Ho Chi Minh City was our first stop in Vietnam and WOWW… I was aware about how busy the city is and that there will be plenty of interesting things to do in Saigon. Although, I never thought it would be such an intense city! If you are planning a trip to Vietnam and Saigon is on your travel itinerary, you must read this post. Practical tips to visit the top attractions in Ho Chi Minh City, and some advice on how to survive to the crazy traffic and experience the real local food!
Before start this trip we heard many comments about Ho Chi Minh city, mixed opinions. Some people love Saigon [if you don´t know, Saigon was the former name of Ho Chi Minh City, it was changed after the Vietnam War], others hate it. For us it was a big surprise! We were prepared for a very messy and dirty city, and actually, it is, but somehow it works. After two or three days, even the chaotic traffic makes sense. Rob liked Ho Chi Minh city more than me, by the end of the week I was tired of people offering things all the time, asking where I’m going, where I’m from, if I want a taxi, a bus, a chicken…
There are so many things do in Saigon, and that surprised us too. For me the city has a strong character, with many nice cafes, bars and restaurants hidden from the crowd, untouched by tourists. We were there for 5 days and it was enough to see the top attractions in Saigon. We even managed to fit on our tight schedule two-day tours outside the city. So if you want to travel on a more relaxed pace and enjoy all the good things to do in Ho Chi Minh, I would say 7 days in Saigon is perfect.
So let’s go to what really matters: what to do in Saigon! We gonna talk about the things to do in Ho Chi Minh and also our recommendations on where to stay, how to get around the city, food tours and safety issues. A complete guide to Ho Chi Minh City!
Things to do in Saigon » Top Attractions
Discover Saigon by yourself! Most of the sights are close to each other, you can easily walk between them. For the attractions that are outside District 1, you will need a taxi ride, but they are not too far, don’t worry!
» Ben Thanh Market
It’s a huge food and souvenir market in the heart of Ho Chi Minh city. It used to be the place where the locals buy/sell groceries and textiles, but nowadays it’s a very touristy place. All the goods are overpriced, so bargain a lot. The market is open during the whole day, but after 1pm the stalls selling meat, fish and fresh veggies start to close. Night time the action happens on the street beside the market, food restaurants and clothes shops take the whole lane and they will try to convince you to buy handcrafts and t-shirts.
» French architecture and historical buildings in Saigon
When Vietnam was a French colony and Ho Chi Minh City was called Saigon, the city lived an opulent period. Together with the baguette recipe and the taste for wine, the French also left in Ho Chi Minh some beautiful architecture. The historical buildings are very close to each other, you can see and visit them during a pleasant walk through District 1 [city center]. These buildings are some of the top attractions in Saigon:
- Central Post Office
Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office dates from 1891, some people and historical websites tell it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, others say it was Alfred Foulhoux, the fact is that the Post Office is an important landmark in the city. Inside the building, you can admire the marble floor, the paintings and even the old telephone boxes are still there.
- Notre Dame Cathedral
In front of the post office is the Notre Dame Cathedral, a huge church in the heart of a Buddhist city, another legacy from the French. Built in the 1880’s it was called Saigon Church, on 1959 after the installation of the statue “Peaceful Notre Dame” the name was changed. Nowadays it´s called Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, one of the religious and historical attraction in Ho Chi Minh city.
- Saigon Opera House
Keep walking through Dõng Khói Street till you reach the Opera House, another attraction in Ho Chi Minh city. This one you can’t get inside for free, you need to buy spectacle tickets to be able to see the interior design. Due to our short time we didn’t visit it, also we decided to spend our nights exploring the Saigon food scene, not so cultural, but very yummy. [more details further in the post]
Around the Opera House there are other historical buildings, the Hotel Caravelle and the Hotel Continental Saigon. If you look at these three buildings you have the sensation of being in a European city, a disconnected view from the Southeast Asia trip.
- Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee
Turn at the Lê Loi street, on the next corner you will reach Nguyen Hue walking street with the posh Hotel Rex and the City Hall. The People´s Committee is beautiful during night-time all lighted up. In front of the City Hall a statue of Ho Chi Minh is greeting his followers and the tourists visiting the square.
» Night time at Nguyen Hue walking street
Go for a walk, to listen some young guys playing music, or for a selfie with uncle Ho Chi Minh statue… Nguyen Hue walking street gets really busy after sunset and it’s one of the top things to do in Saigon. Not only tourists go there, many locals come with friends, family to enjoy the fresh evening breeze.
» Walk along the Saigon River
Saigon River is not the cleanest one, I have to tell you the truth. But I was surprised to see that a nice walk lane along it, with flowers, branches, clean and safe. During night time we went to the riverside near to the Nguyen Hue walking street, and early in the morning, we found it the perfect place for run in Saigon.
» Bitexco Financial Tower, one of the highest buildings in Vietnam
Among the non-historical things to do in Saigon, a visit to Bitexco Tower is a nice one. Go for the sunset, and get to see how big Ho Chi Minh city is. The financial center is the symbol of Vietnam’s development. It’s the tallest building in the country, from the Bitexco Tower you get a beautiful 360º view of Saigon.
There are two ways to go to the top of Bitexco Tower, one is paying 200 thousand Vietnamese Dong, roughly 10 usd to access the observation deck on 50th floor. Or you can go to the EON 51 Sky Bar located on 52th floor and have a drink while enjoying the view. A coffee or a juice will cost between 130,000 – 160,000 Vietnamese Dong, cheaper and tastier than going only for the observatory deck.
» War Remnants Museum
Now let’s talk about what to do in Saigon that is not so pretty but you must visit. The War Remnants Museum is a lesson of history. If you are like us, from western countries, probably you have learned the American version of the Vietnam War. In Saigon you have the chance to listen the other side of the history, the Vietnamese version, and this one is hard to take.
The first thing you need to learn, in Vietnam they don´t call it Vietnam War, they call it American War, and the result of the conflict you can see inside and outside of the museum. The consequences of this tragic war still affect the daily life of Vietnamese people. For me the War museum is one of the top things to do in Saigon, it’s not pleasant, it’s not beautiful, but is important to understand the history and how our politicians keep making the same geopolitical mistakes.
The pass for the museum is valid for one day, what means you can go out, take a deep breath, drink a coffee and then come back to finish the visit.
» Reunification Palace
The palace is one of the most important building in Vietnam. The place where the Americans planned the war strategies and where the conflict finished. In 1975 a North Vietnamese Army tank smashed the gates and they hung a flag on the balcony symbolizing the end of the war. Since that day the palace is frozen in time, everything inside is original, and the visitors can get a really close look on how was the life inside the palace during the war time.
» Mariamman Hindu Temple
Located in the heart of District 1, this Hindu Temple is surrounded by hotels, restaurants and coffee shops. The colorful statues on the facade catch everybody’s attention, and the interior is decorated in a classical hindu style. The temple was built in the 19th century and it´s a place to worship the Mariamman Goddess.
» Chinatown and Thiên Hâu Temple
One of the top attraction in Ho Chi Minh city is the Chinatown. Located on District 5, a bit far from the city center, it takes around 15 – 20 minutes to go there by taxi. The Chinese area called Cholon, dates back to 1778, and the community managed to keep their traditional architecture and way of living during the French colonial period and during the Vietnam War.
One of the recommended things to do in Saigon’s Chinatown is to visit the Thiên Hâu Temple. This Chinese Pagoda was built to worship the Lady of the Sea and it´s a good example of Chinese architecture mixed with some Vietnamese details. The incense are burning all day long, and even been located in a busy street of Saigon, the peace and the silence inside the temple surprised me.
» Emperor Jade Pagoda
For me, this was the most interesting temple we visited in Vietnam, no doubt one of the unmissable things to do in Saigon. It´s a bit far from the tourist route, but worth the taxi ride. The temple was constructed on the beginning of the 20th century by a Cantonese Chinese community and it’s packed with locals.
Inside you can see big statue of Emperor Jade Chua Ngoc Hoang or the “God of Heavens” and many other gods and goddess. The building is small, with tiny side alleys and intense smell of incense, oil and raw meat. It has a unique and theatrical atmosphere, like you have been transported to another time, another dimension… Don’t get intimidated by this strong religious vibe, pay respect to the Emperor Jade in the main room, and walk your way to the left side of the altar, where you will find a tiny alleys with small rooms and more sacred figures.
Really in the back of the temple you will see people offering meat, eggs, food, fake money and many other things to the Gods. When I arrive there I almost throw up, the smell was very strong, but I held my breath and kept going, trying to understand what was happening around us. We visited the Emperor Jade Pagoda on a Saturday afternoon, the temple was super busy, a great an opportunity to see the religious side of the Vietnamese people.
Visiting the temples are one of the top thing to do in Saigon, but remember that they are a place of faith and many locals go there to worship, so be respectful. Keep quiet, dress respectfully and if you feel like praying, buy an incense inside the temple and help them to maintain the beautiful buildings.
Now let’s talk about another top thing to do in Saigon: try Vietnamese Food! We are a big fans of street food, and even with my new vegetarian diet we decided to risk ourselves in some street stalls. Most of the restaurants near to the Ho Chi Minh’s tourists attractions are prepared to serve tourist, what means that the price can be higher and the flavors might not be 100% original. To discover hidden places and local restaurant in Saigon we asked for help, we book a food tour with someone who knows about good local food.
Top Things to do in Saigon: Food Tour With Locals
We booked a food tour with With Locals, a worldwide company that connects travellers with local people, so you get the chance to experience real local life and make new friends! Everything that we love!
The night tour was the perfect way to see a different side of Saigon. I can tell you how awesome the experience was, but I can’t give you the address of the places, that is part of our tour agreement. Be prepared for mouth-watering dishes and some really local desserts.
Phuong, our guide, picked us up at 6pm at our Airbnb address [we rented a private ensuite room in a huge Vietnamese house, get your 20usd Airbnb credit here]. From there we went to our first local food tour stop, a stylish cozy restaurant. The place is well decorated and they do not have a menu, when you arrive you discover what is dish of the day. Homemade food and traditional recipes.
We tried vegetable soup, dried fish, fish in a dark sauce, deep-fried chicken, stir fried water spinach, vegetables and rice. My favorite was the spinach and fish with sauce, Rob loved the soup and the fried chicken. We tried not to eat too much, to keep some space for the next local food stop.
Dessert time! More local impossible! We arrive in this tiny alley, where the women in front of the shops fight for the customers. When they saw too big westerns walking by they screamed even louder. Phuong guided us to one of the shops, inside only Vietnamese people and a bunch of kids looking very curious to us. The specialty is Loggan ice cream, made with a sweet fruit very common in Southeast Asia and that reminds lychee. First round was Loggan ice cream, the second time I ordered coffee flavour and Rob tried the chocolate one.
Time to jump in the taxi and head to our next destination: Nguyen Hue walking street. A stroll around the city center was everything we need to burn all the food we eat. It’s incredible how busy this part of the city gets during evening time, so different from the afternoon when we passed by there.
After the walking we went to our last stop on the food tour! The taxi did so many turns that I got lost, no idea where we stopped. Almost 9pm and the restaurant was busy, serving from fruit smoothies to local delicacies as duck eggs with baby duck inside. No, we didn’t try it, too much for me… Remember I just started a vegetarian diet.
We skipped the duck eggs and instead Phuong ordered some egg and rice pancakes, fresh spring rolls, deep-fried cheese and tropical fruit smoothie. My belly was huge, I couldn’t walk properly, I was happy and ready to fall asleep. Was time to say goodbye, the local food orgy finished. She put us in a taxi, give our apartment directions to the driver and we went home. Safe and Full! Thanks Phuong and With Locals it was a tasty and unique experience!
Where to Stay in Ho Chi Minh City
Find the perfect location and a good accommodation in Saigon is the key of a successful trip. There are many hotels in Ho Chi Minh City, guesthouses, hostels and Airbnb apartments, but some of them are quite far from the District 1, so you gonna have to spend time and money going around the city.
The District 1 is the touristy area, and there is the easiest place to find accommodation in Saigon. If you plan to stay 3 to 5 days in the city, I would recommend to find a place there. It´s close to most of Ho Chi Minh tourist attractions, there are several tourist agencies to book tours around Saigon and also restaurants with English menu. I found it a bit dirty and the pushy street vendors can be annoying, but that is the price you pay for being in the center of Saigon.
We stayed in a private ensuite room, in a big house located in a small alley behind the Ben Thanh Market. We paid 20usd per night, a really good deal. To find more Airbnb offers in Saigon click here, and get 20usd credit to spend on your first booking!
Choose the best hotel in Vietnam can be tricky. There are many fake reviews, especially on Tripadvisor, so you never know if you will get a superb or excellent room as the review says. During all our trip to Vietnam we used Booking.com to search and book our accommodation. You can find from top luxurious hotels to budget hostels. To review a property on Booking you must have stayed on it, so the possibility of fake reviews is small.
How to get around and to the attractions in Ho Chi Minh City
As we said before, many attractions can be reached walking. Be careful, the traffic is chaotic and even to cross the street can be a dangerous challenge there. If you prefer to take a taxi be prepared to spend some time stuck in the traffic jam, specially by the end of the day, when everybody is trying to go home after work. During the whole trip in Ho Chi Minh we used the taxi company called Vinasun, the drivers were very helpful and all them used the meter, we didn’t need to ask for it. Thumbs up!
Want to rent a motorbike in Saigon? Well, I’m a big fan of rent a scooters and get around the cities [we even wrote a practical guide about how to rent and drive a motorbike in Southeast Asia], but I’m not sure if I can face Saigon´s traffic, the crazy ocean of drivers and their honk habit. It’s your call, but remember to have your international driver license and a good travel insurance. We travel with World Nomads Insurance and never had a problem with them.
How to get from the airport to your hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Depending on where you are staying you can take a bus or taxi from the airport to your hotel in Saigon. We took a taxi and was very easy. We paid less than 200,000 Vietnamese Dongs from the airport to the Ben Thanh Market where we were staying. On our way from the District 1 to the airport it was even cheaper. The bus to the city center runs only till 6 pm, so if you arrive late, taxi will be the only choice to reach town.
When planning your arrival in Ho Chi Minh city leave some spare time to sort out your Visa on Arrival. The Immigration Office in Ho Chi Minh Airport is famous for the long queue. By the way, have you organized you tourist Visa to Vietnam? Not yet, so don’t waste time and money, the process for the Visa on Arrival can be done online, we have a blog post dedicated to to it » How to get your Tourist Visa to Vietnam!
Safety Issues in Ho Chi Minh City
When visiting Ho Chi Minh tourist attractions be aware of pickpockets and don’t be too flashy with your mobile phone and camera. We spent almost a month in Vietnam and we didn’t feel unsafe or in danger. Although we are always careful about where we go, we kept money and phone in our front pockets, and Rob carries our passports and bank cards on his money belt [we used this type of money belt, it´s very comfy and safe].
There are some areas in Saigon that looks unfriendly and very poor. I would say that they look more dangerous than actually are. While searching for the top things to do in Saigon, only take official taxis, and be careful with motorbike taxis. Only buy tours from travel agency, and ask the price around to compare and choose the best price/quality. If someone on the street offer you a private tour, a recommendation to a very very cheap place to stay or eat, or if they simply offer to take you to a place [in case you are lost], think twice. You scam alert should bip at this moment.
Bargain for everything!! Tourists pay a higher price in Vietnam [and almost in everywhere], but in Ho Chi Minh city I found very tiring. You can see on their faces, they are thinking about the price they will tell you based on your appearance. Westerners pay way more there.
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Our guide of the top things to do in Saigon come to an end. Here we highlighted the top attraction in Ho Chi Minh city and how you can survive and enjoy this intense city! There are a few other activities to do outside Saigon, like the tours to the Mekong Delta, Cu Chi Tunnels and some other temples. If you follow our tips on where to stay in Ho Chi Minh, safety issues and how to get around, I’m sure you gonna enjoy all the things to do in Saigon.
During our one month trip in Vietnam, we also visit the picturesque Hoi An where we did a Vespa Tour, the stunning Sapa Mountain for some trekking through the rice terraces, and our last stop was Hanoi for some local experiences.