This post was last updated on August 19th, 2016
A humongous thanks to Dan and Casey for allowing me to talk to you all about one of my favorite places, Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon). I hope you all have read their article on The Best Reason to Visit Vietnam and that it’s got you all excited for your own trip, because it sure had me ready to return! Hopefully after reading this article, you’ll be booking your flights.
So you’ve arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe you’re just there on a short layover before you jet off to someplace else. Maybe you’re gearing up to cycle the length of Vietnam as Dan and Casey did. Or maybe you’ve come specifically to HCMC to learn about the city’s rich history and culture. No matter how long you have in the city, unfortunately, you’ll find that the number of interesting activities far exceeds the amount of time you have: the place is packed full of fascinating sights and sensory experiences! But in case you can only be there for a limited amount of time, here are the highlights:
But first, before you go, make sure you know that you will need a Vietnam visa! Luckily it is now easy to get one upon arrival (which is what we did.) All you have to do is apply online and then you can pick up your visa in a Vietnam international airport. It’s only available if you’re arriving to Vietnam via air, but it saves a ton of time and is much more convenient than having to go through an embassy.
When you first arrive in HCMC, you’ll probably want to get your bearings in the city. A great way to do this is to take a free walking tour. These tours operate on a tips-only basis and can be a cheap way to gain some local knowledge of the city. You’ll get a brief introduction to the city and the tourist hotspots, and it can help you narrow down what your interests are so you know what to do for the rest of your trip.
Alternatively, try exploring Saigon via a half-day city tour by old vespa! It’s a unique way to soak in the highlights of the history and beauty of the city.
War Remnants Museum
HCMC is home to museums galore, but the War Remnants Museum is a particularly intriguing one. Outside the museum, you’ll find military tanks, jets, and other military vehicles on display; inside is an impressive collection of pictures, stories, and artifacts collected from the Vietnam War. The museum was created not long after the end of the war, and it’s one of the best places to learn about this tragic chapter of Vietnamese history.
If you don’t know a lot about the Vietnam War, you might want to brush up on your history by watching some documentaries on Netflix prior to your departure. You may need to use a VPN to watch Netflix if you’re already out of the country, because Netflix restricts material from being streamed abroad due to contractual restrictions. But it’s easy to set up a VPN to hide your IP address (and thereby, your true location), and it’s well worth watching some of the documentaries: the topic of the war could come up in conversations with locals, who will expect you to have some knowledge of it, and having some background knowledge will allow you to get more out of any museums you choose to visit.
Not far from the War Remnants Museum, you’ll find the Reunification Palace, formerly know as the Independence Palace, deserves a subheading of its own. The gates themselves are worth a look: the end of the Vietnam War was signaled when a tank crashed through them in 1975. A large part of the palace has been left mostly untouched since it was taken over in 1975, meaning it’s still uniquely outfitted with memorabilia from the ’60s and early ’70s. The admissions fee is nominal, and the place is really not-to-be-missed given its history.
Notre Dame Cathedral
From the Reunification Palace, it’s easy enough to head over to Notre Dame Cathedral. Built in the late nineteenth century, this cathedral was built by the French, in French colonial style, with materials imported from France. But there amongst the palm trees of this tropical climate, you definitely won’t make the mistake of thinking you’re in France! Not only does this cathedral have a beautiful interior and exterior, but it also is an interesting place where you can really see the juxtaposition between traditional Vietnamese culture and French colonial culture.
Central Post Office and City Hall
For those architecture buffs amongst you, the Central Post Office and Ho Chi Minh City Hall are both worth a visit. Built with a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic, and distinctly French colonial styles, they’re interesting even to the untrained eye. Both are great places to take that perfect photo for your mom!
Hanging out in coffee shops may not be the first thing you think of when planning your trip to Vietnam, but given that the country was colonized by the French, it’s not too surprising to learn that coffeehouses are ubiquitous in Vietnam. The locals prefer their coffee strong and sweet, either hot or iced. Sip at a cup of it, relax and do some people watching; it’s a great way to start your day.
There’s plenty of shopping to be had in Ho Chi Minh City. One of the best ways to immerse yourself in the culture while still finding some special souvenirs is to head to the Ben Thanh Market. You’ll find wares at a variety of price levels, from propaganda posters to silks to typical touristy keychains and much more. If you’re really keen on shopping or have some time to kill, Dong Khoi Street is where you’ll find nicer boutiques and shops.
If you haven’t already read it, Dan and Casey covered Vietnamese food already on their blog—but it’s worth talking about again! Most of us have heard of Phở (a popular noodle soup), and maybe you’ve even tried it somewhere back home, but it’s even more delicious in Vietnam. Bánh mì (baguette sandwiches with a variety of fillings) make a great, cheap lunch. But you have plenty of options, ranging from street-food to fine dining experiences, so get out and try a little bit of everything!
No matter what type of traveler you are, you’ll find something to love in Ho Chi Minh City. Those of you who have already been there know that from the wonderful people to the delicious food and everything in between, there are a thousand things that will keep you coming back. For those of you who haven’t been there, is a trip to Vietnam on the horizon? We’re always curious to know where our readers are headed next—tell us about your plans down below!