If there is one thing the average Saigonese never wants to be called, it’s a tourist. Between the backpacker pants, the frantic street crossings and the endless photos of banh mi carts, travelers represent a stage of expat life that most outgrow within their first few months. Still, try as we may to avoid the title, being a foreigner in a city tends to force one into the same category.
But just as you do not have to commit the touristy fashion faux pas, so do you not have to settle for Saigon’s more mainstream sights. Expats new and seasoned alike can find new things to discover without having to travel the tourist trail. Here are the top 5 hidden gems to check out on your next walk around town:
Secret Cellar B
122/351 Ngo gia tu District 10
Save yourself the trek out to Cu Chi and head for District 10 instead, where a new set of tunnels has just opened to curious visitors. Built in 1952, the Viet Minh used this series of underground tunnels to inform southern forces of their northern counterpart’s activities during the struggle against French occupation. These tunnels are only available for viewing upon special request from the District 10 Office of Culture, Sports and Tourism, so be sure to organise your tour ahead of time.
Tan Xa Palace
180 Nguyen Dinh Chieu District 1
Any spot that holds the title of ‘the oldest’ deserves a visit and Tan Xa palace is no exception. Constructed over 200 years ago, this ancient wood-and-brick bungalow is HCMC’s oldest historic monument. After it was gifted to the French by Emperor Gia Long in 1790, Tan Xa moved around the city several times before reaching its current location in 1911, though its original construction has remained intact. As Saigon begins to be consumed more and more by skyscrapers, this spot is one of the few places left in Saigon where visitors can genuinely encounter Vietnam’s bygone years.
Cha Tam Church
25 Hoc Lac District 5
With its pretty, caramel walls, white trim and pointy spirals, it’s easy to mistake Cha Tam for a European cathedral. Of course, the inevitable, excessive heat will bring you straight back to Saigon, as well as the interesting history linked to this Catholic place of worship. Whilst strolling around the mint-and-white interior, keep your eyes peeled for the plaque identifying the place where President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother were seized — and later assassinated — in November 1963 after they fled the Presidential Palace to take refuge in the church. Their bloody deaths marked a new chapter for Saigon and the end of Ngo’s governance of the city.
Petrus Ky Mausoleum
Corner of Tran hung dao & tran binh trong District 5
Jean-Baptiste Petrus Truong Vinh Ky grew up in rural Vietnam and went on to become a powerhouse in French colonial Saigon. A devout Catholic and a man of great intellect, Petrus Ky used his writing skills and knack at languages — he was fluent in ten — to climb the proverbial social ladder and was a key player in bringing Romanised Vietnamese characters, or quoc ngu, to the masses. The beautiful mausoleum and memorial house in District 5 pays homage to his colossal contribution to Vietnamese literature and is cared for by his descendants.
Venerable Thich Quang Duc Memorial
Intersection of Nguyen Dinh Chieu & Cach Mang Thang Tam District 3
On the morning of 11 June 1963, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc became the first in a series of religious leaders to self-immolate in protest of the South Vietnamese government. On what is now a busy District 3 intersection, the monk’s last minutes were captured by photographer Malcolm Browne, whose iconic image was then broadcast around the world. Today, you can visit the intricate memorial dedicated to Thich Quang Duc on this very intersection. You’ll find a larger, more modern park in his honour on the northern side of the intersection, while the western edge still bears a small altar erected in remembrance of the monk.