The northern city of Hanoi may be the official capital of Vietnam, but it’s Ho Chi Minh City that draws the highest number of annual international visitors and no wonder, as Vietnam, among other advantages, is one of the most budget-friendly destinations. From exploring its past to marvelling at its new-found modernity, read our best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.
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 take away from a stall near Tan Tao Park and stroll along as you people watch for a gentle awakening.
Southern Vietnam is home to modern Ho Chi Minh City, a vibrant southern capital full of historic attractions and old Saigonese charm. On this tailor-made trip to Cultural Saigon, you will soak up some café culture, enjoy authentic street food, and get a taste of the city’s thriving markets.
Next, head to the nearby Saigon Opera House. If you’d like to experience more than a peek into its opulent interior, book tickets to see the A O show. This popular performance tells the tale of 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Unless you speak Vietnamese, you won’t understand much. But the beautifully painted wooden puppets and their ingenious choreography will entertain nonetheless. Shows last for about 50 minutes and there are multiple performances each evening.
Walk through to the wet market along the back of the complex, and you’ll find buckets of eels, clutches of live frogs tied together at the legs, heaps of pigs’ ears and snouts and baskets wedged full of hens, among other gruesome sights. In the evenings, food stalls specializing in seafood set up along the sides of the market, attracting a mixed crowd of locals and tourists.
The food scene in Ho Chi Minh City is thriving and if you can muster the courage, join a motorbike street food tour and take a whistle-stop tour of the city’s best street food, from Bánh mì to bánh xèo. The bulk of travellers eat in two main areas: the city centre, with its profusion of quality establishments; and the budget area, concentrated around De Tham, Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien.
Embark on this tailor-made Vietnamese culinary adventure, taking cooking classes in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Get cultural in the imperial city of Hue with a visit to some royal tombs, cruise around stunning Halong Bay a final stay in nostalgic Hanoi before your return home.
Despite its Day-Glo hues and rococo clutter, this gaudy construction somehow manages to bypass tackiness. Two square, pagoda-style towers bookend the front facade, whose central portico is topped by a bowed, first-floor balcony and a Divine Eye. The most recurrent motif in the temple, the eye is surrounded by a triangle, as it is on the American one-dollar bill.
The same goes for the area’s many places to eat – everything from trendy restaurants serving foreign nosh to streetside shacks whipping up exactly what you see in and on their various tubs and shelves. If you’ve been to Bangkok’s Khaosan Road, you may remark on a certain similarity – it’s most evident during the evening when Bui Vien finds itself crammed with locals and not-so-locals drinking cheap beer on tiny chairs.
Further north, the park fronting Pham Ngu Lao (this time the road) is a pleasant place by day, and a bit of a pick-up spot by night, particularly for elements of the city’s gay community.
In its day, the gardens harboured an impressive collection of tropical flora, including many species of orchid. A pleasing, pagoda-style roof crowns the city’s History Museum, next to the Botanical Gardens. It houses fifteen galleries illuminating Vietnam’s past from primitive times to the end of French rule by means of a decent if an astonishing array of artefacts and pictures.
Revolutionary art dominates the second floor, relying heavily on hackneyed images of soldiers, war zones and Uncle Ho, though a few offerings capture the anguish and turmoil of the conflicts. Things get better on the third floor, where there’s an impressive collection of Oc Eo and Cham statues, gilt Buddhas and other antiquities.
Go on a short sightseeing tour by Cyclo or scooter before getting transferred to the Saigon River. There you will board a small vessel for a romantic dinner cruise, which highlights the beauty of Saigon at night.
Ready to explore beyond Ho Chi Mihn City? See our guide to the best cities in Vietnam.
Today, tourists can visit a short stretch of the tunnels, drop to their hands and knees and squeeze underground for an insight into life as a tunnel-dwelling resistance fighter. Some sections of the tunnels have been widened to allow passage for the fuller frame of Westerners, but it’s still a dark, sweaty, claustrophobic experience, and not one you should rush into unless you’re confident you won’t suffer a subterranean freak-out.
There are two sites where the tunnels can be seen – Ben Dinh and, 15km beyond, Ben Duoc, though most foreigners get taken to Ben Dinh.
If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Vietnam without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.
We may earn a commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.
Top image: Ho Chi Minh City skyline at dusk © Tonkinphotography / Shutterstock