Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is a bustling and vibrant Southeast Asian city with beautiful architecture and delicious food. A fascinating mix of modern development and historic charm provides a fun adventure as you explore this dynamic place. In this article, I'll share some of the great things you can do on your next trip to Ho Chi Minh City.
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A Little Bit about Saigon
Located in southeast Vietnam, Saigon was the capital of French Indochina from 1887-1902 and then again from 1945-1954. Following the partition of French Indochina in 1954, it then became the capital of South Vietnam until the fall of Saigon in 1975. The communist government renamed the city after Ho Chi Minh after they took over the city, however, many locals still refer to the city as Saigon. (I'll use the two names interchangeably throughout this article.)
Today, Saigon is known for its French colonial architecture as well as its buzzy street life, including the delicious street food. Walking around some of the small alleyways, you'll be transported to the past with small shops and temples tucked in amidst small houses. But out on the main roads and in the downtown core, you'll feel like you're in any large modern city, complete with lots of crazy traffic and soaring skyscrapers.
In my opinion, this contrast is fascinating and one of the reasons that Ho Chi Minh City is so special.
How to Get To Ho Chi Minh City
Flying to Ho Chi Minh City
If you're flying into Ho Chi Minh City, you'll arrive at Tan Son Nhat International Airport. The airport is right in the heart of the city, so it's a quick ride ~15-minute taxi ride (depending on traffic) to downtown HCMC.
Pro Tip: I recommend that you download the Grab App to your phone before arriving in Vietnam. It's a rideshare app that is widely used throughout Southeast Asia. You can pay by cash or credit card for the rides, but it helps eliminate any scamming that might happen when you hop in a regular taxi.
Other Ways to Get to Ho Chi Minh City
If you're traveling around Southeast Asia, you might prefer to take the slow route and travel to Ho Chi Minh City by bus or train.
You can travel from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City by overnight train which takes ~30-37 hours. It's a long journey so you might want to break up the trip and make some stops along the way.
Alternatively, buses run throughout Southeast Asia to/from various cities. It will inevitably take a bit of time, but it should be much cheaper than flying.
Applying for Vietnam Visa
In order to visit Vietnam, you'll most likely need to apply for a visa. Many foreign citizens can apply for an E-Visa online which is fairly easy. The visa costs 25 USD and takes 3 business days to be approved so be sure to apply in time.
Although there are many third-party companies which you can use to apply for a visa, I found it easy enough to do it through the Vietnam E-Visa Immigration Portal. It's much cheaper that way too as companies charge an additional fee for their services on top of the e-visa fee.
Pro Tip: When entering your name in the e-visa application, it says to put it how it's listed in the bottom of your passport. This means you should write it Surname, Given, Middle. On the next page, it directs you to write your Full name as First, Middle, Last, however, so it's a bit confusing.
In Ho Chi Minh City, we had no trouble getting through immigration listing it the second way. But when Jeremy went to Hanoi for work, they almost didn't let him through because his surname wasn't listed first.
Where to Stay in Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is divided into several districts with District 1 as the city center. Many historic and cultural landmarks are located in Districts 1 and 3. Therefore, I'd recommend staying in one of these districts, especially on a first trip to Saigon. It makes it much easier to walk to the sights you want to see.
Start Searching for a Place to Stay in Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City has a wide range of accommodations you can book - from budget hostels to 5-star luxury hotels. Use the map below to start your search for the perfect place for your trip. Filter by your individual preferences and input your travel dates to see what places are available and what their nightly rates are.
An Excellent Choice - Sofitel Saigon Plaza
During our trip to Ho Chi Minh City, we stayed at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza in District 1. This 5-star luxurious hotel is centrally-located which makes it easy to walk to the main attractions, good restaurants, and lots of cute coffee shops. The rooms are spacious and comfortable with great city views and complimentary bottled water.
Since we were visiting during hot season and I was 5-months pregnant, one of our search criteria was a pool where we could relax during the afternoon heat. The Sofitel's rooftop pool definitely checked that box and had great views as well.
Overall, I recommend the Sofitel if it works for your budget. It's a bit pricier than we'd normally book in Southeast Asia, but we booked through our credit card to get a free night. Plus, we skipped adding breakfast in favor of visiting local cafes.
Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City
In a bustling city like Ho Chi Minh City, you'll find lots of fun activities to fill your days and nights. Since I've only been to Saigon once, I'll give you some ideas of the fun things you can do on a first trip based on our experience. But I'm sure the list could be much longer if you had more time to explore.
1) Eat Lots of Yummy Food on a Street Food Tour
If you're like me, you probably go to a Vietnamese restaurant in your home country occasionally and order the same 2-3 dishes every time. But on this trip, I was determined to explore a variety of dishes. But not knowing any Vietnamese (language), how would I possibly know the best dishes to order to make my foodie dreams come true? The answer - a street food tour!
Street Food Tour with Street Food Man
A friend who lives in Ho Chi Minh City and has gone on several food tours recommended booking a street food tour with Street Food Man. After going on the tour, I highly recommend them as well!
Street Food Man offers both motorbike (you ride as a passenger) and walking street food tours. The tours take place in the evening when the temperatures drop a bit and last ~4 hours. Before the tour, the owner asked if we had any dietary restrictions and they were happy to accommodate and find dishes that worked for us if we did.
Street Food Man Walking Tour
Since I was pregnant, we decided to do the walking tour, not only to avoid risk, but to help us digest along the way. Our local guide picked us up at our hotel in District 1, then we drove in a taxi to District 3 to begin the tour. On the tour, we walked to 6 local shops to eat, winding our way through residential alleys and getting a taste of local life.
About the Food
At each shop, our guide ordered for us and showed us how to properly eat each dish. One thing I love about Vietnamese cuisine is the fresh herbs. At one stop, we played a game tasting a leaf and trying to guess what it was. We got a few correct, but learned a few new ones too!
Our guide showed us how to roll spring rolls for the perfect bite. And at the seafood restaurant, she peeled our prawns for us - I always appreciate that! Below is a collage of a few of the dishes we tried. You can see why we were so full afterwards!
Other Stops on the Food Tour
Along the way, we also stopped at various points of interest like the Nguyen Thien Thuat apartment buildings. Constructed in 1968 and originally housed American soldiers, they're a piece of old Saigon.
We also walked through the Ho Thi Ky Flower Market which I'll mention again later.
2) Admire French Colonial Architecture
Ho Chi Minh City is known for its well-preserved French colonial architecture, so just walking around the city and admiring those beautiful buildings is a fun activity in itself. Here are a few buildings of note, though I'm sure there are others!
Saigon Central Post Office
Constructed between 1886-1891, the Saigon Central Post Office reminds me a bit of a European train station. It's still a functioning post office today, but is also a popular tourist destination. When you step inside, you can feel the history as you look at the old maps and phone booths at the entrance.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon
The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica in Saigon is a beautiful rose cathedral with twin bell towers built with bricks from Toulouse, France between 1863 and 1880. Although it was closed for renovation when we visited, I've read that inside it has stunning stained-glass windows and tiles from Marseilles.
People's Committee Building
The Ho Chi Minh City Hall, or People's Committee Building, was built between 1902 and 1908 and is another popular spot for photos. In front of city hall is a long esplanade leading to the Saigon River, which is a popular spot for locals to walk and hang out once the sun goes down. It's quite empty during the day - for good reason - as there's very little shade.
Saigon Municipal Opera House
Built in 1897, the Saigon Municipal Opera House, or Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, operated as a theater for several years. In 1956, it became the house of the National Assembly, then the People's Assembly. In 1976, it was finally restored to its original purpose as theater.
3) Step Back in Time while Visiting Independence Palace
Independence Palace is a popular historic site that you should not miss on a visit to Ho Chi Minh City. The current building was constructed from 1962-1966 to replace Norodom Palace, which was badly damaged during bombings. Independence Palace served as the presidential home and workplace for the Republic of Vietnam until the fall of Saigon in 1975.
In 1976, Independence Palace was recognized as a National Cultural and Historical Relic. Today, you can tour the full palace and walk the beautiful green grounds surrounding it for only a few dollars.
Pro Tip: Arrive early and, if possible, visit during the week to visit Independence Palace. The palace is also a popular spot for Vietnamese tourists and was quite crowded on the weekend. If you go on the weekend, also be prepared to give an interview or two to help local students practice their English.
When we visited, it took around 1.5 hours to fully tour the palace. With its lavish furnishings, beautiful views, and war rooms in the basement, it's like taking a step back in time, but not too far, to walk around this palace.
4) Shop for Souvenirs at Ben Thanh Market
This central market of Ho Chi Minh City is a great spot to visit to get a taste of a local market, but also to shop for souvenirs and grab a bite to eat. In the market, you find everything from fruits and vegetables to handicraft items, such as lacquerware and embroidery.
The market opens early each morning at 6:00am and closes by evening. Due to the heat, I recommend going early for a more pleasant shopping experience.
5) Caffeinate in Awesome Coffee Shops
If you're a coffee lover like me, then Saigon is the place for you. Coffee shops are all around! So, whenever you feel the need to escape from the heat or need a break, you can duck into a coffee shop to caffeinate. Some also have delicious yogurt fruit smoothies.
6) Soak in the Nightlife
Nightlife comes in many forms in Ho Chi Minh City. Because it's so hot during the day, the streets seem empty. But once the sun goes down, the city takes on a buzzy atmosphere which lures you out onto the streets.
As you can imagine, night time is the best time to explore the street food scene. It's not nearly so hot to sit outside on those plastic stools slurping hot soup once the sun is gone. The same can be said for walking along the riverfront or hanging out on the promenade in front of the People's Committee Building. It's a fun collection of tourists taking photos and locals just hanging out. Some even come to show off their pets.
Ho Chi Minh City is also home to some awesome cocktail bars that I'm sad I didn't get to experience this time around. From rooftop bars with great views to hidden speakeasy bars, you'll have a great variety from which to choose in Saigon.
7) Take a Day Tour to the Mekong Delta
If you have time in your Ho Chi Minh City itinerary, taking a day tour to the Mekong Delta is a great opportunity to get out of the city and experience a slower pace of life.
Only about a 2-hour drive from Saigon (90km), the Mekong Delta is a famous for being the "rice bowl of Vietnam" and provides a large amount of fresh produce to the rest of the country. Its lush jungles are home to a variety of fruit trees. And the network of rivers and waterways winding through the islands means that boats are everywhere. While in the Mekong Delta, you can visit floating markets, enjoy fresh fruit, and admire Buddhist temples.
Our Mekong Delta Tour
We booked a 1-day private tour with Saigon Adventure which began around 8:30 am and got us back to the hotel around 4:00 pm. Our guide was very knowledgeable and shared a lot of information with us throughout the day.
Visiting the Mekong Delta Islands
On the tour, we stopped at many local farms and small producers, such as a bee farm - where Jeremy made a new friend - and a coconut candy-making factory. We also stopped to eat fresh, delicious tropical fruits while listening to Vietnamese folk music performed by islanders.
To get around to the islands in the Mekong Delta, we took a variety of boats - a larger motorboat to get us across the Mekong River, a smaller motorboat in some of the islands' larger canals, and finally a paddle boat to go through the narrow waterways.
Pro Tip: Be sure to bring CASH and SMALL CHANGE with you on the tour. Not only will you want to purchase some local goods, but it's good to have small change for tips for boat drivers and local performers.
Lunch by the Canal
After making several stops, we rested for lunch around noon and were presented with a delicious feast. It was much more than the two of us could have hoped to eat. The view of the water was quite relaxing and the park grounds were lovely.
Vinh Trang Temple
Our final stop of the day before heading back to our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City was at Vinh Trang Temple - a Buddhist temple near My Tho. We toured the grounds and our guide shared a bit more about local Buddhist culture with us.
8) Drink Delicious Local Craft Beer
Unlike many countries in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has a local craft beer scene! When we booked our trip to Saigon, before I knew I was pregnant, I had big plans to visit all the breweries. That didn't go so well for me, but Jeremy tried his best to make up for me and tried several of the local brews.
Here are a few local craft breweries you should visit if you love a good pint:
9) Visit the Sobering War Remnants Museum
When visiting a city like Ho Chi Minh City, it's easy to focus on the modern developments and enjoy what the city has to offer today. But I believe it's important to also acknowledge the history and the legacy of the Indochina Wars and the American-Vietnamese War. Visiting the War Remnants Museum is one way to do that and reflect on the history that shaped this country.
Walking around the museum and reading the signs, it's interesting to see how the history is portrayed from a different viewpoint. Growing up in the U.S., the focus and language of the histories I read were slightly different from what is presented in a museum in Vietnam. (It was the same when we lived in Laos and visited the history museums there.) Seeing events from a different perspective is just another reason why I think travel is so crucial to being more open-minded and accepting.
10) Wander Ho Thi Ky Flower Market
The largest flower market in Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Thi Ky Flower Market is a beautiful piece of old Saigon in District 10. The market is open 24 hours but is most crowded during the early mornings and evenings.
The flowers come primarily from Dalat, the Mekong Delta, and other countries. Each night, flower distributers bring in fresh flowers to restock the market. Wandering through the streets, you'll be wowed by the beautiful array of colors and floral displays.
As you can see, Ho Chi Minh City is a vibrant city with so many activities to enjoy. I hope that this list gives you some inspiration when you're planning your trip to Vietnam!
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