Any meander through the pulsating streets of Saigon is enough to stir the numbest of senses. Adversely, this overload of the present also makes it easy to forget the city’s fascinating and, at times, tragic history. Historian Tim Doling’s book Exploring Ho Chi Minh City (2014) changes all that, with exhaustive insights into the attractions across the districts, even as far as Can Gio, 50 kilometres from downtown. Buy Doling’s work at bookshops throughout the city or visit historicvietnam.com. It lists plenty of routes, each taking about half a day. Remember: keep hydrated, take care crossing the roads and purchase the book for all the necessary maps and information.
Of the historic walks, Lorcan Lovett and Simon Stanley briefly stroll through their top five. Photos by Vinh Dao and Simon Stanley.
City Centre 2
This tour starts and finishes at the Majestic Hotel (1 Dong Khoi). Yes, novelist Graham Greene did enjoy the odd cocktail here, as did Thomas Fowler, the anti-hero in Greene’s famous novel The Quiet American, but no more Greene references.
Head down Ham Nghi street, which in pre-colonial times was a waterway known as the Cau Sau (Crocodile Bridge) Canal, with the riverside end the site of Saigon’s first railway station.
The street also had the first Ben Thanh Market, which was destroyed by a fire in 1869. The second market (still bustling today) was moved further down, near Bitexco Tower, and became a renowned spot to purchase stolen American goods during the war.
For any astute history buffs, the marble bust of young Buddhist protester Quach Thi Trang at the square named after her was recently moved to the park opposite the HCMC Museum.
Pass ‘23-9 Park’, named in memory of those patriots who died while resisting British forces helping the French to take Saigon on 23 September 1945.
On your way back to the Majestic you can grab a snack from one of the plenty of food stalls on Truong Dinh or feast at TnT BBQ.
Then stop off at Sri Mariamman Temple, admiring its beautiful tower, and Ben Thanh Market. You may have been here before, but have you climbed up the secret staircase at the main entrance to visit the hidden temple inside the clock tower?
Station to Station
Until 1983, the ‘23-9 Park’ on Pham Ngu Lao Street was the location of Saigon’s second railway station (see ‘City Centre 2’ for the first). This walk begins and ends at the current Ga Saigon in District 3 and follows the path of the old line into the city. Highlights along the way include one of the surviving secret weapons cellars used during the Tet Offensive, and several stunning colonial-era villas. As your ghostly locomotive arrives at the former downtown terminus, the nearby backpacker area makes for an ideal halfway lunch stop to top-up the fuel tanks.
The return journey briefly follows another former train line – the first in Indochina and impossibly narrow – before cutting across to District 10 to take in another weapons cellar, the Quoc Tu Pagoda and the Museum of Traditional Medicine. Rest your feet in F-Time cafe, a trendy corner spot a few doors away from FITO, then make the short trek back to the station through the hems.
This tangled, thorough route through the heart of Chinatown starts and ends at Arc-en-Ciel Hotel in Tan Da.
Swampland once separated the area from Saigon, with the two connecting paths built into tracks for steam tramways by the French.
These tracks have disappeared underneath the asphalt, though assembly halls built before the tram, in the 1800s, still survive.
Visit them for their atmosphere, forged by hanging coils of burning incense, and follow the book to reveal the mythical fables behind their shrines and rich decoration.
Take the walk on an empty stomach to try a range of delicious street food unlike anywhere else in Saigon. Look up to see intact colonial dwellings, like the one in Phu Dinh which was used for the film The Lover (1992).
Inhale the potent smell of traditional medicines on Luong Nhu Hoc Street and hear the sound of smashing metal on Tran Tuong Cong as craftsmen plough their trade.
On the way back, visit 5 Chau Van Liem. Before leaving for France, the young Nguyen Tat Thanh – later known to the world as Ho Chi Minh – stayed here. It’s open to visitors, as is the striking Franciso Xavier Church which played an important role in Vietnam’s recent history. Visit the church after wandering through nearby Binh Tay market.
Around the Airport
This walk is ideal for those looking to kill a morning before an afternoon flight, although one of its most interesting attractions, an abandoned Boeing 707 airliner, was dismantled for scrap material last year.
Start at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, which, during the American War, was one of the busiest air bases in the world.
The US Military Assistance Command based at the junction of Truong Son and Hong Ha streets has now been replaced by CT Plaza; a great place to catch a film or go shopping.
Keep your eyes peeled for the patch of land that once hosted the abandoned plane further down Honh Ha street. The aircraft served as a cafe in the 1990s after Vietnam Airlines decommissioned it in 1985.
Looping back to the airport, take in Phuoc Kien Temple, an old Chinese funeral home, and Vo Tanh Mausoleum, located down Hem 19 on Ho Van Hue street.
Set amid well-kept gardens, this is the tomb of Von Tanh, a military commander who chose self-immolation rather than surrender while enduring a siege by Tay Son forces on a Cham citadel in 1801.
The rest of the walk takes in another tomb – that of venerated scholar Phan Chau Trinh (1872-1926) – and the Air Force Museum, Southern Branch, which displays aircraft outside that served in the American War, the war in Cambodia and the Chinese border war of 1979.
While Saigon isn’t as easy to navigate on foot as other cities, it’s a pursuit with countless rewards. This tour begins and ends at the Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, that large, ornate Buddhist temple you might have already seen – albeit briefly – through the window of a taxi during one of those bleary-eyed trips back from the airport. Offering ample parking and cool canal-side breezes, it’s an impressive opener.
Catch the Nguyen Van Troi martyr memorial opposite (make sure you read the full history), before ambling briefly into District 1 for lunch. Pho Binh, an otherwise easy-to-miss pho joint, has a secret. The room upstairs was the clandestine nerve centre for the planning of the Tet Offensive. Ask for the tour before leaving.
Several pagodas and mausoleums line the route into Phu Nhuan District as we head towards the Phu Nhuan Communal House, a reminder of the 19th-century village that once stood here amid the marshland. Heading back towards our starting point, take a moment to absorb the sights of Nguyen Van Troi Street while you can. Finally, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll tread carefully as you cross the Cong Ly Bridge.