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9 Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City (From an Expat)

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Seeking the essential things to do in Ho Chi Minh City? Whether you're moving to Vietnam or are just traveling through the country, a lot of people overlook Ho Chi Minh City (also referred to as its old name, Saigon, and its shortened name HCMC).

This big, chaotic city though has so much going on and doesn't deserve the rep a lot of the traveling community has given it.

Embrace the chaos, hop on the back of a motorbike, and enjoy all this city has to offer. The fact that there really is something for everyone here is one of things I liked most about living in Ho Chi Minh.

From uncovering layers of history to relishing the vibrant culinary scene, I've narrowed down the top experiences for your Saigon visit to make sure you hit the highlights and a few hidden gems, too.

Let's dive right into the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Short on time? Here’s the cheat sheet:

🏙️HCMC is chaotic but brimming with things to do. The biggest tip I can give you is to fully embrace the chaos, with a cà phê sữa đá in hand. 

🏥Accidents happen so come prepared with nomad insurance, just in case!

⌛Have minimal time? My #1 recommendation is a street food tour to see the city on the back of a motorcycle and eat Vietnam’s classic dishes

🎭Staying Longer? GetYourGuide, Viator, and Klook offer a wide variety of tours and activities to suit your schedule, budget, and interests.

🛏️For easy access to the top sights, book your stay in District 1. Book your stay to Unforgettable Saigon Experience for a spacious, bright apartment right in the city center. 

📅3 days should be enough to explore the city but if you fall in love like I did, you might decide to extend and give living in HCMC a shot.

1. Explore French Colonial Architecture

A woman sitting on a motorbike talking to a group of students in front of a French architecture church in Ho Chi Minh City
Sitting in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral, helping students with their homework

Starting this list off with some of Saigon's top tourist attractions, you need to pay a visit to:

  • Saigon Central Post Office
  • Notre Dame Cathedral
  • Saigon Opera House
  • Ben Thanh Market
  • Ho Chi Minh City Hall

I don't know what I was expecting from Vietnamese architecture but it wasn't the European flair that you'll find at some of these buildings listed above. The French architecture stands as a reminder of the colonization that happened before and leading up to the Vietnam War.

Vietnam's history is a wild one (more on that later) and the diverse architecture you'll find throughout the city is a testament to that.

Taking yourself on a little sightseeing tour to these top attractions should be one of the top things you'll do while in Saigon. Your choice though if you want to make a day of it, popping from one spot to another or swinging by them on your way to another of the activities on the list.

Pro Tip: The Saigon Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral share the same square so you can see both of those at the same time.

2. Savor Vietnamese Street Food

A picture of a typical Vietnamese meal, with rice, egg rolls, pork, and shrimp
Typical Vietnamese food doesn't just mean street food

Moving to Vietnam from South Korea was a big change when it came to the food. At first, I had the impression that the food was bland, given how used to super sweet or super spicy food I had become.

If I could go back in time, I would smack that idea out of my head because Vietnamese food is seriously delicious.

Culturally, Vietnamese people say each meal should combine five fundamental flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and spicy. You'll see this most apparent in the different side dishes, toppings, and greens that accompany each plate. Don't be shy and dress up your meal as you see fit!

Ho Chi Minh City is home to some fantastic and trendy restaurants but to really get into Southern Vietnam, you need to try the street food.

A few must-try dishes are:

  • Bánh xèo: Vietnam's answer to savory crepes
  • Bánh Mì ốp La: Traditional sandwich with egg, pate, and veggies, most common for breakfast
  • Bún thịt nướng: A cold noodle dish with pork, pickled veggies, and a delectable sauce
  • Gỏi cuốn: Fresh spring rolls with a variety of ingredients
  • Bánh Khọt: Crispy mini pancakes, again with a variety of ingredients

This is really just scratching the surface of the street food to try. Consider a street food tour or head to the area in and around Ben Thanh Market to find a wide variety. Many of the dishes listed above will be found on most street corners, you just need to know what you're looking for.

3. Learn About Vietnam's War History

The front of the war museum in Ho Chi Minh City with old airplanes parked in front
Photo courtesy of depositphotos.com

I highly recommend you visit the War Remnants Museum. It's a heavy experience but one I urge you to have.

As someone from the US, I grew up learning about the Vietnam War and glossing over the most brutal details in history classes. Here, it's the American War and they don't shy away from the truth.

You'll face graphic photos and stories you might wish to ignore.

Beyond the War Remnants Museum, the Reunification Palace, formerly known as Independence Palace, and the Cu Chi Tunnels, offer a deeper insight into the city’s war history.

While it's not the most "fun" activity, I think it's one of the top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. Realizing the severity of the war and how recent it really was will most likely have you look at Vietnam under a different light.

4. Experience Local Culture

A woman smiling in front of an old converted apartment block in Saigon that is now for coffee shops and restaurants
Standing in front of the famous converted apartment building

Ho Chi Minh City is a city of contradictions with tradition blended with modernity and old and new standing side by side.

One of the authentic ways to experience Vietnamese culture is through traditional water puppet shows or go see the Bamboo Circus. These shows, performed at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre, showcase beautifully painted wooden puppets operated over water, providing guests with unique cultural insights. The Bamboo Circus on the other hand is performed at the Saigon Opera House.

Another option, or in addition to, is to head over to Nguyen Hue Walking Street in the heart of District 1 (aka the city center). Here you'll usually find street performances and people walking around, especially at dusk and in the evening when the temperatures cool down.

Be sure to stop by the converted old apartment building that now serves as a hub for bars, cafes, shops, and restaurants. Once you're on the walking street, you can't miss it!

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5. Admire the City Skyline

The view of the skyline in Ho Chi Minh City, taken from District 2
The view of the city from District 2

Just like every city, Ho Chi Minh City also boasts a unique skyline. The Bitexco Financial Tower, standing at 262 meters high, offers an unbeatable view of the city. Its EON Helibar on the 52nd floor provides a breathtaking panorama that captures the city’s dynamic blend of old and new. Buy a skip-the-line ticket and head right up instead of waiting in the queue.

You can also head up to the bar and viewpoint at Landmark 81, the tallest building in Southeast Asia.

Other than those 2, there are countless rooftop bars and restaurants throughout the city. Nearly every building boasts one. As bonus points, it tends to be windier, aka cooler the higher you go.

6. Fuel Up on Plenty of Coffee

A woman sitting on a bench drinking a coffee, one of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City
Be sure to spend plenty of time with a coffee in your hand

Vietnam runs on coffee - really, really strong coffee.

And if you're a coffee lover like I am, you're in for a real treat. Forget about americanos, lattes, or cappuccinos though, in Vietnam they make coffee drinks you won't find anywhere else.

Southern Vietnam is known for its obsession with cà phê sữa đá, ice coffee with condensed milk. Northern Vietnam is famous for cà phê trứng, egg coffee and Central Vietnam is the reigning champion of cà phê dừa, coconut coffee.

But luckily for you, you can try all of these coffee types and plenty more while in Ho Chi Minh City.

It's easy to grab a cà phê sữa đá from a street vendor on any corner but Vietnam goes big when it comes to their coffee shops. Make a point to try a different one each day to sip coffee you can't find anywhere else.

For the more daring readers, I highly recommend you scout salt coffee and coffee with orange juice. Both were favorites of mine when I lived in Saigon.

7. Go Shopping

A woman looking at items at a traditional market in Southeast Asia
Even if you're not keen to buy, take some time to wander through a few of the markets

With its plethora of options, no trip to Ho Chi Minh City can be complete without indulging in a little shopping. From souvenirs and clothing to local goods, the city’s markets are a shopper’s paradise. Ben Thanh Market, located in District 1, and Binh Tay Market in Chinatown, are particularly popular, offering a wide range of items and a vibrant atmosphere.

If you're looking less for souvenirs and more for clothing, jewelry, or items you'd wear on a daily basis, most neighborhoods host weekend markets with local vendors. I had the best luck finding unique and affordable clothing at these.

7. Explore the Green Spaces

A woman sitting on the edge of a pond with giant lily pads
Head to Bình Quới Tourist Village to see the giant lily pads

In general, Ho Chi Minh City is an urban jungle but there are still pockets of green space to be found. A few of my top recommendations when you need a little break are:

  • Bình Quới Tourist Village is a large and quiet green space that's home to massive lily pads.
  • Tao Dan Park, one of the largest parks in the city, features century-old African Mahogany trees, artistic plant sculptures, and a shrine dedicated to the ancient Vietnamese Hung Kings.
  • Van Thanh Park provides a serene escape with its artificial lake, swimming pool, sports facilities, and options to rent gazebos for private gatherings.
  • For a unique experience, the Ho Thi Ky Flower Market in District 10 offers a vibrant display of flowers, plants, and floral accessories. Note though that is a seasonal market.

8. Experience the Nightlife

A slightly blurry picture of a woman laughing while drinking a Saigon beer
Treat yourself to a night out, the nightlife in Saigon is one of a kind!

With the setting sun, Ho Chi Minh City metamorphoses into a lively party hub. Known for its lively nightlife, Ho Chi Minh City’s offerings include hip rooftop bars, trendy clubs, and live music venues that cater to all preferences. Pham Ngu Lao Street and the nearby Bui Vien Walking Street serve as bustling hubs for nightlife, where locals and tourists alike can immerse themselves in the energetic evening atmosphere.

Just know that these walking streets are chaotic, especially Bui Vien Street. These aren't really family-friendly areas and are known as the backpacker district, which can mean booze and drugs are plentiful.

If you're looking for a different vibe, Saigon has plenty of rooftop bars that offer panoramic city views in a more chill environment.

So, whether you’re looking to dance the night away or simply enjoy a drink under the starry sky, Ho Chi Minh City’s nightlife has something for everyone.

9. Go On a Day Trip from Ho Chi Minh City

A long view of lily pads in the Mekong Delta, just south of Ho Chi Minh City
Heading into the Mekong Delta you'll feel so much farther than just 2 hours away

With some extra time on your hands, you might want to explore the areas surrounding Ho Chi Minh City through a day trip. The lush countryside of the Mekong Delta, with its bee farms, coconut candy factories, and fruit orchards, is just a small group tour away from Saigon.

If you're eager to get out of the city for just a day, these are my top recommendations:

  • Ben Tre: This is the start to the lush Mekong Delta. You'll feel incredibly far away from the capital when you swap your motorbike for a bicycle and skyscrapers for lush greenery. If you're looking to relax, I'd do it here.
  • Cai Be Floating Market: Just outside of Can Tho, experience traditional trading from barges and savor breakfast noodles and drinks. I went to this market, not as a day trip, but as a larger Mekong adventure and had very mixed feelings about it. It is unique to see a floating market but it was less exciting than I hoped and far dirtier.
  • Vung Tau: This is the closest beach from Saigon so it's the best bet if you want to dig your toes in the sand while traveling here.
  • Cu Chi Tunnels: I mentioned this above but since it's a little bit outside of the city center, it works well as a day trip. These are the tunnels the Viet Cong used for surprise attacks.
  • Mui Ne: Another coastal town a little bit farther away but this one is known for it's massive sand dunes and decent surf.

Each of these trips offers a unique experience, providing a glimpse into the rural life and natural beauty of Vietnam.

Where to Stay in Ho Chi Minh City

A woman floating in a hotel pool that has a few of the skyline of Ho Chi Minh City
Lucky for you, most hotels have pools with great city views

Thanks to a wide range of accommodation options, finding the perfect place to stay in Ho Chi Minh City is quite easy. Depending on what you're looking to do while in Saigon, I recommend 3 different areas.

District 1 Hotels

District 1, with its easy access to major attractions, is a highly recommended area to stay. Here, you'll be right in the heart of the city so most of the top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City will be right at your fingertips.

📍These are my top hotel recommendations for D1:

District 2 (Thao Dien) Hotels

Thao Dien is home to the expat bubble in Ho Chi Minh City. If you're a remote worker and want to meet other digital nomads or are visiting Saigon to see if this is a place you'd like to move to, you might want to get out of the tourist hub and into the expat one.

📍My top hotel recommendations in Thao Dien are:

  • Budget Stay: Notre Maison 5 Saigon: Situated a few blocks from the main street of Thao Dien, you'll be within walking distance to plenty of things to do but nestled on a quiet street.
  • Mid-Tier Stay: ambiHOME 2BR 2WC in Masteri: This isn't our old apartment but this is the building we used to live in. Enjoy great amenities, about a 10 minute walk to the center of Thao Dien.
  • Luxury Stay: Mia Saigon – Luxury Boutique Hotel: Farther down from the center of the neighborhood, enjoy the life of luxury with scenic river views at this boutique hotel.

District 4 Hotels

District 4 rubs elbows with District 1 and the Saigon River. This is the best area if you're looking for a more local experience while visiting.

You'll be close enough to the top things to do, great restaurants, and nightlife but by staying in this district, you'll get to see the real Ho Chi Minh City.

📍Check these hotels in District 4:

Transportation Tips

A woman sitting on a baby blue Honda Cub, smiling at the camera
I was a proud member of the Honda Cub Club

An adventure in itself, navigating through Ho Chi Minh City promises an exciting experience. Taxis are a reliable and readily available mode of transportation. I'd recommend that you download the app, Grab. This will help you navigate through any of the best places to visit in Vietnam.

I'd recommend the bus or flights for covering longer distances but within the city itself, Grab is affordable and the most convenient mode of transportation.

Know that on Grab, you can get a car taxi or a motorbike taxi.

Renting a Motorbike

Speaking of motorbikes, should you rent one while in Ho Chi Minh?

That really depends on you and your confidence on 2 wheels.

When I lived in Saigon, it took me a few months to understand the flow of traffic and get my confidence up to buy my own bike. Note, this was my first time driving a motorbike.

My husband had grown up on motorcycles in the streets of his hometown, Bogota, Colombia so the traffic and the bike were far less intimidating for him than for me.

I highly recommend you be confident when deciding to get a bike here. Smaller towns are easier to learn in but if you can manage the roads in Saigon, you can manage the roads anywhere.

Things to Know Before You Go

Now that you’re gearing up for your trip and planning the specifics of where and when you’ll go, there are a few things you don’t need to overlook.

I know just how easy it is to look towards the big hike, bucket list city, or beach of my dreams and forget about all of the little things in between that’ll make your trip run as smoothly as possible. Be sure to take into consideration these few things before you go to make sure you get all the good bits of your trip without the stress.

  • Make sure you have travel insurance. A good travel insurance, like SafetyWing, will ensure you’re covered in case of emergencies. While you will have to pay upfront for your doctor or hospital costs, unless it’s for a pre-existing condition, you can file a claim and should be reimbursed. For any Americans reading this, fear not, healthcare in pretty much every other country is far more affordable than ours, even if you’re paying out of pocket.
  • Do your best to learn a few local phrases in their language. No, I’m not expecting you to be able to have a fluid conversation with locals at the bus stop if you’re just visiting their country for a week but knowing your numbers (for prices), how to order something (“I would like…”), and basic greetings really will take you a long way. Mondly is a great app for phrases and vocabulary.
  • Book any popular tours you want to do in advance. I’m really not a great planner and I’ve made this mistake more times than I can count. I plan a trip to a destination knowing that I want to do a sailboat trip or food tour and wait until the day before to book only to realize it’s not available the day I’m in town. Don’t make that mistake - if there is something you know you want to do - book your tour in advance. GetYourGuide, Viator, and Klook are all reliable platforms.
  • Last tip certainly isn’t mandatory but it is helpful. Before you start booking your flights, hotels, and tours, consider opening up a travel credit card. Thanks to our Capital One Venture card, my husband and I have gotten countless free flights just by gaining points on everyday expenses.

Frequently Asked Questions

A woman crossing a wooden bridge in an area covered with rivers and lush greenery
Can you believe this is within Ho Chi Minh City limits? Bình Quới Tourist Village is the spot.

Is 3 days enough in Ho Chi Minh City?

Yes, 3 days in Ho Chi Minh City should be enough to see the major attractions and get a good feel for the city's culture and atmosphere.

Although the longer you stay, the more you'll get to know the nooks and crannies of this city. It seriously is huge and filled with so many hidden gems!

What is Ho Chi Minh City known for?

Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is known for being the largest city and business hub of Vietnam. It has a rich history, with museums showcasing wartime history and French colonial architecture. It also has a very vibrant nightlife.

What are the must-visit places in Ho Chi Minh City?

You should definitely visit the Saigon Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, War Remnants Museum, Ben Thanh Market, and the Cu Chi Tunnels when in Ho Chi Minh City. These places offer a great mix of history, culture, and local experiences.

Enjoy All the Best Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is a vibrant city that offers a unique blend of history, culture, food, and adventure.

While I wasn't expecting to love it so much, my year living in Saigon was truly fantastic. The city can be a huge shock upon arrival but if you give it a fair chance, you'll start to see how great it really is.

From exploring the city’s French colonial architecture and savoring its tantalizing street food to immersing yourself in the local culture and admiring the stunning city skyline, every moment in Ho Chi Minh City is an experience in itself. So, pack your bags, set your spirit of adventure free, and get ready to explore the captivating charms of Ho Chi Minh City!

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