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(An international cultural trip, February 16-19, 2015)

To enjoy the culture of other nation is not a way of devaluing your own, but rather, a way of appreciating and recognizing the value of others’.

Ho Chi Minh City is the largest and most densely-populated city of Vietnam (Britannica). The city was named after the leader of the Northern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, as a symbol of the defeat of the city to the northern troops, but before then, the city was called Saigon (World Travel Guide). Despite having the seat of the government in Hanoi, the economic center of the country is in Ho Chi Minh City .

Presently, a number of people view the city only as a center of the Vietnamese war because of numerous movies shown around the globe. However, given the fact that the city is  a melting pot of different cultures because of various foreign occupations in the city, we should know that the city can really offer a lot to its visitors.

In just around 4 days, we were able to visit the following places and do these various activities which you can also try:

  • Join the Celebration of Tet Festival

This festival, if not the biggest, is one of the major festivals celebrated in the country. Tet is the Vietnamese New Year based on the Lunar Calendar, approximately around late January or early February in the Western Calendar (Ho Chi Minh City Highlights).  It is a time where people spend time with their family and a time to honor their ancestors and at the same time, visit their relatives and different Buddhist temples. My friends and I specifically traveled to Vietnam to witness how this festival is celebrated. During Tet, different parks are decorated with  thousands of different colorful kinds of flowers.

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a whole lane of colorful flowers
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people celebrating the festival in the streets
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a funny slapstick comedy in the park

 

  • Revisit the past in War Remnant Museum

This museum, as its name implies, exhibits numerous memorabilia of the Vietnam war including news articles, personal items owned by the civilians affected  by the war, tanks and fighter planes of different sizes, among others. By visiting the museum, you will have a peek of the war which affected the lives of not just Vietnamese people, but a lot of other nationalities as well.

The facade of the museum
The facade of the museum
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fighter planes used during the war

 

  • Take a tour in the Reunification Palace

This palace used to be the center of the government of Vietnam having the presidential family living within its four corners. During the war, this place also played a major role in both defense and offense of the country. The upper floors of the palace houses very wide and elegant rooms while its underground is where the communication and tactics rooms are located. The exterior design of the palace is French style while the interior design is a combination of Asian and Western.  The original materials used in building the palace were imported from France.

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a fountain in front of the palace
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the grand dining area of the palace

 

  • Check the City’s Post Office

The design of the post office also exhibits  French style of architecture. Although, it’s a very old building, it is still a functional post office that serves both the locals and the foreigners. Inside the building, a number of currency exchange kiosks are available.

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the facade of the post office
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the interior design of the post office

 

  • Experience the market life in Ben Thanh market

Ben Thanh market is where most locals and tourists buy different kinds of stuff, from foods, linens, and as well as different souvenir items. As a tourist, it is really amusing to see hundreds (or even thousands) of helmets being sold in a market, which really shows how big is the patronage of the Vietnamese people to this kind of transportation. In the middle of the market, there is a small plaza with a shrine where people can pray, give their offerings and light some incense.

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a park located at the center of the market
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locals buying a variety of dried fruits and sweets for the Tet festival

 

  • Explore the Cu Chi tunnels

This tunnel system found in Cu Chi is considered the longest tunnel in the world. The construction of the tunnel started around 1948 to 1965 according to our tour guide. Different types of traps and guerrilla warfare mechanisms can be found within the vicinity of the area such as the so called “duck trap” wherein they put all kinds of foul smelling things such as fish sauce and durian so that the foreign soldiers will stay away from it. Aside from these traps, the visitors can try going inside underground bunkers and as well as passing along the tunnel system or even try using a real gun.

From district 1, you will have to travel around 2 hours to be able to reach the camp.

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touring around Cu Chi
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a man who tried the small hidden bunker

 

  • Taste different Vietnamese foods

According to some people who have tasted and experienced Vietnamese foods, this type of cuisine is actually the healthiest among all the types of cuisine that they have tried, and frankly speaking, I could not agree less. In most of their meals, they always add a bowl of vegetables. During our entire stay in the country, we also tried their local beers and wine. The local beers, as compared with Philippine beers are quite lighter in taste, but their local wine called “Ruou” (wine made of rice) is very strong.

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Ben Thanh market jam-packed with people
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A Vietnamese noodle soup with a lot of vegetables

 

  • Have a peek of the magnificent architecture of the Notre Dame Basilica

This church in the heart of the city was established by the French conquerors from 1863 to 1880, built with a neo-Romanesque architectural design (Vietnam-Beauty). Because of its design, it attracts not only Catholic believers but also tourists, both local and international.

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a view of the church

 

  • Visit different temples and pagodas

 Since the country is home to thousands of Buddhists, it is really understandable why there are many temples and pagodas that can be found in the country. In Ho Chi Minh City alone, we were able to see and even enter  at least three of them.

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trying the hanging incense in Tinghao temple
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colorful decorations of Vin Ngiem
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the entrance hall of Lang Le Van Duyet

 

  • Get amazed with the different hand-made items in the handicraft place

This handicraft place is a government-managed entrepreneur which employs handicapped people especially those who were affected by the chemical dioxin during Vietnam War. This place is open since 1976. They sell different kinds of art such as egg shell paintings, wood curving and many more.

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painting the egg canvas

 

  • Take a tour in the city using motorcycles

One noticeable thing about the transportation in Vietnam is there dependence on motorcycles. For new visitors in the country, passing through the road is really the hardest thing to do here. But being just a spectator and the actual driver or passenger are very different. Touring around the city using a motorcycle is a very great experience since you will be able to have a closer look and feel of the Vietnamese culture. If you want to try it, you can find a lot of motorbike rental shops within the city.

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road with numerous motorcycle riders
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a tourist experiencing a road trip in the city

 

  • Walk around local community areas

If you really want to know more about an area, touring around its local community is still one of the best idea since it is not beautifully designed for tourists, but culturally molded. Here, you will be able to see how people really live and do their everyday chores. During our last day in Vietnam, our local friend toured us around their neighborhood and invited us to their house.

a local community within the city
a local community within the city
a view of the city from the other side of the Saigon River
a view of the city from the other side of the Saigon River

During our short vacation trip to the city, we were able to really enjoy the vast culture of the city. Since we needed to go home and go back to work again, we bid goodbye to the wonderful and historical city of Saigon.

When we left, we took nothing but pictures, we left nothing but memories.

For more photos, pls visit the Life Gallery.

Trivia from the locals:

  • Rather than cow’s milk, the locals prefer coconut milk as an ingredient in most of their desserts.
  • In Vietnamese culture, there are four important animal figures, namely dragon, unicorn, phoenix and turtle. Dragon represents power; unicorn for luck, peace and happiness; phoenix for beauty; and turtle for long life.
  • During Tet Festival, Vietnamese prepare 5 colored fruits.
  • Although it is illegal, Vietnamese people still love cock fighting very much.

Some additional notes:

  • If you are considering to visit during Tet Festival, you should know that there are a lot of stores which are closed during the event since this is the time where families get together to pray for their ancestors.
  • It is always best to have a local friend to tour you around the city because it is really hard to move around on your own because of the language barrier.
  • Most of the street food vendors prepare the food with just their bare hands.
  • Be careful when crossing the streets, motorcycle drivers drive really fast.
  • Most hotels in the city offers tours around the city and as well as in Mekong River Delta.

 

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