Engrossing history, elegant period architecture, fabulous food and great shopping — Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam has it all. Neil Brook checks in with an inspiring list of things to see and do around the city...
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is one of the biggest highlights of any visit to Vietnam.
The country’s largest city and economic powerhouse is packed with cultural experience and fascinating history, much of it centred around the Vietnam War (known locally as the American War). However, Ho Chi Minh City’s eight million residents have their eyes firmly fixed on the future, as the city continues to modernise at an extraordinary rate.
Here are ten top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.
1. Admire the city’s period architecture
Check out the stunning French colonial architecture that survives across the city, of which the Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Central Post Office (located in each other’s shadows), and Saigon City Hall are the most famous examples. City Hall is not open to the public but its facade is particularly beautiful at night for a photo opportunity. The Post Office has been handling mail for over a hundred years and even if writing postcards is a dying art, it’s difficult to resist sending one from here. Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral is fronted by a large statue of the Virgin Mary, who locals claim shed a tear in 2005. Needless to say it’s a popular spot with visitors hoping to witness another miracle.
The must-see Independence Palace (or Reunification Palace) has a fascinating history. The construction of the original French Governor’s palace on this spot in the 1870s saw most materials imported from France. During the Vietnam War the palace served as the residence and workplace of the president of South Vietnam. Part of the palace was destroyed in 1962 by two rebel South Vietnamese pilots who tried to bomb their president rather than heading north towards the Viêt Công. As a consequence, the building was completely demolished and rebuilt. Another bombing attempt by a communist spy in April of 1975 caused only minor damage. The fall of Saigon later that month saw communist tanks crash through the front gates.
Today the building is an incredible time capsule, housing stunning meeting rooms and chambers where the light reflects through coloured glass shutters and casts long shadows across the parquet floors.
2. Experience the Cu Chi Tunnels
The Vietnam War left shocking scars on the population, foreign troops and landscape. The Cu Chi Tunnels, located north-west of Ho Chi Minh City, provide an insight into the minds and determination of the Viêt Công as they burrowed hundreds of kilometres of tunnels under the jungle — allowing them to literally pop up out of holes to ambush the enemy. They would then disappear back underground, leaving victims in their wake and little trace of their presence.
Sliding down into these holes with your hands above your head is terrifying. ‘Claustrophobic’ doesn’t go close to describing the feeling as you sink into the soil. There are a variety of ways to reach the tunnels (take a speed boat along the Saigon River to beat the traffic). A restored vintage jeep tour offers something a little different to the standard options by bus.
3. Pay your respects at the War Remnants Museum
The emotive War Remnants Museum focuses on the period from the French invasion in 1858 to the Vietnam War. Given its original name — ‘Exhibition House for the Crimes of America and its Puppet Government’ — you might expect its narrative to be somewhat one-sided. However, there is no missing the pointlessness and ferocity of the atrocities that are depicted here. If ever there was a reminder to future generations to strive for peace with compromise and compassion, this is it. The museum is open every day, including holidays and Tet (New Year).
4. Soak up the serenity of the Jade Emperor Pagoda
Like most pagodas in Vietnam, the Jade Emperor Pagoda is a working Buddhist shrine where people come to pay respect and pray. Make a donation as you enter (as you should do at all free-to-enter shrines and temples). The pagoda was constructed by the city’s Cantonese community in the early 20th century and is a wonderful example of a traditional Taoist temple. Ornate carvings and the smell of incense greet worshipers and visitors alike. The Hall of Ten Hells is enough to make anyone repent. It depicts the punishment for various sins in graphic but intriguing detail.
5. See an opera
Theatre is always a wonderful way to experience local culture. While personal taste guides us in our day-to-day entertainment choices, intrepid travellers will try most things at least once to enlighten themselves — and in this case it’s time to embrace opera! The Saigon Opera House — also known as the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City — is something unexpected in this hectic Asian city, and well worth visiting. Opened in 1900 as the Opėra de Saigon, the French colonial building was used as government office space from 1955 until 1975, when it reopened as a theatre. It was restored in the late 1990s and is now a certified national relic. It hosts local productions and visiting international acts.
6. Connect with traditional culture in the Mekong Delta
Escape the hustle and bustle of the city and experience a more traditional way of life in the Mekong Delta. Rivers and canals wind through the region, which is dotted with Khmer pagodas, tiny villages and floating markets made up of sampan boats (an experience unparalleled anywhere else in Vietnam). Glide past rice paddies and marvel at the abundant wildlife, or grab a bike and pedal your way through the countryside. Remember to slip, slop, slap. The Mekong makes an easy day trip from Ho Chi Minh City, but if you have the time, stay overnight and immerse yourself more deeply in the local culture. This will be one of the highlights of your trip.
7. Enjoy a craft brew…
An icy cold beer goes perfectly with Vietnamese food and the steamy weather, and while the big commercial Saigon and 333 brews work just fine, Vietnam is making a name for itself in the micro-brewing world. Grab a ‘beer flight’ and sample craft beers with Asian-inspired flavours at Pasteur Street Brewing, East West Brewing Co and Lac Brewing Co — where the ingredients defy the usual hops and yeast combinations to create true taste sensations. Even if you are not a beer lover, this may turn you into one!
8. …and cocktails with a view
Rooftop bars are a staple feature of most Asian cities, and Ho Chi Minh City has its fair share of the action. Order a Wild Saigon and Asian Martini at the multi-coloured and very hip Chill Skybar. Saigon Saigon at the Caravelle Hotel is the place to watch the sun set with a cocktail in hand, while Broma Not a Bar — which is a bar — is the perfect spot to enjoy craft beers and bespoke cocktails under the stars.
If the view is more of a priority than the cocktails, head for the observation deck at the Bitexco Financial Tower. It offers the best panorama in the city.
9. Shop ’til you drop
Sprawling Ben Thành Market is the largest in town and sells everything from pegs to propaganda. However, if you’re after something specific, Ho Chi Minh City makes shopping a breeze with streets that specialise in one particular thing. Head to Nguyen Street for clothing, or if you’re handy on the Singer, select fabrics along Hai Ba Trung off Tan Dinh. Team your new outfit up with shoes from the stores on Ly Chinh Thang. Paintings make beautiful souvenirs but steer clear of Bui Vien Street in District 1. Tran Phu in District 5 offers a more local flavour.
In terms of specific stores, L’Usine in District 1 is a super cool boutique with a coffee shop on the second floor. It stocks up-and-coming Vietnamese designers as well as trendy imports. Nguyen Cing Ti offers bespoke and off the rack creations that you won’t find anywhere else. Le Cong Kiev is a good option for antiques.
10. Show off your new pearly whites
Ho Chi Minh City is on the rise as a ‘dental tourism’ destination of choice for many, and why not, when you can get a new crown and a holiday for the price of one crown back home! Alternatively, pop in for a clean for around $20 AUD. Do your research, and request an English-speaking dentist (if needed) when you book.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of ten top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Cover image: Saigon Central Post Office. Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
As a travel blogger and photographer, Neil Brook travels the world looking to meet interesting people, taste great food, and find different angles from which to write about his adventures. He is privileged to have lived in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the United Kingdom. More a traveller than a tourist, Neil prefers to mix with the locals, learn their history and culture, and walk the backstreets to uncover hidden gems worthy of praise in words or quiet moments of private reflection.