During one of my free days in Ho Chi Minh City, I decided to attempt a self guided tour. I left my room and went downstairs to speak with one of the staff members at Saigon Backpackers. The lady at the front desk gave me a general idea of the city, and mentioned a few things that were worth visiting. She also gave me a free city map so that I would be able to find my way back.
Walking around in Ho Chi Minh City was no easy feat. Motorbikes zipped up and down the streets with no semblance of order whatsoever. They didn't pause at all for the worried pedestrians who needed to cross the street. The only way to get across, was to pray and place one foot infront of the other until you arrived and the other side! Clearly, road safety was not a major concern in this country.
The first attraction which I went looking for was the Notre Dame Cathedral of Ho Chi Minh City. It was built by the French between 1863 and 1880 and most offical city tours included a stop there. After navigating my way through crazy drivers and busy intersections with no stop lights, I arrived at the basilica.
I walked around the entire cathedral, admiring the features of the old building. The aspect of the cathedral which I loved the most, was the pair of bell towers which flanked the building on either side. They were massive, topped by gothic looking spires and stood tall at 190 feet.
In the front yard of the Notre Dame Cathedral was a beautiful front garden. The lawn was perfectly manicured and the abundance of flowers added a splash of colour to the premises. Right in the middle of the garden was a tall statue of the Virgin Mary, and large numbers of tourists gathered around to take photos. These crowds apparently made the front garden a hot spot for vendors, as there were several fruit hawkers and even a balloon vendor walking around in search of prospective customers.
After a while, I continued along my way in search of the Ho Chi Minh City Hall. I spotted it from quite a distance off, as it was quite a massive building with a national flag waving from the highest point on the roof. Along the roof of the city hall were stone statues of gargoyles, whose sightless glares gave the building a somewhat hostile appearance. I didn't attempt to get too close, but I took a few photographs from across the street. Near to the front of the city hall was a giant statue of Ho Chi Minh himself, as a gentle reminder of the national hero.
While walking around in the city, I found the locals to be very lively. There were people exercising in the many parks, children were playing soccer in open spaces, and I enjoyed watching a father teaching his daughter how to ride her bicycle. I was a bit tired after walking for two hours, so I decided to grab a cup of coffee at a cafe called Highlands Coffee This seemed to be the 'Starbucks' of Vietnam, as I saw many branches throughout the city. The coffee was pretty decent, but nothing to write home about.
After spending the next half an hour just watching life go by, I noticed that it was approaching sunset. This city was hard enough to navigate during the day, so I really didn't want to run the risk of getting lost after nightfall. After several wrong turns, I found my way back to Saigon Backpackers, feeling more than a little victorious. Walking around on your own in Ho Chi Minh City is not for the faint hearted, however if you thrive on a bit of adrenaline, a self guided tour is a great way to spend an afternoon!