Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, also referred to as Saigon, is named after Ho Chi Minh, a revolutionary leader of Vietnam’s independence movement. This was our first stop in Vietnam and a welcome change of pace from Kampot, Cambodia. The laid back vibe of Kampot gave way to the lights, city-vibe, tall buildings and hustle bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. There is quite a bit to do in and around the city. The two days we had initially planned on spending was not enough and we extended our stay by another two. Here are some of the things we did.

Walking tour

Duration: 4 hours
Cost: Free
Rating: ****

A walking tour of a city is a must in the Beets travel itinerary. It was the same in Ho Chi Minh City. Tour or not, walking around a town or city helps us get a better feel for the place. Street life that would just whizz by in a car, are slowed down tremendously when walking. We pay a lot more attention to our surroundings when walking, and get a very different perspective of the place. We have found that walking also gives us the freedom to peek in and explore an alley, street or shop that looks interesting. Something that would be very hard to do if we were in a taxi or other form of public transportation.

For our walking tour we used the Lonely Planet guide as a rough outline. The tour covers most of what District 1 in Ho Chi Minh City has to offer, and along with a visit to the War Remnants Museum, would be a good one to follow for travelers only spending a day in the city. There are some things that we liked better than others.

Things we liked

Ho Chi Minh City has a lot to offer. Here the things that were highlights for us on the walking tour.

  • Walking on Dong Khoi: As soon as we started walking on this street, it was a refreshing change from the first part of the tour. Definitely a lot more touristy with lot of people, shops, restaurants, and cafes. The street was a pleasant surprise to walk on at night as well. The holiday lights and decorations added a festive charm to the street.
  • Municipal Theater (Opera House): Beautiful building that seems to come out of nowhere when walking on Dong Khoi. The tickets to the opera were a little to pricey, otherwise I would have loved to see the interiors as well.

  • Notre Dame Cathedral: An imposing building in the middle of the road and good for sharpening your photography skills.

  • Central Post Office: Right next to the cathedral is the characteristic facade of the Central Post Office. Once inside, you are welcomed with an old world charm. It’s a functioning post office, with souvenir shops right in the middle of it. Very unique! Also two very large and beautiful maps adorn the foyer.

  • Reunification Palace: Also called the Independence Palace, it has much historical significance. Although we didn’t get to tour the building, a lot of fellow travelers recommended it. (Open from 8 AM to 11 AM and 1 PM to 4 PM).
  • Walking on Nguyen Hue: Another road adorned with holiday lights and decorations. It was a treat walking down this road with locals in the New Year spirit. A very well lit City Hall at the end of the road, makes for great night time street photography. Was missing my tripod and DSLR camera here.
  • Ben Thanh Market:  This maybe in the wrong list, since we didn’t go inside. We were “marketed-out” from Thailand and Cambodia but it’s the place to go to for shopping and street food. Make sure you have an idea of how much things should cost so you can bargain your way to a reasonable price else expect to pay 5x more.

Things we could have skipped

Here are some of the places we could have skipped on the Ho Chi Minh City walking tour:

  • 23/9 Park: We happened to be living close to it, and walked through it; there wasn’t anything particularly special about it.
  • Antique shops: Could be worth it, if you are really in to antiquing. Otherwise it’s a small street, with not too much going on. There are quite a few stores, but we didn’t come out thinking that was great.
  • Street Market: Kind of the same as antique shops. Probably didn’t strike our fancy, since we have grown up seeing similar streets in India. An entire street of camera shops was kind of cool.
  • Statue of Tran Nguyen Han: This is something you could catch while driving, really not worth walking to.
  • Riverside: We approached the riverside from Nguyen Hue, and did not find it remarkable in anyway. It was pretty dirty, and piers that could have provided a better view of the river and the other side, were closed off.
  • Bitexco Financial Tower: It could be welcoming if you want to get away from the heat. The big draw is the Observatory tower on the 49th floor. At $20 a pop we thought it was too expensive (we would have felt the same even if we weren’t in budget mode, specially after looking at the TripAdvisor reviews).

  • Majestic Hotel: A different facade compared to other buildings in the area. It was being used by the Japanese for use as their military barracks.
  • Turtle Lake: It was a unique roundabout and we found a few people hanging out there. But there wasn’t a great vibe about the place. We didn’t see any turtles, if that’s what you are looking for.

War Remnants Museum

Duration: 2-3 hours
Cost: 15,000 VND per person
Rating: *****

This was a highlight of our stay in Ho Chi Minh City. It was insightful to hear about the “American War” and how it affected millions of Vietnamese. Primarily conveyed through photographs, it was eye-opening and gut-wrenching to learn about the history of the country and see the international politics at play. The blatant genocide using Agent Orange is inexcusable, and yet, somehow the perpetrators walked away with just a “slap on the wrist”. (Note: There is a 15,000 VND (~7 USD) entrance fee per person. We would not recommend buying the booklet at the ticket counter). 

Cu Chi Tunnels

Duration: 5-6 hours
Cost: 240,000 VND per person
Rating: *****

We booked a half day tour to Cu Chi Tunnels from our hotel (Vintage Hostel) for 130,000 VND (~6 USD) per person. The tunnels are in the Cu Chi district about a little over an hour from Ho Chi Minh City. This included for transport and a guide, but not the entrance fee, which was another 110,000 VND (~5 USD) per person.

Our guide, Mickey, was funny and passionate. He gave us a great insight into the resilience of the Cu Chi villagers and the heart of the Vietnamese people. The tour was about 5-6 hours including travel time. For our fellow veggie travelers, I would recommend carrying few snacks. At Cu Chi you will get some snacks, roasted corn juices, ice cream and coconut water. As a part of the tour we got to see the villagers engaged in beautiful handicraft work with sea shells and duck shells. The tour gave us a great sense of how these villagers lived and fought during the war. We got to crawl through the tunnels and understand how the tunnels were constructed. Mickey also explained to us some of the tactics that they used to allow for day to day living without giving up their location. (Note: I am mildly claustrophobic, and was still glad that I crawled through the tunnels. There are exits every 20 meters if you really need to get out).

A very unique aspect of this place, is that they have a firing range on site, where you can shoot all sorts of guns including AK-47 and M-16’s. There is an extra charge for the ammunition. Interestingly, as we walked around the Cu Chi tunnel area, you could hear people firing guns at the range. Not sure if this was by design, but it greatly added to the atmosphere of the place, and helped us get a better sense of what it was like for the villagers with all the shooting going on around them.

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