Ho Chi Minh City (known better as Saigon) is packed with attractions! Exclusive Offer: I made “23 Things To Do in Saigon” into an eBook in PDF format that you can download for FREE (the eBook is easier to read and even print). Where can I send it?. Saigon (also officially known as Ho Chi Minh City or locally in Vietnamese as Sài Gòn) is Vietnam’s most booming up and coming city, a places where the action never stops. In this post I’m going to go over 23 of what I think are the top things you can do and see when you’re in Saigon. Get ready to dodge motorbikes, navigate through market alleys, inhale some incense smoke at temples, and squat on the sidewalk while slurping down bowls of hot noodles. But first, let’s begin with a little bit of useful information…
Still often referred to by it's old name, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a clamorous, chaotic sensory feast. Motorbikes honk in a tidal wave across clogged intersections, locals crouch on street corners slurping steaming hot bowls of Pho (noodle soup); and the sultry air is thick with exhaust fumes and exotic spices.
Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's commercial hub and largest city, and it's a place where old abuts new with striking contrast.
Temples huddle amid skyscrapers and designer shops, locals cast bamboo fishing rods into the languorous Saigon River, and in places, the city feels almost European, with its elegant French colonial architecture and wide, tree-lined avenues. Adding to the fascinating cultural jolt are a clutch of intriguing tourist attractions, from the poignant War Remnants Museum and captivating water puppet shows to colorful markets and the time warp of the Reunification Palace.
Not far from the city, the famous Củ Chi tunnels are a must-see attraction, and the lush waterscapes and small villages of the Mekong Delta provide a fascinating glimpse of rural life. The War Remnants Museum is one of the most popular museums in , with harrowing exhibits related to the horrors of war in this battle-worn nation.
The museum primarily focuses on the Vietnam War, however some exhibits relate to the first Indochina War with French colonialists. It's a good idea to start on the top floor and work your way down, so you cap off your experience with the lighter exhibits on the ground floor.
Most of the displays are photographic images, and some of these are confronting - especially the graphic shots of child Agent Orange victims. Artifacts on display include a guillotine and the "tiger cages" used for Viet Cong prisoners.
Many argue that the museum's approach is biased, however the exhibits poignantly portray the brutality of war. The museum also includes a fascinating display on the work of war photographers, from both sides, who lost their lives during the conflicts. Period military vehicles and weapons are displayed in the museum's courtyard. After touring the countryside and the Củ Chi Tunnels, you'll find these exhibits even more moving, but note that some of the exhibits are not suitable for small children.
The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre is perfect for families with young children and anyone who enjoys light-hearted traditional entertainment. Water puppetry originated in rural villages in the Red River Delta and has been performed in Vietnam for more than 1,000 years. The captivating 50-minute show provides a window into the country's culture.
It's presented in Vietnamese, but the strength of the puppet characters, both people and animals, transcends the language barrier. Live music enhances the experience; the talented musicians play traditional instruments such as bamboo flutes and two-stringed violins. The theater is air-conditioned, and if you're sitting in the front row, be prepared for some gentle splashes. The atmospheric 19th-century Thiên Hậu Temple is one of the top sights in Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown (ChoLon) and one of the oldest Chinese temples in the city.
Dedicated to the Lady of the Sea, Thiên Hậu, this evocative temple is visited by local worshippers as well as tourists, and many of the materials used in its construction were brought from . Clouds of incense billow in the air, candles flicker on altars, and shafts of sunlight pierce through the partial roof as you enter the green wrought-iron gates and stroll across the small courtyard.
From here, you can see the altar, with statues of the goddess, and the intricate porcelain dioramas adorning the roof depicting scenes from 19th-century Chinese life. According to legend, the goddess left two turtles to guard the temple in her absence. On the 23rd day of the third lunar month, a parade takes place in the neighborhood featuring a figure of Thiên Hậu, who is believed to save seafarers stranded on the high seas.
Entry to the temple is free. While you're visiting China Town, it's also worth stopping by the hectic Binh Tay Market, which sells everything from fresh produce to Chinese trinkets. The area is also home to some beautiful examples of classical Chinese architecture. A fine example of Neo-Romanesque architecture, the red-brick Notre Dame Cathedral is a distinctive landmark in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.
Its twin square towers rise almost 60 meters above the city, capped by iron spires. Built from 1877 to around 1883, the cathedral was intended to be a place for the colonial missions to worship and a symbol of the power of the French colony. The exterior consists of red bricks from , and the clock between the two bell towers was built in in 1887. Notable features of the interior include 56 squares of stained glass by Lorin from Chartres, , the 12 pillars representing the 12 apostles, and one of Vietnam's oldest organs.
To see the interior, try visiting in the morning or attending a Sunday mass. Across the street, the French colonial-style post office, completed in 1891, was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the French architect of the .
Today, the post office is still in use and is a popular meeting place for locals. Also known as The Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, the elegant Saigon Opera House, at the start of the famous tree-lined Le Loi Avenue, is eye-candy for architecture buffs - especially fans of the French colonial style.
It was built as Opėra de Saigon in 1897 by Eugene Ferret, a French architect, to entertain French colonists, and its striking facade echoes the style of the Petit Palais, which was built in the same year in . After 1956, the building was used as the home of the Lower House assembly of South Vietnam and again became a theater in 1975, after the fall of Saigon. The only way to see the theater's interior is to purchase a ticket to a show.
Both the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera perform here, and tickets are available at the box office or local travel agents. In the area around the opera house are some of the city's new shopping malls and exclusive hotels. You can also combine a visit here with the nearby Notre Dame Cathedral and Reunification Palace. A visit to the Reunification Palace, once known as Independence Palace, is more about the historic events that took place here than any pomp and grandeur.
In fact, this 1960s-style building, with its large, airy rooms and dated furnishings, seems frozen in time since April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through the iron gates here, bringing an end to the Vietnam War.
For locals, the palace represents this historic event and and the reunification of the country. Set on 44 acres of lush lawns and gardens, the palace also offers a fascinating glimpse at the lifestyle of privileged heads of state in 1960s Saigon. It was built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, which was bombed by fighter jets in 1962 in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem.
The current building was completed in 1966 and became the home and workplace of the successive president when Vietnam was split between the north and the south. Notable features include the president's living quarters, the war command room with large maps and antiquated communications equipment, and the maze of basement tunnels.
You'll also see military vehicles outside, including the fighter jet that destroyed the Norodom Palace and tank 843, which rammed through the palace gate on that fateful day in April more than four decades ago. Guided tours in English are available. For sightseers, the hot and hectic Ben Thanh Market is almost an obligatory stop, even if only to witness the crammed stalls and market chaos. The stalls are piled high with everything from local delicacies, fish, flowers, and tropical fruits to shoes, clothes, colorful candy, and souvenirs.
The markets are also notorious for pickpockets, so make sure any valuables are secure and out of sight. After soaking up all the ambiance, head to Saigon Square, about a three-minute stroll away, for a slightly less frenetic shopping experience with the added bonus of air conditioning.
Here, you'll find fantastic deals on everything from clothing and backpacks to jewelry and shoes. Haggling is customary at both locations. Ben Thanh Market Within the grounds of the botanic gardens, the Museum of Vietnamese History unveils the country's cultural evolution from the Bronze Age to the early 20th century. The exhibits are organized chronologically and include artifacts from Vietnam's former ethnic groups, including the Dong Son, Funan, Khmer, and Cham civilizations.
Particularly interesting are the stone and bronze sculptures, Angkor Wat relics, and the well-preserved mummy. For an extra fee, you can attend a water puppet show in the museum's small theater, with performances held every hour (except during lunch). Almost as interesting as the museum exhibits is the building itself, which dates from 1929 and fuses French and Asian architectural styles. After viewing all the museum exhibits for an hour or so, you can enjoy a relaxing stroll around the botanic gardens.
Built in the early 20th century, the evocative Jade Emperor Pagoda (Chua Phuoc Hai) sits in an unassuming neighborhood a few blocks away from the Botanical Gardens.
The temple was built in honor of the Taoist god, the Jade Emperor or King of Heaven, Ngoc Hoang, and within its dimly lit interior you'll see many representations of both Buddhist and Taoist deities. As you step inside, incense shrouds the many local worshippers, and candles illuminate altars brimming with offerings.
Of special note are the intricately carved panels of woodwork and the many elaborate dragon and animal sculptures adorning the roof. At the temple's entrance, masses of turtles swim in a pond, some with inscriptions on their shells, and for this reason, the temple is often called the tortoise pagoda. Locals come here frequently to worship, so it's important to be respectful when you visit.
Near the Reunification Palace, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum occupies an impressive Neoclassical building, formerly known as Gia Long Palace, that was once home to the Cochinchina's governor. It's worth a stop for an overview of the city's history and a gawk at the grand architecture, which includes Oriental and European flourishes.
The museum traces the city's past with exhibits on the struggle for independence, nature and archaeology, trade, village handicrafts, currency, and the culture of Saigon. Interestingly, the building sits on a network of tunnels and bunkers, which served as escape routes for past dignitaries, though these are closed to the public. Although it's a little challenging to find if you're traveling without a guide, the first Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (FITO) occupies a beautiful old five-story building framed by bamboo.
It's worth a look for anyone who is interested in alternative medicine or wants to soak up some Vietnamese culture away from the main tourist trail.
The museum displays thousands of items relating to Vietnamese traditional medicine, from the Stone Age to the present day, including books, documents, herbs, and implements used in preparing the medicines. You can also try your hand at grinding up some of the ingredients.
The presentation begins with a short film on the history of Vietnam's traditional medicine, and herbal cures are available for purchase before you leave. We recommend these great-value hotels in Ho Chi Minh City close to shops, restaurants, and attractions: • : opulent luxury, haute Italian design, marble floors, spectacular city views, luxe spa, pillow menu.
• : mid-range serviced apartments, full kitchen, games room, lovely pool, sauna and steam room. • : affordable rates, great location, illuminated rooftop pool, contemporary design. • : budget-friendly boutique hotel, central location, comfortable rooms, free foot massage. About 60 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, the Củ Chi Tunnels are a must-see half-day trip and one of the top tours for visitors to the city. This vast 250-kilometer plus network of tunnels served as the base for the Viet Cong's military operations during the Vietnam War.
Soldiers used the excruciatingly cramped tunnels as hiding places, hospitals, communication bases, supply routes, and even living quarters. A visit usually includes the chance to crawl through part of the tunnel network, an experience which enhances your appreciation for the stamina and adaptability of the soldiers who lived here.
Even if you're not a fan of modern military history, the tunnels offer powerful insight into the conditions faced by troops during the conflict and the strategies that strengthened the VC's resistance against American forces. Two tour options for visiting the tunnels include a and a.
Cruising through the lush labyrinth of palm-fringed channels, rivers, and islands of the Mekong Delta is a popular day trip that seems a world away from hectic Ho Chi Minh City. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the way of life of the people who depend on this fragile waterway for their survival. Encompassing about 40,000 square kilometers, the delta produces more than half of the country's grain and 90 percent of its exports, and it's well-known for its floating markets, which usually take place during the early morning.
From Ho Chi Minh City, tours to the delta, usually involve a 70-kilometer drive to My Tho, a market town on the banks of the Mekong River; a cruise along the delta; and visits to local villages, farms, and factories. The offers these activities as well as the chance to sample traditional dishes and tropical fruit from the region.
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Top places to stay • • • • • • • • Top things to do • • • • • • When you think of Saigon, what do you see? Is it street scenes of cyclos, corner coffees and bia hoi stalls? Is it the image of the Americans being evacuated by helicopter from rooftops?
How about tanks breaching the gates of Independence Palace, or the “quiet American” strolling down Rue Catinat? Forget what you think you know about the city. Back in the day... Photo: Cindy Fan Today, Independence Palace is called and Rue Catinat is now Dong Khoi, where a turn of the century is nestled between luxury hotels and flash department stores.
With a booming economy, a growing middle class and a young, educated work force, Saigonese are getting their Americanos from hip cafes in time-warped apartment blocks, dining on artisanal pizza and sipping craft beer. Visitors may be drawn by Ho Chi Minh City’s past—the Saigon of yore fictionalised in literature and Hollywood movies—but the booming metropolis has cast aside the yoke of the war they lost to the North.
Residents have both feet (and their motorbike wheels) moving towards the future, fast. History How things have changed from the sleepy days pre-16th century, when the Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor was established on a vast swampland. Saigon’s origins date back to the early 17th century when Ming dynasty refugees began arriving and settling.
It quickly flourished with shipping and trade of agricultural products, and additional waves of immigration fuelled industries such as ceramics, boatmaking and blacksmithing. Over the centuries, Prey Nokor developed into the Saigon the French found when they conquered in the second half of the 19th century.
It ushered a new industrial era under three regions: Tonkin (northern Vietnam), Annam (central) and Cochinchina (south). A French touch at the Opera House. Photo: Cindy Fan Within a very short time the French began to leave their mark on Saigon through extravagant development with grand boulevards and even grander buildings like Norodom Palace (later replaced by Independence Palace and eventually renamed the Reunification Palace, the , the Opera House, several churches (most notably ) and buildings that now house the , .
Saigon became the so-called Paris of the Orient, the capital, political and administrative centre of Cochinchina while Cholon, the Chinese settlement to the west, was the economic and import/export powerhouse. For 100 years, the French ruled and extracted what they could from the region, much of it passing through Saigon’s ports. This glowing description masks the harsh reality of colonial rule.
One need only see the brutal prisons and “tiger cages” on and to see what happened to those who resisted imperial powers. The fight for independence began in the 1930s. The First Indochina War, which was primarily against the French but also involved Japan and China, ended with French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. History, everywhere. Photo: Vinh Dao The conclusion of one war triggered a line of falling dominoes.
The , ironically aimed at restoring peace in Indochina, led to the region’s official division at the 17th parallel between the north governed by the Viet Minh and the south governed by the State of Vietnam, soon reestablished as the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), with Saigon as its capital.
Those dominoes tumbled into the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War. The partition in 1954 caused mass migration from the north into Saigon, and American influence meant the city experienced another bump in urban development, giving rise to modernist buildings like the and many apartment blocks, which to this day are one of the city’s distinguishing features.
As the conflict deepened, Saigon swelled with troops and refugees. Some of the most iconic images of the war came from the streets of Saigon during this tumultuous time, appearing in newspapers, magazines and television sets around the world: to protest the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem, a nonchalant general the moment before , Americans scaling a ladder to reach a helicopter at 22 Gia Long Street, and a tank breaching the gates of Independence Palace on 30 April 1975, signalling the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam, the end of the Vietnam War.
War booty. Photo: Cindy Fan After the defeat (or victory, as Vietnamese history books would put it) the city became a paltry shadow of its former grandeur. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. The Communist victory meant widespread repression and anyone remotely associated with the other side was sent to re-education camps for years of labour, torture and starvation.
The economy buckled under a heavy hand as entrepreneurial spirit was almost all but stamped out, the Chinese trading class particularly hard hit. Refugees continued to flee the country in the immediate aftermath of the war up until the early 1980s. Two million “boat people” risked their lives to make it to other Southeast Asian countries, with the diaspora eventually resettling in countries like the US, Canada, Australia and France. Through a policy of industrial privatisation known as doi moi, from the late 1980s to the early 1990s the country’s economic leash was loosened and Ho Chi Minh City has never looked back.
Today it is the largest city in Vietnam and it is the country’s economic success story, with people pouring in from all over the region for education, work and opportunity.
For lack of a better term (and bitingly ironic), Ho Chi Minh City is the country’s “American dream”. Today Locals often still call the city Saigon, but the landscape has certainly changed with the times. Towering developments now pierce the skyline, squeezed between crumbling apartment blocks, markets, parks and tree-lined boulevards rudely interrupted by blue metal fencing of an underground metro construction—better get used to seeing that because as of 2017, the project was lumbering on into its sixth year; current projections have completion of Line 1 set for 2020.
Forward-looking. Photo: Stuart McDonald Ho Chi Minh City’s French colonial and heritage architecture are at risk, as are its street vendors due to a “sidewalk reclamation” campaign to declutter the footpaths. In 2017, Ba Son shipyard, Saigon’s oldest and most important maritime sight, was unceremoniously demolished to make way for the monolithic Vincom towers.
From one day to the next, a century-old building is suddenly a pile of bricks, rows of giant trees are reduced to mulch, something with steel and glass sprouting in its place. The pace of change is alarming and you’ll get whiplash doing double takes. It’s the modern day version of the fall of Saigon. Clearly the developers are not sentimental but the city is at risk of losing the architectural and cultural soul that draws tourists. It’s hard enough as it is for Ho Chi Minh City to compete against the likes of or with their UNESCO World Heritage delights, or the beaches of or .
Many time-crunched travellers breeze through Ho Chi Minh City, at most an unavoidable layover in which case they only see Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker hub and Khao San Road of Vietnam. My Tho traffic not as bad as in Saigon. Photo: Cindy Fan It’s true that the city is thin on actual tourist sights. The few they do have, like the and the , suffer from cheap, run-of-the-mill tours and touristy trappings.
The sights of District 1 (the historic heart and downtown core) can be done in a day. But the main attraction of Ho Chi Minh City is the city itself, an unapologetic clash of old and new. The growing educated middle class can afford iPhones and lattes, but left in the shadow of development are the underclass, who eke out a living as street cleaners, dishwashers, rubbish collectors, cyclo drivers and vendors who will spend the night sleeping on the cases of beer they sell.
It’s these snippets and juxtapositions of the increasingly wealthy on the one hand, and the hard knock daily life on the other that make the city so fascinating (and not to mention, unfair). The more time a traveller spends whizzing through its streets, climbing up neolithic apartment blocks, noshing on street food and exploring the hems—millions of narrow alleys that spider off into a maze of hole-in-the-wall homes—the more you’ll see the real Ho Chi Minh City.
How much time have you got?! What decent hostel doesn’t have a piano (of sorts)? Photo: Cindy Fan The city’s excellent and is reason enough to linger. Here you’ll find some of the best cuisine in Vietnam, from a street vendor selling papaya salad in the same location since the 1980s to haute cuisine moi, modern Vietnamese cuisine. Don’t forget the quirky cafes, speakeasy cocktail bars, alleys lined with Japanese izakaya, craft beer gastropubs and dining in the dark.
A street food tour on the can cover five courses during one evening while a cooking class will load you up with new skills and take-home recipes. When it comes to exploring the country, Ho Chi Minh City opens up an entire world of possibilities.
If all roads lead to Rome, then all domestic flights lead to Tan Son Nhat Airport. We preach about the joys of slowing down to see the world by bus or train, yet we’re all for time-crunched travellers taking that quick flight to , or for if it means more travellers getting “out there”. Prices with domestic carriers Vietnam Airlines, VietJet and Jetstar remain reasonable. A flight remains the best way to reach , one of our favourite destinations in all of Vietnam. Visit before the planned fast ferry starts bringing the masses to the island.
Slow down and smell the incense. Photo: Cindy Fan Temples choked with incense smoke, photogenic wholesale markets heaped with strange goods and historic churches reward those who head to Cholon, Vietnam’s largest Chinatown. The War Remnants Museum reflects on the horrors of the past, Reunification Palace is a snapshot of the 1960s, while , shopping malls and cosmopolitan walking streets look to the future.
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BEST STREET FOOD IN SAIGON (HO CHI MINH)