In recent years Vietnam has become a bucket list travel destination for a whole host of travelers, from penny-pinching solo backpackers to families looking for a holiday alternative to Disney World. No visit to the Southeast Asian country is complete without a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, the vibrant city in the south. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in the sweaty city formerly known as Saigon, there are some things you simply can’t leave without doing. Have a look at my list of the top ten things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, and begin to experience the highlights of Vietnam’s trendiest city.
Side note: I take no responsibility for the fact that you may never want to leave.
Though it’s not the capital (that would be Hanoi), Ho Chi Minh City is a melting pot of cultural wonders, historical artifacts and a staggering array of tantalizing street food. What’s not to love?
1. Bargain at Ben Thanh Market
At the beating heart of Saigon is Ben Thanh Market, the city’s biggest, oldest and most famous market. You’ll be able to find just about anything your heart desires here – clothes, food, spices, accessories and some great souvenirs to take home for family and friends.
If you have your eye on something you like, try your hand at bargaining with the vendor. It’s customary practice and it’s actually quite fun! As a rule of thumb, start your price ridiculously low – the vendor won’t be insulted. You’d be surprised by how they slash their original price.
Stall owners begin to unpack their goods from around 6 am, and the market closes at around 7 pm. But don’t worry, the night market opens up right next door from about 7:30 pm to 11:30 pm.
2. Eat at Korean BBQ Restaurant
Korean BBQ? I thought we were talking about Vietnam? Don’t ask me why, but the number of Korean BBQ restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City is astounding. And I’m not complaining.
If you haven’t experienced it already, Korean BBQ is an entirely unique dining experience where diners cook a selection of meat on their own mini BBQ at their table. Take your pick from grilled wild boar, garlic butter prawns, and my personal favourite, grilled beef with cheese. There are also vegetable skewers and grilled mushroom for the vegetarians.
Some of my favorite spots in the city are Barbeque Garden, Quan Ut Ut and without a doubt Meat and Meet. Get your camera ready because the sizzling meat will make for some killer food and travel photos.
3. Be Humbled at the War Remnants Museum
For many people, mention the word “Vietnam” and the American-Vietnam War springs to mind. An integral part of the country’s long and hard history, a visit to the War Remnant Museum is a must if you want to begin to appreciate the hardships of the 20-year war.
Come face to face with authentic American fighter planes, photographs from the effects of Agent Orange, torture weapons and guillotines. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s a must-do. Give yourself at least two hours to fully explore the museum. History buffs could spend the whole day there.
4. Take a walk in the Park
There’s no beating around the bush (or lack thereof); Saigon is not what you would call a ‘green city.’ In fact, according to the Department of Traffic Safety for 2018, Ho Chi Minh City alone had nearly 8.5 million motorbikes!
To escape the crazy traffic and incessant honking, stroll through one of the city’s parks. Van Thanh Park is my go-to as it has a massive swimming pool to enjoy for just 70 000 VND. Enjoy watching locals play đá cầu or “foot badminton” – a national pastime where players keep a shuttlecock up with their feet. You’ll be astounded by their skills.
5. Enjoy a Water Puppet Show
For the culture vultures, watch beautifully painted wooden puppets dance on water, an art form that dates back to the 11th century. The intricate details and vivid colors of the puppets are captivating, as is the live singing and traditional Vietnamese orchestra music that accompanies the performance.
The most popular place is the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater in Tao Dan Park. If you can, try and book online as seats are limited and can sometimes sell out.
6. Drink Vietnamese Coffee
Vietnam is famous for its coffee; a national obsession inherited by the French during their occupation in the late 1880s. There’s simply nothing better than enjoying a cà phê sữa đá, aka an iced coffee, on a sweltering hot day at one of the thousands of sidewalk cafes.
The traditional way is with a small metal Vietnamese drip filter, releasing a thick, dark brew straight into your cup. Combine that with the Vietnamese preference of sweetened condensed milk instead of milk, and it’s sure to give you a real kick.
7. Eat Street Food
Ho Chi Minh City is arguably one of the most renowned street food capitals of the world. On nearly every street in the city, you can find a local cooking tirelessly from sunset to sunrise from their pop up stall.
As far as what to order, the options are endless. I’ve lived in Saigon nearly a year, and I’m not even halfway through my list of street foods to try – it just keeps growing! Classics include phở (noodle soup), bánh xèo (crispy eggy Vietnamese savory pancake) and ốc xào bo (snails cooked in butter.)
The best part about eating street-side? It’s ridiculously cheap and still bloody delicious.
8. Have a Boogie on Bui Vien Street
Every major city has one; the pub and club street that never really sleeps and that you always end up at. For Ho Chi Minh City, that is undeniably Bui Vien.
In the heart of the backpackers’ area, the crazy walking street is lined with everything from loud discos to seedy massage parlours. You’ll know as soon as you you’ve arrived when you hear the thumping “doof doof” music.
If you want to get down and boogie, I’d recommend Donkey, an Egyptian-themed bar that plays obscenely loud commercial music. If you’d rather enjoy a pint and watch the madness go by, Happy Life Bar is a good spot. Wherever you go, watch your pockets and your handbag – the area is notorious for pickpockets.
9. Have Cocktails on the top of Bitexco Tower
One of the city’s most famous buildings, Bitexco is an unmissable spectacle in the city’s busy skyline. The skyscraper is a financial tower but features a glass-enclosed observation deck on the 49th floor where you can enjoy dramatic vistas of the bustling city below. At night, the city lights up, and the views are unforgettable.
Entrance fees for the Skydeck are 200 000 VND. From my personal experience, it’s a better bang for your buck and more enjoyable to visit the Bar Eon 52 Heli, located on three consecutive levels 50, 51 and 52. There’s no entrance fee; you just need to invest in a cocktail costing around 210 000 VND or a beer from 90 000 VND. A bargain for the views you get!
10. Send a Postcard from Saigon Central Post Office
To make your friends and family green with envy from all that you’ve been doing, send them a postcard home from the city’s central post office. The beautiful 19th-century building is a destination in its own right, with its French colonial architecture and ornate decorations. There’s also a massive portrait of Uncle Ho (Mr Ho Chi Minh), watching down on you as you take your pick from the beautiful postcards on sale.
Once you’ve put your postcard in the post, pay a visit to the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon, located just outside the post office. Unfortunately, it’s been under renovation for ages, but it still makes for an excellent selfie from the outside.
Though I’ve listed just ten things to do in the magical city that is Ho Chi Minh City, there are endless things to do. The friendly people, the constant buzz and the perpetual change make it one of my favorite cities on Earth and a bucket list destination that should be on everyone’s list.
- Vietnam Now tourism, https://vietnam.travel/home
- On our site: Explore Vietnam’s Cai Be Floating Market and Village Life
-All photos by Rae Oliver.