Traveling on a budget meant that we skipped on some of the luxuries that we would normally indulge in on shorter trips. For the most part our sacrifices were in the entertainment category – aka historical sights with exorbitant admission prices were out, as were most of the ‘adventure’ activities, such as ziplines or hot air balloon rides. Looking back, I would say we made excellent choices to pass on most of that stuff, with one exception. I have always been intrigued by city / food walk tours operated by locals. Not the kind where someone with a flag takes you to see the Great Wall, but the kind where you get to walk around an old historic Hutong neighborhood and learn about its history, foods, and culture from someone with knowledge and passion about the place.
Ho Chi Minh City Committee / City Hall built in 1902-08 by the French colonial government as a Hotel de Ville. In front is a statue of Ho Chi Minh teaching a child. Saigon, Vietnam.
Most city tours by locals were actually quite pricey when we did look into them, so we chose to do exploring on our own by and large. However, we did luck out in Vietnam, where several cities offer free (!!!) city tours by locals. We went on a tour with Saigon’s HotPot and couldn’t have been more pleased with the experience. In fact, we had so much fun talking with our guide Nguyen that we ended up forgetting about our cameras for the most part.
Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica built between 1863 and 1880. Today the building is a popular backdrop for wedding photographs – we saw several couples getting their vanity shots on. Saigon, Vietnam.
We chose a half-day tour, taking us around Saigon’s downtown attractions – the Reunification Palace, the main Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, and a few other landmarks. Nguyen was full of fascinating historical information about the stops on our tour, but by far the best bit was getting to chat with her about student life in Vietnam, what her hopes and aspirations are, her family, just life. Fun fact for us was that her parents met in Soviet Union (now Russia) while both studying / working there back in the days of socialist friendship between the two states. Nguyen was also the one who recommended us our favorite restaurant in Saigon.
Reunification Palace, also known as Independence Palace, constructed between 1962-66 for South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem.
I will leave you with photos from the Reunification Palace, which I was totally in love with, and was unprepared to be amazed with. When you hear palace, do you think mid century modern, mixed in with Asian accents? From now on that will be my first association, and I will look back fondly on this architectural wonder in Ho Chi Minh City.
The palace is preserved in the same state as the day that North Vietnamese Army tank barraged through its gates. This is a must visit if you are in Saigon, Vietnam.
Thanks Nguyen for a great day! We can’t wait to be back and will for sure sign up for another tour – I am thinking Cho Lon tour.
View from the rooftop of Reunification Palace. Saigon, Vietnam.
PS: Saigon’s HotPot is a volunteer run organization. All tour guides are students, who give tours as a way to practice their English and learn about other cultures as well as to impart some of Vietnamese culture on visitors. HotPot also supports a local charity, so if you love your tour, or just want to give back in some way, you can contact them about making a donation.
*** If you want to do the tour with HotPot, try to book as far ahead as possible – they tend to fill up their available spots a few weeks ahead.