Ho Chi Minh City, which is still more commonly known as its former name, Saigon, is the ultimate Southeast Asian metropolis. It is a city that is truly alive, with its crazy traffic filled streets surrounded by busy street side food stalls, markets, restaurants and modern skyscrapers. This is the sort of place where just crossing the road is an adventure on its own; any visit to Vietnam wouldn’t be the same without a stop in Saigon.
Things to do in Saigon
Walking through Saigon’s traffic filled streets and sampling its interesting food stalls is an exciting adventure on its own. Ho Chi Minh City is also home to some of the best museums in Vietnam. There is quite a lot to do in the city and you could easy fill up several days here.
Ben Thanh Market
Saigon’s busy central market is always a hive of activity and is a great place to shop. You can find all kinds of items at Ben Thanh Market including clothes and souvenirs. The busy food court area is a great place to get some cheap and tasty food as well.
Formerly known as the Independence Palace, this huge building was the Presidential Palace of the former country of South Vietnam, and remained so until the end of the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese Army invaded the city, its tanks smashing through the palace’s gates, ending the war. The palace is now a museum and has been left basically as it was when the war ended in 1975. The interior of the palace is quite spectacular and very interesting to check out.
Entrance to the Reunification Palace costs 30,000 Dong ($1.50) and it is open 7:30-11am and 1-4pm every day.
War Remnants Museum
The War Museum in Saigon documents the true devastation of the Vietnam War, and I’ll be honest, I felt a little uncomfortable at times due to the photographs on display. Nothing is hidden or whitewashed here, and for that I was grateful. There are some interesting war remnants on display, tanks, aircraft etc; however most of the museum contains photographs from the war. I think this is very well done and a must see if you want to understand the country of Vietnam. Be prepared though, this is quite a sombre experience and tears are common among visitors.
Entrance to the museum costs 15,000 Dong ($0.75) and is open from 7:30am-12pm and 1:30-5pm
This museum takes you on a journey through the history of Vietnam, mostly focusing on the ancient empires that inhabited the lands that now make up the country. It’s quite an impressive collection. The museum building is also a lovely old French Colonial building that is worth checking out. It’s located next to the Botanical Gardens and the Zoo, so you could make a full day out of this area if you wanted to.
Entrance to the History Museum costs 15,000 Dong ($0.75) and is open 8-11am and 1:30-4:30pm. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Located in the historic colonial area of the city, Notre Dame Cathedral is a typical European cathedral that looks like it should be somewhere in France. This beautiful church was built in the 19th century and has been well looked after.
Saigon Post Office
Located opposite Notre Dame Cathedral is Saigon’s Central Post Office, a beautiful old French Colonial Building that looks like it should be a grand railway station. It’s quite spectacular inside and out.
Tours outside Saigon
A lot of people visit Saigon to visit the attractions outside of the city. The most popular are day trips to the Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels – the vast tunnel system used in the Vietnam War. You will have no problem finding a tour to join in the tourist areas of the city, and your guesthouse can most likely organise something for you. The Cu Chi Tunnels can be visited with a half day tour. In my opinion, the Mekong Delta should be visited at least overnight – A day trip will mostly be spent travelling.
Where to stay in Saigon
The main backpacker area of the city is Pham Ngu Lao, located to the south of the main attractions in Saigon. There are so many budget places to choose from along and between Pham Ngu Lao Street and Bui Vien that you will never have a problem finding a place to stay. This area can get very loud and noisy at times, but if you wander down some of the quiet alleyways you can find some quieter options.
Nguyet Van Hotel
This cheap hotel is located a little away from Pham Ngu Lao in a quiet alley off Ho Hao Hon Street in a quiet neighbourhood. We booked this place as we wanted somewhere quiet to get some sleep. For $13 per night we got a basic but clean double room with private bathroom and aircon, and it was nice and quiet. The hotel is located about a 10 minute walk from Pham Ngu Lao which can be a good or bad thing depending on whether you want to go the backpacker bars every night etc. There were a couple of local places to eat nearby and the walk to Pham Ngu Lao didn’t bother us at all.
Where to eat in Saigon
There is no shortage of cheap and tasty places to eat in Saigon. I had a few problems getting accepted into some of the local places, but there are plenty of decent tourist spots to choose from if you have any trouble. At the local food stalls and eateries away from the tourist areas, its a good idea to learn the Vietnamese names for some of the meals, then you can just point at what you want on the menu.
This is a popular spot located on Bui Vien Street in Pham Ngu Lao and has locations on each side of the road. The food and drinks here are cheap and tasty and the serving sizes are great. I like this spot because I can sit on the street and people watch while having a beer.
Song Xanh Café
This is a little local place where we had breakfast each morning, located on Ho Hao Hon Street in the quiet area near Nguyet Van Hotel. The food here is cheap and delicious, and the lady and her daughter that run the place are just lovely.
Ben Thanh Market
The food court at Ben Thanh Market is full of busy food stalls that cook up all sorts of dishes. It’s cheap, delicious and perfect for a break from shopping. Most places have an English menu to have a look at.
Bahn Mi Viet
There are heaps of cheap and tasty baguette stalls located around Saigon, especially in the Pham Ngu Lao area (you can get a baguette with fillings for 50 cents), but Bahn Mi Viet is a proper sandwich shop. Located on Cong Quynh Street, this is kind of like Subway, Vietnamese style.
Located on the corner of Bui Vien and Do Quang Dau in Pham Ngu Lao, this is a popular spot with tourists. I thought that the food was better and cheaper just down the road at Lam Café, but it’s not a bad option, especially for a couple of drinks in the afternoon.
Getting to and around Saigon
Saigon’s international airport is generally connected to the rest of the world through Asian connections. The train line that runs the length of the country starts in Saigon and is a good option if arriving from the north. Buses run to and from all major destinations in Vietnam along with many other major cities in Southeast Asia such as Bangkok and Phnom Penh.
Walking is an excellent way to see Saigon, but it is a huge city and distances can be quite large between some attractions. I walked from Pham Ngu Lao to most of the main attractions, as far as the History Museum, but I caught a taxi back as it got quite hot and tiring.
Metered taxis are cheap and safe to use in Saigon, but make sure to use a reliable company as Vietnam has a problem with taxis with dodgy meters. In Saigon, use Mai Linh or Vina Sun taxis.