Ho Chi Minh City — or Saigon as it was formerly and affectionately known — is electric, and we’re not talking about the endless neon signs and masses of tangled power lines strung between groaning power polls.
There’s an incredible energy to this city. You can feel it everywhere, as almost nine million people go about their daily business. The streets teem with food carts and fruit vendors, makeshift restaurants and pho houses, bars and open fronted stores selling everything from bananas to bathroom fittings.
With plenty of museums and cultural sites, a visit to Ho Chi Minh City will give you a broad understanding of the complexities of Vietnam — but equally it’s a great place to unwind and indulge in some serious R&R.
Enjoy this Ho Chi Minh City travel guide.
Ho Chi Minh City for history lovers
Vietnam’s history features some unbelievably tragic events, and while the Vietnamese people wisely choose to focus on the future, there are nonetheless plenty of memorials to commemorate the past.
It’s a part of travelling to Vietnam that many Australian visitors find particularly compelling.
The Reunification Palace and War Remnants Museum are must-sees. They will give you a contrasting sense of both the splendour of Saigon as the capital of then South Vietnam in the 1960s, and the horrors of the Vietnam War — which began in the mid 50s and raged until 1975.
The former was the home and workplace of the South Vietnamese President and you can check out the spacious, ornately decorated reception rooms, as well as the basement bunker war rooms and underground tunnels. At the latter, you will find tanks and planes outside and graphic photographs inside. Warning — it’s raw and not for the faint of heart.
Pretty much everyone who visits Ho Chi Minh City does the trek out to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Located 60 kilometres north-west of the city, Cu Chi played a key role during the Vietnam (American) War. The region is legendary for its 220-kilometre network of tunnels, which were used by the Viet Cong to evade US troops.
Top cultural experiences in Ho Chi Minh City
Thanks to its colonial past, Ho Chi Minh City is home to some fabulous French-influenced architecture.
Some of the best examples can be found in the Saigon Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City Hall and Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon — built in the late 1800s. The opulent French-colonial post office is a tourist attraction in itself, and you can send off your postcards at the same time. The revered Ho Chi Minh watches serenely over the countless transactions performed here every day.
In front of the cathedral and post office, Cong Xa Paris Square is a magnet for young locals. It’s a place to escape the watchful eyes of up to four generations living in a single apartment, catch up with friends and do what teenagers do.
Christianity is just one of the many religions represented around town. You can also visit the Taoist Jade Emperor Pagoda, the Buddhist Giac Lam Pagoda, the Mariamman Hindu Temple, and the Saigon Central Mosque.
To get a bird’s eye view of the entire city, head up to the Saigon Skydeck on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower. The high-speed elevators will get you to the observation deck in less than 35 seconds. Enjoy the spectacular 360-degree views.
For a taste of rural life in Vietnam’s south, book a day tour to the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City. This watery world is best traversed by boat, and is often referred to as the ‘rice bowl of Vietnam’ due to its huge agricultural output. There are endless tours on offer, although most have similar inclusions. You’ll enjoy a sampan tour through the Delta’s network of small channels, see serene pagodas, rice paddy fields and fruit tree orchards, and enjoy lunch at a family-run bistro.
Great places to eat in Ho Chi Minh City
The French also blessed Saigon with delicious baguettes and impressive pastries, but that’s just the beginning of your culinary journey of discovery in this city.
From cheap-and-cheerful street food to sumptuous fine cuisine, and everything in between, you’ll find it here in droves.
OK, yes, Brangelina dined at Cuc Gach Quan, but that’s not why you should check out this quirky, architecturally designed restaurant on the periphery of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1. Sure, the décor is impressive, but it’s the food that keeps people coming back again and again. You have to try the clay pot tofu and mushrooms and the crispy sea bass with passionfruit sauce. Drinking from sugar cane straws is kind of nice too.
Affectionately known as the ‘yellow restaurant’, dining institution Quan An Ngon brings traditional street food into a tourist-friendly setting. It’s a lot of fun to browse the food stalls, and if you’re anxious about trying cheap eats on the street — this is the next best thing!
Experience modern Vietnamese cuisine in the atmospheric surroundings of the wonderful Temple Club. The rooftop 3T Quan Nuong Vietnamese BBQ (above the Temple Club) is also a must-try. It gets seriously busy, so ask your hotel concierge to make a reservation for you. There’s no sign for the BBQ on the street, just make your way to the top floor.
Social enterprise restaurants and cafes in Vietnam’s biggest cities play a vital role in equipping underprivileged youths with much-needed job and life skills. They are well worth supporting and the food is generally excellent. Vietnamese/Australian-run Koto is one of the best known outfits. It’s located in District 1.
Even chain restaurants offer quality meals, so don’t feel bad about grabbing a pho at a ubiquitous Pho24. You’ll find the fare zesty and delicious.
A cooking class is a great way to get first-hand experience of preparing authentic Vietnamese food, and the best part is you get to eat what you make! Vietnamese-Australian chef Luke Nguyen offers a unique insight into Vietnamese history and culture through his cooking classes at Grain.
Where to shop in Ho Chi Minh City
As with many things in Saigon, the scale of retail experiences — from dirt cheap to ultra fancy — will blow your mind.
If labels like Gucci and Versace are your style (you chic thing, you), head to the Vincom Centre — the city’s most upscale mall.
For a more localised experience, Ben Thanh is Ho Chi Minh City’s biggest and most famous market. Here you can buy everything from sheets and towels to perfume and wigs.
Ways to relax in Ho Chi Minh City
While Saigon’s sightseeing and shopping will keep you plenty busy, put some time aside for a little pampering.
Now that you’re looking and feeling fine, head out for a cocktail at Broma Not a Bar (don’t let the name fool you — it really is a bar — and an awesome one!) or The Deck, which sits by the Saigon River.
And finally, even if you are not staying at the plush Caravelle Hotel, their rooftop bar Saigon Saigon must be visited at sunset at least once during your time in Ho Chi Minh City. It’s an institution dating back to 1959.
Do you have any tips to add to our Ho Chi Minh City travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Samantha Wasson is a Sydney-based freelance writer and former educator. She lived in Vietnam for three years and has travelled extensively in Asia, Europe and the United States, with a brief sojourn in Africa. Travel highlights to date have included studying German in Freiburg, volunteering at an elephant rehabilitation project outside Chiang Mai, and travelling by motorbike through the Mekong Delta. A lover of literature and travel, Samantha subscribes to Augustine of Hippo’s observation that ‘the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page’.