the city because of its impressive façade. Established by French colonists, the cathedral’s huge red-brick edifice is said to have been constructed between 1863 and 1880 and all of the original building materials were imported from France. Twin spires stand grandly with bell towers topped with crosses while a Virgin Mary statue guards a small garden right in front of the church.
The church is located between two major thoroughfares where motorcycles pass, so it’s not hard not to miss. The interiors are relatively austere, but the church gets very full and very lively during services. Sunday Mass is held here at 9:30 in the morning.
Dong Khoi and Han Thuyen Streets, Cong Xa Paris Square District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. No admission fees are charged to enter the cathedral, though donations are accepted.
3) SAIGON CENTRAL POST OFFICE
Another French colonial landmark and tourist attraction right next to the Notre Dame Basilica is the Saigon Central Post Office. The building is said to have been constructed when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina.
As the largest post office in Vietnam, the interiors are impressive. Aside from functioning as a post office and selling postcards and stamps, you can find several souvenir shops in the middle of the hallway and several side hallways near the entrance.
2 Cong Xa Paris, District 1. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Open everyday from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Admission is free.
4) WINDOWS CAFE
This large café overlooking the park next to Notre Dame Cathedral is not the usual backpacker’s hangout, but rather a trendy restaurant catering to expats, tourists and local businesspeople. As such, the food and drinks are pricier.
The restaurant interiors are trendy complete with artificial waterfalls, glass fountains, and hi-tech restrooms. The menu is quite extensive, but we just sampled the traditional pho noodles and a rice topping meal for lunch here. Good service, delicious meals and secure parking make this an ideal spot for day-trippers.
However, if you’re on a budget, it’s best to head to roadside restaurants in the backpackers district that that serve equally good (and more affordable) meals.
12 Alexandre De Rhodes, District 1, Saigon. Drinks average at 4-6 USD.
5) WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM
With exhibits and photographic galleries relating to the American phase of the Vietnam War, the War Remnants Museum is perhaps one of the most haunting museums I’ve ever been to. Housed in a former United States administration building, the museum displays horrifying evidence of war crimes and highlights the suffering of the Vietnamese people at the hands of the French and American forces up to 1975.
Surrounding the main building is a yard with a few period military equipment including a helicopter, tank and attack bombers. There are also a number of pieces of unexploded ordnance and landmines stored in the corner of the yard, seemingly with their charges and/or fuses removed.
But the most sobering is the gallery of photographs of the injured and dead showing the ill effects of Agent Orange and land mines on the people who lived in affected areas.
28 Vo Van Tan, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Hours: Mon to Sun from 7:30 am to 12:00 pm and 1:30 am to 5:00 pm. Admission fee: 16,000 VND
6) BEN THANH MARKET
Those who want a taste of authentic Vietnamese food and want to buy souvenirs should head to Ben Thanh Market, a large marketplace in the downtown area in District 1.
The market is a maze of packaged food items, shirts, traditional costumes, slippers, shoes, dolls, trinkets, local handicrafts, textiles and outdoor gear, and if you want to get your money’s worth, be prepared to haggle.
There’s also an array of food stalls in the food section of the market, where you can get dishes fresh to order. Several vendors outside the market also sell interesting Vietnamese delicacies.
If you’re after quality shopping, it’s best to stop by the market in the morning or afternoon as some of the stalls close relatively early in the evenings.
Ben Thanh Market. Le Loi and Tran Hung Dao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh
7) BACKPACKER’S DISTRICT
There are a number of interesting places to check out in Pham Ngu Lao, Saigon’s backpacker’s district. Aside from the number of inexpensive guesthouses, there are also bazaars, eateries, and spas in some of the side streets.
There are lots of eateries and bars here to choose from. Most streetside eateries sell generous servings of pho noodles, spring rolls, and meat with mixed vegetables, which are pretty filling.
Aside from bottled Saigon beer, Vietnam’s famous brew is bia hoi or fresh beer, a refreshing, low-alcohol and inexpensive microbrewed beer that is considered the “the drink of the masses.” At night, the bars that serve fresh beer often fill up fast, with tourists and locals crowding on small low tables and tiny chairs over pitchers of beer, packets of peanuts and street food. After a day of riding around the city, kicking back with a beer is a great way to end your Saigon city tour.
NOTE: This article was adapted from my article originally published in Travel Magazine, Volume Six 2012