No honest Vietnam traveller is going to tell you that Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is their favourite destination in the Southeast Asian nation. In fact, we recommend new explorers start their itinerary in the southern city and work their way north. This is because though there are some very worthwhile things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, and it’s a great base for day trips into the Mekong Delta. However, the City can be deflating when compared with the rest of the country. Here is a list of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City—it’s short but think quality over quantity.
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A brief history of Ho Chi Minh City
HCMC, located on the banks of the Saigon River (Song Sai Gon), began as a small port town known as Prey Nokor “Forest City”, which was part of the kingdom of Cambodia. During the 17th century, increasing numbers of Vietnamese moved into the area until leaders in the north decided it was fit to seize it from the Khmer.
During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Ho Chi Minh City (known as Saigon at the time) was the capital of French-occupied territory in southern Vietnam. While under French rule, the town was transformed into a major city with Western-style buildings and villas, tree-lined streets and a railway.
HCMC regained capital status between 1945 and 1954 when the country was separated into North and South after the first Indochina War fought against France. During the second Indochina War, aka the “Vietnam War”, Saigon was the headquarters for US military operations. After Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, it was renamed after the late Communist leader Hồ Chí Minh.
Today, HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam by population and is the country’s financial centre. The city exhibits a much more international vibe than the north which is what makes it far less interesting than parts of the country that have been more insulated from outside influence.
Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City
Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market is the place where everyone shops—locals and tourists alike—in one of the Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest surviving buildings. You can find everything from food to handicrafts and souvenirs here. Items are generally more expensive at Ben Thanh than other, less frequented markets so bargain vigorously.
Historic landmarks and architecture
Buildings such as Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Opera House and General Post Office represent some of the grandest French colonial architecture in Vietnam. Take a walking tour around the city to uncover its architectural gems. Styles range from Romanesque and Gothic to art deco and mid-century modern. See this fabulous blog post by Sailingstone for a comprehensive list of colonial buildings in Saigon with pictures.
War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum is comprised of exhibits about the first and second Indochina Wars. It is one of those heavy places that you must visit but will need some time to decompress afterwards. There is some one-sided commentary, as it represents “the other side of the story” in both truth and propaganda. Exhibits include reproductions of “tiger cages” used to house prisoners of war, experimental weapons, a French guillotine used for executions and a graphic photography collection curated by Tim Page, showing the impact of bombing, Agent Orange and napalm. There is also a walled courtyard containing period military equipment such as armoured vehicles, aircraft and artillery. The Museum is open 7:30am-6:00pm and admission in VND40,000 (roughly USD1.75). Captions are in Vietnamese, English and Japanese.
Day trips to the Mekong Delta
Cu Chi Tunnels
This extensive network of tunnels in the Cu Chi District was created over a 25-year period and used during the Indochina wars against France and American-backed Saigon. The Viet Cong—farmers turned guerilla fighters—hid out within these tiny subterranean spaces. They often lived in the tunnels and used them as supply routes, storage and hospitals. It is fascinating to learn about their innovative solutions to challenges such as ventilation and cooking.
You may enter sections of the passageways, but be warned that even the mildest claustrophobia sufferers will find the tight spaces difficult to handle. I bailed out of the tunnel after less than 5mins spent just inside the entrance getting photos, because I didn’t want to go into fully-fledged panic a hundred metres or so in. Make sure you take this day trip anyway—there are plenty above-ground exhibits and activities to keep you occupied while others explore below including demonstrations of booby traps used by the Viet Cong and a shooting range. There are two sections of the tunnels open to visitors, Ben Dinh which is closer to HCMC and more frequented by international tourists, and Ben Duoc where more locals go. There are tours that combine the tunnels with other attractions in the area such as the Cao Dai Holy See.
Cao Dai Holy See
Caodaism was created as a national religion in the 1920’s, by blending various religious beliefs. The faith borrows from Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, Confucianism and Taoism among others. This curious mix is reflected in the quirky, colourful architecture and interiors of the Cao Dai Great Temple in the town of Tay Ninh. The Temple is covered in iconography of the different faiths and spiritual leaders that influence its teachings. You can go inside but dress modestly, ensuring your chest, shoulders and knees are covered. Services can be quietly observed from a mezzanine inside. Cao Dai Holy See tours are usually combined with visits to the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels.
Cái Bè floating market
Board a sampan at Cái Bè, 2-hrs drive from Saigon, and float along the Mekong River observing daily life. Locals wholesale fresh produce, flowers and seafood from boats, as you pass by stilted houses and businesses that spill over the river banks. Continue on to the canals of Vinh Long where you will transfer to a smaller boat to visit local orchards, bee farms, coconut candy factories and other cottage industries in the delta.
Places to eat in Ho Chi Minh City
Here are just a couple of places we ate at and loved in HCMC for Vietnamese cuisine. If for the life of me I can remember the name of the others, I will update:
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City
We had a great experience at the historic Hotel Grand Saigon. Though we generally have a preference for smaller, quieter hotels, we found the property very comfortable with a great breakfast. Hotel Grand’s beautiful French colonial-style building is located in a central spot, enabling us to walk everywhere we wanted to go in HCMC.