Looking for things to do in Ho Chi Minh City? The southern Vietnamese city, still known as Saigon, is an urban playground begging to be explored.
I have come to the conclusion that the hatred tourists have for Ho Chi Minh boils down a misunderstanding of the city. To many, Saigon comes off as very lackluster: the attractions are few, the heat is oppressive, the tours are pricey, and the scams are rampant. A friend of mine remarked, “…Never need to go back to Saigon. Ever.” But if you take the time to get to know the city, you’ll find Saigon is always buzzing with activity, yet maintains a serenity most big cities lack. Life here is dynamic: crossing the street has never been a recreational sport for me until now. There is no greater thrill than jumping on the back of a motorbike to get from point A to point B. The gastronomical spread is mind-blowing and won’t blow a hole in your wallet. And there are a number of social events such as rooftop pool parties and underground dance battles to keep things interesting. Want more things to do in Ho Chi Minh City? Continue reading!
1. Mail a letter at General Post Office
While the Saigon Central Post Office’s fame is due to its accredited architect, Gustave Eiffel, I recently discovered that this is an erroneous merit. The design was simply based on work by the architect of the beloved Eiffel Tower. Nonetheless, the interior of the cheerful post office feels as if its been transplanted from an early 20th century railway station in Europe. At the entrance to your right, above the row of outdated phone booths, is a painted map of Saigon circa the 1800s. On the back wall of the post office, a warm-looking portrait of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh presides over the hall, beaming at all the post office goers drafting their letters. Look for Mr. Duong Van Ngo, an endearing, elderly man who has been translating Vietnamese letters into English and French since the Vietnamese war.
Where? 2 Cong Xa Paris, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
2. Hang with locals at Turtle Lake
Turtle Lake, the nickname for a roundabout in District 3, is a local haunt to munch on the city’s best street food. After sundown, Saigon’s residents, both old and young, family and friends, flock to this artificial pond to eat bánh tráng nướng (grilled rice paper taco) and bánh tráng trộn (rice paper salad). Most Vietnamese living abroad wouldn’t recognize these dishes as they are staples of new-age Vietnamese cuisine. They incorporate protein like pork floss, dried baby shrimp, and tiny quail eggs and also feature the use of butter, a rarity in traditional Vietnamese cooking. The ambience at this location is the best in the city!
Where? (also known as ‘Hai Con Rua’) Vo Van Tan and Tran Cao Van Streets, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
3. Get a history lesson on The Vietnam War
I apologize in advance for the use of an extremely happy photo of me as I visited one of the world’s most devastated regions but this is the only photo that shows the actual size of these holes. Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding rural areas were the epicenter for military activity during the time of the Vietnam War and to this day, the South bears a painful legacy of wartime. In District 3, a visit to theWar Remnants Museum is an absolute must.!It will give you a holistic overview of “the American War” according to the Vietnamese, showcasing grotesque pictures of war crimes including Nick Ut’s award-winning photo, Napalm Girl. The mood is mournful and somber, so mentally ready yourself. One hour outside of HCMC are the legendary Cu Chi tunnels, dug by Viet Cong living in the area who strategically used these tunnels to evade military efforts by the Americans to neutralize them. Even though the tunnels were enlarged for tourist-use, they are still very small and can be claustrophobic.
For a detailed look at my daytrip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, click here.
Where? The War Remnants Museum, 28 Võ Văn Tần in District 3
Hours: 7:30 AM – 6:00 PM every day
Cost:15,000 VND for foreigners | 2,000 VND for Vietnamese
4. See the city’s remaining French influence
The French presence in Vietnam lasted for more than half a century before communism ousted the colonials in 1945. To this day, you will find vestiges of the colonial occupation in Vietnamese culture.The nationwide love of coffee is a French legacy. 11% of the Vietnamese population identify as Catholic. Within the cuisine itself, perfectly-baked baguettes are the base of the ever-popular banh mi sandwich, as well as a needed accompaniment bò né, Vietnamese steak and eggs. The Post Office, Opera House, City Hall, Hotel Majestic, and Basilica of Saigon were all crafted by French minds.
5. Check out the lively food and cafe scene
Nothing has impressed me more about Saigon than the food scene! Every day, I discover something and/or somewhere new to eat! At every turn, a street food vendor is assembling a bowl of noodles or frying up some bot chien (fried rice cakes). I am a die-hard fan of street food and I have not gotten sick once from sampling street food in the two months I’ve been here. Tired of Vietnamese food? The selection for international eats ranges from American-style smoked barbecue to Baja-fresh corn flour tacos to Japanese fusion pizza.
And you won’t be left thirsty either! The profuse number of cafes offering decadent drip coffee with condensed milk is absurd. I have now come to appreciate coffee in a way I never have before. Honestly, I prefer cafe hopping to bar hopping here in HCMC. There are also fruit juice stands that pump out freshly-pressed juices using the local produce — think: passionfruit, dragonfruit, mangosteen — to quench your thirst in the hot Saigon weather. Everything is sweetened here though so if you aren’t into syrupy drinks, you can ask the vendor to ease up on the sugar.
For the ultimate guide to eating street food in Ho Chi Minh City, click here.
- Take a trip to The Mekong Delta, known as the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam. Canoe down murky waterways teeming with vegetation and life that feed most of the southern half of Vietnam. Day tours provide a stopover at Vinh Trang Pagoda in My Tho and an overnight trip allows you to catch the bustle of a traditional Vietnamese floating market in the early morning.
- Propaganda Vietnamese Bistro was one of the first “surprises,” I came across in Saigon, for both the price and the menu, and cannot be missed. All the ingredients are locally sourced and the walls are illustrated with propaganda-esque murals that inspired the name for this cozy bistro.
- Looking for some exotic delicacies and a date with the locals? Schedule your dinner at Snail Street for a sample of freshwater snails from the Mekong as well as other fantastic shellfish like crabs and scallops.
- For all your budget needs, try Bui Vien Street (and the general Pham Ngu Lao area). This area is known as the backpacking hub of Saigon. In exchange for cheap digs, you’ll sacrifice a good night’s worth of rest. But, there are some pretty good food spots such as Baba’s Kitchen, the best Indian food in the city hands down.
- Want to be adventurous with street food but feeling nervous? Opt for The Street Food Market, a newly erected outdoor/indoor food spot located on the street behind Ben Thanh Market to eat some good street food without the fear of stomach woes.
- Saigon has some stylish buys and the best way to procure these artisanal goods, especially custom-tailored clothing, is to walk down Dong Khoi Street. Le Loi Street also has beautiful boutique stores that specialize in home decor like Duy Tan and L’Usine.
- Ben Thanh Market has become over-commercialized and everything is double the price. The Night Market in Ben Thanh is where I’ve encountered the rudest Vietnamese people (note: everyday Vietnamese people are the NICEST in the world).
- Don’t pick up cabs in front of the War Remnants Museum. They will rip you off 5 times… even 10times the actual price of a cab!
- Be careful of your purse and phone. HCMC is notorious for bag and phone snatchers. Passing motorcyclists will rob you blind if you aren’t careful. Be weary of taking your phone out on the street for pictures.
- Personally, The Reunification Palace is a bore (and this is coming from a museum enthusiast)! If you are short on time, it’s something to bypass.
WHERE TO STAY
Go the Airbnb route in HCMC. Stay in District 1 or District 3 to be close to all the attractions. Places may be a bit pricier in those areas but what you save on transportation costs is well-worth it. Private rooms start at $11 and entire homes go for around $30 per night. Bonus: most Vietnamese homes are tastefully-decorated, serviced apartments which means you’ll have maid service, fantastic wifi, and some come with pools! My favorite Airbnb is Christina’s Vietnam.
More Vietnam “Whereabouts” guides here:
🚩 Things To Do in Hanoi
🚩 Things To Do in Hoi An
🚩 Things To Do in Da Lat
Wow, I love the layout of your blog! The graphic at the beginning really adds to it. And good suggestions for what to do in Saigon
Thank you so much for the compliments and the feedback. I’m really glad to see that the header image is doing its job to engage any visitors to the site 🙂
OMG the cu chi tunnels were made larger for tourists?! We sadly didn’t make it down south, but we really want to come back to Vietnam and see some things we missed HCMC being one of them. Scott did the tunnels during his first trip to Vietnam and said how he could barely fit, I am nervous about being so cramped up in there! You give some other great advice on this post we will have to use when we do finally go! I really wanted to do the Mekong Delta when we do make it 🙂 Thanks for sharing some great tips!
I know how crazy is that?! But only a 300m stretch of the tunnels were and most people don’t even attempt to go through them. I only made it halfway and I was considered one of the “brave” ones but that just cause its so effin hot down there! And yes you need to make it to the south if not for the sites, then at least for the food!!!
This is what I consider a complete guide with everything from tourist spots (and places to avoid) to the local food. Vietnam’s been on my bucket list because of the food. I love it and can’t wait to try the straight out of Vietnam cuisine. Also, that hole looks so tiny!
Thank you so much for the love! I am such a fan of your blog (will comment more in the future, I promise :P) and the compliment really means a lot to me coming from you. And that hole WAS super tiny that’s why I was so damn happy I fit! Being in Vietnam has cemented that Vietnamese food is indeed my favorite food in the entire world. And its pretty damn healthy too! Come visit anytime!
Oh wow, how tiny must those tunnels at Cu Chi have been before they were enlarged?! I can’t even imagine what it must have been like down there. I also love the graphic at the beginning of your post by the way.
Vietnamese people are really tiny so it makes sense but its also incredibly hot down there and you have to understand people were living underground too so its absurd to think about the state of their living conditions! And thanks for the compliment on the graphics 😉 Feeling the love right now for sure!
“Such as rooftop pool parties and underground dance battles to keep things interesting…”
I never listen to those folks telling me bad things about a city since most of them are not really into travelling and whine about many things most of the time.
Ho Chi Minh City, I have heard from a few friends, though, is fascinating, and, judging by your absolutely sexy post (sexy, because it is thorough and looks greatly designed), it really is!
I hope to get there at some point of time since I am in love with Asia, and I am always reading stuff about the countries in SE Asia.
Cheers on the amazing article, Izzi!
I love that you used sexy to describe my post! That’s not an adjective that gets thrown around a lot in this context so I will take the originality. And good for you for making your own decision about a place. It’s really important to establish our own ideas about things lest we become sheep in the herd. Plus everyone reacts to places in different ways. And Asia is fantastic. I’ve lived in four different Asian countries already and I am so surprised at how much diversity there is. Living in this continent feels new and exciting every day. I hope you make it out here soon! And thank you very much again for the positivity!
Looks like you’re really enjoying the city! Thanks for the safety tips, it is so important to know what to expect in new places. I take it for granted that I can use my cell phone on the streets of new york and not worry too much about being robbed!! I guess so many motorbikes change things up a bit!! Love the pictures too!
I keep on realizing more and more that I’m a city girl. I always need to be “stimulated” with possibilities. I absolutely agree with you that safety is imperative. It saddens me that so many people come to Vietnam uninformed about certain things and when they become a victim of these reckless crimes, they forever have a bad taste of Vietnam. My ignorance cost me a lot of grief when traveling to India. And yea, assault by motorbike is next-level stressfulness!
A great read and I really love your visuals! Are you the artist? The food scene sounds like a dream, so creative! I’m all for quail’s eggs. I’ve never been to Vietnam, but I’ve heard opposing views. Your post may have just tipped the scales. Thanks!
Ahhh, yea 😛 I do all the graphic design on this site. I advertise this blog as a pseudo-journal so the graphics are basically a digital translation of what I would be doing in a journal were I writing. I love quail eggs as well! A perfect amount of egg-y goodness! Vietnam is really a hit-or-miss but for me, so far so good 🙂 My boyfriend is not a fan so you can definitely see their are polarized feelings even within the same household!
Wow! I love all your graphics and the layout of this post. And that Banh Trang Nuong look delicious, like a big taco hahah! Headed to Vietnam in December but not sure if we’re gonna make Ho Chi Minh but if we do, I’ll be hitting these spots!
Thank you so much for the compliments 🙂 Dude, its the best thing you’ll eat! I think I even like them better than tacos since they aren’t as heavy but they’re packed full of flavor and crunch. The southerners love spicy food unlike the northerners (so I’ve heard). There’s so much more to do though in the north so its a smart move on your part to concentrate on one area of the country as opposed to tackling it all. Enjoy your trip xox
You made visiting Ho Chi Minh city so much fun and shared some of the things we were heard off! Coming back here while planning a trip to Vietnam! 🙂
Don’t miss it! There’s such a huge culinary difference between the north and south that you’re short-changing yourself if you don’t make it here.
Looks like you’re having a blast – I’d love to make it out there for the food alone! I’m such a sucker for noodles and street food, I feel like a few weeks and they’d have to expand those tunnels more if I wanted to check them out :p
It’s so hot here so you never have to worry about gaining weight and they’re really good on portion control and adding veggies to the mix. I swear, I love being able to eat whatever I want and not stressing out about getting too big!
Tricia @ The Adventure List
First, fantastic post filled with wonderful info. Second, questions: what is pork floss? Rice paper? Is that super thin? The tacos look delicious. I want to try one! Third, you’re an ESL teacher??? I want to pick your brain. Lol I want to ESL teach in Vietnam. Last, holy crap those tunnels are small.
Thank you so much for your enthusiasm Tricia! What a thoughtful comment. Pork floss is dried pork meat that’s shredded so finely it resembles the consistency of cotton candy floss. Rice paper is super, super thin. Have you ever had a fresh Vietnamese spring roll? Its the same rice paper wrapper, only frilled. And yes I am an English teacher here in Vietnam and I will be coming out with a post on how to go about teaching in Vietnam that I promise to send you the minute its complete! 🙂 Omg, sooo small. I think there was a time I almost gave up walking through because it was just way too tiny down thre.
Tricia @ The Adventure List
Thanks for answering my questions. I want to try pork floss now. Mmmm with some seasoning on a bun. Oh I’m hungry now. I look forward to reading your teaching post!
From reading your posts, I find myself falling more and more in love with Vietnam! What a wonderful place to travel and I can’t wait to go one day. The street food at Turtle Lake looks absolutely fabulous and I want to eat it all–especially the rice tacos. It also looks like a great spot to people watch!
You’re Mexican right? I would be so interested to see what you think of their take on tacos. And schedule a trip here for your upcoming winter vacation! You know you are always welcome to stay with me 😀
Great tips! I never realized HCMC was home to such a cafe scene– or to so much European inspired architecture. I have been thinking about going to Vietnam next winter and now I have some inspiration for when I do. Also, nice photo collage. Very cute!
I know, it was a pleasant surprise coming here especially since I’m doing so much blogging. I just cafe hop on my down days and enjoy the bomb coffees here and their fast wifi. You should absolutely come here for your next winter break! The weather will be great then!
I loved your illustrations, super unique! I also enjoyed learning a bit more about a city I don’t much about.
Thank you for the compliment and happy to educate where I can 🙂
Vietnam has been at the top of our “to do right” list for some time. Hopefully we will be making the trip very soon so this post will come in handy! I’m so glad you’ve included information on which places could/should be avoided. So many times, we’ve gone somewhere based on a photo just to realize that the photo is the one and only reason to go there. Great work, Izzy. I’m excited to see this country and now I feel like we’ve got a leg up!
“To do right!” Haha I love it! I need to address my lists like that from now on. I’m going to keep blogging about Vietnam obviously and when the time comes that you find yourselves here, please be sure to contact me! I would be more than happy to take you guys around! 😀
What a very detailed post. And you look very, very happy knowing and getting around the city. That’s very important in living in a new place. Will look forward to more posts and more photos of you. Cheers!
I’m glad that my happiness is translating in pictures! I concur that joy is a necessity when moving somewhere new. 😀
This is such a great post! I can’t wait to head down there in a few months and this list you put together is so helpful. As always your smile is larger than life and your graphics are incredible. I book marked this to reference in a month or so!
Laura, please pleaseeeee contact me when you’re in town! Also thank you for that beauty comment (you know that it means a lot to me and I took it also as a comment about my inner beauty since a smile is more about that then anything else.) I am loving all your Laos photos!!
I need grilled rice paper tacos in my life! It sounds so good! I definitely bookmarked this page for if I do have the pleasure of visiting. AND your illustrations are incredible! Have you studied graphic design?
Those grilled rice paper tacos make living here incredible. And actually I’m self-taught in graphic design but I’ve been doing it ever since I was 13 so its been a decade of playing around with digital art. I love that the blog allows me to marry my passion for writing with my graphic work. And here I thought it would only be a hobby 😛