Backpacking Ho Chi Minh city is an experience difficult to put into words. This modern southern Vietnamese city is also one of its most popular tourist destinations. Often seen as chaotic, Ho Chi Minh is just a lively, vibrant city that travelers eventually fall in love with.
The city is usually the starting or finishing point for those traversing the length of the country. It can take weeks to explore the gems of southern Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh city makes for a good base. Trip to sites like Hoi An and Mekong Delta warrants at least a few days of stay. To get to Hoi An, take the short flight to Da Nang, and then go from Da Nang airport to Hoi An by bus. While the Mekong delta is easily reached by a direct bus in a few hours.
Ho Chi Minh city offers its visitors a diverse array of attractions – from historical sites to iconic pagodas, and from busy marketplaces to unique cafes. The backpacker crowd is centered around Bui Vien, where budget accommodation and food are found.
For those of you staying longer, there are interesting excursions to take under 2-3 hours. Three days in Ho Chi Minh city is ideal to see the highlights together with a day trip of your choice. To help you figure out your itinerary here is a list of top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City:
Reunification Palace is a landmark structure located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh city. During the turbulent years of North and South Vietnam, the palace was occupied by the President of South Vietnam. The fateful day of 30 April 1975 marked the fall of South when a tank of North crashed through its wrought iron gates.
The exterior looks rather plain but the interiors are decorated beautifully as you’d expect from a presidential palace.
Spread over its two floors are parts of the presidential office, such as reception space and meeting rooms decorated in 1960s style. While at the top you will find entertainment venues such as a nightclub and a theater.
But it’s the basement that excites the visitors the most. There are tunnels connecting various rooms, a bomb shelter, and a large hall housing telecom equipment.
Notre Dame Cathedral
This beautiful red brick building consisting of two bell towers on either side is designed in a new neo-Romanesque architectural style.
Inside the grand pipe organ, though not operational, steals the show. Also, do not miss to admire the richly painted stained glass windows.
Just opposite the main entrance, you will come across a fine marble statue, it is of Mary. In 2005, the statue was in the news worldwide when people believed that Mary started shedding tears.
The Saigon central post office is right next to the cathedral, and you can combine your visit to include the two.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
Ho Chi Minh is dotted with many religious structures, but Jade Emperor Pagoda is the most important of them all. It is a perfect place for those looking for peace and a spiritual experience.
Though primarily a Taoist temple you will be surprised to see the traces of Buddhism mixed in. As you enter, the smoke of incense in the air adds to the already mystic atmosphere. Inside keep a watchful eye on the intricate décor – the woodwork, and the carvings all are fine examples of skillful craftsmanship. At the center of the altar is the figure of the Jade Emperor, surrounded by numerous other statues from Taoist folklore.
War Remnants Museum
A museum in central Ho Chi Minh, the War remnants museum is one of the most visited attractions of the city. Interestingly, the museum is located in what used to be a US information service building. The museum displays a collection of documents and artifacts related to the Vietnam War, pursuing you to change your perspective.
The exhibitions are spread over two floors, with a collection of anti-war protests and peaceful rallies against the war which took place all over the world.
Through photographs, military items, and personal memorabilia of war remnants, the museum documents the horror of the Vietnam War and the sufferings that people of the country had to go through. Some of these photographs can be very gruesome and not meant for someone with a faint heart. One of the most horrific of them all is the items depicting the horror of Agent Orange.
Outside on the grounds, you will find a number of military equipment, armored vehicles, tanks, and jets that were used in the war, mainly by the US.
Saigon Opera House
If you are someone with an interest in local culture, visit Saigon Opera House for an evening full of skillful performances.
Admire the plush interiors, decorated ceilings, and fabulous acoustics as you enjoy the evening’s performance in this venue of more than five hundred seats.
Enjoy a classical music concert or a ballet performance as you get up close to the artistic side of the city.
But before you visit do check the schedule online at the venue’s website, you can even book your ticket online.
Also, this beautiful french colonial architecture gets brilliantly lit at night, so worth a second look.
Central Post Office
Who would have thought a place as simple as a post office could be one of the top tourist attractions in Ho Chi Minh City or for that matter anywhere in the world.
A 19th-century marvel, the Saigon Central Post office stands as a testimony of French Gothic architecture from colonial times. The highlights include a patterned marble floor, grand arches, and an impressive facade.
Not only that but the post office is also richly decorated from the inside, with its display of old paintings and antiques. The post office is still functional and you can even send a postcard back home.
Fine Arts Museum
Dating back to 1929 and located in a sublime French colonial building is the Museum of Fine Arts.
Spread over three floors the museum collects several Historical artifacts which when put together form a quintessential part of Vietnamese Culture.
The immersive collection of art on the second floor depicts a past that is as recent as fifty years. Here you will find an array of paintings by Vietnamese artists making for a great introduction to Vietnamese art.
On the third floor, you will find a collection of artifacts from numerous archeological sites in Vietnam such as Champa from the 7th century.
Thao Dan Park
Get away from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh and relax in the green surroundings of Thao Dan Park.
The park is quite well maintained and is often frequented by the locals. Look out for the neat hedges which are meticulously cut into interesting shapes.
Thao dan park gives you the much-needed break from the city’s crowd and heat, merging you with nature filled with chirping birds, fresh cool breeze, and a moment of peace.
Treat Yourself With Delicious Pho
Pho is the unofficial national dish of Vietnam, available at every nook and corner food joint. Pho is essentially rice noodles with a clear soup, and other ingredients such as various fresh veggies, herbs, and meat are added as per the customer’s choice.
Also, Pho makes for a quick lunch or a great snack in between your long sightseeing walks in Ho Chi Minh city.
If you are concerned with hygiene and do not want to take a chance at one of the street food joints, you can also try four in a well-established restaurant or a fast food chain.
Ben Thanh Market
Located in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh city is the forever busy market called Ben Thanh. The best part of the market is its authenticity as it is not geared toward the tourists but is a haunt of locals looking for everything from daily essentials to fast fashion to gift items.
While there don’t forget to take your camera along as opportunities to take photos exist aplenty.
Exploring this enclosed market closely packed with hundreds of stalls will easily take hours away from your day, so be watchful of the time if you also have other plans for the day.
Near the Ben Thanh market is the Ben Thanh street food market, a good place to try authentic Vietnamese dishes while sitting shoulder to shoulder with the locals.
Relax at a Vietnamese Café
You will be surprised to know that Vietnam is one of the major producers of coffee, and it also consumes coffee in big quantities. Naturally, the city is dotted with numerous coffee shops.
Say hello to a trendy cafe of your choice or just sit in a street-side cafe and enjoy a cup of delicious Java. The coffee that you must try includes egg coffee, coconut coffee, and plain vanilla cold coffee. The ubiquitous cold coffee, though simple, taste great. It’s served with condensed milk and cubes of ice.
Visiting a cafe apartment is a unique Ho Chi Minh experience that would linger on with you for a long. Tastefully designed from the inside these are located in old apartment blocks and provide an interesting twist to the whole cafe experience.
Tracing your way through these apartment blocks and hopping from one cafe to another is a fun experience that you can only have in Ho Chi Minh.
Cu Chi Tunnels
Located just outside the bounds of the city is an underground maze of narrow tunnels known as Cu Chi tunnels. They played an important role during the Vietnam War when they were used by the rebels to quickly get from one place to another and to hide when attacked.
Strictly not for the people who suffer from claustrophobia, fear of closed spaces. As a traveler, it is possible to see them from the inside and even crawl from one point to another. These passages are so narrow that you would be left wondering how the Vietnamese got used to using these. Needless to say, try not to get lost, you have been warned.
Bitexco Financial Tower
Bitexco financial tower is one of the tallest buildings in Vietnam. It mainly houses private offices but a few floors are also open to the public. For sweeping views of the city get to the Saigon Skydeck located on the 49th floor of the building.
At the top, enjoying the views of the city’s skyline, the high-rise buildings, and the numerous boats floating on the meandering xxx river is quite a sight.
Pham Ngu Lao Street
A hub of backpackers who throng here for budget stays, cheap food, and a party atmosphere that never ends. Even if you are not staying here it is rewarding just to see what the fuss is all about. Come late evening to enjoy the eclectic atmosphere, but be watchful of the drunk people though they are usually harmless, things might take a turn for the worse.
Every large city has one and so does Ho Chi Minh. Though a smaller version of what you see in any other major Southeast Asian city, it is still an interesting place to visit for a first-timer.
The neighborhood presents a great opportunity to get up close to the Chinese culture – visit pagodas, shop for unique souvenirs and eat in one of the authentic Chinese restaurants. The best time to visit Chinatown is of course during the Chinese lunar year celebration when the whole area is beautifully decorated.
About the Author
An otherwise regular lad, Vidyut suffers from an advanced staged OCT – ‘obsessive compulsive traveling’. At one corner of his home office, you can always spot a packed backpack, which often gets picked inadvertently and disappears with its owner. He is also the writer of the book The Himalayan Tsunami and shares his escapades through his blog triplyzer.com