Updated on September 21st, 2023
From some of the world’s most delicious street food, to the impressive French architecture, the harrowing history and the madness of the roads, a visit to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam is an experience that will leave a lasting impression. After my recent return to Asian soil, here I share my list of unmissable things to do in Saigon.”
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
It has been a long time since I last set foot on Asian soil, so when my friend moved to Singapore, I was excited to return. And while there, wouldn’t it be a shame not to explore further? We chose Vietnam as our destination, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hoi An to be exact.
I’ll be honest, Saigon wasn’t high on my list after visiting once before with my husband. We had enjoyed it, but I had no urgent desire to return. My friend on the other hand had never visited and when she told me she had always been intrigued by the city it was more a matter of, why wouldn’t we go?
And I’m so pleased I did.
If you have ever been interested in the history of Vietnam, then you must visit Ho Chi Minh City. Here you get a real sense of its French colonial background at every turn through the style of the architecture. Add to this the intoxicating mix of beautiful French influenced bakeries, paired with the aromatic Asian flavours of Vietnam. The food is hard to resist.
And then of course there is the American-Vietnam War. For those of us not directly impacted, my education has come from the Hollywood films on the subject. Although these are harrowing, this is only one side of the story.”
From the essential War Remnants Museum to climbing into the Cu Chi Tunnels themselves, there is so much more to learn.
But this is just the start of what this city has to offer. So, here is my list of 12 unmissable things to do in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
For more of my adventures in this fascinating continent, check out my first-time visitors guide to Cambodia, how to see orangutans in Borneo and read some of my crazy travel stories from Indonesia HERE.
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Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon?
Saigon was the name of the city and the centre for the US military personnel and the South Vietnamese during the conflict. When they effectively lost the war and the North Vietnamese claimed the city in 1975, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). The two names are interchangeable, but most locals refer to it as Saigon, I think mainly because it is slightly less of a mouthful!
Where to stay in Saigon
I chose to stay at the Liberty Central Saigon Riverside Hotel and for me it was perfect. The hotel sits right on the river, is very central and has comfortable rooms. There is also a rooftop pool and a great happy hour on cocktails at the pool bar. Breakfast is a feast and if you sit at one of the window tables you get treated to some early morning bridal photo shoots, practically every day.
If that’s not to your taste, then scoring highly on TripAdvisor, check out the Vinpearl Landmark 81 or the Myst Dong Khoi as well. The Park Hyatt also comes recommended for its excellent cocktails with a view. Alternatively, use the map below to find the best location and price point for your trip.
Crossing the road
And before we dive into my top things to do in Saigon, just a note on crossing the road. If you’ve never been, you may wonder why I’m addressing this at all, let alone right at the start. If you have been, you know exactly why!
Basically, Ho Chi Minh City is home to around 8 million mopeds. And whenever you want to cross a main road, it can feel like all of them are heading at you at the same time!”
Not all roads have crossings either so before you go be prepared to feel terrified every time you do it! Here is my guide:
- When you want to cross and there seems to be no break in the traffic, raise your hand in an obvious way.
- When things quieten down a little on the road, step off the pavement watching the oncoming traffic all the time.
- Hold your hand out and keep looking at the oncoming traffic. Walk slowly.
- Don’t run. Don’t stop. Trust me and the mopeds WILL avoid you.
- Finally, when you reach the other side, breathe a huge sigh of relief…until the next time you need to do the same!
The first time you do this is terrifying but each time you do, it feels slightly less scary.
So, now we’ve got that out of the way, here is my list of the best things to do in Saigon.
12 Unmissable Things to Do in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam
If there is one activity not to miss on any trip to Saigon, it’s taking a street food tour. I cannot recommend this one with Street Food Man highly enough. Vietnamese food is a treat for the eyes and the palate but for those of us unfamiliar, some guidance on how to approach the dishes is essential to savour them at their best. In addition, the street food scene is where you can get some of the most authentic flavours to sample.
I went on a private tour as I was visiting with a friend. Not only did we get delicious food (nine courses in total), but we also got the opportunity to see the city at night, on the back of an iconic scooter. A mainstay for any trip to Ho Chi Minh City! Our guides were engaged and engaging, giving us an insight into the various districts of the city as well as regions within Vietnam and the food for which they are famous. I advise taking the tour early in your visit as it will give you the confidence to search out the food you enjoy most during your stay.
We also got to sample some beers and homemade banana sake as well as explore a flower market and some of the more residential areas of the city.
I also have to say, I felt totally confident as a passenger on the scooter too, even in the torrential rain we had during our evening. This is a must do activity in Saigon.”
Another unmissable thing to do in Saigon is to visit the War Remnants Museum. It is not an easy place to explore and can be harrowing at times but to understand the history of the country and its people it is a must-do activity. It costs 40,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong) to enter and is cash only. That’s a bit more than US$1.60 at today’s exchange rate. You can opt for an audio guide for an additional 80,000 VND but the museum is so well documented that I chose to read my way around.
I advise that after exploring the vehicles and weapons outside, you follow the order recommended and start at the top of the building. This helps to put everything in context. Expect to stay for at least a couple of hours to truly digest the atrocities described. The museum not only covers the war itself but also the aftermath as a fourth generation is now impacted by the effects of Agent Orange.
I found the exhibition confronting at times but also fairly balanced. So, brace yourself but do not miss it off your itinerary.”
If you love museums, then also check out the HCMC Museum for an in-depth understanding of the history of the city and the man after whom the city is named also has his own Ho Chi Minh Museum. Make sure you get the right one to cover your area of interest. But if art is more your thing, then don’t miss the Fine Arts Museum.
Cu Chi Tunnels
While we’re on the subject of the war, next on my list of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City is to take a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Here you can get a real flavour of the realities of the war for the local people. The tunnels lie approximately 50 kilometres outside the city and tours to the tunnels alone take half a day. If you suffer from claustrophobia or don’t fancy going down into the tunnels yourself, it is still worth a visit for a greater understanding. There were originally 240 kilometres of tunnels in the area, 40 kilometres remain to this day.
Although I heard that the tunnels themselves have been enlarged for tourists, our guide insisted several times that this was not the case.”
During the visit, we had the chance to go underground a couple of times. The first was to get a feel for how small the entrances were where the Viet Cong used to hide, waiting to attack. It was an opportunity to climb into one of the tiny holes and close the hatch so it could barely be seen from above. Although quick it is an experience I will never forget.
We could then choose how far we went along the dark tunnel warren. They now have exit points every 20 metres and if you choose to do the full length it is 100 metres. Be aware that for the final 20 metres, you are literally crawling on hands and knees. I made it to 20 metres, bent over fully and feeling the walls on my back and sides all the way. It was enough for me!
You can also choose to pay extra to shoot an AK-47 yourself. You will be charged per bullet (6,000 VND) so be aware that the costs can add up quickly. I chose not to, as did everyone on my tour. Hearing the rounds being fired added a frightening authenticity to the whole experience.
I learned a lot about the war and its impact on the local people. Our guide was passionate about his subject and the facts he shared were brutal. But again, it is a must-do for anyone visiting Saigon. There are many options of tours to choose from, take your pick from the most popular ones below:
So, we can now move on from the war to explore another amazing out-of-town excursion…
Another essential trip out of town is to plan a visit to the iconic Mekong Delta. The Mekong River is the 10th longest in the world. On a day trip, you can only really see the gateway to the area, about 2 hours drive from Saigon. On the day I spent in the Mekong, we took a boat on the mighty river before exploring one of the smaller tributaries on traditional rowing boats. This was followed by a bike tour around one of the islands, visiting several cottage industries along the way before we discovered an (unfortunately) unimpressive floating market.
The barges were large and far from “bustling” with local trade. The wares were displayed by a few examples tied to the mast of the boats. For a more thriving market, you will need to travel further into the delta to an area not reachable on a day trip from the city.”
We finished up the tour with a visit to one of the ancient houses with all its intricate wood carvings on display. Here we tucked into a delicious traditional lunch (although be warned we were charged an extra 200,000 VND for this. Check what is included before you book). Many companies offer the Mekong and Cu Chi Tunnels in one tour. I was glad I kept them separate but there are plenty of tour agents to choose from depending on how long you have and what type of experience you are hoping for.
Next, back into the city for some impressive architecture left behind by the French.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Unfortunately, when I visited the Catholic Notre Dame Cathedral it was undergoing a huge renovation project so its iconic 60-metre bell towers were hidden by scaffolding. In addition, the interior has been closed since the pandemic. The original building was constructed during colonial times, between 1863-1880, with every brick being imported from France. Apparently, its stained glass windows are equally as impressive on the inside.
Next door to Notre Dame Cathedral sits the old Central Post Office. Again, it was built by the French as its style suggests and is well worth a look inside for its grand concourse, high arched ceilings, historical maps, and impressive mosaic. And there are also plenty of places to buy souvenirs should you feel the need.
Peoples Committee Building
A stunning architectural building designed and constructed during the French colonial times (around 1900). The building was originally the Hotel de Ville or City Hall. Although not open to the public, it is an impressive central landmark day and night with a stunning facade.
The Rex Hotel takes its place in the history of Vietnam. The hotel was the site of the US military command press conferences during the war and the regular hangout of military officials and war correspondents alike. It is centrally located so if you fancy treating yourself to a stay, it is a great spot. Use the link HERE to check prices and availability.
However, even if you don’t fancy staying, it is worth popping up to the rooftop bar for a cocktail with a view.”
Another impressive colonial-style piece of architecture on this list of things to do in Saigon is the stunning Opera House. It was built in 1897. Admiring the building is one thing but you can also choose to watch a performance. For tickets use the link HERE.
In comparison to the French colonial buildings at the opposite end of the park (Notre Dame and the Central Post Office), the Reunification Palace sits as a prime example of modernist 1960’s architecture. This was once the seat of government and home to the president. However, after taking a central role in the history of Vietnam, it is now a museum open to visitors. Here you can explore the grand reception rooms, presidential living quarters and in the basement, the war room and a warren of tunnels.
Ben Thanh Market
For an authentic market experience, then head to Ben Thanh which is centrally located in Saigon. The market serves locals with food and vegetables but is also a great stop for tourists on the hunt for the perfect souvenirs. Be prepared to negotiate prices on anything you would like to purchase. As always in these situations, smile and be generous with your negotiations. Ultimately if it is more than you are prepared to pay, be ready to walk away.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
Unfortunately, I missed this iconic building as time ran out on my trip but it appears in all other lists of things to do in Saigon so it would be a shame to miss it from this one. The pagoda was built in 1909 to honour the Taoist god (Jade Emperor). It is said to be one of the best and most atmospheric temples in the city. It features stunning wood carvings and Buddhist and Taoist mythological statues created from reinforced papier mâché.
So, that’s it for my unmissable things to do in Saigon. I hope you enjoy your visit as much as I did but please, take care when crossing those roads! ?
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