Ho Chi Minh City is the cosmopolitan, exponentially growing home of Southern Vietnam’s amazing food, tropical weather, incredible history and lots and lots of motorbikes. I’ve been lucky enough to visit this city three times and it just always seems to call me back for another visit. There are so many Ho Chi Minh City highlights that writing a single blog post on them seems to barely cover how wonderful this vibrant, busy city is.
Part of the charm of Ho Chi Minh city is in getting out among the locals, finding some great street food and settling down for a beer on the street (usually served with ice in it) and enjoying watching a completely different way of life zoom past.
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My first trip to Ho Chi Minh was a whirlwind 2 day adventure before heading off on an Intrepid Travel tour of Cambodia. On this trip I really tried to cram in as much ‘touristy’ stuff as possible to make the most of my short time there.
My second visit to Ho Chi Minh was on a work trip and I got to spend a whole week there. This was a wonderful way to see the city as I’d already done a lot of the tourist sites, I really just got to experience life in the city.
My colleagues in Vietnam were incredible hospitable and made sure that they took me out just about every night to amazing restaurants, bars & karaoke. I even got to drive a motorbike through Ho Chi Minh, before I flew up to Hanoi and Halong Bay for the weekend.
By the time it got to my third trip to Ho Chi Minh, I felt like an old pro – I wandered the markets for street food, got plenty of shopping done and just slowed the pace down to really enjoy.
If you’re a bit nervous about navigating this crazy city on your own, then do what I usually do and hook yourself up with an Urban Adventures day tour. There are heaps to choose from in Ho Chi Minh, and they really help you get to know the city.
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City
You can pretty much find a full range of accommodation options in Ho Chi Minh, from the basic to the extremely luxurious. For those of you wanting a more luxurious experience, you could try the New World Hotel which is where I stayed on my second trip – it was truly a 5 star experience and a really lovely stay. The Grand Hotel Saigon is also hugely popular with travellers for its lovely decor.
For a lower budget alternative located in the thick of the action, Gemini Hotel Saigon is a great choice.
Both of these accommodation options are about 30 mins drive from the airport and are in the heart of the city. I’d recommend that you stay in District 1 so that you’re central. If you can, try to stay close to the Ben Thanh market because then you’re right in the thick of the action and have easy access to the delicious street food from market vendors.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City
Every time I’ve visited Ho Chi Minh City, I’ve flown from Melbourne via Singapore and then on to Ho Chi Minh. It’s around 7 hours to Singapore and then another hour to Ho Chi Minh which makes it a nice easy layover. It’s always a good excuse to stopover in Singapore for some chili crab for a night or two before heading to the bustling metropolis that is Ho Chi Minh.
The airport in Ho Chi Minh is pretty easy to navigate, but make sure that you check your country’s Visa requirements. On my first trip I organised my Visa before I got to Vietnam which meant I posted off my passport to the Vietnamese Embassy in Australia and it was returned to me with a Visa.
On my second and third visits I organised a Visa on Arrival (carrying a letter with me from my work). If you do the Visa on arrival, make sure that you have the correct money in cash to pay the cashiers (US dollars preferable) as at the time of my last visit, they didn’t accept card and the ATM near the cashier is unreliable. I had to actually leave the airport (walking through customs with an escort) to go outside and use the outdoor ATM before coming back in to pay for my visa.
Ho Chi Minh City Highlights – What to See, Do and Eat
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a must do if you’re in Ho Chi Minh City. The tunnel network used by the Viet Cong in the Vietnam war is amazing to behold and though the history of the Vietnam War is extremely tragic, the ingenious way that the Vietnamese people went about warfare is remarkable given that their American opposition were far more technologically advanced in terms of weaponry.
I got onto the Cu Chi Tunnels by adding an Urban Adventures Cu Chi experience to my itinerary, but it is possible to visit this area without taking a tour. I’d recommend doing a tour if you can because the history & knowledge that our guide was able to impart on us being a child of two people who lived through the Vietnam War was both moving and thought provoking.
You can actually travel through some of the tunnels which had to actually be widened for Western tourists to fit through. That said, they’re still a pretty tight squeeze and a few people from our group struggled and had to go back because of claustrophobia.
Visitors can also see the trenches from the war and the underground traps that the Vietnamese used to kill their opponents. For the people who are interested, there are also Vietnam War guns that you can pay extra to fire at a firing range set up in the area.
I didn’t do this as I hate guns, but I know there were a few guys in the group that rated this experience pretty highly!
War Remnants Museum
The Vietnam War is such an intrinsic part of the modern Vietnamese identity that it is hard to escape this extremely significant and recent part of the country’s history when you travel around Vietnam. In terms of learning about the Vietnam War, it doesn’t get much more thorough than a visit to the War Remnants Museum.
A word of warning for the easily queasy or sensitive types – this is a pretty harrowing experience in parts and I certainly walked away feeling very affected, particularly after seeing the section of the museum devoted to presenting the effects of the chemical Agent Orange that was used by the Americans during the war.
That said, I also walked away feeling far more informed and with a greater perspective of the impact that this incredible portion of Vietnamese history had and continues to have on the country. I had studied the Vietnam War at university, but hearing about it from a Vietnamese perspective was invaluable.
Entry to the museum is around 15,000 VND and it’s about a 20 min walk from District 1 to District 3 where the museum is located on 28 Vo Van Tan Street. Otherwise it’s a very short cab ride – be sure to ask them to put the meter on or be prepared to negotiate a fare before you jump in the car though!
Ben Thanh Market
If you want somewhere free to go where great food, beer and shopping can be found in the one place, then the Ben Thanh market is the place to be. Scour the market stalls for a bargain, but remember to barter. Some stalls take credit card for larger purchases but cash is always the medium of choice in Vietnam!
Once you’ve had a shop and bought some gifts for everyone back home it is absolutely imperative that you stop and grab a cold beer (usually served with an ice block) and get some lunch or dinner from a street vendor. Beers to try in Vietnam are Saigon or 333, but you can also get a range of international beers at most places.
In terms of food – fresh baguettes are always a winner, but I really recommend that you get a seafood hot pot for something a bit different. You won’t regret it.
Visit the Independence Palace
The Independence Palace looms over Ho Chi Minh City, a reminder of the city’s complex history and the country’s eventual liberation. This was the home of the South Vietnamese President during the Vietnam War and since then it has been converted into a reunification centre.
This iconic sight is most famous for the events around the fall of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City’s former name) where a North Vietnamese army tank smashed through the gates. The original palace was destroyed by two kamikaze pilots who rebelled against the South Vietnamese President and crashed into the left wing; the palace that stands there now was completed in 1966.
Visitors can explore the war rooms, the President’s Office and the Conference Hall in the building.
Explore architecture at the Central Post Office
Frenchman Alfred Foulhoux designed this magnificent building in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Built in 1886, the post office is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s highlights and potentially a bit of a surprise package as the yellow coloured building’s mix of French Colonial and Gothic archicture seems unusually located in the centre of this Vietnamese city.
The Central Post Office is located right next to the equally incredible Notre Dame Basilica of Saigon which is also worth a stop to see the beautiful Romanesque architecture that belies the city’s French influence.
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Reading this brought back some great memories for me! I spent a fabulous week in Ho Chi Minh city & i had a lovely time exploring on the back of a scooter with a young local guide. I would add the Cao Dai temple to your list It’s a fascinating day trip from Ho Chi Minh City. I enjoyed your article, thanks for sharing!
Oh good suggestion – I will have to get to the temple next time I visit! How good are the scooter tours? So much fun to be right in the thick of it!
Wow that’s really interesting that you can go in the war tunnels, and quite funny they had to be widened for western tourists! It sounds like the city has a lot to offer!
The tunnels are amazing – definitely a must do in Ho Chi Minh!
Great suggestions! I would also add having tea at the Bitexco Financial Tower for the amazing view.