Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is the biggest city in southern Vietnam. With a population of over 13 million and growing, it is more of a sprawling metropolis than Hanoi with its many districts. It is still referred to as Saigon by local and tourist alike. As a first time visitor, I had mainly stayed in district one and explored the wonderful surrounding area on Day tours. Here’s my list of favourite activities.
Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City
Admittedly, Ho Chi Minh City isn’t as full of sights as Hanoi with its old quarter, but once you get into the city, there is a certain vibrant liveliness that you can’t ignore. It has a younger, more urban vibe than its counterpart and with almost two hundred years of French occupation, there is plenty to see:
Saigon Central Post Office
A beautiful Gothic-Renaissance building, the post office is a lovely shade of pastel yellow that emits a sense of old romance you don’t see anymore. The vaulted ceilings and wooden phone booths inside are a treat in themselves.
Still a working post office, you can just pop in to send some postcards or just a photo op!
Address: 2 Cong Xa Paris, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Opening Hours: Daily 07:00 – 19:00
Notre Dame Cathedral
A red brick Romanesque church built in late 19th century, it’s right next to the post office. It has two bell towers at 60m high, fronted by a park (that was sadly under renovation as of May 2018).
Address: 01 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Bến Nghé Quận 1 Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City Hall
Arguably the prettiest town hall I’ve seen in Vietnam, the pastel yellow and white French Colonial building is the main focal point around the entire area. Modelled after the Paris City Hall, even the pavement and street light in front of it echoes a French vibe. With two storeys and a high tower, the city hall was built in the early 20th century and is currently operational. This means that it is, unfortunately, not open to public visits. If you are feeling brave, you can wait for a lull in traffic and snap a photo with it from across the road.
Address: 86 Lê Thánh Tôn, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
The opera house in Ho Chi Minh City is smaller than expected, but its dome-shaped entrance echoes the Paris Petit Palais. Another excellent example of French colonial style, the opera house was built in the early 20th century to entertain the French, seating about 800. It was used as a government building during the Republic of Vietnam era but now function again as an Opera House since 1975.
Address: 07 Công Trường Lam Sơn, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Bến Nghé Quận 1 Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
If you love a good view, then you must visit Skydeck. On the second highest floor on the tallest building in district one, Skydeck offers an unparalleled panoramic view of its surrounding. In fact, I hadn’t anticipated that I’d enjoy my visit quite as much!
Unlike its counterparts across the world, Skydeck is uncrowded, making it much easier to enjoy. There is also touchscreen monitor set out at regular interval to inform you of significant landmarks.
The best time is to head up before sunset and get the day and night time shot!
Address: 36 Hồ Tùng Mậu, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Opening times: 9:30 – 21:30
Admission fee: 200,000 dong.
The coffee and tea culture are huge in Vietnam, but Saigon has really taken it to the next level with the Cafe Apartment. It is essentially an entire apartment of cafes, each one with their little balcony facing the Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street with their big neon signs.
For more information, my friend Frances has a complete guide to cafe apartment.
Address: 42 Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Opening times: 8:00 – 22:00, individual cafe opening times varies
Tan Dinh Church
The famous pink church of Ho Chi Minh City is located some way from the center, and honestly not as pretty as the one in Danang. Smacked in the middle of a busy street, it’s not easy to get a photo of it, though its colour is a vivid pink. Built in the late 19th century, the church is a mix of Renaissance and Gothic style. We didn’t end up going in, but aside from being pink and the second largest church in HCMC, there isn’t much to see.
Address: 289 Hai Bà Trưng, Phường 8, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
No entrance fee
Jade Emperor Temple
A Taoist temple in District 2, the Jade Emperor Temple, though interesting, is perhaps not the most spectacular sight on the list. A step into the temple felt almost like going to China, with the wisps of incense and plaques with Chinese characters.
Like most Taoist temple, there are shrines for many gods inside. On the second floor, you can find one for the Lady Buddha, too. Though it looked ancient, the temple is actually younger than most of the churches on the list, built in 1909.
Address: 73 Đường Mai Thị Lựu, Đa Kao, Quận 1, Quận 1 Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Opening times: 7:00 – 18:00
Ben Thanh market
Hunting for some souvenir? Then Ben Thanh Market is the place to be! The area has been a market as early as the 17th century, but the current structure was only built in 1912 after a fire destroyed the old one. With orange roof and a central clock tower, it’s another beautiful French colonial design.
You can find anything from tea, coffee, textile, clothes, and many other miscellaneous items here. There is also a food court brimming with individual stores, and you’d be sure to almost get splashed by hot soup as vendors delivery bowls of steaming noodles to customers. Be sure to shop around and bargain hard, as many of the prices are inflated.
The market halls close at night, however, the streets surrounding it would turn into a night market, so there’s always something going on there!
Address: Chợ, Lê Lợi, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
Opening times: daily 7:00 – 19:00
Day trips from Ho Chi Minh City
There are plenty of day trip options from Ho Chi Minh City, and we have teamed up with Khiri Travel to show you some of the best options. They are an environmentally conscious company that offers day trips as well as private tours:
Cao Dai Temple
A curious attraction some 3 hours away from Ho Chi Minh City is the Cao Dai Temple. Vietnam had many religions before that: Taoism, Buddhism, Confucius, Brahmanism, Hinduism, Christian, Catholic, Muslim. Living peacefully in Vietnam. And Cao Dai is a religion that appeared in the 20th century by mixing the religions of the world together. The name Cao Dai is also the name of their god: it means high tower.
The construction of the temple started in 1831, but it underwent a period of pause and in 1846 it got a complete reboot. The church finally opened in 1955, because they waited for the birthday of Mr Dong- the highest priest of Cao Dai. Fast forward to now, there are 3 million believers in southern Vietnam alone and the religion had spread across the world, in particular near Cambodia and Vietnam border.
Cao Dai believes wear white, the priests wear red, yellow and blue which is reflected in the colour scheme of the temple. It reflects the 3 biggest religion: Buddhism in yellow, Taoism in red and Christianity in blue. Three is also their root number, hence the buildings have three parts and there are three colours!
In case you are wondering, the symbol of an eye that you see around the church is the left eye, because it is closer to the heart. This also symbolises that the eye of God can see into our soul.
Cao Dai has four ceremonies daily every six hours, but not all are open to tourists. The best one to aim for is that one at midday, where we are allowed to stand on the balcony and observe. Be warned, it’s over an hour long, and most groups don’t stay for the whole thing. It starts with the white believers lining up, then more would come with the priests in red, yellow and blue.
The temple ground was built on clear forest area, and there are monkeys around. Be careful of them as they might try to rob your things.
P.S. the tour usually goes to Cu Chi Tunnel as well, which connects Ho Chi Minh City to the Cu Chi region that was used frequently in the Vietnam War.
One of the most popular day trips from Ho Chi Minh City is a visit to the Mekong Delta. Aout two hours south of the city, the region around Be Tri is known as coconut city. Before the area was just a water-logged land during the Dai Viet era, but the king sent an emissary down to develop the region.
Our trip started at Be Tri, where we got on the boat and set off into the river. All the boats in the area have eyes painted on the front of the ship to scare monsters in the water away. They also plant rice paddies below water level, so they can break the dam and flood it easily to grow wet rice. This is loosely related to our first stop: the brick factory.
The area has been making bricks for a long time, with the soil that are dug up from rice paddies sold to the kiln to make the brick. They have machine will chop the clay up into the same size, then are left to dry in the sun until the colours lighten. When they are ready, the bricks are put in the kiln at over 1 thousand degrees Celcius. The red colours appear due to the iron content, which is when they are ready. Fun note: the fire is fueled by burning rice skin continuously,
The kilns are then left to cool down, and there are steps left on the outside of the kiln for people to climb up, knock the bricks down and retrieve them. There are two types of bricks, too, with holes and without holes, depending on use.
Our second stop is the coconut candy factory. The key, apparently, is to use aged coconuts and take the milk. Mixing it with sugar and malt, it turns into a malleable mixture that they can roll into a mould while warm and then cut into shape. There are many flavours to buy from, too, from almond to fruit ones.
We were also treated to some traditional Vietnamese music, which has 5 notes, played on a five-string instrument. To be fair, the singing wasn’t that nice, but it was interesting nonetheless.
We then went on a short boat ride to the grass mat weaving village for a fruit break, before hopping on a tuk-tuk to lunch. You can also choose to cycle to the lunch place, but the tuk-tuk we got on was adorable. Though the ride was extremely bumpy!
Our lunch place is a quaint riverside restaurant in the middle of nowhere. My expectation wasn’t high, but the food was actually fantastic! I had a feast with a whole fried fish, shrimps, chicken, rice and many more. After lunch, we got on a small rowboat to be taken back to our big one. Then it’s a short ride back to town where we got on the car back to Ho Chi Minh City.
Where to stay Ho Chi Minh
Unlike Hanoi, where staying at the Old Quarter is pretty much the best option for first-time travellers, Ho Chi Minh City is a lot bigger and more spread out. With Grab, things aren’t really that bad, though the traffic can still be horrendous. I like to get around by walking, and you can just about get away with it in Hanoi. After sightseeing around the city for a week or so, here’s my advice on where to stay:
Near Ben Thanh Market
This is where all the actions are and very close to the French architectures. I end up walking pass here almost daily as I make my way to the Coffee Apartment or to meet a friend for lunch.
Mid-range: Adora Hotel is a clean and spacious hotel that’s great for its price point!
Splurge: Liberty Central Saigon Centre Hotel is a beautiful modern hotel with a rooftop pool!
Near backpacker Street
A little further away but near the party central, this area is pretty nice, too, with more options to choose from that’s also cheaper.
Mid-range: Spotlight Hotel is a great, clean, and beautiful budget stay. The only downside is that they don’t have an elevator but have over five floors of rooms.
Splurge: For a stylish stay at a beautiful apartment, look no further than Mayfair Suites!
Another great area to stay is the northern section of district 1 where all the beautiful restaurants are. It’s also where my favourite live music bar is!
Budget to Mid-range: Vika Homestay is a gorgeous little place that’s hidden from the hustle and bustle. Central Park Apartment is another great choice, though both are without elevator and might get a bit noisy.