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 more than eight 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 today, but equally it’s a great place to unwind and indulge.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.
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-see’s and 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 back 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 disturbing photographs inside. Warning – it’s unsanitised and not for the faint of heart.
Thanks to its colonial history, 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 – 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.
The French also blessed Saigon with delicious baguettes and impressive pastries, but that’s just the beginning of your culinary voyage of discovery in this city. There’s no doubt Ho Chi Minh City is a foodie’s paradise. Whether you’re after tasty street food or sumptuous fine cuisine, you can find it here.
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.
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. It gets seriously busy with locals so ask your hotel to make a reservation for you. There’s no sign for the BBQ on the street, just make your way to the top floor.
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!
Social enterprise restaurants and cafes in Vietnam’s biggest cities play a vital role in equipping underprivileged youths with much-needed training and valuable life skills. They are well worth supporting and the food is generally excellent. Vietnamese/Australian social enterprise Koto, and the Sozo Centre are two of the best known options.
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.
One of the most delicious things to do in Ho Chi Minh City is to climb aboard a Back of the Bike street food tour (check that your travel insurance covers this activity) for a guided look at where the locals love to eat. Put yourself in the hands of those in the know and try everything!
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 city’s most upscale mall, Vincom Centre.
For a more localised experience, there’s Ho Chi Minh City’s biggest and most famous market, Ben Thanh. Here you can buy everything from sheets and towels to perfume and wigs, all at low, low prices. There’s also plenty of cheap eats.
For ultra relaxing things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, unwind with a rooftop beverage at Broma Not a Bar (don’t let the name fool you – it really is a bar – and an awesome one!) or a delightful riverside cocktail at The Deck in District 2. Even if you are not staying at the plush Caravelle Saigon hotel, their rooftop bar Saigon Saigon is a must at sunset. It’s been welcoming guests since 1959. Just march in and take the lift up from the lobby.
Ho Chi Minh City’s melting pot of cultures, religions and cuisines, and its mix of old and new, luxe and less, past and present, make this city a truly fabulous place to visit. You might just decide to stay – I did!
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Samantha Wasson is a freelance writer and former educator who lives in Sydney but whose heart remains in Vietnam, where she lived for three years. She has travelled extensively in Asia, Europe and the United States, with a brief sojourn in Africa. Highlights from Samantha’s international escapades include: studying German in Freiburg, volunteering with an elephant rehabilitation project outside Chiang Mai and travelling by motorbike through the Mekong Delta. Lowlights include: ‘climbing’ Mount Kinabalu, nearly dying on the Great Barrier Reef and being ripped off in Beijing. She has worked for MSN/Officeworks, Swinburne University, Deakin Business School, Aussie Home Loans, Seek, TAFE Queensland, ARI Registry Services, SocietyOne, Acquire, School Places, Ivanhoe Grammar, Australian Teacher Magazine, Lead Generation and 2SER. 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’.