The sheer number of fun and exciting things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, may seem overwhelming at first. This is Vietnam's largest city, after all.
However, many of the most popular activities and attractions are within District 1, making it more manageable.
A friend's wedding in Ho Chi Minh City motivated me to make up for lost time and visit Vietnam after I skipped it during my first backpacking trip through Southeast Asia in 2008.
Kel and I arrived five days before the wedding to acclimate to the new culture, food, and traffic patterns. As our sleep improved, we saw and experienced more of Saigon.
What follows is a list of the best things we did during five full days of sightseeing. I've also included a few attractions and day trips on my to-do list that we didn't have time for.
What To See in Saigon
1. War Remnants Museum
One of the most challenging, albeit eye-opening, things to do in Ho Chi Minh City is to visit the War Remnants Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Vietnam War.
Previously known as the “Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes,” it was established in 1975, shortly after the end of the war.
Everything here is told from the perspective of the Vietnamese. The alternative viewpoints are thought-provoking for Americans like me, who grew up with different narratives.
The museum features a variety of exhibits that showcase the terrible effects of the war on the Vietnamese people, including photographs, weapons (i.e., guns, landmines), and documents.
Several outdoor displays include larger military equipment such as tanks, helicopters, and howitzers.
One of the most powerful exhibits is the “Agent Orange Room,” which displays the effects of the defoliant and chemical weapon on Vietnamese civilians.
The museum also has a section on the war crimes committed by American troops, including the My Lai Massacre, which resulted in the murder of more than 500 civilians.
The images are sometimes graphic, but I believe it's essential to view them as a reminder of the horrors of war and why it's best avoided.
You can visit the War Remnants Museum on your own or do a guided tour that includes the Ben Thanh Market (the city's largest market).
Emotionally, the experience reminded me of walking through S-21, the former Khmer Rouge prison in Phnom Penh used during the Cambodian genocide.
2. Independence Palace (Reunification Palace)
Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace, is a historic landmark. It was constructed in the 1960s as the official residence and workplace of the President of South Vietnam.
The palace has a modernist design blending Eastern and Western architectural styles. It features spacious halls, conference rooms, a helipad, and underground tunnels.
The palace played a significant role in the Vietnam War, as it was the site of the war's end when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through the palace gates on April 30, 1975.
Related: Vietnam's Golden Bridge
Today, the palace serves as a museum where visitors can explore its rooms and exhibitions showcasing the history and culture of Vietnam.
The rooftop is especially interesting, as two bombs were dropped by the North Vietnamese (Viet Cong) on it during the war.
The palace has been preserved in its original state, including the tank that crashed through the gates, making it a fascinating destination for history buffs and architecture enthusiasts alike.
3. Central Post Office
The Central Post Office is a pretty French colonial building located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.
Built between 1886 and 1891, it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the famous architect behind the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The building features a spacious interior with a high arched ceiling and ornate decorations, including a large mural of the city's founder, Hung Vuong.
Visitors can send postcards and letters from the post office or admire the architecture and historical significance of the building, which is considered one of the city's top tourist attractions.
4. Notre Dame Cathedral
Across the street from the Central Post Office is Notre Dame Cathedral, a byproduct of French colonial rule.
Completed in 1880, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City was constructed entirely of building materials imported from France, including thousands of red bricks from Marseille.
Stained glass windows and a high-vaulted ceiling are hallmarks of the interior's European design.
The front facade was covered by scaffolding during my visit as the building continued to undergo renovations.
5. People's Committee Building
The splendid People's Committee Building is a few blocks south of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Completed in 1908 by French architect Ferret Eugene, the building was initially named the Hotel de Ville and served as the administrative center of the colonial government.
The building features an attractive blend of French Renaissance and classical motifs.
This is a great place to linger if you have the time and watch the many motorbikes whiz by every time the nearby traffic light turns green.
Behind you, facing the opposite direction toward a long pedestrian mall is a statue of Ho Chi Minh.
6. Saigon Opera House
The Saigon Opera House, also known as the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, is a majestic colonial-era building in the heart of the city.
Constructed in 1897 by French architect Eugene Ferret, the Opera House blends European and Vietnamese design elements, including a spacious interior with ornate decorations and a grand staircase.
The Opera House hosts cultural events, including operas, ballets, and concerts, and is considered a symbol of Vietnam's cultural heritage.
We stopped by the entrance and learned there was a Bamboo Circus performance the same week we were in town. The tickets weren't expensive, but we didn't have time to check it out.
7. Saigon Deck at Bitexco Financial Tower
Walk about four blocks south of Ho Chi Minh's statue along the pedestrian street (D. Nguyen Hue), and you'll arrive at the Bitexco Financial Tower, home to the Saigon Skydeck.
At its completion in 2010, it was Vietnam's tallest skyscraper at 861 feet. The observation deck is on the 49th floor and is among the best places for panoramic city views.
Contrary to my initial thinking, the large circular platform near the top of the building is a helipad, not an outdoor observation platform. The Skydeck is just below it and fully enclosed by glass windows.
From here, you'll see Landmark 81, a newer skyscraper and current record-holder for the tallest building in Vietnam (1,513 feet). It's the second-tallest tower in Southeast Asia.
In addition to the views, there's a small museum dedicated to the Ao Dai, a traditional Vietnamese dress.
8. Landmark 81 – Vietnam's Tallest Building
Vietnam's tallest building, Landmark 81, is a short rideshare or taxi ride from District 1. Like the Bitexco Financial Tower, it was constructed alongside the curvaceous Saigon River.
At nearly twice the height of the Bitexco, you'll notice the difference as your ears pop riding up Landmark 81's super-fast elevator.
Related: Places to Visit in Vietnam
Once you reach the 79th floor, you have the top three floors to explore. Tickets include a small free drink (Vietnamese coffee, tea, or juice).
9. Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts
The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts occupies the former residence of a wealthy Chinese-born businessman, once one of Vietnam's most affluent residents.
The yellow-and-white colonial-era mansion was constructed in the early 1930s; the museum took over in 1987.
The three-story fine arts museum showcases an extensive collection of contemporary and traditional art from Vietnam, including paintings, sculptures, ceramics, and lacquerware.
It's home to more than 21,000 pieces, ranging from classical to modern, and reflecting the diverse artistic culture of Vietnam.
10. Ben Thanh Market
The Ben Thanh Market is bustling and iconic in the city center. Perusing the market is a popular activity for locals and tourists in Ho Chi Minh City.
Various goods are for sale, from fresh produce and local Vietnamese delicacies to clothing, jewelry, and souvenirs.
The market is known for its lively atmosphere, with vendors competing for customers' attention. Bargaining is expected, so remember to negotiate before you buy.
It's also a great place to sample traditional Vietnamese street food, such as pho (soup) and banh mi (sandwich).
11. Tao Dan Park
Adjacent to Independence Palace to the southwest is Tao Dan Park, a green oasis in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.
Covering an area of 25 square acres, Tao Dan Park is a popular attraction for locals and tourists. This peaceful park features a range of flora and several ornamental lakes and fountains.
Visitors can enjoy a stroll and perhaps catch locals practicing Tai Chi. The park also hosts cultural events and festivals throughout the year, making it a vibrant hub of activity.
12. Jade Emperor Pagoda
Opened in 1909, the Jade Emperor Pagoda is dedicated to the Taoist god, the Jade Emperor, and features a mix of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian influences in its design and art.
Visitors can see intricately carved wooden statues, colorful paintings, and porcelain figurines depicting scenes from traditional Chinese mythology.
The temple is filled with incense smoke, resulting from the devotees who stop by throughout the day.
13. History Museum of Ho Chi Minh City
History fans may consider visiting the History Museum of Ho Chi Minh City briefly. Housed in a French colonial building, this museum showcases the history of Vietnam from its earliest times (Prehistoric period 500,000 years ago) to the present day.
14. Giac Lam Pagoda
The Giac Lam Pagoda is one of the oldest temples in Ho Chi Minh City. Initially built in the 18th century, this Buddhist temple has been renovated and expanded.
Visitors can see a range of architectural styles, from traditional Chinese to French colonial, as well as ornate carvings, statues, and murals depicting Buddhist themes.
The pagoda is also home to several relics, including a 300-year-old statue of Buddha and a bell cast in 1799.
See also: Things To Do in Central Vietnam
Food & Drink
I want to turn your attention to the coffee shops and Vietnamese food to fuel your adventures.
15. Vietnamese Coffee
Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of coffee in the world after Brazil, a fact I didn't know until I arrived there.
If you like coffee, one of the top places to enjoy a cup is Soo Kafe, my favorite Saigon cafe. It's across the street from the west side of the Ben Thanh Market.
Vietnamese iced coffee, yogurt coffee, and salt coffee are also worth trying.
16. Vietnamese Cuisine
Traditional Vietnamese cuisine is known for its fresh ingredients, intricate preparation, and a balance of flavors and textures.
Common dishes include:
- Pho: Noodle soup made with beef or chicken broth, rice noodles, and meat or seafood.
- Banh mi: Sandwich made with a French baguette filled with grilled meat, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs.
- Bun cha: Grilled pork served with rice noodles, fresh herbs, and a dipping sauce.
- Spring rolls: Fresh vegetables and herbs wrapped in rice paper and served with a peanut dipping sauce.
- Banh xeo: A crispy, savory pancake made with rice flour and stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts.
If you're unfamiliar with Vietnamese food when you arrive, finding a few typical dishes you'll enjoy won't take long.
17. Street Food Tour
A Saigon street food tour led by a local guide can serve as a terrific introduction to Vietnamese food and drinks. It's also a great way to make new friends, if only for a night.
My friend, Nick, who got married, organized one for us. And it was one of the first things we did upon arriving in Ho Chi Minh City.
Over two to three hours, we walked around District 1, eating at various street food stalls and drinking Vietnamese iced coffee and locally-produced craft beer.
18. Nightlife in District 1
The fun doesn't end when the sun goes down in Ho Chi Minh City; some may say it's only getting started. The nightlife in District 1 is a fun mix of sidewalk dining, rooftop bars, and speakeasies.
You'll find everything from cheap beers, live music, and a party atmosphere on Bui Vien Street to creative drinks at world-class cocktail bars like Summer Experiment and Stir.
19. Cu Chi Tunnels
One of the most popular day trips from Ho Chi Minh City is a guided tour of Cu Chi Tunnels, a vast underground network with 137 miles worth of tunnels used during the Vietnam War.
Visitors (who are not claustrophobic) can crawl through the tunnels to understand what it must've been like to live and fight from them during the war.
Cu Chi Tunnel tours are available as a half-day standalone morning or afternoon experience or combined with activities like the War Remnants Museum or Mekong Delta.
20. Mekong Delta Tour
A boat ride along the Mekong Delta is another way to spend time outside Ho Chi Minh City.