The city of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) is growing just as fast as the popularity of Vietnam as a travel destination. A lot has changed in since I was there seven years ago. Mostly for the better. The city felt cleaner, safer and a lot more visually striking. While the vibes of it chaotic streets, small bars and cafes and everything else that makes the city and country so thrilling were still very much intact.
I visited Ho Chi Minh with my mom. My mother isn’t the type to sit by a hotel pool and waste away so we spent our days out experiencing the city in full force. Here’s how we did it over the course of three days.
How to read this post:
I’ve broken this post up so that you can pick and choose what you may like out of your trip in Saigon depending on your time, budget and interests.
Where to Stay
District 1 is where I’d suggest to base yourself for a few day stop-over. This is the heart of the city. The majority of all major landmarks are within walking distance if you are staying pretty much anywhere in District One. It is just 20 mins from the Airport.
We were staying at the very centrally located Sheraton twin towers in the heart of Saigon. From the Sheraton, we were able to walk to all the highlights below.
Day One: Landmark Highlights & Relaxing intro into the City
Attraction 1: Cafe Appartments: Cost – Varies
If you’re a coffee lover than Vietnam is heaven on earth. Same goes if you love bread. A Vietnamese coffee and Bahn Mi sandwich could be my staple diet for a lifetime. We walked to Nguyen Hue Walking street which is a large open outdoor square. Here there is a deteriorated looking white apartment building that looks like a bit of an eyesore. But on closer inspection, you can see that it’s actually a 9 story building full of quality cafe’s and restaurants. You’ll need to go to the left of the bookstore and either climb some stairs or pay for the elevator to go up to one of the cafes. Nearly all over little balconies where you can look out and see people walking through the square. I highly recommend everyone do this instead of going to the Starbucks across the street.
Attraction 2: Bến Thành Market: Cost – Free
We started with the Bến Thành Market. The market built during the French colonialism has quite a bit of history to the original trading in the city. Now it is filled with knock-off wallets, watches and clothing. You might find something you like in here but I found it to be over-crowded, hot and not my type of place.
Tip: At night the outside of the market turns into a night market, where you can get more of the knock-off items.
Attraction 3: War Remnants Museum: Cost – 40K Dong:
Next up was the War Remnants Museum located a 15-minute walk from the Bến Thành Market. This is personally one of my favourite museums anywhere on earth. It’s not the building is particularly special or anything it’s just simply because of the how the museum brings out such emotion. I easily spent 90 minutes to 2 hours both times I visited it. It’s a very moving place and a fair account of what happened in a war that so few seem to know how it came about.
Attraction 4: Independence Palace: Cost – 20K Dong
A five-minute walk from the museum is Independence Palace. This building was the ending place of the Vietnam war when a tank from the northern Vietnam army road through the wall of the palace. The building itself is not very striking. I found most rooms and spaces to be closed off to the public. They do have audio guides if you are a history fanatic.
Attraction 5: Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica: Cost – Free
Onward we went to the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. It was under construction while I was there but it is a very grand church. If you’ve been to Europe this probably isn’t too fascinating but these types of buildings and architecture is rare in southeast Asia so it’s something to see. Directly beside the church is the post- office. Also built during the French influence.
Attraction 6: Rooftops: Cost – Varies
Next week head to the Majestic Hotel’s Breeze Rooftop Bar. This rooftop offered great views overlooking the river and what will probably soon be a skyline of highrises. Rooftop bars are very popular in the Ho Chi Minh. We also jumped over to the sky bar in the Sheraton which gave better views of being surrounded by the newly built city. A rooftop bar is a must while in the city. Here are a few of the best.
Attraction 7: Massage: Cost – Varies
Like in most Southeast Asian countries massages are a popular activity for travellers who would like to unwind without breaking the bank. You can find massage parlours all around the city with varying price ranges. Often ladies will be handing out flyers in the tourist areas. Take a bit of time to find one that looks good and has a decent price.
Day 2: Củ Chi Tunnels & Nightlife
Morning: Cu Chi Tunnels
Pretty much every tour to Saigon consists of a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are the infamous tunnels that were used by the Viet Cong during the war. The sheer size of the tunnel network is hard to believe along with the fact they lived the majority of their lives underground at that time. It’s really remarkable.
How To get to the Tunnels
The thing about this tourist attraction is that literally, everyone is going. I haven’t been to a site that was so busy for some time. One saving grace was the mode of transportation we took to get to the tunnels. Instead of a bus or hiring a taxi we decided to take a river speedboat to the tunnels with Les Rives Authentic River Experience. We were picked up just after 8 am from our hotel and taken to the pier. The tour coming with a Bahn Mi sandwich and tea or Vietnamese coffee for breakfast.
The speedboat carries around 12 people and heads upstream through the Saigon river. The total trip is about an hour each way and you receive a guide for the tunnels. This was a treat due to the intensity of the crowds navigating through the place.
As for the tunnels you can only go in 2 or 3 of them. While the tour was interesting and our guide was very informative. The place itself leaves you wanting a bit more besides what they are showing you with the conveyor belt of an attraction.
The return journey from Les Rives includes a very nice lunch and as much coke, water and tea as you can drink on the way home. It certainly has to be the most relaxing way to visit such a busy attraction.
This is more costly than taking the bus but they have the whole thing down to a science and the boat ride was actually a highlight of the whole experience.
Evening: Nightlife on Bui Vien Street
We chose to use this night to check out the nightlife in Saigon. Although I hadn’t heard a lot about the party area on Bui Vien Street before our visit and I’m not sure why. The area which is thriving with bars, restaurants, clubs, street food, hotels, hostels and of course plastic tables and chairs to sit and drink beer at.
I’m not the first to say this, but it feels like Bangkok’s Khoa San Road. Same Same but different. Bue Vien Street, also known as backpackers street is the travellers’ place to go and have a drink and night on the town. It’s rough and ready with a ton of place to grab a cheap beer and then trickle into the dance bars. The road wasn’t closed to vehicles when I was there which makes it a bit hectic to walk up and down but then again, so is every street in Saigon.
If you want to meet a more local and expat crowd there are more upscale clubs in the central city.
Day 3: Discover the city with a Scooter Tour & Watch an evening Performance
Morning: City Scooter Tour
Ho Chi Minh is exceptionally diverse. Because of its massive infrastructure growth over the last decade, it has seen some major changes to its districts, making each one very different than the last.
Taking a scooter tour is the fastest, most fun and most authentic way of seeing all the different areas of the city. There is a wide range of moto tour companies and tour styles to take. You can book online or there are travel agencies on nearly every corner to book with.
You can save money by finding a freelance tour guide. Depending on the season you can go into a travel agency and book a tour with a freelance moto tour guide. If you have a small group of 2 or 3 it could be likely that if the guides weren’t booked through their main employer they can take you on a private tour. This is a safe and professional way to take the tour with an English speaking guide. It basically just boils down to finding an agent that will call one of these guides for you. This will likely only work if you’re booking a tour for that same day, as the guides will take the tours from their employer first. My mom and I did this and paid 60% less than if we had booked directly with a company.
The tours give some great insight into how life is in each district. I really recommend taking one of these tours to truly get a feel for this great city. It can also be a perfect way to try some great foods you haven’t even heard of.
Evening: Opera House – An Authentic Local Performance
Are you a fan of the opera? Well, I’m not but fortunately, the Opera House in Ho Chi Minh has more than just Opera. The Lune Production Company runs performances with music, dance and costumes authentic to Vietnam. The performance I saw was Teh Dar. They rotate the shows through the month so check the website to see what’s showing when you’re there. There are 3 tiers of seating. Going from 630K Dong, 1.1 Mil Dong and the best seats at 1.47 Mil Dong.
There is also water puppet shows nightly. The shows that originated in the north are entertaining and cheaper but not quite as exhilarating. Both are a great way to spend the evening.
That’s how I spent my time in Ho Chi Minh. Hope it helps you plan your trip!
Have you been already? What did I miss or you do differently? Let me know in the comments.