ATTRACTIONS - Around Ben Thanh Market

Ben Thanh MapAt the end of Le Loi, a few blocks west of Nguyen Hue, the Ben Thanh Market is the heart of central Saigon – buzzing trade (and some hassle) inside and out. From here, you can visit the Fine Arts Museum just south, then head on to the riverside, or north to the Reunification Palace and sights in the northern half of district one.

Markets are markets, but you need to see a few – and this is one of Vietnam’s most famous. Called Halles Centrales by the French after its completion in 1914, the gold Ben Thanh Market is a little faded, but inside remains a whirlwind of free trade – fruit brought in daily from the Mekong, cheesy t-shirts, noodle stands, flowers etc. A good time is to come after 5pm when the streets just west and east fill with open-air seafood and noodle stands, good for a meal in the busy action.
Corner of Lei Loi, Tran Hung Dao, Ham Nghi & Le Thanh Ton Sts

This large three-floor art museum, a couple blocks south of Ben Thanh Market, is worth it for the look in the super 100-year-old yellow-and-white building home to a diverse collection of Vietnamese art from ‘pro-communism’ abstract paintings from as recent as 1997 and Cham and Oc-Eo statues from the seventh century, as well as a Buddha carved from a tree trunk (supposedly from the 2nd century). The ground floor contemporary exhibit changes monthly. It’s best popping around the long weathered halls that pop into exhibit rooms with ornate details and look out stained-glass windows over the inner courtyard.
Tel 829-4441, 97A Pho Duc Chinh, Q1, admission 10,000d (US$0.65), open 9am-5pm Tue-Sun

Ping PongWe all play it, but few stop to learn it. At a sport center, a few blocks northwest of Ben Thanh Market, you can drop by and get lessons or just play. CO LUNG (tel 090-887-4389), is a patient and persistent teacher, who has experiencing working with kids; she won a bong ban (ping pong) championship in 1983, and I found an hour lesson with her to be great fun. (And quite an eye-opener of how bad I’ve played over the years.) A huge wall banner of Ho Chi Minh lifting weights looks over the (sometimes steamy) room of tables. Lung will bring the practice net around for you to practice forehand (‘elbow in your side!’) and backhand (elbow straight out, snap wrist like throwing a Frisbee). There was talk of completely rebuilding the old center in the near future. Call Lung by cellphone to arrange a lesson – she speaks some English. A lesson is 50,000D (US$3.20) per hour for beginners. Drop by just to play too – it’s 5000D (US$0.30) per hour and 5000D to borrow a paddle.
Tel 08-824-4394; 143-47 Nguyen Du St, between Truong Dinh & Cach Mang Thang Tam St; open 6am-8pm Mon-Sat

Not to be confused with the far superior Ho Chi Minh City Museum, this out-of-the-way ode to Uncle Ho — about 15 minutes south of the market by foot –– is worth it if you’re in to old photos and relics of Vietnam’s famous leader, who died in 1969. Plus the view back of central Saigon offers a unique vantage point. Most exhibits have subtitles in English, so you can photo-browse and zero in on what piques your fancy – like the 1917-1931 itinerary of Ho’s travels from Italy to Paris to Moscow to Vladivostok. The setting – in a much-renovated 1862 French building on the Saigon River – is as interesting, with then-and-now photos framed in the nice garden outside.
Tel 825-5740, 1 Nguyen Tat Thanh Q1, admission 10,000D (US$0.65), open 7am-11.30am, 1.30-5pm Tue-Sun

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