With over 10 million people and seven million bikes, Ho Chi Minh – Vietnam’s largest city – formerly called Saigon – is one of the craziest places in the world. It’s always hot, noisy and chaotic. Despite all of these, it’s one of Asia’s most visited destinations mainly because of its chequered past and vibrant present. There is a lot to experience in Ho Chi Minh. So to get you started, here are the top 15 things to do to in Ho Chi Minh City.
One thing to keep in mind is if you’re planning to visit Hanoi, don’t skip Ho Chi Minh City as the two Vietnamese cities are quite different. Although there are a number of things to do in Hanoi that might sound similar to Ho Chi Minh’s attractions, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have distinctly different vibes. So, when visiting Vietnam, put these Ho Chi Minh City attractions on your list.
15 Things to do in Ho Chi Minh
1- Admire fine French Architecture
The French occupied Ho Chi Minh City for almost a century starting from 1861.
They urbanised the earlier Khmer settlement into a thriving metropolis that emerged as the capital of the French Protectorate of Cochinchina, later known as South Vietnam.
The French beautified the cityscape with wide boulevards and parks, pastel-hued buildings that housed offices and homes for the European occupiers.
Many of these buildings still exist today and are well-preserved reminders of the city’s heyday.
Don Khoi and Lam Son Square areas in District 1 is the best place to see French architecture.
An eye-catching building is the former Hotel de Ville or the City Hall building, which now houses the office of the powerful People’s Committee.
Others that draw attention are the Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office and the Opera House.
Many hotels that opened their doors during the French era – Caravelle, Rex and Majestic – still stand grandly as part of the city’s heritage.
They fill parts of Ho Chi Minh City with old world charm.
Another city in Vietnam with a strong French influence is Vung Tau.
2- Drink coffee and eat croissants in a French Cafe
In addition to bricks and mortar, the French legacy in Ho Chi Minh City can still can be felt in the city’s cafes and bakeries.
Ho Chi Minh City has plenty of places where locals love socialising over a cup of coffee and a pastry or a baguette.
3- Visit the War Remnants Museum
Vietnam’s history is influenced by many wars and the War Remnants Museum is the best place to learn about the atrocities of war.
The most significant war to Vietnam, and perhaps to the entire world, has been the war between North Vietnam and USA-supported South Vietnam which ended in 1975.
A visit to the War Remnants Museum is a sobering reminder of the horrors of the war which lasted for more than a decade and killed over three million people.
The courtyard is packed with US military hardware, such as tanks, bombers and other artillery.
Inside the museum are rooms displaying numerous photographs and documents that provide a graphic account of the brutal episode in Vietnam’s history.
Many of the images are disturbing, particularly the ones of the Ma Lai Massacre, which was a horrific atrocity committed against 500 unarmed civilians of Ma Lai village, all women, children and old men.
Other chilling items are a French guillotine, last used in 1960 to execute a prisoner, and models of the infamous tiger cage used to torture the captives.
4- Tour of the Reunification Hall
Walk through the compounds of the former French Governor’s residence, which later became the South Vietnam President’s Palace before it was renamed Reunification Hall.
It was here on 30 April 1975 the triumphant North Vietnamese forces crashed through its wrought iron gates to capture Saigon and reunite two parts of Vietnam.
The well-maintained building stands today as it was left in 1975.
Guided tours are available for visitors through its rooms, chambers, secret hideouts and wartime tunnels, most still fitted with original furniture and settings.
The grandeur of the building is worthy of a head of state, particularly when you see the presidential living quarters.
I appears that the former South Vietnamese president had time for entertainment as evident from the card room, bar and the home cinema in the third floor.
The huge dance floor and casino in the fourth floor is impressive.
The basement tour is a portal into another world, with an extensive network of tunnels, war rooms, communication centre, huge kitchen and even a bedroom for the president to catch some sleep during wartime.
5- Visit the Ho Chi Minh Museum
Any visit to Vietnam wouldn’t be complete without learning more about the father of the nation, the man who led the reunification is none other than legendary Ho Chi Minh.
In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh enjoys a similar status to Gandhi in India and Mandela in South Africa.
His colourful life is of great interest to many and one of the best places to find out more about him is the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
Two floors of a former French building displays photographs, document, artefacts and Ho Chi Minh’s personal items.
The impressive displays provide an in depth window into his life journey and the people who influenced him (like Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India).
6- Explore the Jade Emperor Pagoda
Most people think that as Vietnam is a communist nation, religion is not important.
On the contrary, many different religions were worshipped throughout Vietnam’s history.
Besides many Buddhist pagodas, Taoist shrines and a couple of Hindu temples, the city also has quite a few mosques and Catholic churches like the Norte Dame Cathedral.
Vietnamese people are fairly religious and tolerant to all faiths.
You probably won’t have time to visit all of them but one not to miss is the Jade Emperor Pagoda, which is certainly the city’s most captivating place of worship.
7- Discover the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple
The Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple has a richly decorated and colourful tower built to worship the Hiidu goddess Mariamman.
Admire the exquisite statues of Mariamman and other Hindu gods and goddesses throughout the temple.
The temple is regularly frequented by visitors.
8- Go shopping in Ho Chi Minh
Any Ho Chi Minh City visit is incomplete without some retail therapy.
Fortunately for shopaholics, Ho Chi Minh City shopping offers plenty of options from large shopping malls and trendy designer shops to explore.
Most of them, are located close to tourist hubs and sell almost everything that you would expect to see in Oxford Street London but at a much lower price.
Some of the top ones are Crescent Mall, Takashimaya Saigon Centre, Saigon Square, Vincom Centre, Diamond Plaza and Parkson Plaza.
9- Explore Ben Thanh Market
For a more local shopping experience visit a traditional market like the French-built Ben Thanh Market.
Its distinctive clock tower at the main entrance gate is one of the icons of Ho Chi Minh City.
Covering a spread of over 10000 square metres, nearly 2000 stalls sells almost everything from fish, meat, vegetables, fruits, flowers and groceries to clothes, shoes, luggage and handicraft.
Haggling with the stall owners is the fun part of shopping in these kind of markers.
Another market to check out is the Tan Dinh Market.
10- Eat Vietnamese street food
Vietnam is a paradise for foodies and the city brags of many fine dining restaurants like Vietnamese House, owned by celebrated Australian- Vietnamese chef Luke Ngyuen.
But locals say the tastiest food is often savoured at the street stalls while sitting on plastic chairs at knee-high tables.
These shacks dish up quick and simple dishes.
The most common dish is ‘pho’ which is a bowl of steaming noodle soup mixed with vegetables and beef or chicken.
It’s healthy and nourishing, gulped by the locals at breakfast, lunch or even dinner.
Other items available from street stalls are sticky rice with chicken (xoi ga), fish balls on a stick (ca vien) and pork rolls (banh mi), a French-Vietnamese snack where a crusty baguette is filled with pork, sour pickled daikon, carrot, crisp cilantro, spicy chillies and cucumber.
Tip: There are some good eating outlets inside the Ho Chi Minh City markets.
11- Cruise the Saigon River
Ho Chi Minh City sits on the banks of the Saigon River, which flows from Cambodia through South Vietnam before merging into the South China Sea close to the Mekong Delta.
In Ho Chi Minh City, this river meets the Dong Nai River and the Ben Cat River.
Along the riverbanks are city skyscrapers, old houses, semi-rural settlements and underground passages that were built during the war.
Offered by many tour operators, a boat trip on these waterways is an opportunity to soak up the diversity of lifestyles in this busy metropolis.
A great option is to go for an evening dinner cruise.
Besides presenting a lavish spread of Vietnamese and international dishes, a dinner cruise of Ho Chi Minh City also showcases how spectacularly this city dazzles at night.
Tip: A Vietnam river cruise is a fantastic way to discover rural areas, villages and meet locals.
12- See the view from Saigon Skydeck
See the cityscape from the sky.
There are many options to enjoy the spectacular city vista from high in the sky.
The most popular is from the Saigon Skydeck at the 49th floor of the 262m tall Bitexco Financial Tower, one of the nation’s iconic landmark building.
It’s open until 2130 hours, so it’s possible from here to see the stunning 360-degree panorama of the city under lights.
It’s a sight to behold.
13- Experience Ho Chi Minh City Nightlife
Ho Chi Minh City nightlife is vibrant and exciting.
Start by enjoying sky-high vistas from one of the city’s many rooftop bars. You’ll find these in luxury hotels such as Hotel Caravelle, Rex, Majestic and Sheraton.
It’s a delight to watch the sun setting over the city with a cold beer or a chilled Chardonnay in hand.
Afterwards, get in the groove of Ho Chi Minh City’s high-octane nightlife with amazing cocktails, tasty food and foot tapping music.
14- Cross a busy street
No, I’m not joking! It is an amazing experience to cross a busy thoroughfare in Ho Chi Minh City packed with cars, buses, trucks, motorbikes, scooters and bicycles.
There are traffic lights at some intersections for pedestrians to get from one side to the other but most locals don’t wait for the lights. They jump into the melee and confidently wade through the merging traffic fearlessly!
Many visitors love to get a feel of this hair raising experience.
Pick the right moment and make bold strides forward at a steady pace while raising your hand to confidently demand drivers to slow down and give way.
Believe me, it works but only in Vietnam!
15- Go on a scooter tour
A fun way to explore the city and get a feel for the size of the Ho Chi Minh City population is to join one of the Ho Chi Minh motorbike tours riding on the back of a Vespa.
A local motorcycle guide can take you to see popular Ho Chi Minh tourist spots as well as cafes, restaurants, bars and street food stalls.
Riding through a swirling swarm of motorbikes in the city is an exhilarating experience that will have you at the edge of your seat! Fortunately, helmets are compulsory in Vietnam.
Take a look at these motorbike tours in Ho Chi Minh City.
How to get to Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam Airlines is the country’s national airline, which flies from capital cities around the world to Ho Chi Minh City.
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City has 24 districts. But most visitors will choose to stay in District 1, as it’s centrally located to most of the main attractions in Ho Chi Minh, restaurants and bars.
There are plenty of choices of hotels in Ho Chi Minh’s downtown, including historic hotels, five-star international hotels and luxurious local hotels.
Here are some options:
Ho Chi Minh City Tours
Most of the sites mentioned above can be managed by walking, alternatively taxis are easily available.
Local Tour Operator Vietravel offers excellent professional services. The good thing about Vietnam is that costs are low and most tours are reasonably priced.