Ho Chi Minh City: off the beaten path

So, you’ve decided to visit Ho Chi Minh City. Whether you are just passing by on your way to Cambodia or stopping for a couple of days before heading on to explore the rest of Vietnam, you have surely done your research and read all about the main points of interest – Central Post Office, Notre Dame Basilica, City Hall, Ben Thanh Market, just to name a few.

This particular blog post is dedicated to lesser known attractions that are nevertheless worth visiting, as well as some insta-worthy spots.

But first, here are some quick facts about HCMC:

  • Formerly known as Prey Nokor, Gia Dinh & Saigon, the city was renamed after the communist government’s first leader when the control of South Vietnam was ceded to the North in 1975.
  • With a population of more than 13 million (unofficially), it’s the largest, most populous city and also the economic centre of Vietnam.
  • The number of scooters and motorcycles almost exceeds the number of people.
  • Yellow traffic light actually means “drive faster”.
  • Rainy season lasts from May through November.
  • More than 3 million tourists visit HCMC each year.

1) Tan Dinh Church

Officially, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an atheist state as declared by its communist government. According to the national census, about 73% of Vietnamese consider themselves unaffiliated with any religion, however this figure does not take into account people who continue to practise folk religions, most of which not recognised by the government (approx. 45%). Although in theory the country enjoys freedom of religion, there are a number of limitations on worship and only eight, state-sanctioned religions are officially permitted. The main religions are Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism (together referred to as tam giáo).

The history of the Tân Định Church may be traced back to 1874, making it one of the oldest Catholic churches in Saigon. Today, Roman Catholics constitute less than 10% of the population.

This lovely pink church (I mean, seriously, who on Earth wouldn’t love a pink church?) is located in District 3 (📍289 Hai Bà Trưng, Phường 8) and is easily accessible with a taxi.

It was unfortunately closed during my visit, so I didn’t get a chance to visit the inside. Opening hours: by permission of Father Võ Văn Ánh, from 8-11 AM and 2-4.30 PM Tuesday to Saturday.

2) Evacuation Rooftop

While it may not be as visually appealing as a pink church (again, how cool is that) and you will not find it on any tourist map, the rooftop on 📍22 Lý Tự Trọng Street, District 1 (formerly 22 Gia Long Street) is one of the most historically important spots in the world.

Surely, you have heard of the Vietnam War (also known as the Resistance War against America). The conflict lasted almost 20 years (1 Nov 1955 – 30 Apr 1975) and was officially fought between North Vietnam (supported by the Soviet Union, China and other communist allies) and the government of South Vietnam (supported by USA, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and other anti-communist allies).

The capture of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, on 30 April 1975 (called the Fall of Saigon), marked the end of the Vietnam War. Just a day before (29 Apr 1975), a Dutch photojournalist Hubert van Es captured one of the most iconic and dramatic photographs from the Vietnam War. The photo (see below) depicts the evacuation of U.S. government employees from the rooftop of an apartment building, which housed the USAID and the CIA.

You can see the rooftop from the corner of Lê Thánh Tôn Street and the Đồng Khởi Street, in front of the Vincom Centre.

3) Loft Cafe (📍Lý Tự Trọng Street, D1)

For one of the most instagrammable spots in HCMC, with great food and coffee, head to the Loft Cafe, located in the vicinity of the Evacuation Rooftop.

The Catinat Building, which is the home of the Loft Cafe, has an interesting history itself. As you might well notice, HCMC is home to some wonderful early twentieth century apartment buildings and the Catinat Building is a true art deco gem. Built between 1926-1927 for the Société Urbaine Foncière Indochinoise (SUFIC), it was home to the U.S. Consulate during the 1930s and early 1940s. Now, the building is home to hipster cafés (like the Loft), fashion shops and restaurants and there is even an art gallery on the ground floor.

Inside the building you will also find a well-preserved and fully operational elevator from the French colonial era.

Sadly, the building is probably facing imminent demolition, so enjoy it while you still can.

4) Ben Thanh Market from a different perspective

The Ben Thanh Market, one of the most famous landmarks of HCMC, should definitely be on your to-see list. The market is one of the earliest surviving structures in the city and a great place to buy local handicrafts, souvenirs and food.

What most tourists don’t know of, is that you can admire the market from above. On the map of the market, near the entrance, locate stall no. 94. Behind it, there is a little hidden staircase leading up to a small temple for market workers and a great place to observe the bustling market activity. Remember to be respectful, especially when taking photographs.

5) Rainbow Bridge and colourful buildings

The Rainbow bridge (Cầu Mống) is one of the oldest bridges in Saigon (1893-1894). Originally named Pont des Messageries maritimes, the steel bridge connecting District 1 and District 4 is attributed to the construction company Levallois Perret (formerly led by Gustave Eiffel).

After having a cocktail (or two) on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower (instead of buying a ticket for the observation deck, opt for a drink with an ever better view from the EON Heli Bar), you can cross the Rainbow Bridge (a 10-minute walk) and proceed walking by the river to Calmette Street, where you will see an array of colourful apartment buildings.

6) 42 Nguyen Hue Apartment Building

Another instagram-worthy gem! An abandoned building turned shopping centre with picturesque stores and popular coffee shops.

The future of the building is unclear and 42 Nguyen Hue may well return to what it had been before: a run-down apartment building. Be sure to enjoy it, while you still can! 📍42 Nguyễn Huệ, D1

7) Book Street (📍Nguyễn Văn Bình Street)

“Happiness is a cup of coffee and a really good book.”

Next to the Central Post Office, you will find a book-lover’s paradise. A street filled with bookstores (with a variety of books in English) and a couple of cafes, where you can relax and enjoy a good book.

8) Art Alley

For affordable works of art, mostly depicting life in Saigon, visit the art arcade in close proximity of the Opera House (📍151 Đồng Khởi, D1).

Bonus tip: If you want a photo of the Central Post Office that isn’t swarming with tourists, head there just before closing time (7.00 PM local time).

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