Ho Chi Minh City Highlights

Itinerary Route Map

1. Soak up the city’s electric energy and admire views of the neon city from a high-altitude perch in one of its rooftop bars

2. Witness the turbulence of conflict in the War Remnants Museum.

3. Feast on an eye-opening selection of local and international cuisine at the city’s standout restaurants and street stalls.

4. Smother yourself in clouds of incense within the mystical world of the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

5. Lose yourself in a universe of delightful Chinese temples in Cholon.

6. Tag along with one of the entertaining and imaginative tours of the city.

7. Crawl through the claustrophobic subterranean warrens and underground chambers of the Viet Cong in the Cu Chi Tunnels .

8. Join fantastically garbed worshippers at Tay Ninh’s astounding Cao Dai Great Temple.

  • History

Saigon was originally part of the kingdom of Cambodia and, until the late 17th century, was a small port town known as Prey Nokor. As Vietnamese settlers moved south it was absorbed by Vietnam and became the base for the Nguyen Lords, who were the rulers of southern Vietnam from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

During the Tay Son rebellion in the 18th century, a group of Chinese refugees established a settlement nearby, which became known by their Vietnamese neighbours as Cholon (big market). After seeing off the rebels, Nguyen Anh constructed a large citadel here (roughly where the American and French embassies now stand).

Both Saigon and Cholon were captured by the French in 1859 (who destroyed the citadel in the process) and Saigon became the capital of Cochinchina a few years later. It wasn’t until 1931, after the neighbouring cities had sprawled into each other, that they were officially combined to form Saigon-Cholon (the name Cholon was dropped in 1956).

The city served as the capital of the Republic of Vietnam from 1956 until 1975, when it fell to advancing North Vietnamese forces and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

  •  Sights

With pockets of elegance and French colonial grandeur and a ceaseless hubbub on its chaotic streets, Ho Chi Minh City has rewarding sights for temple- and museum-goers, market-hounds, history junkies, architecture fans, park lovers or simply anyone itching to see Vietnam’s most economically vibrant city in action. Three days should be sufficient to get a handle on the main sights, but Ho Chi Minh’s easygoing, friendly and enterprising personality snares many a traveller into longer stays.

In reality, HCMC is not so much a city as a small province stretching from the South China Sea almost to the Cambodian border. Rural regions constitute about 90% of the land area where around 25% of the municipality’s population live; the other 75% is crammed into the remaining 10% of land – the urban centre.

HCMC is divided into 19 urban districts (quan, derived from the French quartier) and five rural districts (huyen, derived from the Chinese xian). The majority of places and sights converge in District 1, the district still known as Saigon (although many residents still refer to the whole city as Saigon, just to confuse things), which includes the tireless backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao (PNL) and the more upmarket area of Dong Khoi. The city’s neoclassical and international -style buildings, along with its tree-lined streets set with shops, cafes and restaurants, give neighbourhoods such as District 3 an attractive, almost French atmosphere.

  • HO CHI MINH CITY IN…

One Day

Slurp up a steaming bowl of pho (rice-noodle soup) and then follow our walking tour. After lunch at Shri head to the nearby War Remnants Museum, tour the Reunification Palace and, if there’s still time, the HCMC Museum. In the evening, catch the sunset views from the Alto Heli Bar, followed by a meal at Nha Hang or Temple Club. Have a nightcap at Vasco’s, or one of the other bars in the courtyard of the former opium refinery.

Two Days

Spend the morning in Cholon , wandering around the market and historic temples. Catch a taxi up to District 3 for a cheap traditional lunch at Pho Hoa or Banh Xeo 46A and then walk through Da Kao ward to the Jade Emperor Pagoda and History Museum. It’s your last night in HCMC, so make the most of it. Start your evening at another of the city’s superb restaurants – perhaps May , Cuc Gach Quan or …hum Vegetarian Cafe & Restaurant– and then catch a band at Acousticor Yoko. If you’re ready for the evening to descend into a very Saigon state of messiness, continue on to Cargo or Apocalypse Now.

  •  Dong Khoi Area

This well-heeled area, immediately west of the Saigon River, packages the heart of old Saigon into a swish enclave of designer stores and skyscrapers. Slicing from the river to august Notre Dame Cathedral via the Opera House (Municipal Theatre), ritzy Ð Dong Khoi is the main shopping strip and lends its name to the encircling civic centre and central business district. Yet it’s the wide, tree-lined boulevards of Le Loi and Nguyen Hue, perpetually swarming with motorbikes, that leave more of an impression – not least if you’ve survived crossing them on foot. It’s in these grand thoroughfares that French colonial elegance and urban modernity fashion an alluring concoction.

Notre Dame Cathedral CATHEDRAL

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(Ð Han Thuyen; Mass 9.30 Sun) Built between 1877 and 1883, Notre Dame Cathedral rises up romantically from the heart of HCMC’s government quarter, facing Ð Dong Khoi. A brick, neo-Romanesque church with two 40m-high square towers tipped with iron spires, the Catholic cathedral is named after the Virgin Mary. The walls of the interior are inlaid with devotional tablets and some stained glass survives. English- speaking staff dispense tourist information from 9am to 11am Monday to Saturday. If the front gates are locked, try the door on the side of the building that faces Reunification Palace.

 Central Post Office HISTORIC BUILDING

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(2 Cong Xa Paris) Right across the way from Notre Dame Cathedral, HCMC’s striking French post office is a period classic, designed by Gustave Eiffel and built between 1886 and 1891. Painted on the walls of its grand concourse are fascinating historic maps of South Vietnam, Saigon and Cholon, while a mosaic of Ho Chi Minh takes pride of place at the end of its barrel-vaulted hall.

Note the magnificent tiled floor of the interior and the copious green-painted wrought iron.

Opera House NOTABLE BUILDING

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(Nha Hat Thanh Pho; 08-3829 9976; Lam Son Sq) Gracing the intersection of Ð Dong Khoi and ÐL Le Loi, this grand colonial edifice with a sweeping staircase was built in 1897 and is one of the city’s most recognisable buildings. Officially known as the Municipal Theatre, the Opera House captures the flamboyance of France’s belle époque.

People’s Committee Building NOTABLE BUILDING

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(Hôtel de Ville; ÐL Nguyen Hue) HCMC’s ornate People’s Committee Building, one of the city’s most prominent landmarks, is the home of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee. Built between 1901 and 1908, the former Hôtel de Ville decorates the northwestern end of ÐL Nguyen Hue and is one of the most photographed buildings in Vietnam but is not open to the public.

HCMC Museum MUSEUM

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(Bao Tang Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh; www.hcmc-museum.edu.vn; 65 Ð Ly Tu Trong; admission 15,000d;  8am-5pm) A grand, neoclassical structure built in 1885 and once known as Gia Long Palace (and later the Revolutionary Museum), HCMC’s city museum is a singularly beautiful and impressive building, telling the story of the city through archaeological artefacts, ceramics, old city maps and displays on the marriage traditions of its various ethnicities.

The struggle for independence is extensively covered, with most of the upper floor devoted to it.

Deep beneath the building is a network of reinforced concrete bunkers and fortified corridors. The system, branches of which stretch all the way to Reunification Palace, included living areas, a kitchen and a large meeting hall. In 1963 President Diem and his brother hid here before fleeing to Cha Tam Church. The network is not open to the public because most of the tunnels are flooded.

In the gardens are various pieces of military hardware, including the American-built F-5E jet used by a renegade South Vietnamese pilot to bomb the Presidential Palace (now Reunification Palace) on 8 April 1975.

 Bitexco Financial Tower VIEWPOINT

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(http://saigonskydeck.com; 2 Ɖ Hai Trieu; adult/child 200,000/130,000d;  9.30am-9.30pm) The 68-storey, 262m-high, Carlos Zapata – designed skyscraper dwarfs all around it. It’s meant to be shaped like a lotus bulb, but a CD rack with a tambourine shoved into it also springs to mind. That tambourine is the 48th-floor Saigon Skydeck, with a helipad on its roof. The views are, of course, extraordinary but not weather-proof, so choose a clear day and aim for sunset (or upend a drink in the Alto Heli Bar instead).

Ton Duc Thang Museum MUSEUM

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(Bao Tang Ton Duc Thang;  08-3829 7542; 5 Ð Ton Duc Thang;  7.30-11.30am & 1.30-5pm Tue-Sun) This small patriotic museum is dedicated to Ton Duc Thang, Ho Chi Minh’s successor as president of Vietnam. Born in 1888 in Long Xuyen in the Mekong Delta region, he died in office in 1980. Photos and exhibits celebrate his role in the Vietnamese Revolution, enhanced by some fascinating displays on French colonial brutality.

As so few people visit, it’s one of the quietest parts of town.

Saigon Central Mosque MOSQUE

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(66 Ð Dong Du) Built by South Indian Muslims in 1935 on the site of an earlier mosque, lime green Saigon Central Mosque is an immaculately clean and well-tended island of calm in the bustling Dong Khoi area. In front of the sparkling white and blue structure, with its four decorative minarets, is a pool for the ritual ablutions required by Islamic law before prayers.

Several Malaysian and Indian restaurants serving halal food are nearby, including an excellent but humble eatery directly behind the mosque. Take off your shoes before entering the building.

22 Ly Tu Trong HISTORICAL SITE

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(22 Ð Ly Tu Trong) The ground floor of this innocuous-looking building on Ly Tu Trong is currently occupied by the Vietnam National Chemical Group. Step across the road to Chi Lang Park to look up at the roof and you will see a structure (housing the lift shaft) that served as a temporary landing pad for a US helicopter evacuating personnel the day before the fall of Saigon, an image immortalised by Dutch photographer Hubert Van Es.

The photograph is commonly misunderstood to depict US citizens leaving the roof of the US Embassy, but this building actually housed CIA staff.

Venerable Thich Quang Duc Memorial MONUMENT

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(cnr Ɖ Nguyen Dinh Chieu & Ɖ Cach Mang Thang Tam) This peaceful memorial park is dedicated to Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who self-immolated in protest at this intersection not far from the Presidential Palace (today’s Reunification Palace) in 1963. The memorial was inaugurated in 2010, displaying Thich Quang Duc wreathed in flames, before a bas-relief.

Note that Thich Quang Duc has been elevated to the status of a Bo Tat on the memorial, which means a Boddhisattva (an enlightened person who forgoes Nirvana in order to save others).

  •  Da Kao & Around

This old District 1 ward, directly north of the city centre, is home to most of the consulates and some beautiful buildings dating from the French colonial period. Hidden within its historic streets (and those bordering it in the eastern corner of District 3) are some of HCMC’s hippest new restaurants and bars, along with some of the city’s best traditional eateries.

Jade Emperor Pagoda TAOIST TEMPLE

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(Phuoc Hai Tu | Chua Ngoc Hoang; 73 Ð Mai Thi Luu; 7am-6pm, on 1st & 15th of lunar month 5am-7pm) Built in 1909 in honour of the supreme Taoist god (the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang), this is one of the most spectacularly atmospheric temples in HCMC, stuffed with statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes. The pungent smoke of huong (incense) fills the air, obscuring the exquisite woodcarvings.

Its roof encrusted with elaborate tilework, the temple’s statues, depicting characters from both Buddhist and Taoist lore, are made from reinforced papier mâché. Inside the main building are two especially fierce and menacing Taoist figures. On the right (as you face the altar) is a 4m-high statue of the general who defeated the Green Dragon (depicted underfoot). On the left is the general who defeated the White Tiger, which is also being stepped on.

Worshippers mass before the ineffable Jade Emperor, who presides – draped in luxurious robes and shrouded in a dense fug of incense smoke – over the main sanctuary. He is flanked by his guardians, the Four Big Diamonds (Tu Dai Kim Cuong), so named because they are said to be as hard as diamonds.

Out the door on the left-hand side of the Jade Emperor’s chamber is another room. The semienclosed area to the right (as you enter) is presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell; to the left is his red horse. Other figures here represent the gods who dispense punishments for evil acts and rewards for good deeds. The room also contains the famous Hall of the Ten Hells, carved wooden panels illustrating the varied torments awaiting evil people in each of the Ten Regions of Hell. Women queue up at the seated effigy of the City God, who wears a hat inscribed with Chinese characters that announce ‘At one glance, money is given’. In a mesmerising ritual, worshippers first put money into a box, then rub a piece of red paper against his hand before circling it around a candle flame.

On the other side of the wall is a fascinating little room in which the ceramic figures of 12 women, overrun with children and wearing colourful clothes, sit in two rows of six. Each of the women exemplifies a human characteristic, either good or bad (as in the case of the woman drinking alcohol from a jug). Each figure represents a year in the 12-year Chinese astrological calendar. Presiding over the room is Kim Hoa Thanh Mau, the Chief of All Women. Upstairs is a hall to Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy, opposite a portrait of Dat Ma, the bearded Indian founder of Zen Buddhism.

The multifaith nature of the temple is echoed in the shrine’s alternative name Phuoc Hai Tu (福海寺; Sea of Blessing Temple), the message of which is clearly Buddhist. Similarly, the Chinese characters (佛光普照 : Phat Quang Pho Chieu) in the main temple hall mean ‘The light of Buddha shines on all’.

Outside, a small pond seethes with turtles, some of which have auspicious inscriptions on their shells.

 History Museum MUSEUM

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(Bao Tang Lich Su; Ð Nguyen Binh Khiem; admission 15,000d;  8-11.30am & 1.30-5pm Tue-Sun) Built in 1929 by the Société des Études Indochinoises, this notable Sino-French museum houses a rewarding collection of artefacts illustrating the evolution of the cultures of Vietnam, from the Bronze Age Dong Son civilisation (which emerged in 2000 BC) and the Funan civilisation (1st to 6th centuries AD), to the Cham, Khmer and Vietnamese.

Highlights include valuable relics taken from Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, a fine collection of Buddha statues, the perfectly preserved mummy of a local woman who died in 1869, excavated from Xom Cai in District 5, and some exquisite stylised mother-of-pearl Chinese characters inlaid into panels. Also housing a branch of the shop Nguyen Freres, the museum is just inside the main gate to the city’s botanic gardens and zoo.

Botanic Gardens GARDEN

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(Thao Cam Vien; 2 Ð Nguyen Binh Khiem; admission 8,000d; 7am-7pm) One of the first projects undertaken by the French after establishing Cochinchina as a colony was founding these fantastic, lush gardens. Once one of the finest such gardens in Asia, they’re very agreeable for strolling beneath giant tropical trees, including towering Tung and So Khi trees. Also equipped with a miserable zoo, the gardens are next to the History Museum.

Military Museum MUSEUM

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(Bao Tang Quan Doi; 2 ÐL Le Duan; 7.30-11am & 1.30-4.30pm Tue-Sat) A short distance from the History Museum, this small collection is devoted to Ho Chi Minh’s campaign to liberate the south. The exhibits inside are of minor interest but some US, Chinese and Soviet war material is on display outdoors, including a South Vietnamese Air Force Cessna A-37 and a US-built F-5E Tiger with the 20mm nose gun still loaded.

The tank on display is one of the tanks that broke into the grounds of Reunification Palace on 30 April 1975.

Pho Binh HISTORICAL SITE

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(7 Ð Ly Chinh Thang, District 3; noodle soup 30,000d) A humble noodle-soup restaurant may seem an unusual attraction, but there’s more to Pho Binh than meets the eye. This was the secret headquarters of the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists; VC) in Saigon and from here they planned their attacks on the US embassy and other Saigon targets during the Tet Offensive of 1968. One wonders how many US soldiers ate here, completely unaware.

The pho (noodle soup) makes it a worthwhile stop for lunch or breakfast.

  •  Reunification Palace & Around

Straddling District 1 and District 3, this grid of busy streets encloses the inviting spaces of Tao Dan Park and the pristine grounds of Reunification Palace. It’s here that you’ll find some of HCMC’s most popular sights and a smattering of terrific restaurants.

War Remnants Museum MUSEUM

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(Bao Tang Chung Tich Chien Tranh;  08-3930 5587; 28 Ð Vo Van Tan, cnr Ð Le Quy Don; admission 15,000d;  7.30am-noon & 1.30-5pm) Once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum is consistently popular with Western tourists. Few museums anywhere drive home so effectively the brutality of war and its many civilian victims. Many of the atrocities documented here were well publicised but rarely do Westerners get to hear the victims of US military action tell their own stories.

While the displays are one-sided, many of the most disturbing photographs illustrating US atrocities are from US sources, including those of the infamous My Lai Massacre.

US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, bombs and infantry weapons are on display outside. One corner of the grounds is devoted to the notorious French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son Islands. Artefacts include that most iconic of French appliances, the guillotine, and the notoriously inhumane ‘tiger cages’ used to house VC prisoners.

The ground floor of the museum is devoted to a collection of posters and photographs showing support for the antiwar movement internationally. This somewhat upbeat display provides a counterbalance to the horrors upstairs.

Even those who supported the war are likely to be horrified by the photos of children affected by US bombing and napalming. You’ll also have the rare chance to see some of the experimental weapons used in the war (which were at one time military secrets), such as the flechette, an artillery shell filled with thousands of tiny darts.

Upstairs, look out for the Requiem Exhibition. Compiled by legendary war photographer Tim Page, this striking collection documents the work of photographers killed during the course of the conflict, on both sides, and includes works by Larry Burrows and Robert Capa.

The War Remnants Museum is in the former US Information Service building. Captions are in Vietnamese and English.

 Reunification Palace HISTORICAL BUILDING

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(Dinh Thong Nhat;  08-3829 4117; Ð Nam Ky Khoi Nghia; adult/child 30,000/3000d; 7.30-11am & 1-4pm) Surrounded by Royal Palm trees, the dissonant 1960s architecture of this government building and the eerie mood that accompanies a walk through its deserted halls make it one of the most intriguing spectacles in HCMC. The building is deeply associated with the fall of Saigon in 1975, yet it’s the overblown kitsch detailing and period motifs that steal the show.

The first Communist tanks to arrive in Saigon rumbled here on the morning of 30 April 1975 and it’s as if time has stood still since then. After crashing through the wrought-iron gates – in a dramatic scene recorded by photojournalists and shown around the world – a soldier ran into the building and up the stairs to unfurl a VC flag from the balcony. In an ornate reception chamber, General Minh, who had become head of the South Vietnamese state only 43 hours before, waited with his improvised cabinet. ‘I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you’, Minh said to the VC officer who entered the room. ‘There is no question of your transferring power’, replied the officer. ‘You cannot give up what you do not have.’

In 1868 a residence was built on this site for the French governor-general of Cochinchina and gradually it expanded to become Norodom Palace. When the French departed, the palace became home to the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. So unpopular was Diem that his own air force bombed the palace in 1962 in an unsuccessful attempt to kill him. The president ordered a new residence to be built on the same site, this time with a sizeable bomb shelter in the basement. Work was completed in 1966, but Diem did not get to see his dream house as he was killed by his own troops in 1963.

The new building was named Indepen dence Palace and was home to the successive South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, until his hasty departure in 1975. Designed by Paris-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu, it is an outstanding example of 1960s architecture, with an airy and open atmosphere.

The ground floor is arranged with meeting rooms, while upstairs is a grand set of reception rooms, used for welcoming foreign and national dignitaries. In the back of the structure are the president’s living quarters; check out the model boats, horse tails and severed elephants’ feet. The 2nd floor contributes a shagadelic card-playing room, complete with a cheesy round leather banquette, a barrel-shaped bar, hubcap light fixtures and groovy three-legged chairs set around a flared-legged card table. There’s also a cinema and a rooftop nightclub, complete with helipad: James Bond/Austin Powers – eat your heart out.

Perhaps most fascinating of all is the basement with its telecommunications centre, war room and warren of tunnels, where hulking old fans chop the air and ancient radio transmitters sit impassively. Towards the end are rooms where videos appraise the palace and its history in Vietnamese, English, French, Chinese and Japanese. The national anthem is played at the end of the tape and you are expected to stand up – it would be rude not to.

Reunification Palace is open to visitors as long as official receptions or meetings aren’t taking place. English- and French-speaking guides are on duty during opening hours.

Mariamman Hindu Temple HINDU TEMPLE

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(Chua Ba Mariamman; 45 Ð Truong Dinh; 7.30am-7.30pm) There may only be a small number of Hindus in HCMC, but this colourful slice of southern India is also considered sacred by many ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese. Indeed, it is reputed to have miraculous powers. The temple was built at the end of the 19th century and dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman.

The lion to the left of the entrance used to be carried around the city in a street procession every autumn. In the shrine in the middle of the temple is Mariamman, flanked by her guardians Maduraiveeran (to her left) and Pechiamman (to her right). In front of the Mariamman figure are two linga (stylised phalluses that represent the Hindu god Shiva). Favourite offerings placed nearby include joss sticks, jasmine, lilies and gladioli.

Mariamman Hindu Temple is three blocks west of Ben Thanh Market. Remove your shoes before stepping onto the slightly raised platform and ignore pushy demands that you buy joss sticks and jasmine as you enter.

Tao Dan Park PARK

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(Ð Nguyen Thi Minh Khai) One of the city’s biggest and most attractive green spaces is 10-hectare Tao Dan Park, its bench-lined walks shaded with avenues of enormous tropical trees, including the ever-abundant flame tree and vast Sao Den and So Khi trees. It’s fascinating to visit in the early morning and late afternoon when thousands of locals exercise.

Also noteworthy is the daily flocking here of the city’s bird lovers (mainly elderly gentlemen), who arrive, cages in hand, at what is universally known as the bird cafe.

The park is split down the middle by Ð Truong Dinh. To the northeast of Ð Truong Dinh are a small contemporary sculpture garden and the old Cercle Sportif, an elite sporting club during the French colonial period and now the Workers’ Club, with tennis courts, a colonnaded art deco swimming pool and a clubhouse.

Xa Loi Pagoda BUDDHIST TEMPLE

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(Chua Xa Loi; 89 Ð Ba Huyen Thanh Quan; 7-11am & 2-5pm) Famed as the repository of a sacred relic of the Buddha, this large 1956 building is most notable for its dramatic history. In August 1963 truckloads of armed men under the command of Ngo Dinh Nhu, President Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother, attacked the temple, which had become a centre of opposition to the Diem government.

The temple was ransacked and 400 monks and nuns, including the country’s 80-year-old Buddhist patriarch, were arrested. This raid and others elsewhere helped solidify opposition among Buddhists to the regime, a crucial factor in the US decision to support the coup against Diem. The pagoda was also the site of several self-immolations by monks protesting against the Diem regime and the American War.

The etymology of the temple name points to its significance. The Chinese characters on the front of the temple – ‘Sheli Si’ (舍利寺; Sheli Temple), pronounced Xa Loi Chua in Vietnamese – mean ‘Sarira Temple’, from the Sanskrit word for ‘Buddhist relic’.

Women enter the main hall of Xa Loi Pagoda, housing a giant golden Sakyamuni (the historical Buddha), by the staircase on the right as you come in the gate; men use the stairs on the left. The walls of the sanctuary are adorned with paintings depicting the Buddha’s life. Behind the main hall, a further hall contains a painting of Bodhidharma, an Indian monk celebrated as the father of Zen Buddhism. Bodhidharma stayed at the Shaolin Temple in China, developing the exercises that would become Shaolin Boxing. He is depicted here carrying a shoe on a stick (the story goes that when Bodhidharma’s coffin was opened after his death, it was empty apart from one shoe).

A monk preaches here every Sunday from 8am to 10am. On full- and new-moon days, special prayers are held from 7am to 9am and 7pm to 8pm.

  • LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

SOPHIE HUGHES: SAIGON ART DOYEN

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) resident Sophie Hughes (www.sophiesarttour.com) runs popular art tours around town five days a week.

What really fires you up about HCMC? The contrasts: the locals’ friendly, laid-back attitude against the backdrop of a nonstop, frenzied metropolis. Look beyond the kitsch neon lights and shop signs and catch old Chinese shop houses, colonial French facades, the former residences of ambassadors, missionaries and merchants and the incredibly thin – and structurally remarkable – Vietnamese tube houses in alleyways all over HCMC. Most exciting of all is watching a new generation add another layer to their city through art, music and cafe culture.

Your favorite art gallery in town? San Art: HCMC’s most dynamic space for art. Comprising a gallery, open-access reading room and a full program of workshops, residencies, talks and screenings, this space is a true trailblazer. To top it off, the space is run by a fun, young and friendly team of people. All events are free and open to the public.

HCMC’s best-kept architectural secret? The Fine Arts Museum: built around a courtyard, this improbable mix of French and Chinese 1920s and ’30s architectural styles is a treasure and a sanctuary from the incessant buzz of the streets. The museum houses an eclectic mix of propaganda art, combat art and early ’90s abstract art.

Any standout bar that pulls an arty crowd? The Observatory (cnr Ɖ Le Lai & Ɖ Ton That Tung; 11am-late) is a cafe-restaurant-bar-gallery and multipurpose space set up by an artist and a DJ. In the heart of District 1, it’s a versatile platform for art and hosts gigs, exhibitions, film screenings and discussion groups and is a go-to point for those who want to get a handle on HCMC’s cultural scene.

Any graffiti/street art in town you recommend tracking down? Street art has been growing in HCMC over the last few years. Head to 15b Ɖ Vo Van Tan, District 1, for murals or to Saigon Outcast (www.saigonoutcast.com), an art hub where walls are adorned by the work of local artists. The space also runs music, film and art events – it’s a little out of the city in D2. Check out Liar Ben’s blog www.liarben.blogspot.com for up-to-date street art info.

  •  Nguyen Thai Binh & Around

This District 1 ward is a busy workaday neighbourhood nestled between the central city, Ben Thanh Market, the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker strip and Ben Nghe channel.

 Fine Arts Museum ART GALLERY

(Bao Tang My Thuat; 97A Ð Pho Duc Chinh; admission 10,000d;  9am-5pm Tue-Sun) With its airy corridors and breezy verandahs, this elegant 1929 colonial-era yellow-and-white building is stuffed with period details; it is exuberantly tiled throughout and home to some fine (albeit deteriorated) stained glass, as well as one of Saigon’s oldest lifts. Hung from the walls is an impressive selection of art, including thoughtful pieces from the modern period.

As well as contemporary art, much of it (unsurprisingly) inspired by war, the museum displays historical pieces dating back to the 4th century. These include elegant Funan-era sculptures of Vishnu, the Buddha and other revered figures (carved in both wood and stone), and Cham art dating from the 7th to the 14th century.

More statuary is scattered around the grounds and in the central courtyard (accessed from the rear of the building). There’s a selection of lovely prints for sale at the shop, costing from around 80,000d. Building No 2 alongside hosts lesser-known works and stages exhibitions.

The space on the pavement in front of the impressive old Railway Office, up the road between Ɖ Ham Nghi and ƉL Le Loi and facing the roundabout, was used for public executions in the early 1960s.

 Cholon

Rummage through Cholon (District 5) and lift the lid on a treasure trove of historic temples and Chinese flavours. HCMC’s China town is less Chinese than it once was, largely due to the 1978–79 anticapitalist and anti-Chinese campaign, when many ethnic Chinese fled the country, taking with them their money and entrepreneurial skills. A lot of those refugees have since returned (with foreign passports) to explore investment possibilities. Full-form written Chinese characters (as opposed to the simplified system used in mainland China) decorate shopfronts and temples in abundance, adding to the sensation that you have strayed into a forgotten corner of China. Cornering a Mandarin speaker isn’t hard, although most Hoa-Kieu (Vietnamese -Chinese) residents chat in southern Chinese dialects.

Cholon means ‘big market’ and during the American War it was home to a thriving black market. Like much of HCMC, Cholon’s historic shopfronts are swiftly disappearing under advertising hoardings or succumbing to developers’ bulldozers, but some traditional architecture survives and an atmospheric strip of traditional herb shops MAP GOOGLE MAP (Ð Hai Thuong Lan Ong) thrives between Ð Luong Nhu Hoc and Ð Trieu Quang Phuc, providing both a visual and an olfactory reminder of the old Chinese city.

A taxi from Pham Ngu Lao to Cholon costs around 100,000d or hop on bus 1 from Ben Thanh Market. For in-depth tours of Cholon, contact local expert and heritage buff, Tim Doling.

Binh Tay Market MARKET

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(Cho Binh Tay; www.chobinhtay.gov.vn; 57A ÐL Thap Muoi) Cholon’s main market has a great clock tower and a central courtyard with gardens. Much of the business here is wholesale but it’s popular with tour groups. The market was originally built by the French in the 1880s; Guangdong-born philanthropist Quach Dam paid for its rebuilding and was commemorated by a statue that is now in the Fine Arts Museum.

Thien Hau Pagoda TAOIST TEMPLE

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(Ba Mieu, Pho Mieu, Chua Ba Thien Hau; 710 Ð Nguyen Trai) This gorgeous 19th-century temple is dedicated to the goddess Thien Hau and always attracts a mix of worshippers and visitors, who mingle beneath the large coils of incense suspended overhead. It is believed that Thien Hau can travel over the oceans on a mat and ride the clouds to save people in trouble on the high seas.

There are intricate ceramic friezes above the roof line of the interior courtyard, while the protectors of the pagoda are said to be two land turtles that live here. Near the large braziers stand two miniature wooden structures in which a small figure of Thien Hau is paraded around nearby streets on the 23rd day of the third lunar month.

On the main dais are three figures of Thien Hau, one behind the other, all flanked by two servants or guardians. To the right is a scale-model boat and on the far right is the Goddess Long Mau, Protector of Mothers and Newborns.

Khanh Van Nam Vien Pagoda TAOIST TEMPLE

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(269/2 Ð Nguyen Thi Nho) Built between 1939 and 1942, this temple is said to be the only pure Taoist temple in Vietnam and is unique for its colourful statues of Taoist disciples. Features to seek out include the unique 150cm-high statue of Laotse – the supreme philosopher of Taoism and author of the Dao De Jing (The Classic of the Way and its Power) – located upstairs.

Laotse’s mirror-edged halo is rather surreal, while off to his left are two stone plaques with instructions for Taoist inhalation and exhalation exercises. A schematic drawing represents the human organs as a scene from rural China. The diaphragm, agent of inhalation, is at the bottom; the stomach is represented by a peasant ploughing with a water buffalo. The kidney is marked by four yin and yang symbols, the liver is shown as a grove of trees and the heart is represented by a circle with a peasant standing in it, above which is a constellation. The tall pagoda represents the throat and the broken rainbow is the mouth. At the top are mountains and a seated figure that represent the brain and imagination, respectively.

The temple operates a home for several dozen elderly people. Next door is a free medical clinic also run by the pagoda. Leave a donation with the monks if you wish.

Quan Am Pagoda BUDDHIST TEMPLE

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(Chua Quan Am; 12 Ð Lao Tu) One of Cholon’s most active and colourful temples, this shrine was founded in the early 19th century. It’s named after the Goddess of Mercy, whose full name is Quan The Am Bo Tat, literally ‘the Bodhisattva who listens to the cries of the world’ ( 觀世音菩萨 in Chinese characters), in reflection of her compassionate mission.

The goddess’s name is usually shortened to Quan Am (she is also worshipped in China, Korea and Japan) and her statue lies hidden behind a remarkably ornate exterior. In Tibet, where she is also widely worshipped, the goddess – who was once male – finds earthly form in the Dalai Lama. Fantastic ceramic scenes decorate the roof, depicting figures from traditional Chinese plays and stories. Other unique features of this temple are the gold-and-lacquer panels of the entrance doors.

 Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda TAOIST TEMPLE

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(184 Ð Hong Bang) Delightfully fronted by greenery and opening to an interior blaze of red, gold, green and yellow, this is one of the most beautifully ornamented temples in town, dating from 1902. Of special interest are the elaborate brass ritual ornaments and weapons and the fine woodcarvings on the altars, walls, columns, hanging lanterns and incense coils.

From the exterior, look out for the ceramic scenes, each containing innumerable small figurines, that decorate the roof.

To the left of the entrance stands a life-size figure of the sacred horse of Quan Cong. Before departing on a journey, people make offerings to the equine figure, before stroking its mane and ringing the bell around its neck. Behind the main altar, with its stone and brass incense braziers, is a statue of Quan Cong, to whom the temple is dedicated (the other name for the temple is the Quan De Mieu); other shrines are dedicated to Ong Bon and Nam Ba Ngu Hanh.

Tam Son Hoi Quan Pagoda TAOIST TEMPLE

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(Chua Ba; 118 Ð Trieu Quang Phuc) Retaining much of its original rich ornamentation, this 19th-century temple – a guildhall named after Sanshan (Three Mountains) in China’s seaboard Fujian province – is dedicated to Me Sanh, the Goddess of Fertility, entreated by local women praying for children. Thien Hau – the Goddess of Seafarers – is also revered within the main shrine.

Among the striking figures is Quan Cong with his long black beard, to the right of the covered courtyard. Flanking him are two guardians, the Military Mandarin Chau Xuong on the left and the Administrative Mandarin Quan Binh on the right. Next to Chau Xuong is Quan Cong’s sacred red horse.

Ong Bon Pagoda TAOIST TEMPLE

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(Chua Ong Bon | Nhi Phu Mieu; 264 ÐL Hai Thuong Lan Ong) This atmospheric temple is crammed with gilded carvings, smoking incense and the constant hubbub of kids from the large school next door. Built by Chinese immigrants from Fujian province, it’s dedicated to Ong Bon, the guardian who presides over happiness and wealth and is seated in a gilded cabinet sparkling with LED lights, an intricately carved and gilded wooden altar before him.

Other shrines are dedicated to Thien Hau, Quan Am, the Jade Emperor and even the Monkey King. Along the walls of the chamber are murals of five tigers (to the left) and two dragons (to the right).

Nghia An Hoi Quan Pagoda TAOIST TEMPLE

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(678 Ð Nguyen Trai) Noteworthy for its gilded woodwork, this temple has a large carved wooden boat hanging over its entrance and inside, to the left of the doorway, an enormous representation of Quan Cong’s red horse with its groom. The temple is more accurately a guildhall (Hoi Quan), built in the early 19th century by Chinese from Yian (Nghia An) in China’s Guangdong province.

Quan Cong – also called Quan De or Quan Vu, a deified Chinese general from the Three Kingdoms Period (184–280) – occupies a position in a glass case behind the main altar, with his assistants flanking him on both sides. Nghia An Hoi Quan lets its hair down on the 14th day of the first lunar month when various dances are staged in front of the temple.

Ha Chuong Hoi Quan Pagoda TAOIST TEMPLE

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(802 Ð Nguyen Trai) This Fujian temple is dedicated to the Goddess of Seafarers, Thien Hau (Thien Hau Thanh Mau), also known as Ma To. The four carved stone pillars, wrapped in painted dragons, were fashioned in China and delivered to Vietnam by boat.

Noteworthy murals can be seen either side of the main altar, while impressive ceramic relief scenes decorate the roof. To the right of Thien Hau is Chua Sinh Nuong Nuong, a Taoist fertility goddess; to the left of Thien Hau is the ever-popular Taoist God of Wealth. Blending Buddhism into the mix, a figure of Quan Am looks on mercifully, clothed in white and draped with a pearl necklace. Note the upright fan in the main hall, used for dispelling calamity.

The temple – actually a guildhall – becomes extremely active during the Lantern Festival, a Chinese holiday held on the 15th day of the first lunar month (the first full moon of the new lunar year).

Cha Tam Church CHURCH

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(25 Ð Hoc Lac) Built around the turn of the 19th century, this decaying light- caramel painted church exudes a sleepy, tropical feel. A pew in the church is marked with a small plaque identifying the spot where President Ngo Dinh Diem was seized after taking refuge here with his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu on 2 November 1963, after fleeing the Presidential Palace.

When their efforts to contact loyal military officers (of whom there were almost none) failed, Diem and Nhu agreed to surrender unconditionally and revealed where they were hiding. The coup leaders sent an M-113 armoured personnel carrier to the church and the two were taken into custody. However, before the vehicle reached central Saigon the soldiers had killed Diem and Nhu by shooting them at point-blank range and then repeatedly stabbing their bodies.

When news of the deaths was broadcast on radio, Saigon exploded with jubilation. Portraits of the two were torn up and political prisoners, many of whom had been tortured, were set free. The city’s nightclubs, which had closed because of the Ngos’ conservative Catholic beliefs, were reopened. Three weeks later the US president, John F Kennedy, was assassinated. As his administration had supported the coup against Diem, some conspiracy theorists speculated that Diem’s family orchestrated Kennedy’s death in retaliation.

The mint green and white church interior is decorated with images of the Stations of the Cross, while holy water is dispensed from huge clam shells. The statue in the tower is of François Xavier Tam Assou (1855–1934), a Chinese-born vicar apostolic (delegate of the pope) of Saigon. Today, the church has a very active congregation of 3000 ethnic Vietnamese and 2000 ethnic Chinese. Masses are held daily.

Cholon Jamail Mosque MOSQUE

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(641 Ð Nguyen Trai) The clean lines and minimal ornamentation of this mosque contrast starkly with nearby Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhist temples. Note the pool for ritual ablutions in the courtyard and the tiled mihrab (niche) in the wall of the prayer hall, indicating the direction of Mecca. This mosque was built by Tamil Muslims in 1935 but since 1975 it has served the Malaysian and Indonesian Muslim communities.

Cho Quan Church CHURCH

(133 Ð Tran Binh Trong; 4-7am & 3-6pm Mon-Sat, 4-9am & 1.30-6pm Sun) Originally built by the French and destroyed three times, this 19th-century house of worship is one of the city’s largest churches, with good views from the belfry (a steep climb). The church is on the eastern fringe of District 5, between ÐL Tran Hung Dao and Ð Nguyen Trai.

  •  District 11

Immediately west of Cholon, the main enticements of District 11 are a couple of interesting old pagodas and a popular water park.

Giac Vien Pagoda BUDDHIST TEMPLE

(Ð Lac Long Quan, District 11; 7-11.30am & 1.30-7pm) In a land where so many ancient temples have been ‘restored’ in concrete and neon, it’s a joy to discover one that looks its age. The temple was founded by Hai Tinh Giac Vien in the late 1700s and it is said that Emperor Gia Long, who died in 1819, used to worship here.

Architecturally similar to Giac Lam, it shares its atmosphere of scholarly serenity, although Giac Vien is less visited and more secluded, down an alley near Dam Sen Lake.

Hidden behind a warren of winding lanes, the approach to the pagoda has several impressive tombs on the right – a popular playground for local kids. The pagoda itself boasts some 100 lavish carvings of divine beings.

The main sanctuary is on the other side of the wall behind the Hai Tinh Giac Vien statue. The dais is set behind a fantastic brass incense basin with fierce dragon heads emerging from each side. The Guardian of the Pagoda is against the wall opposite the dais. Nearby rises a prayer tree similar to the one in Giac Lam Pagoda.

Phung Son Pagoda BUDDHIST TEMPLE

(Phung Son Tu | Chua Go; 1408 ÐL 3 Thang 2, District 11) Built between 1802 and 1820 on the site of structures from the Funan period, dating back at least to the early centuries of Christianity, this Buddhist temple is extremely rich in gilded, painted and beautifully fashioned bronze, wood, ceramic and beaten-copper statuary. The main dais, with its many levels, is dominated by a large gilded A Di Da Buddha (the Buddha of Infinite Light; Amitābha).

Once upon a time, it was decided to move Phung Son Pagoda to a different site. The pagoda’s ritual objects – bells, drums, statues – were loaded onto the back of a white elephant that slipped under the great weight, sending all the precious objects tumbling into a nearby pond. This event was interpreted as an omen that the pagoda should remain in its original location. Every thing was recovered but the bell, which, until about a century ago, locals insist could be heard ringing whenever there was a full or new moon.

Prayers are held three times a day, from 4am to 5am, 4pm to 5pm and 6pm to 7pm. The main entrances are locked most of the time, but the side entrance (to the right as you approach the building) is open during prayer times.

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