Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s most populous city. Previously known as Saigon, it has a complex history that is important to learn more about. The city is home to over eight and a half million people, making it overflowing with life and energy. The organised chaos of the motorbikes, the maze-like alleys, the world-class coffee shops and the unique cuisine all combine to make Ho Chi Minh City a place like no other. Of course, you can’t forget about the cheap beer either!
Here you’ll find 17 of the top things to do when in Ho Chi Minh City. There are so many activities to do, historic places to go, religious sites to see, and delicious food to eat, so let’s get started!
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Jade Emperor Pagoda
The Ngoc Hoang Pagoda is one of the most significant Taoist shrines in the city. Also known as the Jade Emperor Pagoda or the Tortoise Pagoda, the strong sense of incense in the air adds to the incredible atmosphere. There are intricate wooden carvings, elaborate tiles, and a hundred paper-mache statues depicting both Buddhist and Taoist figures.
Inside the pale-pink pagoda are two four-metre-high statues of the two generals who defeated the Green Dragon and the White Tiger. The largest statue sitting between them is, of course, the Jade Emperor, a representation of the first god in Chinese culture. There are many works of art and intricate details to appreciate here as you wander around.
The Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon
One of the most iconic Ho Chi Minh City attractions is the Notre Dame Cathedral. The basilica was established by French colonists in 1863 and constructed by 1880 using materials imported from France. It is a quick reminder of the French influence that remains all throughout Vietnam. The Romanesque-style church features two spiked bell towers on either side standing 58 metres high.
The cathedral is located downtown and surrounded by luscious green trees. Opposite sits a quaint, landscaped park known as Notre Dame Square.
Ben Thanh Market
The largest and best-known market in Ho Chi Minh City is Ben Thanh Market. It’s also one of the longest-surviving structures in the city, developing from an informal marketplace in the 17th century where street vendors would gather near the Saigon River. Today, the market is incredibly popular with tourists looking to purchase local arts and crafts. You can always haggle at least 50 per cent off of the initial price offered, so don’t forget to test out your bargaining skills.
Outside the market is a major hub for city buses and other modes of transport, so you won’t have any trouble getting here. The market is open daily from seven in the morning until seven at night, so there’s no reason to miss out on the experience. Shop and look around for as long as you like, as there are delicious Vietnamese food options and fruit smoothie stalls to keep you going.
The Independence Palace, also called the Reunification Palace, is a significant landmark in Ho Chi Minh City. The palace is on the site that marked the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, making it one of the top places to learn about the history of the country.
Inside, the ‘60s and ‘70s decor will take you back in time as you step through presidential apartments, conference rooms, and the underground bunker. You will even get to see the North Vietnamese army tank that crashed through the front gates, signalling the Fall of Saigon.
Ho Chi Minh City Post Office
You may be wondering, “Why would I want to visit a post office during my holiday?” The Ho Chi Minh City Post Office, sometimes still referred to as the Saigon Post Office, is an absolutely extravagant site painted bright yellow. The architectural design of the 19th-century building incorporates French, Gothic and Renaissance influences.
While you might like to mail a postcard or two while you’re there, it’s worth a visit to simply appreciate the ornate decor and high domed ceilings.
A Mekong River Cruise
The Mekong River spans over 4,350 kilometres across Southeast Asia and has greatly influenced the communities along the banks. The mouth of the river begins in Vietnam and is known as the Mekong Delta. A wonderful way to get to know the Mekong and understand why it is so important is to take an eight-hour trip from Ho Chi Minh City and explore the river via speedboat.
Gain an understanding of the culture and daily life along the way, from the local villages to the riverside markets. Take in the scenic rice paddies and fruit orchards, and maybe even spot a water buffalo. Enjoy fresh coconuts and other seasonal fruits, lunch prepared by a private chef, and some local Mekong whisky. You’ll also get the chance to stop by a Buddhist pagoda and a family homestead.
Giac Lam Pagoda
One of the oldest temples in Ho Chi Minh City is the Giac Lam Pagoda, built in 1744. Before the main pagoda, which measures 65 metres long, there is a seven-storey-high hexagonal stupa which is used to store Buddhist relics.
A large bodhi tree and a statue of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara sit in the garden surrounding the pagoda. It’s truly a beautiful, peaceful place to walk around and escape the busy streets of the city for a short while.
The War Remnants Museum
An important place to learn about the Vietnam War and the complex history of the country is at the War Remnants Museum. There are powerful and emotional exhibits inside, complete with genuine photographs and audio elements. Be sure to see the informative Agent Orange exhibit. Learn about the events and consequences of the war, and see warplanes and tanks displayed in the courtyard outside. Entry is only 40,000 Vietnamese Dong, equal to about 2.50 AUD.
For fun things to do in Ho Chi Minh City at night, head to the backpacker area in District 3. You’ll find conflicting information online as to whether the official Backpacker Street is Bui Vien Street or Pham Ngu Lao Street. The reason for this is that the area has undergone huge changes since 2014, when the government ordered the impromptu bars all along Bui Vien to be shut down.
While Bui Vien is still a fantastic walking street to check out, a lot of the action now happens along Pham Ngu Lao as well. Here you will discover an array of alleys and back lanes filled with hostels, perfect for the budget traveller. Of course, this also means a wide variety of lively bars to ensure a great night out. If you’re interested in exploring the city’s nightlife, this area is definitely your number one destination.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum
Another wonderful historic and educational site is the Ho Chi Minh City Museum in District 1. The museum is held within the former Gia Long Palace, an elegant, neoclassical structure built in 1885. Maps, ceramics, and archaeological artefacts will tell you more about the city’s story over two floors, including its struggle for independence. With an entrance fee of only 30,000 Vietnamese Dong (less than 2 AUD), it’s more than worth a visit.
The perfect spot to sightsee is from the Saigon Skydeck atop the Bitexco Financial Tower. 262-metres high, up on the 49th floor, there is a glass-enclosed observation deck that offers fantastic 360-degree views over Ho Chi Minh City.
While the bird’s eye perspective is wonderful during the daytime, the evening views showcase dazzling city lights as the sun begins to set. Pull up a chair at the Skydeck’s restaurant and bar, EON51, which is even slightly higher up.
Suoi Tien Theme Park
Easily one of the most unique amusement parks in the world is the Suoi Tien Theme Park. There’s no Disney here in Vietnam, meaning the Happiest Place on Earth for the Vietnamese is a Buddhist-themed park. The entire park incorporates colourful statues of Buddhas and mythical animals like dragons and turtles, as well as a giant pond filled with actual crocodiles.
Although the premise seems lovely, there are still a few areas to get a fright. Below the Unicorn Palace, you’ll descend into a scary depiction of Buddhist hell, complete with skeletons and audio-visual elements to add to the terror. If that isn’t enough, there’s a magic ghost castle too.
If you’d prefer to keep your day a little more relaxed, there’s a great waterpark overlooked by an enormous stone monument of Vietnam’s first king, Hung Vuong. The entrance fee is low, though you will have to pay for each attraction inside.
A Street Food Tour
I’m sure you are already familiar with Vietnamese foods like banh mi and pho, but there are so many other delicious dishes you won’t want to miss out on. Not sure where to begin? Book a street food tour!
A three-hour walking tour is the perfect way to eat your way through Ho Chi Minh City just as the locals do. Your guide will take you off the beaten path to some of the best spots that tourists like yourself don’t know about.
You’ll have the opportunity to try out interesting dishes like squid porridge (chao muc), the local spring rolls (bo bia), and barbecued meatballs (bo cuon mo chai). All tours are limited to 12 people, so you’ll meet some new friends while enjoying a Saigonese coffee or beer together.
Tan Dinh Church
Although only about seven per cent of the Vietnamese population identifies as Catholic, the Tan Dinh Church is one of many stunning churches that contribute to the city’s identity. With its pastel pink exterior and white Baroque elements, this Gothic wonder looks almost like the home of a Disney princess.
The fun and vibrant church is an unexpected joy that tends to catch tourists off guard. Yet, the wondrous 60-metre-high building has stood since 1876. The fairy floss theme continues inside with pale pink walls, and there are three beautiful Italian marble altars. If you’re looking for an unusual attraction to visit in Ho Chi Minh City, the Tan Dinh Church is certainly it.
You may have already heard of the Monkey Island near Halong Bay, but did you know Ho Chi Minh City has its own as well? About 60 kilometres southeast of the city is the Can Gio Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed mangrove wetland. If you find a great guide, you can learn a lot about the unique flora and fauna of the reserve.
This peaceful area turns a little chaotic once you see the cheeky, wild monkeys running about, so be sure to carefully watch your possessions!
Buu Long Pagoda
Another fairytale-like attraction in Ho Chi Minh City is the Buu Long Pagoda. This castle is well worth the trip out to District 9, particularly if you have an interest in learning more about Buddhism.
Sitting atop a hill, you may have already seen its glistening yellow tower from afar. It’s an almost meditative escape from the noise of the city, as you appreciate the ornate architecture and the serene reflecting pool at the front.
Before you leave, you can stop and enjoy an affordable lunch at the vegetarian restaurant inside.
The Cu Chi Tunnels and Cao Dai Temple
A truly unique temple you’ll find not far from Ho Chi Minh City is the Cao Dai Temple. The temple serves the followers of the Caodaist religion, which is a blend of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and even Islam.
Caodaism is the third-most practised religion in Vietnam, yet is definitely the most mysterious to foreign visitors. It was established in 1926 in the city of Tay Ninh, which is where you’ll find the Cao Dai Temple. Though only constructed in 1933, the incredibly unique and colourful architectural style of the temple incorporates elements from all of the religion’s numerous influences.
About 20 kilometres north of the temple is the entrance to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This underground labyrinth was used during the Vietnam War by the Viet Cong. The tunnels saw several military campaigns and were instrumental in resisting American forces. Parts of the tunnel system have since been made wider and taller for foreign tourists to comfortably explore.
You can combine both of these incredible attractions on a full-day tour. Book on Viator to receive an informative private guide, hotel pickup and drop-off in an air-conditioned vehicle, and a complimentary lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant.
Recommended budget tours in Ho Chi Minh City
- Cai Be Floating Market & Mekong Delta Tour with Kayak, Boat, Bike, Cooking Class
- 3-Hour Saigon Street Food Private Tour
- Half-Day Cu Chi Tunnels from Ho Chi Minh City by Luxury Speedboat
- Half-Day Small-Group Ho Chi Minh City Tour
- Ho Chi Minh City Night Tour by Motorbike, Including Saigon Street Food
- Ho Chi Minh Food Experience: Vietnamese Cooking Class and Market Tour
- Mekong Delta Insight Tour – Deluxe Group Tour
- 2-Day Small Group Cu Chi Tunnels, Mekong Delta, City Tour from Ho Chi Minh City
- Private Ho Chi Minh City Discovery Full-Day Guided Tour
- Deluxe Mekong Delta full day with Lunch small group from HCM city
- 2-Hour Dinner Cruise on Saigon River by Bonsai Cruise