Educational Trip To Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

Our family went to Ho Chi Minh (HCM) last November. It was an impromptu trip. Exam was over, it was the boy's birthday month and most importantly, JetStar threw in some irresistible offers.

Though some friends did advise that HCM is not a safe place for kids, I think AJ is old enough to discern. Some friends also commented that there is nothing much to see in HCM, but I beg to differ. HCM is steep in tradition and is rich in history, just the Vietnam War itself is enough to teach us many history lessons. So off we went and I set in my heart to make this an educational trip for AJ.

Day 1

We took a morning flight, so by the time we reached HCM, it was about lunch. After a quick lunch, we went for a half day city tour before heading to our hotel for check-in (hotel stay in another post here). 

You could almost tour the city itself in half a day, longer if you want to include shopping. We visited The Central Post Office, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, The Reunification Palace which formerly was Independence Palace of the South Vietnamese President, War Museum and the Bitexco Financial Tower (Sky Deck)

Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Central Post Office
These 2 places of interest are just next to each other, so it makes sense to visit them together. The concept of the Central Post Office (CPO) is pretty much the same as our own General Post Office (now The Fullerton Hotel). But for the younger generations who do not have any idea how a traditional Post Office functions, this will be a good place to walk through with them.  The CPO is still a functional post office.

The Notre Dame Cathedral is a place of worship despite it open for visitors to visit. In all due respect, visitors would have to keep their volume down when entering. These 2 places are best examples of classical French colonial architecture. Do expect to spend about half an hour touring these 2 places.

Notre Dame Cathedral (left) and Saigon Central Post Office (right)

Saigon Central Post Office 

Nice architectural design in CPO 

 The traditional telephone booth

It is still a functional CPO 

 Notre Dame Cathedral

Good experience for AJ who has never stepped into a Catholic church before 

 Street hawker selling donuts. No, we didn't dare eat.

And the boy bought this, which is now sitting at home as a small white elephant.

Reunification Palace / Independence Palace
This was the site of the Vietnam War’s final moments during the fall of Saigon (HCM) in 1975. In the Palace, you will get to see the different rooms the emperor used for different functions. There are escape routes and wartime operation rooms in the basement which I think is the most interesting part of the Palace tour. We have not gone through any warfare, so it is almost impossible to fathom what it is like, thus having a guided tour helped us understand the details better and made the Vietnam War history more vivid. Expect to spend about 2 hours there.

 Theatre in the Palace

Behind the scene of the theatre 

Central kitchen. Pretty modern, I would say. 

Secret Basement - The President's war room.  In wartime, the President lived and worked in the basement

His bed 

His car in the basement that could help him to escape fast. He also had a motor bike. 

War Remnants Museum
This museum is almost as old as me. It specialises in research, collecting, preserving and exhibiting the remnant proofs of Vietnam War crimes and their consequences. It is not a place suitable for the very young (before primary school) as I reckon that the majority of the young children may feel bore. Also, many of the photos exhibited are quite disturbing and parental guidance is strongly encouraged. 

It is recommended to read up more about Vietnam War with your children before visiting this place if you are bringing them. Expect to spend about 1 to 2 hours there. 

The history recorded for us the cruelty of Agent Orange

The wartime generation and their next generations suffered the most

Sky Deck at Bitexco Financial Tower
If you are keen to have a bird's eye view of how the HCM city has transformed, you could consider going to the Sky Deck (49th storey) of the Bitexco Financial Tower. The tower is 262 metres tall, and is the tallest building in Saigon city. But it might soon be overtaken by a high rise building next to it. This building under construction is being abandon due to lack of funds. Until someone with stronger financial muscle to pick this project up, Bitexco Financial Tower remains as the Goliath in this city. Expect to spend half an hour to an hour, depending on the crowd. It is advisable to go at 5ish in the evening so that you could catch a glimpse of the daylight, sunset and night view.  The sun sets early in HCM.

Saw the abandon uncompleted tall building? 

Sunset view from Sky Deck

That wrapped up Day 1 in HCM.

Day 2

After a good night rest in our lovely Scandinavian-design hotel, we headed to Cu Chi Tunnel in the morning, and a boat tour in the late afternoon followed by some night shopping at Ben Thanh Market.

Cu Chi Tunnels
We started our morning with Cu Chi Tunnels which were never discovered by American Force. These tunnels stretch over 200 km and were important Viet Cong base during the American War.  This underground network was dug by hand and have several floors, alleys, and branches like spider web. There are places for dining, living, meeting and fighting. This tunnel system embodies the strong will, intelligence and pride of Cu Chi people. It is a symbol of revolutionary heroism of the Vietnamese people. The Cu Chi Tunnels are historic revolutionary relics recognized by the State as national relics. To better understand the Vietnam War and the spirit of survival, one has to visit Cu Chi Tunnel.

AJ in the hiding place. The original one in the wartime was very small.
This one is built for tourists. 

Trap with spikes underneath. Watch the next 2 videos!

The kitchen 

We walked into the Cu Chi Tunnel. We selected the shortest route.
Again, the original ones were narrower, one couldn't possibly walk, could only crawl.
But for tourists to have a taste of it, they have built bigger ones for us. 

The soldiers on the right; the Viet Cong on the left.
Viet Cong were farmers by the day and soldiers by the night.

How rubber shoes were made out of discarded tyres. They had ingenious way to deceive enemies!
The sole of the shoes made footprints that appeared to be travelling backwards!

 AJ working hard for a free meal

Tapioca dipped in crushed peanuts with sugar

The car ride to Cu Chi Tunnel takes about 45 to 60mins from the city. It is almost a three-quarter day trip so do prepare snacks to feed any hungry souls in case you are caught in the jam resulting in very late lunch (or very early dinner).

Saigon River Boat Tour
I love this part of the itinerary because the guide on the boat is very passionate about his job. He shared with us the economic development of HCM, the wealth distribution in each district of HCM, the budding districts that have attracted foreign investment, the creative ways Vietnamese file their income tax, etc.. 

Our boat. No other tourists were with us, we had it all to ourselves 

Boatman and our Guide 

My sister, her husband and AJ 

The glorious sunset

Ben Thanh Market
We find Ben Thanh Market and the shops in its vicinity very touristy. You can hardly bargain down the prices. But the seafood stall that we patronised served great food. I will cover the food in my hotel post.

That wrapped up Day 2 in HCM.

Day 3

My sister and her husband went to Mekong River but we did not join in because AJ cannot take the long journey.  We just lazed in our lovely hotel, went to the gym, sauna, head for a nap and then joined them in the evening for Water Puppet Show.

Water Puppet Show
1 of the must-do in Saigon is to watch the Water Puppet Show because you can't catch this kind of show back home.  The traditional Water Puppet existed since the XIth century and is always one of the cultural exchange activities with other countries.

The show is about an hour and has about 15-16 short stories. Each story tells the history and the cultural life of the Vietnamese. I'm quite sure the little ones will be intrigued. Tickets are purchased online or booked in advance. Take the front row seats if you don't mind getting wet, else a few rows behind would still give you a good view. Photo taking and video recording are allowed.

The artists (voice and instruments) at work on the right.

The artists (who have to go underwater) managing the puppets

There are some places we didn't visit and activities we didn't do but you should consider if you have more time in Saigon.

(1) Ride on a Cyclo and enjoy the City View (with the dust no less!)
We didn’t get a chance to ride this because we didn’t see one in the day. We only saw one in the night, and out of safety reason, we decided not to ride it at night. This is unique to Vietnam so you should try if you could find it in the day. Beware that it can be a dusty ride, because you will be inhaling all the exhaust from the motorbikes. Wear a mask if you need to.

(2) Visit Mekong River, which is about 2 hours drive from Saigon city. My sister and her husband went while we stayed back in the city because AJ cannot take such long car ride. He has motion sickness and with traffic condition in Saigon, such long ride will make him sickly.

Mekong River runs through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before coming to the South of Vietnam. I understand from my sister that in this tour, you will get to experience the busy river system, authentic Vietnamese food, floating market, etc.. You can have it as a day tour or a 2-day tour where you get to check in to a rustic homestay.

I have attached here a pictorial version on map the places we have visited in Saigon City. Even if you don't want to book a day tour to visit the places of interest in the city, you can travel safely via Uber. Of course, booking a tour will be a lot cheaper.

Here are the links where you could book your day tours:

(1) HCM Full Day Tour
This tour covers Chinatown,Thien Hau Temple, Cholon and Binh Tay Markets, War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Central Post Office and the Opera House. Traditional local Vietnamese Pho lunch is included. Weblink

(2) HCM Half Day Tour
This tour covers Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon River (Dong Khoi Street), Saigon Opera House, Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum. Weblink

(3) Cu Chi Tunnels by minibus
This will take about 6 hours so do pack in snacks! Weblink

(4) Cu Chi Tunnels by speedboat
This one makes you travel in style :P . Weblink

(5) Mekong River Cruise

(6) Sunset Boat Trip

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  1. What an informational post on HCMC. We visited 10 years, sans kids, and it seems that not much had changed. I found the President's war bunker pretty awesome and the rest of the War Memorial places to be very sad. It's definitely more suitable for older kids to visit.

  2. Great info! I agree with Michelle, the War Remnants Museum looks sad; Didn't intend to visit it now even very very sure. And for sure Cu Chi is a must go! Thanks again!

  3. Lovely summary of your itinerary and lots of useful information! I have not visited HCM before and this will be really helpful when we plan to go next time! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Ho Chi Minh is such a charming city! So many interesting places to visit and learn about history and Vietnamese culture.

  5. CuChi tunnels was definitely the scariest! I went with my hubby years ago and there were these large Americans in our group - they got stuck in one of the tunnels and everyone had to backtrack! Even by husband looked wretched pulling himself up of one of the holes. I think since then they've designated a few tunnels as 'tourist friendly' and others as 'local friendly'.

  6. This is certainly one of the places on my 'To Visit' list...especially when the kids are older and can handle that kind of rustic-ness. Thanks for sharing!

  7. We went to HCM few years back didn't realised that CNY in Sg Coincides with their new year too. Almost everything was closed but place was quite nice.

  8. Gorgeous pics! The city looks clean, beautiful and full of heritage. On my bucket list!

  9. Looks so much fun. Thanks for touring us around HMC through your beautiful photos. For some people it may not be a great city to explore but for those who can appreciate history and culture, HMC is wonderful. I also like how you made it an educational trip, perfect for kids to learn to appreciate travel and culture. I'm happy to send my kids to BIST but I also make sure they get to continue learning outside school. Thanks for this wonderful idea, I should start planning our own educational trip soon. :)


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