Unmissable things to do in Ho Chi Minh City

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 24.05.2023

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.

The information in this article is inspired by the Rough Guide to Vietnam, your essential guide for visiting Vietnam.

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 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.


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 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.


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.


Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh © Shutterstock

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.


Taking in the whole city from the top of the Bitexco Tower is one of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City © 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 the 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.

Remembrance War Museum in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam © Shutterstock

War Museum, Ho Chi Minh © Shutterstock

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, brightly 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.


Street vendor, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Shutterstock

7. Watch a traditional water puppet performance

After a full day of sightseeing, among the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City is to 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 nonetheless. Shows last for about 50 minutes and there are multiple performances each evening.


A traditional water puppet performance © Avigator Thailand / Shutterstock

8. Shop in Ben Thanh Market

Sitting under a pillbox-style clock tower, Ben Thanh Market has been the city’s busiest and most important market for almost a century. Inside the main body of the market, a tight grid of aisles demarcated according to produce, teems with shoppers. If it’s souvenirs you’re after, a reconnaissance here will reveal conical hats, basket ware, bags, shoes, lacquerware, Da Lat coffee and Good Morning Vietnam T-shirts.

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.


Ben Thanh market, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Shutterstock

9. Try local street food

Eating on the street may not be to everyone’s taste, but for those willing to take the plunge it's among the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. The food is often better than that found in restaurants, it’s much cheaper and a whole lot more fun. It’s worth using a bit of judicious selection, however – look for places with a fast turnover, where the ingredients are obviously fresh.

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.

banh xeo food vietnam best restaurants in ho chi minh city

Banh Xeo - Vietnamese food © Shutterstock

10. Marvel at Cao Dai Temple

A few kilometres off Highway 22, in the town of Long Hoa, sits the enigmatic Cao Dai Great Temple, or Cathedral, of the Holy See of Tay Ninh. A grand gateway marks the entrance to the grounds of the structure. At first sight, the temple seems to be subsiding but your initial impressions are more likely to be dominated by what Graham Greene described as a “Walt Disney fantasia of the East, dragons and snakes in Technicolor”.

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.

Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh province, near ho chi minh city, Vietnam © Indochina studio/Shutterstock

Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh province, near ho chi minh city, Vietnam © Indochina studio/Shutterstock

11. Walk along Pham Ngu Lao Street

Referred to by most backpackers as “the backpacker area”, the atmospheric jumble of streets around Pham Ngu Lao (also the name of one of its most important thoroughfares) does indeed contain the overwhelming majority of the city’s budget accommodation options. There are pricier places here too.

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.

Pham Ngu Lao, Vietnam © Pixabay

Pham Ngu Lao, Vietnam © Pixabay

12. Visit Botanical Gardens

The pace of life slows down considerably – and the odours of cut grass and frangipani blooms replace the smell of exhaust fumes – when you duck into the city’s Botanical Gardens, accessed by a gate at the far eastern end of Le Duan. The gardens’ social function has remained unchanged for decades, and their tree-shaded paths still attract many courting couples and promenaders.

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.

Lankester Botanical Gardens Costa Rica © Shutterstock

Botanical Gardens © Shutterstock

13. Discover the Museum Of Fine Arts

Set in a grand colonial mansion, Ho Chi Minh City’s Museum of Fine Arts is worth a visit to view some of the country’s best relics from Cham and Oc Eo. The first floor hosts temporary exhibitions, while the courtyard out back is given over to artworks for sale.

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.

Fine Arts Museum building entrance in the Ben Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City © Shutterstock

Fine Arts Museum building entrance in the Ben Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City © Shutterstock

14. Cruising the Saigon River - one of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City

Cruising along the river is one of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, offering scenic views of the city skyline and the bustling activity along the riverbanks. Cruises on the Saigon River, range from short day trips to longer evening dinner cruises. Among the main popular highlights of the river are Saigon Harbour, Nha Rong Wharf and Thu Thiem Bridge.

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.

Saigon River and Ho Chi Minh downtown © Pixabay

Saigon River and Ho Chi Minh downtown © Pixabay

15. Exploring Cu Chi Tunnels

During the American War, the villages around the district of Cu Chi supported a substantial Viet Cong (VC) presence. Faced with American attempts to neutralize them, they quite literally dug themselves out of harm’s way, and the legendary Cu Chi tunnels were the result.

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.


Cu Chi tunnels, Vietnam © Shutterstock

Find more accommodation options to stay in Ho Chi Minh City

Ready for a trip to Vietnam? Check out the snapshot Rough Guide to Vietnam.

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

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 24.05.2023

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