Chaotic, noisy, hot and just a bit crazy are some terms I used to describe Ho Chi Minh City. Often referred to as Saigon, the city is the largest city of Vietnam and usually the first point of entry with this country for many travelers.
For first time travelers to Ho Chi Minh City, it can be overwhelming and you may need insider tips on things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon is big and the top sights are spread all over the city and its districts.
One day in southern Vietnam just won’t do. But if you are time-starved you can still see many unique and interesting landmarks. From bustling markets, top bars to museums there is something for every kind of traveler.
In this guest post, Colin from The Broken map shares his expat insider tips on what to do in 24 hours in Ho Chi Minh City.
Colin, the founder of The Broken Map blog is an expat living and working in Ho Chi Minh City.
A New York Native and a passion for travel, Colin shares his interests from everything to the weird, freaky, fun, the quirky and sometimes the ominous. Check out his eccentric, but insightful views of the world.
Expat’s guide to 24 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ben Thanh Market
Always go to markets in the morning. Tourists are inherently lazy (like me) and show up midday. It’s particularly important for this market, since it’s packed wall to wall with vendors, and it’s not air conditioned. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a herd of slow-movers, suffocating next to a rack of Tiger Beer tank tops.
Ben Thanh Market has it all: traditional Vietnamese stuff, like áo dài’s (traditional dress) and nón lá’s (rice hat), Western knock-off clothing, souvenir backpacks, bracelets, home goods, spices, coffee beans, paintings, dried fruit, regular fruit, hot food, fabric, lanterns, books, and one copy of Kung Fu Panda on DVD (very difficult to find).
This is a haggler’s paradise too, so if saying “too expensive” and pretending to walk away is your favorite hobby, come on down! The prices generally start at 3x their normal cost, but the women will say things like “hey handsome” to make you come talk to them. Needless to say, it’s difficult to survive financially when I continually buy things from this market just so I can hear the ladies say “hey handsome” to me.
As with all tourist places in Saigon, keep your belongings in sight at all times. The major Vietnamese crime is pickpocketing unaware foreigners. It’s never happened to me, but I have my intense paranoia to thank for that.
Hours: 7AM – 7PM
Address: Chợ, Lê Lợi, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1 (Google Maps)
Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral
Photo credit: Binh Ho
After shopping until your heart’s desire, head out, and walk over to Notre Dame Square!
It’s here that you can see two of Ho Chi Minh’s famous landmarks: Central Post Office, and Notre Dame Cathedral.
The Post Office is famous because it’s a signature of French and Gothic architecture. Built in the 1860’s, it’s a hearkening to a time when the French colonial power influenced the designs and structure of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a truly beautiful building, and even was painted Communist Yellow (one of Vietnam’s two favorite colors, can you guess the other one?)
Conveniently located next to the Post Office is Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral. The French were extremely haughty about their good work on the real Notre Dame, and got sick of people being underwhelmed every time they saw a picture of it. So they said, “F$%k it, we’ll just build one here too.”
Also built in Gothic style, it’s got quite the history. A Pope anointed it, turning it from a “cathedral” to a “basilica” (+100 Holy Points), and explosives damaged several parts of it during the Vietnam War. In 2005, someone saw a tear fall down the Statue of Mary’s cheek, and thousands of people made pilgrimage to see the tear, stopping traffic for several days. Unfortunately, the tear had since been licked up by a bird. (The bird was anointed in 2006, and earned the title “basilica”).
Hours: 7AM-7PM (Sunday 8-6)
Wander away from Notre Dame Square, and after a short 5 minute walk, you’ll find yourself at the gates of the Independence Palace! The Palace is the former home of South Vietnam’s President, until it was “liberated” (as the USA would say it), with two tanks crashing through the front gates to end the Vietnam War.
Replicas of the tanks sit immortalized on the front lawn, and the palace acts as a museum, talking about that area during WWII and the Vietnam War. Walking through the halls, you can read about each President’s role, and the final surrender of Southern forces after the Fall of Saigon.
The building suffered lots of damage during the war. On two separate occasions, defected Southern pilots ignored their missions and instead bombed the palace. The first one caused the President to demolish and rebuild it in 1962, and the second happened in 1975, as if to say, “we still think the building is ugly.”
Hours: 7:30-11AM; 1-4PM
Entry: 30,000VND (1.5USD)
War Remnants Museum
This building used to be called something like “Museum of US and Puppet Crimes”, so you can probably guess what you’re going to see inside.
Few museums in the world are as visceral and emotionally upsetting as this one is. It basically depicts the crimes done against the Vietnamese people by American and Southern forces during the Vietnam War.
People argue that the museum propagandizes the North Vietnamese as the freedom fighters facing a purely evil enemy. In reality, their hands were just as bloody as the other sides. Nonetheless, the War Remnants Museum needs little propaganda to see just how ghastly the effects of the war were.
No punches are pulled here. They have dozens, maybe hundreds of colorized photos of maimed, injured and burned people. There are photos and videos of dead bodies, including women and children. The walls are covered in descriptions of massacres, murder, and rape. A wing is dedicated to Agent Orange, the herbicide the US used to clear forests, but which eventually went into the water and altered the DNA of local people, disfiguring them and their children born long after the war.
It’s a fascinating and brutal hour that, frankly, cannot be missed on a tour through Ho Chi Minh City.
Entry: 40,000VND (2USD)
The best way to explore the War Remnants museum is by a guide. See here.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
Obama was here! Need I say more? Obama is not Buddhist, but he came to HCM’s most famous pagoda to light some incense and do other “Obama-related” things.
The pagoda dates to around 1910, when Chinese immigrants built the first of several famous Buddhist pagodas in HCM. The temple is small, but inside, you can meet the “God of the Heavens”, none other than Empereor Jade Herself!
If she judges you sinful, you have to go talk to the “God of Hell”, and they’ll send you to one of the 10 levels of punishment, depending on how annoying they deem you. The pagoda is full of statues. Some are kind, like Kim Hua, who blesses couples with fertility (wink wink), and some are not kind, like the monsters who will watch the punishments you’ll endure in hell.
This is the most famous pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, so it’s a great place to come and get an idea of what a Mahayanist Buddhist temple in Vietnam looks like.
Plus the pond has turtles!!!
Entry: Free (donations accepted)
The Half-Day Bike Tour: Jade Emperor Pagoda, Flower & Pet Market is a great way to learn about this culturally-rich city.
Museum of Vietnamese History
This museum is about (can you guess?) the history of Vietnam, spanning a couple thousand years at least. Starting from the Dong Son Civilization and working up until French colonialism, the museum contains hundreds of artifacts from each era, including coins, tools, weapons, art, religious motifs, and traditional clothing.
The reason this museum is one of the better ones, is the ability to recognize that the ideas and values of the ancient cultures are still present in Vietnam today. Also, there is a water puppet show.
It’s located just inside the entrance to the Saigon Zoo, but don’t go to the zoo, cause it’s an awful place. Just look for the big yellow French-looking building on your left, and the astral energy of thousands of years of history will beckon you inside.
Hours: 8-11:30AM, 1:30-5PM
Saigon River Boat Tour
You’re probably feeling tired from all that exhaust you’ve been breathing in! Don’t worry, that’s absolutely normal, and maybe even healthy! Head out from the Museum of Vietnamese History, and over to the canal, for a boat tour up and down the Saigon River!
There are a few boat tours you could take. A few operate exclusively on the canal by the zoo, while others take you onto the larger river to the east. You can watch the sunset behind the city, and watch the lights in the towers come on as people scramble to turn them on before it gets too dark to find the lightswitch.
Different tours run for different lengths of time, so this could range from 45 minutes to do hours, depending on how much time you want to spend in a boat.
Why not check out the Bonsai Cruise, here.
Nguyen Hue Walking Street
As the afternoon winds to a close, head over to the walking street after a stop at your hotel. Nguyen Hue Walking Street is dead-center in District 1. It’s a huge space, stretching from the HCM City Hall to the riverside, and it’s beautiful to walk up and down in the evenings. Families and couples come here to walk around, and you can try street snacks while you look at a gigantic statue of Uncle Ho himself!
The Town Hall looks like the Disney Castle, and the hundreds of kids make it feel like you’re in a very peaceful Disney World, except you didn’t pay 300 dollars and you don’t have a headache.
A number of restaurants line the street, so you can eat dinner and look down on the tiny people like some corrupt Roman chancellor. Eat up, because you’re probably getting drunk in the night to come.
Bui Vien Street
After your peaceful evening walk on the family street, time to go to Bui Vien! Experience Vietnamese culture in what could only be considered the opposite of Vietnamese culture! Bui Vien, in the most fundamental terms, is a long, tight street, packed with people, noise, and heat, and everyone is acting out the reckless, amoral version of themselves they normally hide away.
This is like purgatory, except you get to drink, which is what makes it good (or bad?). You can walk down a jam-packed street, while girls try to drag you into their bars or massage parlors, and music pumps from all sides. Be careful, since the liquor is fake, and the beer might be fake too (it’s all fake everything is fake).
However, if you can get into the manic energy this place, and drink your hearty fill, it’ll be a scene you won’t soon forget (or a blank 2-day lapse in your memory).
Hours: Any time, really opens up after 9PM
Glow Sky Bar
If an “Event Horizon”-type party isn’t your jam, or if you’ve managed to drag yourself out of the party street, why not check out a sky bar instead? Ho Chi Minh City has the most rooftop bars in the world (this is probably true, email me if I’m wrong so I can ignore your email), so there’s plenty to choose from when it comes to open-air drinking.
Most rooftop bars cater to an esteemed class of folk, so you have to dress the part, no open toed shoes, and bring your money’s (more than one money please).
Bars like Shri and Level 23 are quiet, relaxed affairs, while some like Chill, Breeze (they’re only allowed to have one name) or SoHy, attract a younger, energetic crowd. If you prefer to end your night looking out over the city with a cocktail in your hand, as opposed to face down in an alleyway clutching an empty beer tower, try a rooftop bar for a breathtaking view of Saigon.
You did it! You just completed the full Ho Chi Minh City circuit in 24 perfectly efficient hours! You got a taste for some ancient history, experienced the French colonial period, reflected on the Vietnam War, looked at the city coastline, and got super mellow on top of a building! If you want to stay and check out the city in detail, there’s always lots more to do besides this checklist. Hopefully, it was a memorable snapshot in your trip, and gave you a new appreciation for what Vietnam is really like.
Tours to book
If you enjoyed this post, why not check out more of Colin’s posts for insider travel stories and advice, here.