Ho Chi Minh is a city of contrasts; French colonial buildings are set against modern skyscrapers, key historical sites during the Vietnam War sit alongside large shopping centers and traditional markets. Add a dash of loud, chaotic traffic and you have modern day Saigon.
Read on to discover 20 things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon?
Ho Chi Minn City is also known by its former name: Saigon. In 1976 the name was changed after the reunification of the country to honor its leader, who had died before its completion.
Although the name was changed a few decades ago, many people continue to call the city Saigon – it’s shorter and simpler. Some hotels still carry Saigon in their names, Hotel Orchids Saigon, for example. Officially, only Ho Chi Minh City is valid, but on a day-to-day basis you can use any of the two names without a problem.
Ho Chi Minh is one of the most visited cities in all of Vietnam, thanks to its plethora of attractions and its proximity to other large cities.
1. The Vietnam War Museum
This is arguably the most famous war museum in Vietnam. At the entrance you’ll see some of the American tanks, planes and helicopters captured by the Vietcong (the army of North Vietnam).
Inside, you’ll find a large exhibition aimed at demonstrating the war crimes that the United States committed against the Vietnamese, such as the effects of Orange Gas. The entrance costs 15,000 Dongs (0.65 USD) and they open from 7:30 to 12 and from 1:30 to 5.
2. The Ben Thành Market
This market is located in the city center, near the tourist street of Pham Ngu Lao. It’s an indoor market, housed inside a spacious complex. There’s something for everyone there, from hand-crafted souvenirs and clothes to authentic Vietnamese food.
Items are usually not that expensive, but if you feel up to it, you can haggle the price down to get a better bargain. The market is one of Ho Chi Minh’s most famous landmarks, and should be up at the top of your to-do list.
3. Have a beer in Pham Ngu Lao or in front of the Saigon River
Pham Ngu Lao is known as the backpackers district, where tourists will find cheap and cheerful hotels, bars and restaurants. People who have visited Bangkok may deem it similar to the Khao San Road area, but Pham Ngu Lao has a livelier atmosphere.
Another option, perhaps the more interesting of the two, is to go to the Ton Duc Thang promenade in front of the Saigon River, where you’ll find traditional Vietnamese bars with a more authentic atmosphere.
4. Enjoy Vietnamese cuisine at the Qhna Hang Ngon restaurant
Vietnamese food is delicious, but there’s one problem: trying to choose which one to eat at from the hundreds of traditional restaurants Ho Chi Minh has to offer.
To narrow down your search, we highly recommend Qhna Hang Ngon. It has a large outdoor terrace that’s always packed to the brim – a sure sign of guaranteed good food. The dishes are 100%, authentic Vietnamese cuisine at a reasonable price – usually between 30,000 and 150,000 Dong.
5. Visit the Central Post Office
Although it sounds like an odd recommendation, the Central Post Office is one of the most visited places in Ho Chi Minh. The beautiful French-style architecture and high ceilings make for superb photo opportunities. You can even send a few postcards to family members while you’re there.
6. The Notre-Dame de Saigon Cathedral
The beautiful Notre Dame de Ho Chi Minh Cathedral was built by the French between 1863 and 1880. Reaching 58 meters high, it’s one of the most impressive Cathedrals in Vietnam.
The Cathedral attracted a lot of media attention in 2005, when a witness claimed to have seen the statue of the Virgin Mary (situated in the front courtyard) shed a single tear. Thousands from all around the world flocked to the site to see the tear-stained cheek first-hand.
The Cathedral is located right in front of the Post Office, so the area can get rather busy at times.
7. The Ho Chi Minh City Museum
This museum, near the Cathedral and the Post Office, is housed in Gia Long Palace, a beautiful colonial building. It’s a favorite location among young Vietnamese couples to take wedding photos on the ivory steps. This museum follows the history of the Vietnamese revolution and subsequent reunification.
The building itself carries some intrigue – during the administration of Ngo Dinh Diem from 1962-1963, the President had secret tunnels built underneath the residence, in the event that South Vietnam lost the war to the North. He used these passageways while feeling a military coup in 1963, and made it as far as Cholon, where he and his brother were captured and assassinated.
8. See the city from a height at Saigon Skydeck
Standing at 178 meters tall, you can see every corner of Ho Chi Minh City from the lofty Saigon Skydeck. The viewing point is located on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower and the entrance fee is 200,000 VND (€ 7.50). You’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of the bustling metropolis, and you may even notice some familiar buildings, such as Ben Thanh market or the Notre Dame Cathedral.
On the 58th-60th floors you’ll find the Heineken museum, where you can learn about the history and brewing process of the beer. Admission costs 250,000 VND (€ 9.50).
9. Saigon Square 1
Known as the “Shopping Paradise”, Saigon Square 1 is an essential stop to make if you’re in need of some retail therapy. Located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, this complex offers clothes, jewelry and other accessories at varying prices.
On one floor, you’ll find imitations of luxury brands, which you can bargain for a low price, and on another you’ll find genuine brands, which are of course more expensive cost.
If the chaos at Ben Thanh market is too overwhelming, make the trip to Saigon Square instead. There’s just as much variety in terms of clothes and accessories, and one major bonus: air conditioning.
10. Saigon Center
Saigon Center is a more upmarket shopping mall, offering high-end clothing brands in a modern setting. It’s central location provides a welcome respite from the incessant traffic on the streets outside. The ground floor is occupied by Takashimaya, a Japanese department store chain. On the other floors you’ll find more international brands and restaurants.
11. Visit the historic Independence Palace
This huge palace occupies about 12 hectares of land. It was built during the French occupation in the mid-19th century. During the war, it first served as home of President Diem, and after his assassination it became the center of command for General Nguyen Van Thieu, head of the military dictatorship . In 1975, the Vietnam War was brought to a dramatic end when military tanks came crashing through the gates of the palace.
A visit to the gardens and outdoor area will cost 30,000 VND. To see the interior of the palace and its exhibitions, it will cost 60,000 VND.
12. Photograph the majestic Saigon Opera house
Another essential stop to make in Ho Chi Minh City is the opera. It is another majestic construction from the French colonial era. The building was completed in 1897, but was since restored in 1995, and is used to stage opera, ballet, plays and traditional Vietnamese shows.
13. Visit the City Hall
Its official name following the end of the Vietnam War is actually the Ho Chi Minh People’s Committee. It is another example of exquisite French colonial architecture. Unfortunately only workers can enter the building, but its facade alone is enough to marvel at. Right in front of the town hall is the statue of Ho Chi Minh, the city’s namesake.
14. Stroll through Dong Khoi
Like every thriving city, Ho Chi Minh City also has its version of Fifth Avenue or Paseo de Gracia. Dong Khoi is a perfect example of the city’s contrasting composition, with modern skyscrapers towering over historic colonial buildings. In this area, you’ll find luxury stores, stylish restaurants and and five-star hotels.
During the period of French rule the street was called Rue Catinat. Later, during the Vietnam War, it became Tu Do (meaning Freedom Street), and when the communists took control of the city they changed its name once again. Dong Khoi means Total Revolution.
15. Discover the history behind the Cu Chi tunnels
On the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City there is a large system of tunnels that were fundamental to ending US invasion during the Vietnam War. The Cu Chi tunnels span more than 200 kilometers and were used as a base camp for operations carried out by the Viet Cong guerrilla army. There, they hid and stored weapons and food and healed the wounded.
Visitors can walk inside the tunnels for a stretch of about 40 meters, before the oxygen level drops too low. You’ll also learn about the methods the Vietnamese employed to defeat the US troops, using weapons made from materials sourced from the jungle.
16. Take a trip to the Mekong Delta
Another unique activity to do in Ho Chi Minh City is to visit the Mekong Delta. It is the eighth longest river in the world, reaching 4800 km: it begins its life in the Himalayas and runs through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is of particular importance to Vietnam, as it is a vital component in the country’s economy. Much of the rice and fish consumed here comes from the Mekong region.
It’s an impressive sight to watch the boatmen navigate the murky waters of the labyrinthine delta. There are dozens of floating markets and villages surrounded by rice paddies throughout its course.
17. Visit the Hindu temple of Ho Chi Minh City
This temple is an example of religious diversity in Vietnam. It is the only Hindu temple in the city and its vibrant facade sets it apart from other temples. Travelling merchants from India built this temple in the 19th century in honor of Mariamman, the goddess of rain. Its main tower stands 12 meters tall, decorated with colorful figures representing various Hindu deities. It is close to the Ben Thanh market, and easily accessible.
18. Learn about traditional medicine in Fito museums
For history lovers who are looking for something more unconventional, a visit to the Fito museums is a must. They are two privately owned museums dedicated to traditional Vietnamese medicine and pharmacy. The private collection boasts over 3,000 health-related artifacts from throughout the centuries, such as knives, stamps and tea pots.
19. Ngoc Hoang Pagoda
The Ngoc Hoang Pagoda is one of the most popular Buddhist temples in Ho Chi Minh City. It was founded by Chinese immigrants who arrived in Vietnam during the 1900’s. The temple is bursting with Taoist symbolism, from tributes of deities to gargoyle-like statues. It has a certain air of mystery to it (possibly due to the dim lighting inside). While it’s not the most spectacular pagoda in the world, it has its curious charm.
20. Enjoy the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts
This museum is a definite stop to make in Ho Chi Minh City to escape the heat for a while and and immerse yourself in Vietnamese art. There are hundreds of paintings by native artists, as well as sculptures and other handmade creations. Admission costs VND 20,000.
Accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City:
Most of the city’s accommodation is located in District 1, around the tourist area of Pham Ngu Lao.
Other tips when visiting the city:
– Keep the Vietnamese operating hours in mind. Most tourist attractions close after 1:30 and do not open until 3 or 4 in the afternoon.
– If you use taxis, you’ll notice that there are different companies. We recommend the Vinasun company.
– To get to your hotel or hostel from the airport, you can take a taxi for 150,000 Dong with the Vinasun.
– If you want to leave the city, you can take a bus from the station, which is located in front of the Ben Thanh market.
Last Updated on June 30, 2020