Exploring Saigon (HCMC)

The only true urban metropolis in Vietnam is Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formally known as Saigon. Think skyscrapers, never-ending streams of traffic and a surprisingly ‘western’ attitude of its inhabitants. HCMC has the best bars, the finest restaurants and the fanciest hotels in the whole country, so if you crave that urban feel, this is your spot. Whether you will be in town for a day or more, here are the top things to do in Saigon.

– What things to do in Saigon –


The colonial façade of the Postal Office

That the city is so different from the rest of the country is laid down in history. HCMC served as the outpost for the Americans in the Vietnam war from 1955 to 1975. After the fall of the fall of Saigon on the 30th of April 1975 the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the Vietnamese communist ‘hero’ Ho Chi Minh. Many still refer to it as Saigon. 

Next to drastically influencing the development of the city the American heritage is also the reason why HCMC is probably the best place to learn more about Vietnam’s modern history. With an abundance of historical sites, it pays to spend the extra night here to delve deeper into Vietnam’s past. The enhanced understanding of the country and its people will enrich the travel experience as you venture deeper into Vietnam.

In a nutshell

The interior of the Post Office, it is actually still in use

HCMC is the place to go fine-dining, clubbing and delving into the countries modern history. Many people also use it as a base to take day-trips into the Mekong Delta, or to the Cu Chi tunnels Or both in one day, although I would not recommend doing this unless you really like being cramped into a small semi air-conditioned mini-van for hours and hours. Since describing everything there is to do in this metropolis would take more lines than any sane person would be willing to read, I will stick to the  sights that are easy to get to and worth the visit.

Things to do in Saigon in 1 day

The roundabout next to the Benh Thanh market

in another article  I discourage the Lonely Planet walking tour in Hanoi, the walking tour through ‘old Saigon’ however is actually a good idea. It takes you past a lot of the sights, without too much effort.

Make sure to visit the Central Post Office (which is still in use), Opera House and the Reunification Palace. As the Notre Dame is next to the Post Office you might as well check it out, but do not expect anything special. Get your souvenirs at the Ben Thanh Market, although the smaller markets will give you a better price.

For an amazing view of the city you can head up into the Bitexco Financial Tower. The plateau that sticks out of the building is a helix-pad and not accessible to public. Do not stay around for a drink at the rather depressing and overpriced EON Heli Bar.

When the sun sets, make sure you find yourself on one of the better roof-top bars sipping on a delicious but over-priced cocktail before heading to a nice eatery. If your up to it finish your night in one of the many the bars and clubs. See below for recommendations on where to eat and drink.

 Things to do in Saigon in 2 days

Notre Dame in Saigon’s District 1

If you got another day, that you are not spending on taking a day-tour somewhere, visit the War Remnant Museum and actually go into the Reunification Palace. Venture into Cholon (District 5) as this offers a whole new face of the city: that of its Chinese heritage.

What to avoid

The entrance to the Jade Emperor Pagoda

This is highly personal as many people recommend me to go to this place. I found it utterly disappointing: the Jade Emperor Pagoda. After a 40-60 minute walk, depending if your coming from the Pham Ngu Lao or Dong Khoi area, through busy traffic without much to see you suddenly discover this temple. Its interior is a potpourri of small statutes, pictures, leaflets and gold-colored paintings, wood-carvings and shrines, all covered in incense-tainted smoke making it rather hard to breath. It is not a pretty temple nor can it be considered ‘tranquil’.

The only thing that makes this temple sort of worth the visit is that it is actually a Buddhist/Taoist temple that is very much in use. It oozes a weird combination of modern religion and ancient beliefs which can really be felt here. And which I haven’t found anywhere else in the country. If you got time to spare, go for it. But do not make this the last stop of the day as you will hate yourself for going.

– Eating, drinking & sleeping recommendations –

View from Broma Not A Bar at New Years Eve

The most popular places to stay in the city are the Dong Khoi area and the Pham Ngu Lao area, and rightfully so. Dong Khoi is the old Saigon area. here you find the most hotels, malls but also points of interest. Pham Ngu Lao is the backpacker area. Think Khao San Road but more relaxed. 

You might be able to get better deals in District 4, but you daily trips to and from your hotel will negate this effect. Go Pham Ngu Lao if you are traveling on a budget, Dong Khoi if you are looking for a bit more luxury.

A good hotel for a friendly price is the Giang Son 2 Hotel, in Pham Ngu Lao. If you are staying in this area you really have to have a meal at Five Oysters, as this offers fantastic value-for-money. Authentic food in a charming atmospheric setting.

When you are looking for a nice not-too-expensive roof-top bar to go partying and meet people, go to Broma Not a Bar. But for your sunset-cocktails the better choice is the beergarden on top of the Rex Hotel (expensive, but really pretty), Chili Skybar or Glow Skybar (expensive and loud music, this is where the local rich kids hang out). A little further out but way cheaper and with a mainly backpacker-crowd: The View Rooftop Bar at the Duc Vuong Hotel. 

– Practical Information –


HCMC has a fairly constant temperature throughout the whole year, but the sunniest and least humid days can be found from end December until end of April. (March and April tend to be very very hot). After April the monsoon arrives, however even the rainy season has many dry days and is nowhere near as extreme as in the central or northern parts of the country.


Daily Budget EUR 30 (35 USD)
Street food EUR 2 ( 3 USD)
Meal in a restaurant EUR 5 (6 USD)
Dorm EUR 5 ( 6 USD)
Double in a 3-star hotel EUR 20-50 (25-60 USD)

In & out

Getting from the airport into the city

The best way of getting to and from the Than Son Nhat airport into the city is by bus. Route 152, 109 and 49 all three have a fairly regular schedule and take about 50 minutes from the airport to either the Dong Khoi area of Pham Ngu Lao, for about 20,000D.

Alternatively you can take a taxi, but expect to pay up to 150,000D. A lot more if you do not settle upon a price beforehand as scammers are not that aggressive here but will use the opportunity if it presents itself.

In & Out

Than Son Nhat airport is one of the biggest international airports in South-East Asia so there is a fat change this is your point of entry or exit. From here you can fly anywhere in Vietnam for about 500,000-1,000,000D. If you are not flying you can take the (night) train further into Vietnam but this is not the most interesting part of the tracks. It will not save you any money as well.

Take the bus into the Mekong Delta on your way to Cambodia or Phu Quoc Island. There are also direct buses into Cambodia taking approximately 7 hours to reach Phnom Penh. Visas can be bought on arrival at the border-crossing.


– Things to take to Vietnam –

Of course these are not the only things you need when travel to Vietnam but I recommend them because I feel they are essentials that might not be on your radar when packing your bag.

Waterproof Bag

A waterproof bag is a lifesaver when caught in the rain but also when kayaking, jungle-trekking or chasing waterfalls. If nothing else it gives you piece of mind when traveling with camera gear or other stuff that just can’t get wet. Get a 5L or 10L version so you can pack it within your daypack. I recommend this one from Mountain Splash. It’s durable and tough, transparent and it has got an easy handgrip.

Hand Sanitizer

Yes I view anti-bacterial hand sanitizer as essential. Not because I am germophobic but because this will save you from diarrhea and food poisoning. Most people that get sick from eating street food in South-east Asia don’t get sick from the shitty hygiene at the street food stall but because they didn’t probably wash their hands. Use hand sanitizer, stay a happy traveler. This set got handy Carabiners to latch it on you any pack.

3MM climbing rope

Even if your not going to do any climbing or trekking, you need a 3MM climbing rope. Most often you will only use this as a washing line. Or to tie stuff to the outside of your backpack. I for one have never needed to use my rope for anything else than that. However 3MM climbing rope takes up as much space as any washing line. It is nice to know it can also take the full weight of any person when needed.

Lonely Planet

Because its just the best compact travel guide out there. I always take a lonely planet with me for its practical information and background on certain sights. It is a lifesaver for when you find yourself unexpectedly off the beaten path in search of accommodation for the night. For me this is still the best way to read up on a destinations in long haul bus rides. You don’t need internet or battery-life and you can keep it dry in your recently purchased waterproof bag!