Things To Do In Saigon: Tips From Someone Who Lived There
When I first moved to Vietnam, I wanted to write a blog post after a few weeks showcasing what Saigon (otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC) has to offer. For better or worse, I never got around to it. I think I felt like there was always something left to discover that I’d want to add after the fact. Luckily, now that I’ve moved away, there’s no reason to procrastinate any longer, and here it is!
Saigon is Vietnam’s largest city and center for finance. Its city center is modern and cosmopolitan, making it an ideal place for expats and foreign visitors alike. Due to its location in the south of the country, the weather is hot all year long. As Vietnam’s tourism industry booms, more and more people are spending at least a few days in Saigon. If you’re going to be one of them, read on to see what you should do during your visit!
Click any of the links below to skip directly to that section.
- A Cathedral and a Post Office
- The Opera House
- City Hall & Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street
- See the City from Above
- The Vietnam History Museum
- Bùi Viên (Backpacker Street)
- The War Remnants Museum
- Bến Thành Market
- The Independence Palace
- The Famous Pink Church
- Saigon Day Trip Ideas
- The Expat’s Guide to Eating in Saigon
I’ll finish off the post by answering how many days I think you should spend in Ho Chi Minh City. Let’s dive right in!
1. A Cathedral and a Post Office
First on my list are two icons of Saigon: the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office. These two famous buildings are located in the heart of District 1 within walking distance of everything else on this list.
The Notre Dame Cathedral
Nhà thờ Đức Bà Sài Gòn
Start by admiring this church named after the original in France. However, know that the structure has been covered by scaffolding for the entirety of the time I lived there (from March to December of 2019), and it didn’t look like that construction work would wrap up anytime soon. The front of the church wasn’t obstructed, though.
The Central Post Office
Bưu Điện Trung Tâm Thành Phố
After seeing the church, head on over to the Central Post Office next door. This iconic structure houses intricate decor as well as an iconic portrait of Ho Chi Minh. It’s also filled with various souvenir vendors.
Here’s a tip: go around sundown to experience the post office without the sea of tourists. The tiled floor is beautiful, and you won’t be able to see it if there are a ton of people inside.
Nguyễn Văn Bình Street
Đường Nguyễn Văn Bình
The last attraction on this block is Nguyễn Văn Bình Street, located right next to both the cathedral and the post office. This pedestrian-only walkway is lined on both sides with bookstores and cafes. While most of the books are in Vietnamese, it’s still a quaint area worth exploring for a few minutes.
2. THe Opera House
Nhà hát Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
Another interesting architectural attraction is the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, also known as the city’s opera house. It’s a stunning example of the kind of building styles that were brought from France during the colonial period. Although the exterior is beautiful, I would’ve loved to see a concert there. Unfortunately, I never got around to it. If you’ve been inside, leave a comment and let me know what it was like!
3. City Hall & Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street
UBND Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
City Hall (officially known as the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City) is probably my favorite historical building in Saigon. I recommend visiting both during the day and after sunset; it’s even more spectacular lit up after dark.
Ho Chi Minh City Hall is located at one end of Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street (Phố đi bộ Nguyễn Huệ). Nguyễn Huệ is also beautiful at night. It’s got a statue of Ho Chi Minh, a lotus fountain, and tons of shops and vendors on both sides of the street. If you walk down to the other end of Nguyễn Huệ opposite City Hall, you’ll find yourself on the banks of the Saigon River.
4. See The City From Above
The skyline of Ho Chi Minh City may not be as grand as some larger cities, but it’s definitely growing and becoming an important part of the city’s identity. Here are two ways to enjoy the view.
The Saigon Skydeck at Bitexco Financial Tower
Bitexco Tower is perhaps Ho Chi Minh City’s most recognizable building, and it offers a 360-degree view of the urban surroundings. Since the tower was completed in 2010, you shouldn’t have to worry about really long lines or crowds here. However, it’s always better to go on a weekday afternoon than a weekend if you can. Entrance costs 200,000 VND (as of December 2019), or approx. 9 USD.
Another option to go up is by visiting the tower’s bar, EON51. I did this once and I honestly recommend just paying the fee for the observation deck instead. That’s because the bar tends to be crowded and it’s not easy to see the whole city with so many people seated next to the windows. You also won’t really save much money this way since drinks are pretty pricey up there.
An alternative to the Saigon Skydeck is Landmark 81. It’s further away from the city center, but since it’s much newer than Bitexco Tower and about 30 floors taller, entrance to the observation deck is more expensive.
My Favorite Rooftop Bar
Ho Chi Minh City naturally has a bunch of rooftop bars, so choosing one might be a challenge. My personal favorite is AIR Saigon (formerly known as Air 360 Sky Lounge), which offers unobstructed views of the city’s tallest and most famous skyscrapers.
AIR also has delicious, creative cocktails at reasonable prices. It’s located on the 22nd floor of Bến Thành Tower in District 1.
5. Vietnam History Museum
The Vietnam History Museum is perfect for anyone interested in learning more about the country. Acquaint yourself with ancient Vietnamese history as well as ethnic minorities as you admire the beautiful artifacts and artwork on display. Note that this museum doesn’t focus explicitly on the Vietnam War. Another museum in the city center is dedicated solely to that.
Next to the history museum is the Saigon Zoo And Botanical Garden. The gardens are really nice, but I always feel a bit iffy about patronizing a zoo, so I only went once and never had a strong urge to go back.
6. Bùi Viên (Backpacker Street)
When you hear ‘Saigon,’ do you picture backpackers drinking and bars blasting music seven nights a week? If the answer is yes, you’re probably thinking of Bùi Viên, one of Asia’s busiest and loudest bar streets. To experience it in full force, go for a drink after dark on a Friday or Saturday night.
I have mixed feelings about Bùi Viên (as I assume most expats in HCMC do). Although it can be fun, it can also be overwhelming. I personally found myself visiting its cafes and restaurants during the day more often than going to the bars at night. If you’d like to see it without so much commotion, I recommend you do the same.
7. The War Remnants Museum
Bảo tàng Chứng tích Chiến tranh
This is such an important museum to visit because it tells the story of the Vietnam War from a different perspective than you’re probably used to (if you’re from America or Europe). Come with an open mind and a willingness to read and learn about the impacts the war had, especially in the south of Vietnam.
A major focus of the museum is the lasting impact and terrible suffering caused by the use of Agent Orange as an herbicide during the war. Parts of the museum have graphic content, so it may not be the best to bring really young kids. However, I think the exhibit on Agent Orange is really important for most people to see.
I suspect that most American public high schools don’t teach their students about the human impact of spraying such toxic chemicals (I never learned about it during my history classes). If you’re also hearing about it for the first time, I highly recommend visiting the museum to get a fuller picture of the impact of the Vietnam War.
8. Bến Thành Market
Chợ Bến Thành
This huge market is fairly standard, but it’s the perfect place to pick up a souvenir or two. The bright blue and red neon lights are impossible to miss at night.
The surrounding blocks are also filled with street vendors and cafes, and one particular eatery worth noting is the Bến Thành Street Food Market. This large food court has international options and classic Vietnamese dishes (admittedly at inflated prices), but I always enjoyed grabbing a casual dinner here. To learn more about food options in Saigon, check out point number 12 below.
9. Independence Palace
Dinh Độc Lập
If you’ve had your fill of colonial architecture, head straight to the Independence Palace. It was built in the 1960s and its lavish interior has an undeniable retro vibe. I felt like I was touring a James Bond movie set as we wandered through the ornate meeting rooms and secret passageways in the basement. This building served as the home of the president of South Vietnam before reunification in 1975.
10. The Famous Pink Church
Nhà thờ Tân Định
You may have seen the Tân Định Church on Instagram, and its striking pink facade really is one-of-a-kind. Just be warned that literal busloads of tourists get off here to take pictures in front of the iconic structure.
Here’s a tip: the church isn’t extremely photogenic from ground level. Across the street is a Cộng Cafe with multiple upper levels of balcony seating. Buy a Vietnamese coffee or an espresso and go up for the best photo angle. I took the photo above from the third (or fourth?) floor of this coffee shop.
11. Day Trip Ideas
I’m sad to say that I didn’t take advantage of all Saigon had to offer in terms of day trips. Nonetheless, here are two I went on that I recommend.
The Củ Chi Tunnels
This popular attraction located in the northern district of Củ Chi is a great way to learn more about the Vietnam War. A guide will bring you through some of the tunnels and explain how they were used during combat. The tunnels are fairly small, so people who are claustrophobic may choose to skip this day trip.
See The Mekong Delta
I did a private day tour of the Mekong Delta when my parents came to visit, and it exceeded my expectations. For most of my time in Vietnam, I was under the impression that visiting the Mekong River was a multi-day commitment, and that simply isn’t the case. To read more about what we saw and did, check out my full review here.
12. The Expat’s Guide To Eating In Saigon
To be perfectly honest, daily life as an expat in Ho Chi Minh City isn’t defined by the sites and attractions listed above. On the contrary, Saigon was such a fun place to live long-term because of its infinite number of delicious food choices for very low prices. If you’re curious about what culinary delights await you, check out my “Expat’s Guide To Eating In Saigon”!
How Long Should You Stay in Saigon?
To wrap up this post, I’d like to answer a common question: how long should you spend in Ho Chi Minh City? My answer to that is roughly three days. Even if the list above sounds long, most of the points of interest mentioned above can be seen in an hour or two. If you want to go at a leisurely pace, four days is fine, but I honestly recommend moving on to a different part of Vietnam after that.
What else is worth seeing outside of Saigon? Well, if you’re planning a trip and still need ideas, check out some of my other Vietnam posts! In my nine months of living there teaching English, I managed to see quite a few different parts of the country. If you’re headed to Ho Chi Minh City for the first time, let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below! Thanks for reading and have an amazing time in Saigon!