Take a deep breath before you enter Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. It might be a while before you get a chance to breathe out again! Ho Chi Minh City is a place of extremes that really does operate at a breathless pace.
It’s a city that asks you to choose between facing judgement by a Taoist deity in a timeless temple or worshipping the god of commercialism as you spend all your hard-earned cash in a designer shopping mall!
There’s the choices of whether to feast on delicious cuisine from a tiny street stall or sample amazing delicacies at one of its luxury restaurants.
And it is a city that forces you to remember that this is a country that has a very real (and often terrifying) past – but is looking very much to the future.
One thing is for sure. When you visit Ho Chi Minh City, you should prepare to be overwhelmed. In a positive, exhilarating kind of way, of course!
A history remembered: War Remnants Museum
Any visit to Ho Chi Minh City must begin with the events of the 30 year war between Vietnam and the USA. It might sound morbid, but it’s a very present part of the former Saigon, and you will see fascinating reminders scattered throughout the city.
The best place to get a sense of the sheer brutality of war is the War Remnants Museum. Here you will find first hand accounts from both Vietnamese and US sources that really drive home the horror – a feeling reinforced by arresting photos of children affected by the US bombing. The force of the machinery and weapons from the war, also on display at the museum, becomes all too clear.
One of the most talked about areas of the museum is the corner dedicated to the notorious French and South Vietnamese prisons on Phu Quoc and Con Son islands. Here you can view the “tiger cages” in which the South Vietnamese government kept their political prisoners as well as a guillotine used to execute political prisoners.
A visit to this museum will be disturbing – But this is a part of Vietnam’s history that cannot be ignored.
Experience the spiritual: Jade Emperor Pagoda
The Jade Emperor Pagoda has a rather different type of atmosphere. Bursting with incense smoke and worshippers (not to mention a pond so full of tortoises that “Tortoise Pegoda” is one of its alternative names) this temple provides a fascinating counter-balance to the war museum.
For it is the Jade Emperor, the supreme Taoist god (otherwise known as Ngoc Hoang, the King of Heaven) who decides whether you are worthy of entering into heaven – or if your fate instead is to meet with the God of Hell. A god whose scary presence you can also find in this temple, we might add, along with macabre carvings that depict the tortures that await the wicked. A reminder to take the long view on life, we feel.
Before you even get as far as the Jade Emperor however, you have to pass by two fierce generals. The first defeated the Green Dragon (often regarded as a representation of “yang”) and the second defeated the White Tiger (“yin”). They might only be in statue form today, but you certainly would not want to risk getting on the wrong side of these menacing warriors.
In fact the Jade Emperor Temple is overflowing with fantastic images of both Buddhist and Taoist deities, not to mention a roof barely holding up under the weight of all the various dragons, animals and birds loaded on it.
The only problem you will have is trying to see them through all the incense smoke…
Look to the future: Bitexco Financial Tower
If it’s clear views you are after, you can get a yet another perspective on this fascinating city from the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower. Or go a level or two higher and watch the sun go down and the city light up whilst enjoying a meal in one of the tower’s restaurants.
With 68 stories, a 360 degree observation sky deck and a heli-pad amongst its offer, the Bitexco Financial Tower is clear evidence that Ho Chi Minh City is not all about the past. This 262 metre iconic skyscraper is a physical emblem of the city’s rapid modernisation and growth.
From here you can take stock of some of Ho Chi Minh’s other fabulous attractions – the iron spires of the 19th century Notre Dame Cathedral, for example; or the bustling Binh Tay market; or simply the ever increasing numbers of skyscrapers transforming the skyline. Ancient, modern and enduring, all arrayed in front of you.
Oh, and if you are feeling energetic (or simply think 35 seconds in an elevator is not giving you the true experience), then why not try to break the record for the Bitexco Vertical Run? The rules are simple: run up the 1002 steps from the ground floor to the sky deck as fast as you can.
Remember to take in the views along the way – this fabulous city deserves to be enjoyed!