Look up Ho Chi Minh City’s District 3 and a handful of words and phrases jump out at you: “a mix of old and new”, “young”, and “trendy”. In a post-millennial world where everything old is new again, District 3 combines French colonial villas with a gritty neighborhood atmosphere to create a haven for the hip, attracting Vietnam’s youth to its independent shops and eclectic cafés. If this is the kind of scene you happen to be into, if you love contemporary arts and culture or learning about Vietnam’s turbulent history, and if you think District 1 is too commercialized (read: expensive) but you don’t want to stray too far from it, then this is the place for you. There are plenty of hotels in District 3 to use as your base of operations while exploring the city: use “khách sạn quận 3” for a more localized selection of accommodation options. In the meantime, read on for our list of must-see highlights that can be found in this quieter, cooler district:
- Tân Đinh Church
This Roman Catholic church was said to have been built between 1870 and 1876, yet another remnant of Vietnam’s past as a French colony. The architecture is therefore similarly French and reflective of the era—a mixture of Roman, Baroque, and Gothic, just like its more famous cousin, the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Tân Đinh Church’s claims to fame are as follows: it is the second-largest church in Ho Chi Minh City, and it’s dazzlingly, unapologetically bright pink. Specifically, it’s bright pink with white accents on the outside as well as inside, a frothy confection of a building reminiscent of Barbie’s dream house or a wedding cake. Mass is still conducted here regularly, twice a day on Mondays through Saturdays, and 4 times a day on Sundays. Entrance is free, but as this is a religious site, guests are reminded to dress appropriately, even if it’s just to take photos.
- War Remnants Museum
For a deeply sobering look at Vietnam’s tempestuous history, check out the War Remnants Museum, first established in 1975 and consistently one of the most visited museums in the city. The attraction draws over half a million visitors each year, with foreigners comprising about two-thirds of the guests. A walled yard outside the main building houses large pieces of military hardware and equipment left behind after the Vietnam War, such as a UH-1 chopper and an F-51 fighter jet still emblazoned with the words “U.S. AIR FORCE”. Eight permanent themed exhibitions tell the stories of the Indochina and Vietnam Wars, unflinchingly depicting the horrors suffered by the Vietnamese people during those times. This museum is not for the faint of heart as the exhibitions can be extremely graphic and distressing. It is open from 7:30 AM to 6:00 PM daily; the price of admission is 40,000 VND, or a little less than US$2.
- Salon Saigon
Founded by a private collector named John Tue Nguyen in what was once the residence of US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge and his family in the 1960s, Salon Saigon is a museum dedicated to contemporary Vietnamese art, as well as a dedicated space for cultural events. The permanent collection is housed on the villa’s second floor and includes artworks from both celebrated and emerging Vietnamese artists, curated by museum director Sandrine Llouquet. The first floor is a lounge and library with a comfortable seating area for guests that easily converts into an events space for speaking engagements or cultural performances. Open from Tuesdays to Saturdays between 9 AM to 12 PM and 1 PM to 6 PM, Salon Saigon charges an entrance fee of 80,000 VND or roughly US$3, excluding events. The venue can also be booked for private functions and parties. For an idea of what exhibitions are currently on display as well as upcoming happenings, visit the official Salon Saigon website.
- Turtle Lake
There are no actual turtles in Turtle Lake, sadly – and it’s not even a real lake, but a circular artificial pond in the center of a roundabout between Districts 1 and 3. Sources claim that this odd fixture was built on the advice of a feng shui expert consulted by a former president during the planning of the city before Vietnam’s reunification. An architect named Nguyen Ky is credited with its modernist design, where interconnected walkways converge into a large viewing platform hanging above the water. Urban legend states that beneath the pond is a secret chamber that contains two tons of solid gold that went missing during an unspecified time from the country’s coffers, but whether that is true or not really remains to be seen. Treasure or not, it’s a popular meeting place and hangout spot for the city’s youths, drawn there by cheap street food hawked around the pond’s perimeter. In response, the area has seen the emergence of several cafés to cater to the student clientele. Officially known as the Công trường Quốc tế Roundabout, check it out in Ward 6 of District 3.
The delights of District 3 aren’t limited to kitschy attractions and museums, but half the fun is discovering the area for yourself. Don’t be afraid to venture into its side streets and alleyways for a glimpse into how life is really lived in Ho Chi Minh city. Who knows, you might just stumble into something amazing!