Vietnam (official name: the Socialist Republic of Vietnam) is the 8th most populous country in Asia, and the 13th most populous overall. More than a decade of average growth rates of roughly 7% starting in the early 2000s has made Vietnam one of the world’s premier emerging markets, although subsequent economic stumbles have tempered somewhat the early enthusiasm.
Perhaps the frequent civil wars and the complicated historical background of Vietnam have slowed down the development of tourism when compared with its Asian neighbors. Striking French-style architecture, surprising local markets, alleys and streets with the human touch, and most importantly, the internationally renowned Vietnamese cuisine, all make you want to fall in love with this overwhelmingly beautiful place!
French Colonial Beauty
Vietnam survived under French colonialism for more than 80 years. In those years, the French left some traces behind, including the symbol of Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon Notre Dame, which is officially called the Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception.
Saigon Notre Dame was constructed between 1863 and 1880. In 1895, two bell towers were added to the cathedral, to make it look even more magnificent. The building was designed to demonstrate the influence of French civilization and Christianity over Vietnam. All the building materials, including the red bricks used, were imported direct from France. However, as time passed and after the civil war many tiles have been made in Vietnam for repair purposes.
The most memorable incident was that which occurred in October 2005: the statue of Our Lady of Peace in the flower garden in front of the cathedral was reported to have shed tears, the tears flowing down her right cheek. The news attracted thousands of visitors in just days. If you come to Ho Chi Minh, remember to check this out!
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
Address: Bến Nghé, tp. Hồ Chí Minh, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Opening Hours: 8am – 5pm
Entrance fee: Free
A Sign of War
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The Vietnam War was fought throughout Vietnam for decades. It also left many traces of upheaval to remind people of the importance of world peace.
One of these traces to be found in Ho Chi Minh city is the Cu Chi Tunnels. The total 121-km long complex of tunnels was built in the late 1940s. It was used by guerrilla forces to evade the French army and American forces. It also served as an immense communications network connecting the whole of Cu Chi district. Now it has been preserved by the government of Vietnam, and two sections are open to visitors, Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh. Inside the tunnel, people can see examples of the traps used during the war and the remnants of bomb craters. Sample sections of the tunnel are open, allowing visitors to crawl through.
If you want to experience the war in another, noisier way, there are some shooting ranges around 1.5 miles away from the site. A real AK-47 or M16 can be your choice of weapon.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Address: The Cu Chi Tunnels cover a large area, the Ben Dinh and Ben Duoc tunnels lying about 50 km and 70km, respectively, from central HCMC by highway. Taxi and car rental are recommended.
Administration fee: VN$90,000 (around US$4.25)
Shop and Eat like a Local
Want to learn the culture of a country? You can either meet a local friend, or visit a local market, or both, and you’ll always be pleasantly surprised.
If you decide to visit a local market in Vietnam, Ben Thanh Market would be your best choice. Located in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, everything that’s eaten, used or worn can be found here, including vegetables, fruit, spices, meats, Ao Dai costumes, Vietnamese hats, crafts, even pets! If you can’t find the things you want here, you can’t find them in Ho Chi Minh City at all! But the prices here are always marked higher than elsewhere; remember bargaining before you pay, even if it is marked as ‘fixed price’, as it is part of their culture.
In the day time, Ben Thanh is a huge market; at night, it becomes a big food court! Over 20 street-side eateries open at around 6pm every night. All food orders here are freshly made and the chefs are cooking in front of you, allowing you to enjoy great food and a wonderful cooking show at the same time.
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Ben Thanh Market
Address: Lê Lợi, Bến Thành, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Opening hours: Market opens at 6am-6pm; Night market opens at 6pm-midnight
Great Food Adventure
Vietnamese cuisine has a reputation as the healthiest cuisine in the world. It follows the Yin Yang principles and the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) balance, retaining the freshness of food with simple and natural seasonings and cooking methods. Finally it’s presented in a pleasant way which was influenced by France during its colonial period. If you cannot take the fresh food back to your home town, taking the ability to cook a freshness cuisine and sharing it with your friends would be one of the best travel souvenirs you could think of.
Cooking courses are getting very popular as a travel activity, especially in Vietnam, so cooking schools are everywhere. Search the web before your trip to find a cooking school with a good reputation! Some of the classes even arrange a tour to the local market with the chef, a process which teaches you how to pick the freshest ingredients. Three- or four-course menus can be learned in around three hours under the instruction of an experienced chef. The students then get to enjoy the delicious meals prepared by themselves together—a good alternative to a Michelin degustation!
Useful information: Visa on Arrival!
A Vietnam visa is required for most foreigners to enter and exit Vietnam1. Travelers are advised to arrange their visa prior to departure by first applying online for an Approval Letter, filling in all required information and making an online secured payment by credit card (US$17/person). You will then receive the letter by email after two working days. You then print the PDF attachment file, prepare two passport photos (4cm x 6cm) and the visa fee (US$45 for single-entry visas) and get your visa stamped into your passport at the airport upon arrival at one of the three international airports (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang). For more information, you can visit vietnamvisa.govt.vn.
Visitors with passports from these countries do not require a visa for stays up to the days specified:
15 days – Denmark, Finland, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, Russia
21 days – Philippines
30 days – Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand
All other nationalities will require a visa in advance to visit Vietnam.