Going to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam? In this installment of our Vietnam Travel Guide Series, we bring you on a half day private city tour of Saigon.

Ho Chi Minh City Things to Do

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon is the most populous city in Vietnam.  Rich with history and culture, Saigon, as the city is still informally known, is developing quickly into a metropolitan city.

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Private Chartered Half-Day Tour of Saigon

Transport and traffic in Saigon is not at its best most of the time.  If you meet with inclement weather, it will make a seemingly short distance feel like an arduous journey. Which is why we opted for a hustle-free experience with KKday to maximise our sight-seeing of the city within a minimum time.

This private half-day city tour comes with a vehicle and driver, and your choice of either an English-speaking or Mandarin-speaking local guide who will introduce us to the history and facts of the places of interest that we will be visiting.

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# 1 : Independence Palace

Pick-up was from directly from the hotel that we were staying at – Novotel Saigon Centre. Our first stop was the Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace.


All entry tickets for this private tour are covered so we need not fork out any extras.

The Independence Palace is historically significant in Vietnam.  It used to be the residence and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War until it ended in 1975.  This  4-storey palace is the site of many symbolic events, and today, we shall explore it in detail with the help of our local Mandarin-speaking guide.

It was interesting to know that the architecture of the Independence Palace was designed with strong influence from Eastern philosophy.

Layout of Independent Palace (Reunification Palace)

The Palace’s overall structural plan is the rendering of an ancient ideogram 吉 (Ji), meaning ‘Good Luck and Fortune’.  Its front elevations opening 口 (Kou) symbolises truthful speech, the placement of the flagstaff 中 (zhong) symbolises fidelity.

The three horizontal strokes illustrated by the roofing, facade and canopy 三 (san) reflects the mystical triad of humanity, wisdom and firmness of purpose.  These three strokes unified by a single vertical stroke with the flag above forms the character 主 (zhu), signifying the power of the Head of State.  The lines along the facade 興 (xing) represents prosperity.

At the entrance to the Independence Palace was a display of the actual tanks that the Vietnamese forces used during the Vietnam War.  According to our guide, the War Remnants Museum which was our next place of interest houses even more impressive tanks that the Americans had used during the same war.

Formal Meeting Rooms

Inside the Independence Palace was an impressive display of formal meeting rooms and event halls. In order of sequence – the State Banqueting Hall,  Cabinet Room and the Conference Hall.

The influence of the East on Vietnam was apparent not just in its architectural design, but also in the furnishings within the Independence Palace.

President’s Office

The President’s Office and his corresponding receiving rooms is a display of pure opulence and elegance.

Vice President’s Reception Salon

The Vice-President’s Reception Salon, and the Ambassadors Chamber.  The Ambassadors Chamber was where newly arrived ambassadors presented their credentials to the President and in the presence of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.   The last receiving ceremony was in 1975 where the President received the newly appointed Japanese ambassador.  Coincidentally, the lacquer painting on the wall of the Ambassadors Chamber are done in fine Japanese style.

Private Apartments

The Private Apartments of the Independence Palace are a lot simpler as compared to the formal meeting rooms, but we nevertheless felt privileged to have the opportunity to peak into the private living quarters of the First Family.

There is even a game room and a private theatre within the Palace, all for the purpose of providing entertainment without the need to leave the Palace.

The private theatre, powered by a old-fashioned screening machine at the screening room.

Helicopter Pad

The terrace of the Independence Palace is another monumental site.   This was where the President housed his private transport in the form of a helicopter.   The one that was displayed here is the same model that the President used back then.  In 1975, an underground member of the Communist Party of Vietnam who had infiltrated the airforce of the Southern Republic dropped two bombs on the Palace, damaging part of the terrace and the central staircase.   The two circles painted on the helipad indicates the place where the bombs had landed.

Yet another view from the terrace shows the progression of Saigon since its tumultuous days, marking the developmental potential of the country.

Underground Rooms

Where there was opulence above ground, below the earth’s surface exists yet another life of its own. A labyrinth of rooms and facilities beneath the Independence Palace forms the war situation rooms where constant monitoring of the war operations under the safety and security of the underground continues during the war.  Today, we were privileged to be able to see first-hand what these secret operations used to look like.

Looking down at this dark entrance, we wondered if the Cu Chi tunnels would be anything similar.

The monitoring of the number of troops back then in 1968.  According to our guide, the Vietnamese language has a lot of borrowings from Mandarin and its dialects.  For instance, Luc Quan which sounds phonetically similar to  露军 (Lu Jun) refers to land troops or the Army. Similarly, Hai Quan in Vietnamese refers to the Naval Forces 海军 (Hai Jun).

Radio and telecommunication equipments are used for national broadcasts, and to maintain contact with troop units in the field and with overseas allies.  Most of these equipment exist in duplicates or more as a back-up system.  These must have been the best technologies back then, but they now look ancient against the backdrop of our technological revolution.

The President’s bedroom next to his administrative office.

The kitchen that was responsible for major state and family events of the President.  It was said to be furnished with the most luxurious of modern equipment, of a standard comparable to that of a five-star hotel at that time.

There was even a shooting range within the Palace premises!

The bullet-proof Mercedes, one of the many vehicles that the President had for his personal use.

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# 2 : War Remnants Museum

Our second destination this morning was the War Remnants Museum.  It is one of the most popular museums in Vietnam, and is a must-go place if you are in Saigon.  The museum tells the story of the Vietnam war from the perspective of the Vietnamese and reactions to this museum can be quite mixed depending on which political side you are on.

Artillery and Armour Collection

At the courtyard of War Remnants Museum was a outdoor exhibition zone featuring a artillery and armour collection, and the aircraft and weapons that the American forces used during the Vietnam War – they definitely look better than what we saw at the Independence Palace earlier in the morning!

Sneaking a peek into the cockpit of one of these war crafts….

Vietnam War Prison System Exhibits

Next to the outdoor exhibition zone of military machinery is an exhibition of the prison system used during the Vietnam War.   Beware! Walking through the re-creation of the cruelties of the war can be quite troubling for the mind!

This contraption is a guillotine – a device brought in by the French and used for beheading people by dropping the blade.  This particular one was not even a replica, but an actual one used – the last man that it executed was back in 1960!  Note the drainage system at the bottom of the guillotine to drain the blood from the beheading, and the casket at the side to contain the body.

These ‘tiger cages’ were another act of brutality against prisoners.  These cages were weaved with barbed wires and made in such small sizes that the prisoners it contained could only crouch or stoop in it.  Placed outdoors, it seeked to expose its prisoners to the brutal sun with little comfort.   These ones on display are the actual cages recovered after the war.

One of the most disturbing and shocking images from the exhibition was this real-life depiction of a prisoner in his cell – be ready for a shock when you peep into his cell!  It looked so real, we almost thought there was a real prisoner in there!

A prisoner in another cell – this time, my mind was prepared for the shocking image.

Some details and pictures on the various types of torture imposed on prisoners – most of them too gory to read – most of these types of torture were similar to the ones used by the Japanese during WWII.

War Crimes and Aggression

On the second level of the War Remnants Museum was a exhibition of the war crimes and aggression carried out during the Vietnam War.

Many of these images continues to be disturbing.   Part of the exhibition also tells the story and consequences of Agent Orange, the name given for the chemical warfare used during the Vietnam war, and for which generations of people still continue to suffer from its health and genetic effects.

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# 3 : Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

Our third destination this morning was the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon.  The Notre-Dame Cathedral is a catholic church built in the late 1880s by the French colonists for the purpose of establishing a community and religious service for themselves.

Today, it is one of the few remaining strongholds of Catholicism in a largely-buddhist Vietnamese society, and is also one of the most iconic and prominent attractions of Saigon.  Not surprising, considering how imposing these 40-metre twin towers are!

The church is usually accessible to the public, but when we visited, it was unfortunately closed for renovation and restoration work – something which was carried out for the first time in its history of 100 over years!

The statue of the Virgin Mary standing in front of the church was said to have shed tears in 2005 – this claim attracted thousands of visitors to witness the miraculous event which the church later refuted.

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# 4 : Saigon Central Post Office

Opposite to the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is yet another architecturally attractive colonial building, – the Central Post Office of Saigon.

Similar to the Notre-Dame, the Post Office was built by the French at around the same period, and continues to be functional today.

Best Paper Crafts in Ho Chi Minh

Outside the Post Office is where you can find the best paper crafts in Saigon.

These hand-made crafts may be available in some souvenir shops in Saigon, but we find that the handicraft and designs are the best here!  They are extremely affordable too, so if you want to pick out a few, don’t miss the opportunity here.

Inside the Post Office is a state of chaos – locals and tourist come to this place for various purposes. With its intricately designed flooring and antiquated telephone boxes, this place momentarily transports us back to past, before the advent of emails and mobile phones.

The designs here are definitely French, until one observes the large portrait of Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as the locals still fondly calls him, at the end of hall.  And that’s what brings us back to modern-day Saigon.

At the Post Office, one of those things to do here is to buy and send a post card home and see who reaches home first!

Our local guide advised that the Post Office was the best place to pick up souvenirs to bring home.

Best place to buy Souvenirs from Ho Chi Minh

This was one of the few places in Saigon that displays its goods with a price tag, and you need not haggle or subject yourself to a possible rip-off just because you are a tourist.  That’s one of the good things about engaging a private guide – we later found his advice to be entirely true after walking through the shops in other parts of Saigon, and wishing that we had bought more at the Post Office.

Besides the main souvenir store at the centre of the Post Office, two other souvenir stores at its flanks are also well-stocked with local arts and crafts.

If you can’t make up your mind what to buy, the lacquer products will also be a good choice to start with.

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This Saigon Half-Day Private City Tour was made possible through our partnership with KKday. Check out Saigon Half-Day Private City Tour for more details.

Follow us next as we experience the beautiful Mekong Delta with KKday.

First published 19 Sep 2017
Last updated 5 Jan 2019

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