Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, is Vietnam’s largest city, and its financial and commercial hub. This sprawling city has a population of over 8.5 million people, half of which are under the age of 35. It’s a young city and one of the fastest growing cities in Asia.
Cranes dot Ho Chi Minh City’s skyline. Many more apartments, shopping centres, offices and even a metro system are currently being built. In this city, the past meets the present, with French colonial buildings standing side by side with sleek, futuristic skyscrapers. It’s a city rich in history, with fascinating sights and a unique mixture of eastern and western cultures.
Ho Chi Minh City is also home to 7.5 million registered motorbikes. That’s a lot of motorbikes! If like us Ho Chi Minh City is your first stop in Vietnam, be prepared for your first case of culture shock as you make your way from the airport into the city centre. The traffic is loud and chaotic, helmets are optional and it feels like there are no road rules whatsoever. But it all seems to work out and although Ho Chi Minh City is crazy (to put it mildly), it’s an incredibly exciting place and we loved our time there.
With 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City, here’s what we suggest you do:
Take a half day motorbike tour
The best way to start your time in Ho Chi Minh City is to immerse yourself in the craziness. To achieve this, take a motorbike tour. Of course, I’m not suggesting you rent a motorbike to ride yourself! But there are many companies that run half day tours of the city where you’ll sit behind a very experienced Ho Chi Minh City driver. Your guide does the driving while you enjoy the madness!
These tours are the best way to take in the city while at the same time learning how to navigate its traffic. You’ll visit the city’s various districts, learn about its history and see the main sights. But more importantly, your guides will give you practical tips about the city and take you to taste some mouthwatering local delicacies. We used XO tours and we had a fantastic time with them. Our drivers were fantastic and we never felt scared, even amongst all the craziness. It was a perfect introduction to the city.
Send a postcard from the Central Post Office
The Central Post office is a beautifully preserved remnant of French colonial times. No, it was not designed by Gustave Eiffel as you may be told, but instead by Alfred Foulhoux. This impressive building has several old-fashioned telephone booths and a soaring ceiling with a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging high above the far end of the main hall. If you plan to send mail or postcards home, you can do so from here because it is still a working post office.
Cross the road to the Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral
Right next to the post office is the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral. It was built in the 1880s by French colonists, with building materials imported from France. Its red brick façade came all the way from Marseille! You can either simply admire the cathedral from outside or take a look inside. However, it is currently closed for extensive renovations until late 2019. Some locals claim to have seen tears being shed from the statue of the Virgin Mary at the front of the Cathedral. Ever since then it has attracted even more visitors.
Learn more about the war at the War Remnant Museum
The Vietnam War is a big part of Ho Chi Minh City’s history and if you are interested in finding out more about the war, be sure to visit the War Remnant Museum. Told with a Vietnamese point of view, some of the exhibits are very graphic, but they are definitely an eye-opener to the horrors of war. It can be quite disturbing to look at some of the photos, especially those in the Agent Orange Effects exhibition.
The museum’s outdoor exhibit area displays aircrafts, tanks, a guillotine, and the disturbing “tiger cage”.
Fee: VND 40000
Visit the Reunification Palace
The Reunification Palace was built in the 1960’s and is a short walk from the War Remnants Museum. It used to be the residence of the South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu until the fall of Saigon on the 30th of April 1975. On that day, Communist tanks crashed through its gates, marking the end of the Vietnam War.
The bunker in the basement is the most interesting part of the palace, with tunnels, a war room and a telecommunications centre. You’ll be able to see vintage radios and telex machines, along with the president’s situation room and wartime bedroom. Bear in mind that it gets really stuffy in there on a hot day so visit early or be prepared!
Fee: VND 40000
View Ho Chi Minh City from above at the Bitexco Tower Skydeck
The Bitexco Tower Skydeck was designed by the American Architect Carlos Zapata. It is located in the centre of the business district and is two hundred and sixty-two metres tall. The building has sixty-eight storeys and is one of the world’s most iconic skyscrapers.
Take the fast elevator to the observation deck on the 49th floor for a 360 degrees view across the city and the Saigon River. But don’t expect to get great photos, unless they’ve cleaned the windows since we visited!
Another option is to head to the highest bar in the city, Eon Heli Bar on the 52nd floor, for a drink with your view and no entrance fee. Arrive just before sunset to enjoy the view both by day and by night.
Observation desk fee: VND 200,000
Explore the local markets
Everywhere we visit we enjoy checking out the local markets. It’s a fantastic way to get a feel for the local lifestyle and I always find them fascinating and great for photography. There are many such markets in Ho Chi Minh City. Some markets are mainly for locals, while others are aimed at tourists.
Ben Than Market
Ben Than market is the most famous market and therefore the most touristy one. Be prepared to haggle hard! With over three thousand stalls, it covers a huge area, and it’s a great place to buy local handicrafts, souvenirs, branded goods, Vietnamese art and more. There’s also a street food section, where you can try some cheap and delicious local Vietnamese cuisine.
Tan Binh Market
Tan Binh is not a tourist market. It’s mainly dedicated to fabrics, vegetables, and meat, but it’s a great place to watch the locals haggle and to find out more about their way of life.
Ba Thien Hau Temple
If you visit just one temple in Ho Chi Minh City, make it this one. From the outside, it’s nothing special. But once inside, the smell of burning incense fills the air. The interior walls have interesting engravings, and there is the traditional curvy roof lined with porcelain figures depicting good and evil characters. But my favourite part was the large coils of incense that hung from the ceiling. While there you can make a small donation and light and hang one yourself.
Take a half day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi tunnels are about fifty kilometres outside Ho Chi Minh City. This network of interconnecting underground tunnels was used by Viet Cong soldiers during the war. The tunnels were used as hiding spots during combat, as well as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon storage bunkers and living quarters. People were even married inside them!
The tunnels are now a popular tourist attraction and visitors can crawl through the safest parts of them. The tunnels have been widened for tourists and now have low-power lights installed along their length, but it’s still not a great experience for the claustrophobic. We crawled through the twenty-metre long one and I couldn’t wait to get out!
How to travel around Ho Chi Minh City?
Like every other city in the world, we found that the best way to explore Ho Chi Minh City was by foot. You’ll see a lot more by walking, but the only thing to bear in mind is that being a pedestrian in Ho Chi Minh City can be totally terrifying at first.
Crossing the road will get your heart racing like never before! Don’t expect the traffic to ever stop for you. If you don’t make your way through it, you’ll be stuck where you are for hours! The advice we received was “walk out with confidence and, whatever you do, DON’T STOP.”
The last part seems obvious, but there were a few times where I found myself in utter shock, just standing there screaming. Not some of my finest moments! However, once we got used to it, it became a bit of a game and crossing the road was suddenly fun and sometimes a great challenge. Just be sure not to walk out too close in front of cars and trucks. They take longer to stop if they don’t see you, whereas motorbikes can easily route around you.
Of course, Ho Chi Minh City is so big that you can’t walk everywhere. There are plenty of taxis but we preferred to use Uber. Not only was it was very affordable and easy to use with the app, but we didn’t have to explain to the driver in our terrible Vietnamese where we wanted to go.
They have both Uber motorbikes and cars. We used cars but the motorbikes are a cheaper option for singles.
Grab is another taxi company similar to Uber that is available all over Vietnam and Asia. You will recognise them with their green jackets. Like Uber, you can order them through an app and some say it is even better. We didn’t use them so we can’t comment, although there seemed to be many more Grab bikes than Uber ones. Also Uber announced while we were there that it is selling its South-East Asia business to Grab, so soon they’ll be run by the same company anyway.
Where to eat?
I don’t know about you, but we are big fans of Vietnamese food and it was one of the reasons we wanted to visit Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City has no shortage of amazing places to eat and at all price levels. Street food is definitely king in this city, but there are also some great restaurants to try. Here are some of our favourites.
If you are travelling on a budget, you will find many street food carts selling delicious Vietnamese food all over the city. Some specialities of Ho Chi Minh City are Pho, a tasty noodle soup with a selection of meats; Banh Mi, a baguette filled with various Vietnamese and French ingredients and Banh Xeo, a crispy Vietnamese crepe filled with pork, prawns or your choice of ingredients.
This restaurant is on the 2nd floor of a beautiful colonial-era villa, decorated with spiritual motifs and elegant Chinese characters. It offers a good selection of Vietnamese dishes and serves delicious cocktails.
Ngoc Chau Garden
This restaurant serves traditional home cooked Vietnamese food and is popular with locals and tourists alike.
Propaganda Bistro is decorated with colourful murals of Vietnamese propaganda posters. It is centrally located, overlooking a park and a few steps from the Notre Dame Cathedral. The food is essentially Vietnamese street-food with a slight Western touch.
Where to Stay
Budget < $50
Quiet, clean and perfectly located in District 1, close to most major sights. Prices start from AU$25. Click here to check out the latest prices.
Mid-Range < $150
Set in a beautiful old French building spread over five floors, this hotel has a French country feel and is located in District 3, halfway between the airport and District 1. Prices start from AU$85. Click here to check out the latest prices.
Luxury > $300
The Reverie Saigon
The Reverie is extravagant and the most luxurious hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. It is located inside the 39 stories Time Square Building, overlooking the Saigon River and walking distance to most sites. All rooms are spacious and benefit from some of the best views of Ho Chi Minh City. Prices start from AU$350. Click here to check out the latest prices.
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Tours and Activities in Ho Chi Minh City