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13 Unmissable Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City

13 Unmissable Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it’s still affectionately known, is a bustling metropolis with an intoxicating blend of old-world charm and modern energy.

When I first set foot in this vibrant city, I was immediately swept up in its atmosphere and street culture that dominates every corner. From mouthwatering street food to historical sites that tell tales of resilience, there’s something for every traveler to enjoy in Ho Chi Minh City.

In this article, I’m excited to share my favorite things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. I’ll also include some of the best day trips you can take to see the marvels surrounding this enchanting megacity.

Tips for Perfecting Your Saigon Visit

Top Places to Visit in Ho Chi Minh City

Not let’s get down to business with our list of the absolute-must things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.

Gaze Upon the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon

An aerial view of a large cathedral in Ho Chi Minh city and some traffic around it
Notre Dame Cathedral

Ho Chi Minh City’s Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica is a captivating piece of architecture that transports you to another time and place with its fusion of colonial and gothic styles. Its distinctive red-brick facade and twin spires make for an iconic backdrop for photos.

It is officially known as the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception but that is a bit of a mouthful!

Close up of a gray statue of a woman with a black bird on its head and a pink Vietnamese cathedral behind
the front of the Cathedral

Beyond its religious and historical importance, the Notre Dame Cathedral has become an iconic symbol of Ho Chi Minh City. Its location in the bustling District 1, surrounded by government buildings and high-end boutiques, juxtaposes the old with the new, creating a captivating blend of cultures and eras.

The Cathedral is included on this Saigon half day tour and on the Ho Chi Minh Double Decker Sightseeing Bus.

Shop with the Locals at Ben Thanh Market

Exterior of a colonial era market building in Ho Chi Minh
Ben Thanh Market

Ben Thanh Market is the epitome of Vietnamese markets where you can find virtually anything your heart desires.

I spent hours getting lost in the hundreds of isles looking at everything from clothing, jewelry, and handicrafts to street food and fresh produce. This market offers a sensory overload that’s both thrilling and mesmerizing.

Mounds of dried fruits in a local Vietnamese market
Dried fruits for sale in the market

Don’t forget to haggle for the best deals! The best time to go is early in the morning, around 8 AM, as sellers believe the first customer of the day must buy something for good luck.

My absolute favorite dish to try here is Bún thịt nướng, a cold noodle salad with marinated pork, peanuts, and a sweet and spicy sauce.

Remind Yourself of the Country’s Brutal Past at the War Remnants Museum

Rows of bullets on display in a war museum in Ho Chi Minh
Bullet shells on display

Vietnam is mostly known for its wild cities and stunning natural scenes but its dark and depressing past is still in our living memory. The Vietnam War played a huge part in how the country functions today but also made an impact on much of the world.

Visiting HCMC offers a golden opportunity to learn more about this dark time in history nowhere is it better documented than at the War Remnants Museum.

A large gun inside a vehicle on display at War Remnants Museum
Face-to-face with Vietnam’s past

The War Remnants Museum offers an insightful, albeit sobering, glimpse into Vietnam’s turbulent past. As you wander through the exhibitions, you’ll encounter powerful photographs, military equipment, and first-hand accounts that shed light on the Vietnam War.

It’s a humbling experience that provides valuable context for your visit to Ho Chi Minh City. The museum is included on this tour.

Savor Street Food Delights

A Vietnamese rice paper crepe with various toppings on a grill
Bánh tráng or “rice paper crepe”

No trip to Ho Chi Minh City is complete without indulging in the world-renowned street food. Street food in Saigon is extremely cheap, with most dishes costing under $2 and the preparation methods are nothing short of ingenious.

Many street vendors prepare a dish with recipes that have been passed down for generations and they take the utmost pride in their creations. See our guide to Vietnamese street foods to find out what your options will include.

A row of glasses containing various jellies, fruits, and coconut milk
Che dessert drinks

You can venture into Bui Vien Street at night for an after-dark street food extravaganza or sit around Turtle Lake for a more relaxed atmosphere, taking your time to taste from various vendors who park their stalls around the fountain.

During the day you will find all manner of food around, try everything from snails to rice paper omelets, and don’t forget a giant cup of ice-cold Kumquat tea to beat the summer heat.

Immerse Yourself in Incense Smoke at Jade Emperor Pagoda

Exterior and entrance of a pink temple in Ho Chi Minh
The city’s most atmospheric temple

Jade Emperor Pagoda is arguable the most atmospheric in Ho Chi Minh City. Thing billows of incense, wild statues (some borderline terrifying), praying locals, and beautiful tile work.

Јаdе Еmреrоr Раgоdа wаѕ оnlу еѕtаblіѕhеd јuѕt оvеr а hundrеd уеаrѕ аgо bу а Сhіnеѕе іmmіgrаnt tо thе сіtу. Lіkе mаnу Сhіnеѕе tеmрlеѕ, іt соmbіnеѕ еlеmеntѕ оf Таоіѕm, Вuddhіѕm, аnd Соnfuсіаnіѕm, but thе mаіn dеіtу wоrѕhірреd hеrе іѕ thе Јаdе Еmреrоr, thе rulеr оf hеаvеn.

A hanging intricate golden carving inside a temple
Detailed carvings in the temple

The temple also goes by the names Chùa Ngọc Hoàng and Phước Hải Tự, in case you’re having trouble locating it. If you’d rather have a local take you there, then book a city tour with a motorcycle driver!

Find more cool temples in the city and across the country with our Vietnam temples guide!

Experience a Cyclo Ride

A young Asian couple riding on the front of a cyclo with an elderly Vietnamese driver at the back
Fun way to explore Ho Chi Minh

A cyclo ride in Saigon is a delightful and unique way to explore the bustling streets of this vibrant city. Seated comfortably in the front of a three-wheeled cyclo, you’ll hand over the role of navigator to your skilled driver, who will expertly weave through the city’s chaotic traffic.

It’s an opportunity to take in the sensory overload of sights, sounds, and scents that define Saigon’s urban landscape. Here’s a video to show you what it’s like:

YouTube video

As you leisurely pedal along, you’ll be immersed in the vibrant street life, passing by bustling markets, historic landmarks, and colorful street food vendors. The slow pace allows you to fully appreciate the city’s unique blend of French colonial architecture and modern skyscrapers, all while interacting with your friendly cyclo driver.

Your driver will also know all the best spots to stop for photos, capturing the many colors of the city as you ride. It’s not just a mode of transportation; it’s an authentic Saigon experience that offers a fresh perspective on the city’s dynamic atmosphere and captivating street scenes.

You can book a half-day tour by cyclo here or just hail one on the street and negotiated with the driver.

Visit the Independence Palace

Exterior of the wide, white Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh with grassy field in front
The former presidential palace

The Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace, is a symbolic site where history was made. This iconic landmark played a pivotal role in the country’s turbulent past, serving as the presidential palace during the Vietnam War.

As you explore the meticulously preserved rooms and offices, complete with 1960s furnishings and décor, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the political events that unfolded within these walls.

Inner meeting room at the Independence Palace in Saigon, with a long table and wooden chairs, and large curtains on the windows on either side
Imagine the meetings that took place here

The tanks displayed on the palace grounds are a poignant reminder of the historic moment when they crashed through the gates in 1975, signaling the end of the war and the reunification of North and South Vietnam.

The Independence Palace is not only a historical treasure but also a testament to the resilience and determination of the Vietnamese people. It offers a unique glimpse into a bygone era and is a must-visit attraction for anyone interested in Vietnam’s rich and complex history.

Delight in Vietnamese Coffee

A Vietnamese drip coffee glass and mug of ice beside it on a table beside a street in Vietnam, with the bottom wheels of a motorbike visible going by
Enjoy a Vietnamese coffee on the street

Drinking coffee in Saigon is not just a beverage choice; it’s a way of life. The city’s vibrant coffee culture is an integral part of its social fabric. Whether you’re seated at a tiny plastic stool on a busy street corner or lounging in a trendy café, sipping Vietnamese coffee is an immersive experience.

The rich aroma of freshly brewed coffee beans fills the air as you watch the world go by. Coffee in Saigon comes in various forms, from the potent “ca phe den” (black coffee) to the sweet and creamy “ca phe sua da” (iced coffee with condensed milk).

Aerial view looking down on an apartment block where every apartment is is cafe
Cafe apartment is filled with local cafes

The strong flavors and unique brewing methods make Vietnamese coffee a delightful adventure for your taste buds. It’s not just a pick-me-up; it’s an invitation to slow down, savor the moment, and embrace the city’s relaxed yet bustling ambiance.

Whether you’re a coffee connoisseur or a casual caffeine enthusiast, indulging in a cup of coffee in Saigon is an essential experience that connects you to the heart and soul of this vibrant city.

My favorite place for coffee in Saigon is The Cafe Apartment Block. This is an apartment building where each apartment has been turned into a café, boutique shop, or co-working space. You can find a number of adorable coffee shops where you can enjoy amazing views.

Get a Bird’s-Eye View from Bitexco Financial Tower Skydeck

Skyline of Ho Chi Minh City by the river, with towering Bitexco Financial Tower on the left
The second tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City

Ascending to the Bitexco Financial Tower Skydeck for a bird’s-eye view of Ho Chi Minh City is a breathtaking journey that takes your exploration to new heights, both literally and figuratively. The tower’s sleek, modern design stands as a testament to the city’s rapid development.

As you ride the elevator to the observation deck, anticipation builds, and then you step out to a 360-degree panorama that’s nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Looking down at a river winding through Ho Chi Minh City from the observation deck at Bitexco
City view from Bitexco

From this vantage point, you’ll witness the massive metropolis of Saigon, its vibrant streets, historic landmarks, and modern skyscrapers stretching out before you. The cityscape seems to stretch endlessly, and it’s a surreal feeling to gaze down upon the bustling streets, where motorbikes weave through the traffic like schools of fish.

Whether you visit during the day to see the city bathed in sunlight or in the evening when it’s glowing with a sea of lights, the Bitexco Financial Tower Skydeck offers an unforgettable perspective of Ho Chi Minh City. Book your tickets online here.

Day trips from Ho Chi Minh

The following entries are outside of the city and typically visited as day trips. The first two are the most popular and often combined in one day. But we’ll also give you a few more ideas besides those!

Ride down the Mekong Delta

A Vietnamese sampan driver with cone hat standing on the boat as it cruises between trees on a narrow waterway in the Mekong Delta
Sampan ride through the Mekong Delta

Escape the city’s hustle and bustle with a day trip to the Mekong Delta, it is like stepping into a picturesque postcard of Vietnam’s countryside.

The Mekong Delta, often referred to as the “Rice Bowl” of Vietnam, is a mesmerizing labyrinth of waterways, floating markets, and vibrant green landscapes. As you cruise along the meandering rivers and canals, you’ll witness scenes of local life that have remained largely unchanged for generations.

Some brown square-shaped coconut candies on a metal surface
Coconut candies made in the Mekong Delta

From floating villages to traditional wooden boats laden with colorful fruits and vegetables, the delta offers a glimpse into the everyday rhythms of the Mekong Delta residents.

Sampling fresh tropical fruits, sipping coconut water, and enjoying regional specialties like “hu tieu” (noodle soup) during your Mekong Delta day trip will leave you with a deeper appreciation for the beauty and simplicity of life along these tranquil waters. It’s a captivating escape from the craziness of Saigon, offering a taste of authentic Vietnamese culture and natural beauty in a single unforgettable day.

Many people visit Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels (see next entry) on a single day tour like this one.

Climb Down into the Cu Chi Tunnels

Looking down into a round tunnel down into the ground with a man kneeling down beside it
Cu Chi Tunnels

For an adventure straight out of an action movie, head to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This extensive underground network was used by the Viet Cong during the war and is an eye-opening experience that offers a profound understanding of the resilience and resourcefulness of the Vietnamese people.

This extensive network of tunnels is only a short drive from the city and makes for a perfect day trip from Saigon.

Someone who is almost fully inside a narrow tunnel dug into the ground, with their arms up and holding up a cover to the tunnel
Are you brave enough to try?

As you explore the tunnels (if you are not scared of tight spaces!), you’ll witness the cramped and ingenious living conditions that allow the soldiers to survive in secrecy. Definitely think before trying – I’m not even usually claustrophobic, and the experience of crawling through a tiny, dark tunnel for several minutes was almost too much for me. And supposedly they’ve been enlarged for tourists!

Whether you try it or not, the network of tunnels is a true engineering marvel, complete with trapdoors, hidden entrances, and an underground kitchen.

While touring the Cu Chi Tunnels, you’ll gain insight into the harsh realities of war and the ingenious strategies employed by those who lived beneath the earth’s surface. It’s a historical journey that evokes both admiration and contemplation, showcasing the indomitable spirit of the Vietnamese people in the face of adversity.

Meet the monkeys at Can Gio Mangrove Forest

Two macaques sitting on trees and looking at the camera
Macaques at Monkey Island Eco Forest Park

A day trip to Can Gio from Saigon is a delightful adventure that takes you on a journey through the intriguing landscapes of the southern Vietnam coast. This is an alternative to Mekong Delta, but both are truly worthwhile.

After taking your bike on the ferry (an interesting adventure in itself), you’ll embark on a scenic ride through lush mangrove forests, and stop for a glass of water coconut juice at a roadside café with swings and hammocks hanging in the forest before continuing. If you’re not into planning all this yourself, just book a day tour like this one.

Mangrove pools with forest behind them
Can Gio mangroves

The Can Gio Mangrove Biosphere Reserve is a unique ecosystem that shelters an array of wildlife, including the elusive crab-eating macaques. As you explore the forest, you’ll have the opportunity to spot these playful creatures and immerse yourself in the tranquil beauty of the mangroves.

The journey continues to the coastal town of Can Gio, where you can savor fresh seafood, soak in the coastal ambiance, and perhaps visit the Monkey Island sanctuary, home to rescued primates.

Get your beach fix in Vung Tau

Looking down from behind at a beach with lots of umbrellas and people going out into the water
Pretty beach at Vung Tau

Seek sun and sand in Vung Tau, just a short two-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. Vung Tau welcomes visitors with its sandy beaches, seafront promenades, and a relaxed beach town atmosphere, the perfect escape from the city. This is one the best beaches in Vietnam, yet conveniently near the country’s largest city.

Whether you’re lounging on the golden sands of Bai Truoc or exploring the famous Christ of Vung Tau statue atop Nui Nho, the views of the South China Sea are simply breathtaking. This unmissable statue is actually taller than “Christ the Redeemer” in Rio, although the Brazilian counterpart is much wider with outstretched arms nearly 10 meters wider.

A white Jesus statue in Vietnam with arms outstretched, colorful flags at the bottom, and tree branches on the sides
Christ of Vung Tau statue

You can indulge in fresh seafood at beachfront restaurants, take a dip in the inviting waters, or visit historical sites like the White Palace and the World War II Memorial.

Vung Tau offers a peaceful contrast to the vibrant energy of Saigon, making it an ideal day trip destination to unwind, enjoy the coastal breeze, and soak in the natural beauty of Vietnam’s seaside paradise. Read our guides to getting to Vung Tau and where to stay there. You can also book a day tour there from Ho Chi Minh City.

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