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19 things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, is a city of modern high-rise buildings, traditional Vietnamese tube houses and French Colonial architecture. You’ll find street-food, Pho stalls and high-end eateries, parks, markets and shopping malls. Here’re my tips on what to see in Saigon and how to get the best out of 48 hours in this frenetic city.  

Saigon street scene

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Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it’s officially known, is the largest city in Vietnam. Lying in southern Vietnam, southeast Asia, it’s a popular tourist destination with many visitors, who fly into the city’s airport and explore the city before moving on to explore other parts of the country like Hanoi, Hoi An or Hue.

Saigon is a city of contrasts that blend modern high-rise buildings with traditional Vietnamese tube houses and French Colonial architecture. Explore the city, and you’ll find open-air markets, pho and street food stalls alongside high-end eateries and shiny city centre shopping malls.

19 best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon

  1. Navigate the crazy Saigon traffic
  2. Go on a scooter tour
  3. Independence Palace
  4. War Remnants Museum
  5. Saigon Central Post Office
  6. Notre Dame Cathedral
  7. Ben Thanh Market
  8. Cu Chi Tunnels
  9. Jade Emporer Pagoda
  10. Bitexco Financial Tower
  11. Saigon Opera House
  12. Saigon Botanical Gardens
  13. River Cruise
  14. Golden Dragon Water Puppet Show
  15. Museum of Ho Chi Minh City
  16. Phạm Ngũ Lão Street
  17. Tao Dan Park
  18. Bui Vien Street
  19. Ho Chi Minh City Museum of History

Here are my tips on the unmissable things to do in Saigon, Vietnam based on my own experiences on visiting HCMC. But first, you need to know about the traffic…

Navigate the crazy Saigon Traffic

Scooters in Saigon. hundreds of motorcyles on the streets of HCMC
Saigon Scooters

Saigon’s buzz, clamour and noise hit us before we even left Tan Son Nhat International Airport. As our luggage was loaded into the boot of a taxi outside Arrivals, a small woman appeared from nowhere and planted herself on the cab’s back seat. She started beckoning her family to join her – and our luggage!

We eventually persuaded her into another cab, and our taxi entered the fray amid the overwhelming horn-honking of cars, scooters and buses. I had to cover my eyes at least twice on the journey to the hotel as we came within a hair’s breadth of a collision. Everyone seemed to make a bee-line for us before swerving out of the way at the last nano-second. 

The traffic in Saigon isn’t for the faint-hearted, and it certainly leaves a massive impression on your memory. Returning to Saigon four years after the first time I visited the city, I could see there had been some changes. Some for the better, some not so good. Either way the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is a main attraction!

Yes, there are traffic lights now and some pedestrian crossings, making it slightly easier to cross the road. You’ll still need to check both ways (even on a one-way street) and cross slowly, taking care to let scooters weave around you because they don’t all stop at the lights.

But here’s the thing. Scooters now mount the pavement to avoid waiting at the traffic lights and ride the sidewalk until they’ve passed the red light. I’d be walking along the pavement, hear a beeping behind me, and look around to find half a dozen scooters queued up behind me trying to dodge past.

Tip: Don’t stand on the dips in the kerb while waiting to cross at the lights. This is where scooters join and leave the pavement.

You’ll soon get used to the traffic, and it will turn into a source of entertainment and Saigon sightseeing. We’d find somewhere for lunch near a street corner with a view of a roundabout or a crossroads. Then we’d just sit and watch the goings-on in total amazement. If you can’t beat them, why not join them and take a tour of Vietnam by motorbike. It seems to be the perfect solution and it’s also great fun! 

Join a tour of the city on the back of a scooter to explore Ho Chi Minh’s 5 different districts. It’s one of the best ways to uncover the city’s must-see sights and local favourite spots in a few hours. Check rates and availability.

So, now that we’ve covered the Saigon traffic…

What are the top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam?

Check out Independence Palace 

Reunification Palace, HCMC
Reunification Palace, Saigon

Formerly known as the Reunification Palace, you’ll find the Independence Palace at 106 Nguyen Du Street. North Vietnamese tanks tore through the gates of the Palace on 30th April 1975, marking the Fall of Saigon. The Palace was abandoned shortly afterwards, and you can now see tanks, aircraft and other military vehicles from the war years in the palace grounds.

For an entrance fee of around $1, you can explore the palace interior. It’s a bit of a time capsule as much remains almost as it was when everyone legged it. The austere war rooms and maze of basements, control rooms and offices convey a real sense of the city’s history. They’re a total contrast to the Independence Palace’s private quarters, which smack of sixties kitsch.

Open daily, 8am to 3.30pm. Admission is VND65,000 or £2.11

Ben Thanh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Tip: Beware the coconut water sellers who ply their trade in the streets around the Palace. They’ll try to charge well over the odds if you’re not careful.

Learn more about Vietnam on this guided walking tour which includes Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. >>> Check rates and availability.

Discover the War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum is consistently one of the most popular things to do in Saigon, Vietnam. Originally named The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the museum’s collection places a heavy emphasis on American involvement in the Vietnam War and a call for peace.

The museum can be harrowing at times, but shouldn’t be missed. It’s a graphic depiction of the horrors of war, including the effects of Napalm, Agent Orange and the massacre at My Lai. The courtyard outside houses tanks, bombs and aircraft from the Vietnam War.

I paid my first visit to the museum in 2009, and some of the images have left a lasting impression on me to this day. That said, the museum is fascinating, and the room devoted to the 134 journalists killed while covering the war is compelling. However, I’d give this one a miss if you have children with you.

The museum is open daily from 7.30am-12.00pm and 1.30pm-5pm. Last admission is 4.30pm. 

Admission is VND40.000 or $1.30 

Võ Văn Tần, phường 6, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh

Learn more about Vietnam on this guided walking tour which includes Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. >>> Check rates and availability.

See Saigon Central Post Office 

Saigon Central Post Office

It’s worth checking out the daffodil yellow Central Post Office if you have time. It was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel in 1886 and is the oldest remaining colonial building in Vietnam.

Still in use as a working post office, this beautiful building’s design blends Gothic, French and Renaissance architecture. Check out its long, domed roof, polished wooden counters, decorative tiled floors and vintage wooden boths. You can’t fail to miss the huge portrait of Uncle Ho looking down on proceedings.

If you go early enough, you can pick up a free postcard to send home, but they tend to be snapped up quickly.

Have a nosey at Notre-Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Notre Dame Cathedral a must-see Saigon sight

You’ll also find the impressive neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral just over the road from the Post Office. Built by French colonists in the late 19th century, it’s currently undergoing renovations and only open for worship, but it’s worth a look from the outside.

Haggle at Ben Thanh Market

There are two main markets in Saigon, and Cho Ben Thanh (cho meaning market) is probably the biggest and best known. It’s located just across from the bus station near Ben Thanh Roundabout, which is incidentally a fantastic traffic-watching spot!

Ben Thanh Market sells just about anything you can think of, from everyday essentials and fresh produce to souvenirs and tourist trap trinkets. You’ll need to have your haggling head on because stallholders start at outrageously high prices, but they’re generally up for some banter. We had quite a laugh during some light-hearted haggling. The Vietnamese have a brilliant sense of humour.

Some traders can be a bit pushy, so watch for a while and choose your stall carefully. I bought some cute little bowls and probably paid more than I should have. I was happy with the price, but I get the feeling the stall holder was happier! 

>>> Check out the best restaurants in Saigon.

Go underground at the Củ Chi Tunnels

Cu Chi Tunnels, Landmark in Vietnam

The Cu Chi tunnels are a series of interconnected tunnels in Saigon and part of the vast network of tunnels that helped the Viet Cong counter the American forces during the Vietnam War.

These tunnels were the operational base for the 1968 Tết Offensive, serving as living quarters, munition stores and supply routes. A guided tour of the Củ Chi tunnels and the Mekong Delta will give you a glimpse of this period in Vietnamese history. 

This most popular day trip will give you the chance to crawl through the tunnels and get a sense of the conditions the Viet Cong forces endured. They often spent several days underground, living in cramped spaces infested with rats, snakes, spiders and more.

After lunch, you’ll travel by boat down the Mekong River to see the beautiful countryside, experience the local lifestyle and enjoy a live music performance.

You can book your tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels here

See Jade Emperor Pagoda

The Jade Emperor Pagoda is a Taoist pagoda founded in 1909 in honour of the Taoist god Ngoc Hoang, also known as the Jade Emperor. Visiting the pagoda is an intensely atmospheric experience, from the dramatic Buddhist and Taoist statues to the scent of the incense that lingers on the air.

Highlights include the Hall of the Ten Hells with its carved wooden panels and the effigy of the City God, where worshippers receive a blessing inscribed on red paper. The Jade Emperor himself is a forbidding statue draped in luxurious robes and protected by four statues known as the Four Big Diamonds due to their strength and toughness.

Arrive early to avoid the crowds, as the temple gets busy later in the day. There isn’t a strict dress code, but it’s a good idea to opt for clothing that covers your shoulders and knees.

73 Đ. Mai Thị Lựu, Đa Kao, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam

Bitexco Financial Tower for bird’s eye views

Bitexco Financial Tower

If you want to get a different perspective on the city, the Bitexco Financial Tower is one of the best things to do in Saigon, Vietnam. The 68-floor skyscraper is the second tallest building in Saigon, standing 262 metres high and with a design inspired by the shape of a lotus bud.

Each year, entrants in the HCMC Skyrun compete to run up the stairs to the helipad on the skyscraper’s 52nd floor. The record currently stands at an incredible 4 minutes 51 seconds. We took the lift!

The Bitexco Financial Tower elevators travel at 7 metres a second and are the fastest in southeast Asia. Once at the 49th floor observation deck enjoy the fabulous 360° views of the cityscape through the huge glass windows on the Saigon Skydeck. Check out inter-active displays and pick out Ho Chi Minh’s main attractions through the powerful telescopes.

Go at sunset for for golden views as the city begins to light up after dusk. Book your fast track ticket here.

District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Visit the Fine Arts Museum 

Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts is the leading art museum of Ho Chi Minh City. The museum’s main building was built between 1929 and 1934 as the family residence of a businessman called Hua Bon Hoa. Also known as Uncle Hoa, he was one of Vietnam’s wealthiest traders in French colonial times.

The Fine Arts Museum took up residence in Hua’s mansion in 1987, and its collection includes exquisite traditional silk and lacquer paintings, woodcuts, and sculptures. 

The museum’s archaeological artefacts include some of Vietnam’s most important Champa and Óc Eo relics dating back to the 7th century, ancient Buddhist art and bronze sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist Gods.

The museum also has a collection of contemporary Vietnamese art featuring works by artists like Nguyen Gia Tri, Do Quang Em and Trinh Cung.

Open 8am to 5pm daily 97A P. 

Đức Chính, Phường Nguyễn Thái Bình, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

See Saigon Opera House 

Saigon Opera House, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam at night
Saigon Opera House

Saigon Opera House, also known as the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, is a beautiful example of the French Colonial architecture you can still see in Vietnam.

The opera house was built at the end of the 19th century with an elaborately decorated facade typical of this style of architecture. In 1943, some of the facade was removed as it was considered too ornate, and in 1975, the opera house briefly served as the home of the People’s Congress of Deputies of the Republic of South Vietnam.

The original decoration was partially restored in 1998 for Saigon’s 300th anniversary, and the opera house now regularly hosts concerts, performances, and government events. You can check the schedule and buy tickets at the main gate.

07 Công Trường Lam Sơn, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 710212, Vietnam

Find rare orchids at Saigon Botanical Gardens 

Saigon’s Botanical Gardens were founded in 1864 by Jean Baptiste Louis Pierre. They form part of the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, which opened to the public in 1869 making it one of the oldest zoos in the world.

The Botanical Gardens are home to many rare orchids and plant species, and its orchid garden offers a beautiful respite from the city’s noise. Within the grounds, you’ll also find the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of History, with its collection of around 25,000 historical and cultural artefacts, the Temple of Hùng King, and an amusement park.

Open 7am to 6.30pm daily

2 Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam

Take a Saigon River Cruise 

Saigon River views from a dinner cruise

A dinner cruise on the Saigon River is a great way to see the city from a different perspective and feast on delicious food. You’ll glide down the river while tucking into fabulous local cuisine in a relaxing atmosphere, accompanied by a live music performance.

Your Saigon river cruise will be led by a knowledgeable local guide, and you’ll enjoy stunning views of local landmarks and the city’s neon lights reflected in the water. Check rates and availability for a Saigon dinner cruise.

Enjoy the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Show 

The Golden Dragon Puppet show is a collection of 17 scenes featuring myths, folk stories and historical events with comic twists for added entertainment value. Each of the stories is closely associated with the spiritual life of Vietnam, especially life in rural areas.

The puppeteers use their skills and brightly coloured puppets to show the essential role of water in the Vietnamese people’s way of life. The show is accompanied by an orchestra playing traditional instruments like bamboo flutes, bells and cymbals.

The 17 acts of the show are all narrated in Vietnamese, but we didn’t have any problems following the action. You’ll also be given an English-language pamphlet that helps you understand the background of the various myths and folktales.

If you want to extend your evening, you can also combine the Golden Dragon Water Puppet show with a dinner cruise on the Saigon River to enjoy delicious Vietnamese food and views of the city after dark.

Statue of Ho Chi Minh at City Hall, Saigon, Vietnam

Learn about the city at Museum Of Ho Chi Minh City 

Ho Chi Minh City Museum is housed in a grand neoclassical building built in 1890, previously known as the Gia Long Palace. When Vietnam was reunified in 1975, the museum was named the Ho Chi Minh Revolutionary Museum, and then in 1999, it was renamed again as the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

This museum is one of the best things to do in Saigon, Vietnam. It tells the story of Saigon’s history, development and struggle for independence through a collection containing important archaeological artefacts, including ceramics and old maps.

You’ll also find various pieces of military hardware in the gardens. These include the jet that bombed the nearby Presidential Palace (now the Independence Palace) in April 1975.

Open 8am to 5pm daily 

65 Lý Tự Trọng, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

Find street food on Pham Ngu Lao Street

Phạm Ngũ Lão Street was named after Phạm Ngũ Lão, the Trần Dynasty general who became a national hero. The area is known as Saigon’s backpacker district, and you’ll find many tourist agencies, cafe apartments and budget-friendly guest houses around here.

Phạm Ngũ Lão has a unique, vibrant atmosphere. There’s always something going on, and the markets, street food stalls, bars and coffee shops in this area are popular with tourists and locals alike. 

It’s a cool place to pick up Vietnamese souvenirs and memorabilia from the street vendors and you’re just a short walk away from top tourist attractions like Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum and the Independence Palace.

Phạm Ngũ Lão is also one of the best places to enjoy a spot of people or scooter-watching while indulging in a cheap beer and some local street food like banh mi sandwiches, banh xeo pancakes and pho rice noodle soup. You’ll find some of the best street food and it’s a great place to take a street food tour and try some of Vietnam’s excellent food.

Saigon Street food

Take a walk down Bui Vien Street

If you’re looking for the best nightlife in Ho Chi Minh City then head to Bui Vien walking street in District 1. In daytime the laid-back street is busy with tourists going for coffee and breakfast or lunch. But the street reverts to pedestrian-only in the evenings and the bars, clubs and cafes turn on the lights, turn up the music and make the walking street a vibrant, lively place to spend the evening. Definitely spend time watching an evening unfold in Bui Vien walking street.

>>> Check out the best restaurants in Saigon

Relax in Tao Dan Park

Tao Dan Park, Ho Chi Minh City
Tao Dan Park

Nestled in District 1 sprawls Tao Dan Park, a lush escape from the city hustle. Mornings see locals starting off their day with tai chi, stretching and badminton. Kids play in the gardens while city elders pour over their chessboards.

Amidst sculptures and pagodas, find peace and calm at the small temple honoring the Hung Kings or stop at the bird cafe for a Vietnamese coffee. It’s so good. The park is a must for city explorers seeking tranquility.

Visit Ho Chi Minh City Museum of History 

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of History first opened to visitors in 1929 and is well worth a visit for history buffs. It was previously known as Musée Blanchard de la Brosse and The National Museum of Vietnam in Saigon.

This fascinating museum shines a light on Vietnamese history with an amazing range of exhibits from the prehistoric period through various dynasty eras up to the 20th century. You can see National Treasures such as a bronze Buddha statue typical of Champa culture and a sandstone statue of the goddess Devi or Rija Kula Hara Devi.

Unlike some Vietnamese museums, this Saigon museum has helpful English explanations alongside many of the artefacts. It also has a lovely courtyard area where you can watch traditional puppet shows.

Open 8–11:30 am, 1–5 pm 

2 Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam

Where to Stay in Saigon

Now that you’ve seen all the best places to visit in Saigon you’ll need somewhere to stay. The accommodation in HCMC below are both hotels that I’ve stayed at myself so these are personal recommendations.

Most of the luxury 5* hotels can be found in Dong Khoi Street, District 1, which crosses the centre of the city. It’s one of the best areas for beautiful French architecture and you’ll find lots of fine shops and restaurants in the area.

Hotel Caravelle, Ho Chi Minh City

We’ve stayed at Caravelle in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. It’s located right next to the Opera House and within easy walking distance of the most popular things to do in Saigon, Vietnam. 

Saigon Saigon, the iconic bar at the Caravelle, has panoramic views of the city and is the perfect place to sit and watch the city’s neon lights as dusk falls. They also serve a mean gin and tonic.

Rooms are spacious with great views of the city.

>>> Check availability and rates at Caravelle Saigon Hotel.

The Rex Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City

We’ve also stayed at The Rex Hotel. Both of these Saigon hotels have fabulous rooftop bars which were frequented by war correspondents and military officials during the Vietnam War.

We were in Saigon for New Year, which we celebrated at The Rex Hotel with a fantastic banquet and entertainment. You’ll get great views of the celebrations on the streets below from the terrace.

>>> Check rates and availability at The Rex Hotel.

New Year in Ho Chi Minh City

HCMC really gets into the spirit of the season around Christmas and New Year, with colourful lights strung across the streets and seasonal music blasting out everywhere.

Saigon at night is a city that’s actually more colourful after dark than during the daytime! And Saigon at New Year steps that up a few levels more.

Have you been to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City? What did you think of the traffic…?

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[…] a few days on Phu Quoc island and a couple of nights in Ho Chi Minh City for New Year we headed to Mui Ne to kick-back and chill.   We wanted to stay in the south of the […]

Viveka

Sunday 15th of February 2015

What a place to spend New Year. I wonder if the traffic is more manic than in Athens ???? Because that is the worst I ever seen and that was in the mid 70's and it has to gone worst by now. Another great post - your are so good at this.

Suzanne Jones

Monday 16th of February 2015

I think Athens is probably worse because it's mainly cars which tend to go faster - the scooter go so much slower in busy areas. Thank you Vivi - glad to know I'm doing something right!

Graham Franklin

Sunday 15th of February 2015

Hi Suzanne Saigon is one the places that I hope to be visiting this year, so thanks for post. I went to Hanoi last year and enjoyed the city. The bia hoi was cheap and a fantastic experience in the bia hoi corner. The traffic does look just as crazy as Hanoi's!

Suzanne Jones

Sunday 15th of February 2015

I really liked Hanoi but haven't been for a few years. I think the traffic is busier there than in Saigon - you'll have to let me know after your trip!

elPadawan

Wednesday 4th of February 2015

It's funny, Saigon was actually the last leg of my trip last summer. We started in Ha Noi, which is a bit "colder", so that we get used to the temperatures, then moved on South. Also, since I still have family in Saigon, we wanted to finish the trip there rather than start :)

Suzanne Jones

Wednesday 4th of February 2015

We've done the Hanoi route down to HCMC twice before and at this time of year we wanted some warm weather so we stuck to south and south central. Lovely to have family in Saigon - have you been for New Year?

Suze the Luxury Columnist

Monday 2nd of February 2015

A very interesting article, the traffic sounds a bit manic! I love the sunflower street decorations

Suzanne Jones

Wednesday 4th of February 2015

Lots of the streets are decorated with flower lights over Christmas and NY - they look soooo pretty!

Comments are closed.