Irrepressible Ho Chi Minh City is the bustling hub of Vietnam’s south. You’ll often hear locals refer to it as Saigon, the name it went by when it served as the capital of French Cochinchina. When South Vietnam became an independent republic in 1955, Saigon retained its status. It was renamed Ho Chi Minh City once the country was reunified in 1975 and lost its standing as the premier metropolis.
Today, the northern city of Hanoi may be the official capital of Vietnam, but it’s Ho Chi Minh City that boasts the largest population. It also draws the highest number of annual international visitors – a sure indication if any that there’s a wealth of awesome things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. From exploring its complex past to marvelling at its new-found modernity, read on for seven of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.
1. Start the day with a Vietnamese coffee
Ho Chi Minh is full of energy and you’ll want to be too, if you’re going to tackle all it has to offer. Start with a Vietnamese coffee and you’ll be fully charged for the day ahead. The secret is a thick layer of condensed milk. Stir it up through the strong, drip filtered coffee to sweeten it to your taste. Introduced to the country by the French, cafés serving good brews are ubiquitous throughout the city. Grab a cup to takeaway from a stall near Tan Tao Park and stroll along as you people watch for a gentle awakening.
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Strong but sweet Vietnamese coffee © Tongchana Hongcharoen / Shutterstock
2. Admire French colonial architecture
Next on your list of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City? A visit to District One, the city’s historic French area. Its wide tree-lined boulevards were planned in meticulous detail in the 19th century. Wander past chic boutiques and cafés then make your way to the magnificent Central Post Office. Inside its yellow exterior, the walls are adorned with hand-painted maps of the city as it was in colonial times. Next, head to the nearby Saigon Opera House. If you’d like to experience more than a peak into its opulent interior, book tickets to see the A O show. This popular performance tells the tale of the urbanisation through dancing, traditional music and acrobatics. Finish up with a look at Notre Dame Cathedral, created in the 1800s to emulate the Parisian icon.
Ho Chi Minh's historic French area © Prasit Rodphan / Shutterstock
3. Step back in time at Reunification Palace
Preserved almost exactly as it was in 1966, Reunification Palace (also known as Independence Palace) was the official residence of the president of South Vietnam during the war. On the morning of the 30th of April 1975, the North Vietnamese forces drove their tanks through the palace’s gates and forced Saigon's surrender. Reunification Palace is also located in District One so see if you can squeeze it in before 4 p.m. when the gates close. You’ll need an hour at the very least to explore the opulent state rooms at your leisure. Alternatively, opt for one of the free guided tours that run every 15 minutes.
4. Raise your spirits at the Bitexco Tower
No doubt at this stage you’ll be keen to get off your feet. The antidote? Take a load off by spending some time with your head in the clouds at the Bitexco Financial Tower. Bypass the Skydeck viewing platform on the 49th floor and make your way straight to the EON Helibar on the 52nd. Entry to the Skydeck will cost you roughly the same as a drink at the bar above so it really is a no brainer. Luxury cocktail in hand, admire sunset views over the city through floor-to-ceiling windows. Stay until after dark and you'll see why we're listing it as one of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City – the neighbouring skyscrapers put on quite the light display.
Take in the whole city from the top of the Bitexco Tower © Efired / Shutterstock
5. Brave the War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum deserves a few hours and a fresh head, so schedule a visit for the following morning. This vast exhibition is a harrowing account of brutal war. Originally named 'The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes', it's not exactly an objective display. Nor does it pull any punches. Notorious 'tiger cage' prison cells, bamboo torture instruments and graphic photos of chemical weapon victims are laid out over several floors. It's definitely hard going, but it's one of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City if you want to understand the terrible suffering of the Vietnamese. Save the lower level for last and let the global anti-war movement display help you leave on a brighter note.
6. Explore Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh’s Chinatown
For lunch head to Binh Tay Market in Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s sprawling Chinatown. Binh Tay is the city’s largest wholesale market and it's easily your best bet for a cheap souvenir or two. After browsing through crafted lacquered wood, bright embroidered fabrics and plastic kitsch of all varieties, make your way to the food stalls. Once you’ve sated your appetite, grab a moment of peace away from the raucous market at Thien Hau Pagoda. Built to worship the goddess of the ocean, the temple was built by a community of Chinese traders who arrived by sea. For a small fee, light incense and watch as your prayer sails up to the rafters on fragrant smoke.
7. Watch a traditional water puppet performance
After a full day of sight-seeing, rest your weary feet at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. The action takes place on a water-based stage and is narrated by singers and musicians seated at each side of the stage. Unless you speak Vietnamese, you won’t understand much. But the beautifully painted wooden puppets and their ingenious choreography will entertain none the less. Shows last for about 50 minutes and there are multiple performances each evening.
A traditional water puppet performance © Avigator Thailand / Shutterstock
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Top image: Ho Chi Minh City skyline at dusk © Tonkinphotography / Shutterstock