Miss Saigon – 72 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City

Views over HCMC from Saigon District Three
Views over HCMC from Saigon District Three

There are so many things to do in Ho Chi Minh City that you could easily dedicate an entire week to exploring the former Vietnamese capital and still feel as though you have barely scratched the surface. 

Bursting with energy and personality, Ho Chi Minh City provides the perfect juxtaposition of ancient culture meets modern living. Here, incense-infused ancient temples sit beside towering glass skyscrapers, and tasty pho street stalls that emit bellows of smoke sit adjacent to glitzy designer boutiques. 

Though Hanoi is the country’s capital, HCMC is Vietnam’s largest city. To help you prepare for an adventure of navigating through narrow alleyways and markets, dodging speeding vespas, and slurping piping hot bowls of pho, I have comprised this guide to the very best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. 

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon:
What’s the Difference?

Ho Chi Minh City is Saigon so there truly is no difference there. Admittedly it can be confusing when some travel resources refer to the city as Saigon and others refer to it as Ho Chi Minh. 

Saigon was the name of the city before the American War in Vietnam, and HCMC was the name after that. 

The Best Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City 

The suggestions are broken down into two categories – the city’s highlights, and the additional extras that you can incorporate into your itinerary if you have a little more time to spare.

Essential Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City During Your First Visit: 

  • Dust off your haggling skills at the markets of Ben Thanh, Cho Vuon, and Binh Tay 
  • Take a history lesson at the War Remnants Museum 
  • Discover secret underground tunnels and bunkers at the Reunification Palace 
  • Slurp steaming hot bowls of pho and indulge in Vietnam’s best street food delicacies 
  • Enjoy cocktails with a view at a chic rooftop bar 
  • Stroll along Dong Khoi street, keeping an eye out for French Colonial architecture 
  • Watch pilgrims lighting incense at the Thien Hau Pagoda in ChoLon 
  • Explore the narrow streets and quaint traditional stores of ChoLon Chinatown 
  • Visit the oldest pagoda in the city 
  • Scramble through the Viet Cong’s Cu Chi Tunnels 
  • Take a tour of the Mekong Delta 
  • Learn about local history and culture at the Museum of Ho Chi Minh

Browse the Stalls of the Ben Thanh Market 

Meandering through the various aisles of the Ben Thanh market is something like a rite of passage for travelling in Vietnam. The market is a little touristy but worth a visit nonetheless. This is probably one of the best places to pick up souvenirs with stall upon stall supplying your Vietnam tourist essentials:

Pointy Vietnamese hats – check!

Floaty Aladdin trousers with Elephants on them – check!

Since there are so many stores selling similar items, it is easy for you to haggle and secure your best deal here. As the sun sets, the roads outside Ben Thanh close and transform into a night market packed full with street food stands. This is one of the biggest night markets in the city and the perfect place to indulge in a steaming bowl of pho, or some Bún bò huế (spicy beef noodle soup). 

Haggle Your Way Through the Cho Vuon Chuoi Market 

Ben Thanh market may well be the HCMC market that most tourists are aware of, but for a true glimpse into Vietnamese life and culture, the Cho Vuon Chuoi Market is the place to venture to. 

Navigate your way through the narrow passageways of the market, dodging the occasional motorbike as you go. On one side, you can expect to see fresh fruit, vegetables and street food delicacies. On the other, vibrant fabrics and handmade clothing items dance in the breeze. This is an authentic local market that sells produce for HCMC residents. You will seldom see crowds of other tourists here. 

Stop by the War Remnants Museum 

The War Remnants Museum gives a raw and unpolished view of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. Of course, this is only one side of the story, but it is really interesting to see their view, and their thoughts on America’s involvement.

Old US Army war planes and tanks line the outer grounds of the museum, along with a former prisoner of war camp which gives an insight into the horror and consequences of finding yourself in a Vietnamese prison.

The museum exhibitions are moving, if a little distressing – images and recovered articles tell the story of those civilians caught up in the war, and the ongoing effects of ‘Agent Orange’ – The US Army’s attempt to cut off the North Vietnamese rebel groups resources by spraying almost 20 million gallons of chemicals into the forests North of Saigon. 

The after-effects of Agent Orange are still being felt in Vietnam today, with countless children born over the last few decades still being born with disabilities and birth defects. The museum is upsetting, sure, but sometimes it is important to address the atrocities of humanity, from time to time.

Stuff Your Face with Vietnamese Street Food Delicacies 

Sampling the local cuisine is as much a part of travelling as seeing the famous sites. No doubt the flavourful soups, noodle bowls, and street food dishes that you will find in Vietnam will quickly become a highlight of your time in the country. 

Pho is essentially the national dish of Vietnam. This Vietnamese noodle soup is comprised of rice noodles served in a hearty meat broth and topped with either chicken or beef. You will then be presented with a selection of shoots, vegetables, herbs, and spices, to add to the dish to your liking. For a similar, spicier alternative, there is Bún bò huế – spicy beef noodle soup. 

As you venture around the city streets of Ho Chi Minh, you will pass by dozens of “Bánh mì” stalls – a Vietnamese style French baguette filled with delicious marinated meats, fresh chili, coriander, and pickled vegetables. 

Those with an adventurous palette can also consider sampling the more unusual local delicacies, such as Ốc – grilled or sauteed sea snails. In all, there is a broad range of diverse dishes to try in Vietnam.

Don’t hesitate to follow the locals as they gravitate towards the crowded stalls, or ask your hosts/hotel receptionists for recommendations on where and what to eat in your neighbourhood. 

Visit the Reunification Palace 

Ho Chi Minh City’s Reunification Palace is a former presidential home that has been transformed into a living museum. Inside, you can wander through the rooms, living quarters and offices of Reunification Palace and it is as though time has stood still. The building has stood empty and unaltered since the first Communist tanks arrived on site in 1975.

Although the exterior of the Reunification Palace is pretty ugly, some the rooms inside are beautifully decorated. Arguably the most interesting part of visiting is navigating your way through the narrow underground section of the palace – a rabbit warren of tunnels filled with communication rooms for secret discussions with the United States, with all of the radio equipment and transmitters still in place, and the bunkers ready for the event of an attack.

Enjoy Cocktails with a View at a HCMC Rooftop Bar 

What you may not expect, is that Ho Chi Minh City has a very active nightlife scene that offers a little something for everyone – from cheap and cheerful spots where you can grab a local beer for less than $1, to bass-pumping nightclubs, and to chic cocktail bars. 

As far as the chic cocktail bars go, there are several incredible rooftop locations that allow you to enjoy your negronis and margaritas accompanied by the beautiful HCMC evening skyline as it is illuminated by hundreds of twinkling lights. 

The Chill Skybar on the 26th floor of the AB Tower was the original rooftop bar in Ho Chi Minh, and it offers incredible panoramas over the entire city. The chic atmosphere attracts a well-dressed crowd, and on certain nights of the week, visitors can enjoy live DJs and musical performances. 

The Level 23 Sky Bar at the Sheraton Saigon, and the M Bar at the Hotel Majestic Saigon are two very glamorous hangout spots that are perched atop some of the city’s most luxurious hotels. Drinks are pricey, but worth it to revel in the views and watch the sunset over the rice paddies in the distance. 

For a rooftop bar that also offers the opportunity to cool down in an infinity pool, head to Vertical Skybar on 17 Tôn Đức Thắng, or the Above Sky Bar on the 19th floor of the Liberty Central Saigon Citypoint. 

Window Shop Along Dong Khoi Street 

Dong Khoi street is one of the most upscale and elegant boulevards in Ho Chi Minh City. It is here where all of the ultra-luxurious hotels are situated, designer boutiques, and chic eateries that serve up cuisines from across the globe.

Dong Khoi is not a hangout spot for the budget traveller, though wandering along its length is a pleasant thing to do, particularly to admire the street’s blend of old and new architecture. Many of the buildings here date back to the French Colonial era when the street was known as “Rue Catinat” and was regarded as being the most glamorous spot in the city.

At the end of Dong Khoi Street, you are met with Paris square, and the pretty pink Notre Dame cathedral. 

Admire the French Colonial Architecture  

As you transcend along Dong Khoi street, look out for architecture that remains from the period when HCMC was colonised by the French. There are countless examples of French Colonial architecture here, but the most notable structures are the Central Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Saigon Opera House. 

The Central Post Office was designed by Gustave Eiffel – the French Engineer who also oversaw the Statue of Liberty and of course, the Eiffel tower. All three spots are in a short walking distance of each other.

Pay Your Respects at the Beautiful Thien Hau Pagoda 

The beautiful Thien Hau Pagoda is an active Taoist temple in the Cholon Chinatown district of Ho Chi Minh City. Constructed in the 19th century, the temple is dedicated to Thien Hau, the Chinese Goddess of the sea. 

The atmosphere of the temple and its interiors create a spiritual atmosphere that feels almost magical. Here, you can see many pilgrims leave incense sticks in honour of their Goddess, as large coils of incense burn slowly from the ceiling, emitting a beautiful fragrance and filling the room with a mysterious smoky haze. 

Be sure to look up at the ceiling beams when you enter – countless ornate statues have been crafted from wood and depict various scenes from traditional Chinese life. The statues were once painted in vivid colours, though they have been worn and weathered by time and incense smoke. 

Take a History Lesson at the Museum of Ho Chi Minh

The museum of Ho Chi Minh city (formerly known as the Revolutionary Museum) is situated inside a renovated palace and provides an interesting glimpse into the broader history and culture of Ho Chi Minh City. 

Unlike the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace, the Museum of HCMC is seldom crowded with tourists. The exhibitions on display here detail the construction and development of the city, in addition to depicting scenes from local life and traditional attire. 

Visit the Giac Lam Pagoda: The Oldest in the City ‘

The Giac Lam Pagoda dates back to the 17th century and is widely believed to be the oldest temple in Ho Chi Minh City. It is also one of the most atmospheric, surrounded by serene gardens, ancient Bodhi trees, and fragrant flower beds. 

If you stop by during certain hours of the day, you will have the opportunity to listen to the mystical chanting of the Buddhist monks as they participate in their daily prayers. 

Explore the Quaint Streets of Cholon Chinatown 

Ho Chi Minh’s Chinatown district (ChoLon) awaits in district five of the city. It’s a little bit of a trek from the Centre of Ho Chi Minh, but for that you are rewarded with beautiful temples and tea rooms undisturbed by other tourists.

There are two main Taoist temples within Cho Lon, both free to enter – The Thien Hau Pagoda and The Quan Am Pagoda.

Cholon’s Binh Tay Market is pretty interesting too, and possibly more authentic than the popular Ben Thanh in District One as it is one for the locals. If you’ve visited a lot of markets in Asia, you may not find it that spectacular, but here you can find pretty much everything from Chinese Dragon costumes, to meat, to caged animals, to Chinese tea leaves.

There are little pockets in the floor throughout the market for people to leave their incense sticks – I myself didn’t notice this at first and felt the snap of a bunch of them under my shoe. (Some bad ju-ju coming my way for sure!)

What is perhaps the most interesting thing about the Binh Tay market is the narrow alley that runs behind the back of the main indoor market. Between the hours of 6 am and 8 am, this section operates as a wet market where vendors purchase the raw materials for their stalls and restaurants. 

Scramble Through the Viet Cong’s Cu Chi Tunnels 

Various Tour Operators run daily excursions between Ho Chi Minh City and The Cu Chi Tunnels/Mekong Delta area. These narrow underground tunnels were the hiding places of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war and today, you can scramble through them first hand (though arguably this is not for the claustrophobic!) 

Take a Tour of the Mekong Delta 

Though the main reason that most tourists venture out to the Mekong Delta is to navigate through the Cu Chi tunnels, a wider exploration of this region is also very worthwhile. 

The Mekong Delta is a labyrinth-like network of rice paddies, rivers filled with stilted houses, quaint villages and traditional markets. Those interested in observing a traditional floating market should venture to Cai Be or Cai Rang market. 

Light Incense at the Jade Emperor Pagoda 

The pretty in pink Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of the most important Taoist temples in Ho Chi Minh City. Shaded by the cover of ancient banyan trees, and encapsulated by picturesque courtyards, the temple atmosphere possesses a level of serenity that almost makes you forget that you are in the heart of the hustle and bustle of one of Vietnam’s busiest cities. 

The temple is dedicated to the supreme Taoist god (Ngoc Hoang) and is filled with intricate wood carvings depicting the Jade Emperor and various other important Taoist deities. 

Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City with More Time to Spare: 

The activities detailed here are not the most well-known Ho Chi Minh Attractions, though they are very worthwhile extensions to your itinerary if you have a little longer to spare in Saigon, and offer a further glimpse into the people and culture of Vietnam. 

  • Enjoy a bird’s eye view from the Bitexco Financial Tower 
  • Shop for war memorabilia and other oddities at the Dan Sinh American market 
  • Watch a traditional water puppet show 
  • Go off the beaten path and hang out with locals in District Three residential area 
  • Take an un-pho-gettable Vietnamese cooking lesson 
  • Learn about Vietnam’s oriental past at the museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine 
  • Support local Artists and their work at the San Art Laboratory 
  • Hang out by Turtle Lake at night 
  • Get back to nature at the Saigon botanical gardens 
  • Attend a Ho Chi Minh City Couchsurfing Meeting 

Enjoy a Bird’s Eye View of the City 

An alternative way to enjoy breathtaking views over HCMC is to ascend to the top of the Bitexco Financial Tower. On the highest level, there is a viewing deck which costs $10 per person to visit. 

The view from up here is incredible, though I would still say that visiting the rooftop bars is preferable, as you can spend that $10 on enjoying a fruity cocktail rather than on an admission fee. One interesting thing about Bitexco is that there is also a little museum inside that provides information and exhibits on Vietnamese traditional dress (Ao Dai). 

Hang Out by Turtle Lake at Night 

Ho Chi Minh City’s “Turtle Lake” is a small park area that sits adjacent to the picturesque Notre Dame Cathedral. By day, Turtle Lake is nothing to write home about, but by nightfall, this is one of the most popular hangout spots in the city, and a great place to mingle with locals. 

As the sun goes down, countless street food vendors set up their stalls around the roundabout of Turtle Lake, and dozens of canvased tables and chairs are set up to accommodate the crowds that head here each night to socialise with their friends. 

All of the popular Vietnamese street food delicacies can be found here – from the infamous pho to local sweets and desserts. There are two food carts which are markedly more popular than the others, and are worth adding to your radar if you pass by – one is a van serving up Banh trang nuong (Vietnamese pizza) and the other is Banh tranh tron.

Banh tranh tron is essentially the Vietnamese answer to the burrito and consists of seafood, veggies, hot sauce, and an array of spices and flavourings tucked and wrapped up in a piece of rice paper. 

If you hope to participate in the foodie evening celebrations at Turtle Lake, you should aim to get here between 8 and 10 pm. 

Visit Dan Sinh American Market 

The Dan Sinh American Market (also known as “Yersin”) sells an array of interesting war memorabilia – some of which is authentic, and some of which is an imitation. Various antiques can be found here such as old zippo lighters, military uniforms, gas masks, helmets, dog tags, and paperwork.

Items belonging to both infantries (i.e. the American military and the Vietnamese) can be procured here, though you should keep in mind that there are also a lot of fakes. Assess the products at the stalls carefully or bring along someone who is an expert. 

Military memorabilia aside, the Dan Sinh market has something of a “survivalist” theme and sells a lot of camping gear, hiking clothes, and metalworking equipment. 

Watch a Water Puppet Show 

A fascinating alternative way to spend an evening in Vietnam is to go along to a water puppet show. The most popular and reputable places to catch a performance while in HCMC are the Villa Song Saigon, and the Golden Dragon Water Puppetry Theatre.

The performance sees the puppets “dance” and act on a stage comprised of water as traditional Vietnamese music is played live by local musicians. You can also find these shows performed at local high-end restaurants where you can enjoy the theatrics as you indulge in local delicacies. 

Learn About Vietnam’s Oriental Past at the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine 

Scattered across HCMC there are a number of smaller scale, privately owned museums. The Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine is one such place, housed inside a beautifully decorated traditional Vietnamese house.

The museum depicts thousands of tools, recipes, manuscripts, and ancient scrolls which show the development and creation of traditional Vietnamese medicine – a practice which was inherited from the Chinese. While it may not be mainstream, the museum offers an interesting insight into the Chinese influence of Vietnam. When you leave, it is customary for the friendly owners to offer you a complimentary cup of herbal tea.

Hang Out in District Three 

It is a saying amongst locals in Saigon, that you “go out in District 1 but live in District 3”.

Most of the hotels and hostels in the City are located within District 1, which gives you good proximity to most of the main tourist sites, however, I wanted a more local experience so I decided to stay with a Vietnamese family in District 3. The area reminded me of Naples – The Naples of South East Asia if you will.

Vespas speed along the narrow twisted streets as street Vendors sell Chuoi Nuong (Grilled Banana and Coconut Milk) and locals sit elbow to elbow slurping their Pho at the roadside eateries. The food here is incredible. If you are looking for an insight into the real Vietnam, you’ve got that here.

How Long to Spend in HCMC 

There are so many things to do in Ho Chi Minh City that at the very least, you should try to aim to spend at least three or four days here. Dedicating as much as a week to Saigon would not be excessive either, though chances are that you have limited vacation days or are exploring HCMC as part of a wider Vietnam travel itinerary

Opting to spend three or four days in Ho Chi Minh City means that you have sufficient time to cross off all of the most important Ho Chi Minh city attractions (the War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace, the various markets, etc), in addition to allowing a day to travel to the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta, and one more day where you can enjoy wandering the city streets and its neighbourhoods at a more leisurely pace, sipping Vietnamese iced coffee ( Ca Phe Sua Da) from quaint coffee shops, and really getting a feel for the personality of the city. 

Safety Tips for Ho Chi Minh City 

I travelled to Ho Chi Minh and wider Vietnam as a solo female traveller. I generally felt pretty comfortable wandering around by myself, but there are a few safety pointers that you should keep in mind when visiting HCMC.

Keep Your Expensive Items Out of Sight 

Petty theft and muggings are quite a big problem in Vietnam, as they are anywhere where there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor. HCMC appears to have the worst reputation for this and while I never felt unsafe, I feel that a lot of that is to do with the fact that I always kept my expensive items out of view. 

Don’t have your expensive DSLR camera dangling from your neck, don’t flash wads of cash, and try not to walk with your phone out in your hand. I would advise you to follow these rules at all times, but especially when you are out at night or exploring alone. 

Take Care of Your Possessions at all Times 

In addition to keeping your expensive electronics tucked away from view, just be mindful of your bag at all times. Crowded marketplaces are the perfect spot for thieves to quietly unzip your backpack and grab something out of it so consider walking with your bag in front of you in crowded areas. 

Have any further questions about things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, or about visiting Vietnam in general? I have travelled extensively through this country as a solo female traveller, and would be happy to assist with any additional concerns and queries that you may have.

Feel free to ping me an email or drop me a comment below. Wishing you safe and many travels! Melissa xo 

Disclaimer: This article on things to do in Ho Chi Minh City may contain affiliate links. This means that should you choose to make a purchase through some of the links included on this page, I may obtain a small amount of commission charged at no additional charge to you. This aids me in keeping up with the costs of running High Heels and a Backpack and enables me to continue providing free travel advice here. 


Melissa Douglas

Melissa Douglas is a British Travel Writer and Blogger based in Athens, Greece. She writes for numerous high profile travel publications across the globe - including Forbes Travel Guide, Matador Network, The Times of Israel and The Huffington Post.

3 thoughts on “Miss Saigon – 72 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City”

  1. With a Vietnamese coffee in hand — dripped through a sieve and mixed with condensed milk — and eye-catching housewares and clothing by local designers, it’s the perfect place to ponder Ho Chi Minh City’s storied past and bright future.

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  2. Whether it’s the roar of motorbikes, the near constant opening of bars and restaurants, the chatty nature of its inhabitants, or the abundance of great coffee, there’s just something invigorating about Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest metropolis.

    Reply

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