Reverberating with the whirr of a million motorbikes, Ho Chi Minh City is a metropolis on the move. By turns chaotic, elegant, exotic and zestful, this has long been one of Asia’s more interesting cities, ever since the days when it answered to the evocative name of Saigon.
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National reunification ushered in a far less evocative moniker (Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh, to give it the full Vietnamese title), and more than eight million people now live in this effervescent city, making it more populous than Hanoi. Compared to the more romantic, mellow national capital, Ho Chi Minh City comes across as a hyper-commercial flurry of sights and sounds, and functions as the crucible in which Vietnam’s rallying fortunes are boiling.
All the accoutrements of economic success are here – fine restaurants, flashy hotels, glitzy bars and clubs, and shops selling imported luxury goods – adding a glossy veneer to the city’s hotchpotch landscape of French colonial architecture, venerable pagodas and austere, Soviet-style housing blocks.
You can find everything you need to know about this stunning city below, with the best travel guide to Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City Travel facts
- The language spoken in Ho Chi Minh City, as it is throughout Vietnam, is Vietnamese. It is unlikely that you will need to learn or speak any Vietamese, but then again, nothing will endear you to the locals as much as showing conversational ability - or even willingness.
- The currency used in Ho Chi Minh City, as it is throughout Vietnam, is đồng (VND ₫), but it is usually possible to pay using US Dollars (USD $) as well.
- Ho Chi Minh City is the most populated city in Vietnam with 8.637 million inhabitants.
- Ho Chi Minh City saw 36.5 million visitors in 2018, making it the most popular tourist destination in Vietnam.
- The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is one of the world’s last surviving one-party Communist states.
- Ho Chi Minh City is the location of many important Vietnamese historical and cultural attractions. History buffs should visit The Reunification Palace,The Notre Dame Cathedral and the grandiose Hotel de Ville. For the most captivating places of worship, head to the Quan Am Pagoda and the Jade Emperor Pagoda.
Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam © chiakto/Shutterstock
Brief history of the city
Knowledge of Ho Chi Minh City’s early history is sketchy at best. Between the first and sixth centuries, the territory on which it lies fell under the nominal rule of the Funan Empire to the west. Funan was subsequently absorbed by the Kambuja people of the pre-Angkor Chen La Empire, but it is unlikely that these imperial machinations had much bearing upon the sleepy fishing backwater that would later develop into Ho Chi Minh City.
Khmer fishermen eked out a living here, building their huts on the stable ground just north of the delta wetlands, which made it ideal for human settlement. Originally named Prei Nokor, it flourished as an entrepô for Cambodian boats pushing down the Mekong River, and by the seventeenth century it boasted a garrison and a mercantile community that embraced Malay, Indian and Chinese traders.
By the eighteenth century, the Viets had subdued the kingdom of Champa, and this area was swallowed up by Hué’s Nguyen Dynasty. With new ownership came a new name, Saigon, thought to be derived from the Vietnamese word for the kapok tree. Upon the outbreak of the Tay Son Rebellion, in 1772, Nguyen Anh bricked the whole settlement into a walled fortress, the eight-sided Gia Dinh Citadel. The army that put down the Tay Son brothers included an assisted French military forces seized Saigon in 1861, using Emperor Tu Duc’s persecution of French missionaries as a pretext. The 1862 Treaty of Saigon declared the city the capital of French Cochinchina.
Ho Chi Minh City owes much of its form and character to the French colonists: channels were filled in, marshlands drained and steam tramways set to work along its regimental grid of tamarind-shaded boulevards, which by the 1930s sported names like Boulevard de la Somme and Rue Rousseau. Flashy examples of European architecture were erected, cafés and boutiques sprang up to cater for its new, Vermouth-sipping, baguette-munching citizens and the city was imbued with such an all-round Gallic air.
On a human level, however, French rule was invariably harsh; dissent crystallized in the form of strikes through the 1920s and 1930s, but the nationalist movement hadn’t gathered any real head of steam before World War II’s tendrils spread to Southeast Asia. At its close, the Potsdam Conference of 1945 set the British Army the task of disarming Japanese troops in southern Vietnam. Arriving in Saigon two months later, they promptly returned power to the French and so began thirty years of war.
Saigon in the American War
Designated the capital of the Republic of South Vietnam by President Diem in 1955, Saigon was soon both the nerve centre of the American war effort, and its R&R capital, with a slough of sleazy bars along Dong Khoi catering to GIs on leave from duty. Despite the Communist bomb attacks and demonstrations by students and monks that periodically disturbed the peace, these were good times for Saigon, whose entrepreneurs prospered on the back of the tens of thousands of Americans posted here. The gravy train ran out of steam with the withdrawal of American troops in 1973, and two years later the Ho Chi Minh Campaign rolled into the city and through the gates of the presidential palace and the Communists were in control. Within a year, Saigon had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
The war years extracted a heavy toll: American carpet-bombing of the Vietnamese countryside forced millions of refugees into the relative safety of the city, and ill-advised, post-reunification policies triggered a social and economic stagnation whose ramifications still echo like ripples on a lake. Persecution of southerners with links to the Americans saw many thousands sent to re-education camps. Millions more fled the country by boat.
Only in 1986, when the economic liberalization, doi moi, was established, and a market economy reintroduced, did the fortunes of the city show signs of taking an upturn. Today, more than two decades later, the city’s resurgence is well advanced and its inhabitants are eyeing the future with unprecedented optimism.
Cai Dai Temple in Vietnam © Lachlan von Nubia/Shutterstock
Best time to travel to Ho Chi Minh City
The best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City depends on what you plan on seeing and doing. Find out when to go in our Ho Chi Minh City travel guide.
The best time to travel to Ho Chi Minh City in terms of weather is in the dry season, which runs from December through to April. During the wet season, May to November, there are frequent tropical storms, though these won’t disrupt your travels too much. Average tropical temperatures, year-round, hover between 26°C and 29°C; March, April and May are the hottest months.
For the best time to visit Vietnam, it's worth taking a look at the calendar of annual festivals, so that you can perhaps build your itinerary around some of them. The most important is Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and lasts for seven days sometime between the last week of January and the third week of February. Families get together to celebrate and there's a party-like atmosphere in the cities, with colourful decorations adorning the streets, the scent of incense in the air, and glorious fireworks displays filling the skies.
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City
Deciding where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City can be overwhelming, as it is a huge city with many districts. Find out where to stay in our guide to Ho Chi Minh City.
There are thousands of hotel rooms in Ho Chi Minh City, ranging from windowless cupboards to sumptuous suites. The best hotels are located around Dong Khoi in the city centre, and there are some smart mini-hotels on nearby Mac Thi Buoi. Ho Chi Minh City’s budget enclave centres around Pham Ngu Lao, De Tham and Bui Vien, though there are some smarter options here, too. The area sits roughly 1km west of the city centre, but is still convenient for visiting most city attractions; in addition, restaurants, bars and shops tend to be cheaper out here. If the De Tham region is too crowded for you, note that there’s a smaller clutch of budget hotels in an alley a few blocks south off Co Giang.
Notre Dame Cathedral Ho Chi Minh City © Travelerpix/Shutterstock
The best hotels in Ho Chi Minh City
If you’re travelling to Ho Chi Minh City in search of a luxury retreat, then you should consider staying in one of the following hotels for a truly memorable experience.
Caravelle - The city’s most prestigious hotel is steeped in history, and since it opened in 1959 its fortunes have echoed those of the country. A new 24-storey wing was opened in 1998, and since then it has led the pack with its luxurious rooms and suites, impeccable service and fine dining options. A sundowner at the Saigon Saigon bar on the rooftop of the old building is an essential experience.
Della Boutique - There are few places to stay on busy Ham Nghi, which makes this odd venue stand out all the more. The intricately designed rooms here are quite delightful, yet this place is suitable for backpackers as well as mid-rangers since they include what are without doubt the swankiest dormitories in the city (you climb stairs to the upper bunks!). There’s also a rooftop bar with killer views – all things considered, this is a fantastic choice.
Majestic - This is a historic 1920s riverfront hotel that oozes character. All the rooms are charming, especially those with river views, and the staff fall over themselves to be helpful. There’s a first-floor pool and rooftop bar, too.
Park Hyatt - Enjoying a prime spot on Lam Son Square, and staring down over the Municipal Theatre, this place simply exudes class, with over 250 classically elegant rooms, two stylish restaurants as well as a pool and spa.
The Reverie - Ostentatious from top to toe, the profusion of marble and mosaics here is reminiscent of similar constructions in the Middle East. The suites are particularly palatial, with chandeliers and sculpted ceilings. For a cheap-ish taste of what it’s like to live the high-life, visit the on-site Royal Pavilion restaurant.
Pullman - Visible from much of the Pham Ngu Lao area, this place is a relatively new stab at luxury, and one that has really paid off. The rooms have been lovingly designed with pleasing artwork and docks for audio devices, there’s an excellent on-site spa and the views from the rooftop restaurant are quite superb. Very fair value for what you get.
Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh © Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock
How to get around Ho Chi Minh City
There are many ways to get around in Ho Chi Minh City because of the various transport options. Whether its by cyclo or by bus you can find an option that suits your budget. Discover the different modes of transport available in our Ho Chi Minh City travel guide.
Faint-hearted visitors will blanch upon first encountering the chaos that passes for the city’s traffic system. Thousands of motorcycles, bicycles and cyclos fill the city’s streets and boulevards in an insectile swarm that is now supplemented by a burgeoning number of cars and minibuses, most with their horns constantly blaring.
A leisurely cyclo ride around Ho Chi Minh City adds a uniquely Vietnamese touch to the experience. Scams, however, are commonplace. Agree on a rate of 70,000–100,000đ an hour (showing notes if possible, to avoid any zero- or dollar-related misunderstandings). You’ll likely have to haggle. Though it’s possible to have two (very small) passengers on a cyclo, the corresponding rise in cost and lessening of comfort make this a false economy. Ho Chi Minh City
Taxis are inexpensive and worth considering, if only to avoid interminable haggling over fares. It’s best to stick with reliable companies like Mai Linh and Vinasun, though these days most of the branded taxis are fine.
By xe om
Expect to pay around 30,000đ for a short ride around town.
The majority of the city’s attractions are conveniently clustered despite its urban sprawl, so it’s quite feasible to discover many of them on foot. But first you have to learn to cross the streets where the traffic never stops. There’s an art to crossing the street in Vietnam: besides nerves of steel, a steady pace is required – motorbike riders are used to dodging pedestrians, but you’ll confuse them if you stop in your tracks. Also note that during rush hour, motorbikes use some pavements as temporary roads.
Few visitors ever take a public bus, though it’s relatively easy to hop on one to Cho Lon from the backpacker district. When leaving the city, Ben Thanh bus station is a useful point of departure, linking other long-distance bus stations in Ho Chi Minh City as well as offering direct services to Vung Tau and other places.
By bike or motorbike
This is a cheap way to get around Ho Chi Minh City, though you’ll need skill and bravery to survive in the traffic. Most hotels and guesthouses can arrange a motorbike for you, and while bicycles are a bit more difficult to track down, your accommodation should be able to point you in the right direction. One reputable organisation is the Saigon Scooter Centre.
Many tour operators and hotels offer car rental plus driver for $60–100/day, depending on the vehicle and the driver’s proficiency in English.
Remembrance Museum, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam © Scott Biales DitchTheMan/Shutterstock
Best places to visit in Ho Chi Minh City
As a result of the sweeping economic changes wrought by doi moi in 1986, Ho Chi Minh City has changed its image from that of a war-torn city to one of a thriving metropolis, challenging Singapore, Bangkok and the other traditional Southeast Asian powerhouses. Many tourists come from all over the world to experience it's vast mix of lifestyle and architecture and to breathe in its culture. Here is our pick of the best places to visit in Ho Chi Minh City:
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. Read more about the Cu Chi tunnels here.
Cao Dai Great Temple
A grand gateway marks the entrance to the grounds of the 1927-built Cao Dai Great Temple. Beyond it, a wide boulevard escorts you past a swathe of grassland used on ceremonial occasions, to the wildly exotic temple itself, over whose left shoulder rises distant Nui Ba Den, Black Lady Mountain.
The basic tenets of Cao Dai were first revealed to Ngo Van Chieu, a civil servant working in the criminal investigation department of the French administration on Phu Quoc Island, at the beginning of the 1920s. A spiritualist, Ngo was contacted during a seance by a superior spirit calling itself Cao Dai, or "high place". This spirit communicated to him the basics of the Cao Dai creed, and instructed him to adopt the Divine Eye as a tangible representation of its existence. Posted back to Saigon soon afterwards, Ngo set about evangelizing, though according to French convert and chronicler Gabriel Gobron the religion didn’t gather steam until late in 1925, when Ngo was contacted by a group of mediums sent his way by the Cao Dai.
On first sighting, the Great Temple seems to be subsiding, an optical illusion created by the rising steps inside it, but your first 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. A figure in semi-relief emerges from each tower: on the left is Cao Dai’s first female cardinal, Lam Huong Thanh, and on the right, Le Van Trung, its first pope.
The eclectic ideology of Cao Dai is mirrored in the interior. Part cathedral and part pagoda, it draws together a potpourri of icons and elements under a vaulted ceiling, and daubs them all with the primary colours of a Hindu temple. Men enter the cathedral through an entrance in the right wall, women by a door to the left, and all must take off their shoes. Inside the lobby, a mural shows the three "signatories of the 3rd Alliance between God and Mankind".
Walk up the shallow steps that lend the nave its litheness, and you’ll reach an altar that groans under the weight of assorted vases, fruit, paintings and slender statues of storks. The papal chair stands at the head of the chamber, its arms carved into dragons. Dominating the chamber, though, and guarded by eight scary silver dragons, a vast, duck-egg-blue sphere, speckled with stars, rests on a polished, eight-sided dais.
A major attraction is attending one of the daily services at the temple and most tours usually arrange their visit to coincide with the midday one. During services, visitors are allowed to look down on proceedings and take photographs from the balcony.At the start of a service, worshippers’ heads nod in time to the clanging of a gong. Then a haunting, measured chanting begins, against the insect whine of the string band playing its own time. As prayers and hymns continue, incense, flowers, alcohol and tea are offered up to the Supreme Being.
Vietnamese water puppet show, two fisherman at Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam © alonanola/Shutterstock
The Ho Chi Minh Museum
Erected in the 1860s, and known as the Nha Rong, or Dragon House, this former headquarters of a French shipping company is now home to the Ho Chi Minh Museum – an apposite venue, given that it was from the abutting wharf that Ho left for Europe in 1911. Sadly, the collection within fails to capture the spirit of this man whose life was dedicated to liberating his homeland from colonialism. If you decide to visit, you’ll need to wring all the interest you can out of personal effects such as his walking stick, rattan suitcase and sandals made from tyres There’s also a map of his itinerant wanderings and a few blurred photographs of him at official receptions.
Notre Dame Cathedral
The attractive redbrick bulk of the late nineteenth-century Notre Dame Cathedral straddles the northern reach of Dong Khoi. Aside from the few stained-glass windows above and behind its altar, and its marble relief Stations of the Cross, the interior boasts only scant decoration. There’s plenty of scope for people-watching, however, as a steady trickle of Catholics pass through in their best silk tunics and black pants, fingering rosary beads, their whispered prayers merging with the insistent murmur of the traffic outside. A statue of the Virgin Mary provides the centrepiece to the small park fronting the cathedral, where cyclo drivers loiter and kids hawk postcards and maps. Take a close look at her face, as on occasion locals swear they have seen her shed tears.
Around Dong Khoi street
Dong Khoi street is the the street of many names. Running for just over 1km from Le Duan to the Saigon River, this street has long mirrored Ho Chi Minh City’s changing fortunes.
The French knew the road as Rue Catinat, a tamarind-shaded thoroughfare that constituted the heart of French colonial life. Here the colons would promenade, stopping at boutiques and perfumeries, and gathering at noon and dusk at cafés such as the Rotonde and the Taverne Alsacienne for a Vermouth or Dubonnet, before hailing a pousse-pousse to run them home. With the departure of the French in 1954, President Diem saw fit to change the street’s name to Tu Do, “Freedom”, and it was under this guise that a generation of young American GIs came to know it, as they toured the glut of bars that sprang up to pander to their more lascivious needs.
After Saigon fell in 1975, the more politically correct monicker of Dong Khoi, or “Uprising”, was adopted. Today, the street still retains some of its character in the form of the chic boutiques and cute cafés in which to pause between shopping or sightseeing.
Hotel de Ville on Nguyen Hué
The stately edifice that stands at Nguyen Hué’s northern extent is the former Hotel de Ville, the city’s most photographed icon and an ostentatious reminder of colonial Europe’s stubborn resolve to stamp its imprint on the countries it subjugated, no matter how incongruous. Today, the building houses the People’s Committee behind its showy jumble of Corinthian columns, classical figures and shuttered windows, and thus is not open to the public. A statue of Uncle Ho cradling a small child watches over the tiny park fronting the building, where flowerbeds add a splash of colour. If visiting during Tet, Nguyen Hué bursts into life, hosting a vast, riotously colourful flower market which draws Vietnamese belles in their thousands to pose in their best ao dai among the roses, sunflowers, chrysanthemums and conical orange trees.
Jade Emperor Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam © Pavel Szabo/Shutterstock
The Reunification Palace
A whitewashed concrete edifice with all the charm of a municipal library, the palace occupies the site of the former Norodom Palace, a colonial mansion erected in 1871 to house the governor-general of Indochina. After the French departure in 1954, Ngo Dinh Diem commandeered this extravagant monument as his presidential palace, but after sustaining extensive damage in a February 1962 assassination attempt by two disaffected Southern pilots, the place was condemned and pulled down. The present building was named the Independence Palace upon completion in 1966, only to be retitled the Reunification Hall when the South fell in 1975. The reversion to the label "Palace" was doubtless made for tourist appeal. All visitors are required to join a group tour in one of several languages.
The War Remnants Museum
This museum is the city’s most popular attraction but not for the faint-hearted. Unlike at the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, you are unlikely to be distracted here by the building that houses the heart-rending exhibits – a distressing compendium of the horrors of modern warfare. Some of the instruments of destruction are on display in the courtyard outside, including a 28-tonne howitzer and a ghoulish collection of bomb parts. There’s also a guillotine that harvested heads at the Central Prison on Ly Tu Trong, first for the French and later for Diem.
Inside, a series of halls present a grisly portfolio of photographs of mutilation, napalm burns and torture. Most shocking is the gallery detailing the effects of the 75 million litres of defoliant sprays dumped across the country: beside the expected images of bald terrain, hideously malformed foetuses are preserved in pickling jars. A gallery that looks at international opposition to the war as well as the American peace movement adds a sense of balance, and makes a change from the self-glorifying tone of most Vietnamese museums. Accounts of servicemen – such as veteran B52 pilot Michael Heck – who attempted to discharge themselves from the war on ethical grounds are also featured. Artefacts donated to the museum by returned US servicemen add to the reconciliatory tone.
At the back of the museum is a grisly mock-up of the tiger cages, the godless prison cells of Con Son Island, which could have been borrowed from the movie set of Papillon.
Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre
If you sink into the depths of depression on leaving the War Remnants’ Museum, the perfect antidote is just a block away at 55b Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. Water puppets are an ingenious concept and few people fail to be enchanted at their first encounter with these waterborne buffoons. The tradition of water puppetry is much stronger in the north, but it’s such an appealing aspect of Vietnamese culture that there’s plenty of demand for shows in the south as well. The early-evening timing of the shows make them a fun activity with the kids before bed or dinner and consist of a dozen or so sketches on themes like rearing ducks and catching foxes, boat racing and unicorns playing with a ball.
Ben Thanh Market
The city’s busiest market for almost a century, and known to the French as the Halles Centrales, Ben Thanh’s dense knot of trade has caused it to burst at the seams, disgorging stalls onto the surrounding pavements. Inside the main body of the market, a tight grid of aisles teems with shoppers - if it’s souvenirs you’re after, a reconnaissance here will reveal conical hats, basketware, bags, shoes, lacquerware, Da Lat coffee and Vietnam T-shirts. All stalls are now designated 'fixed price’, and prices are generally a bit higher than elsewhere. 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. If you’re looking for something to eat, com, pho and baguette stalls proliferate towards the back of the main hall. In the evenings, food stalls specializing in seafood set up along the sides of the market, attracting a mixed crowd of locals and tourists.
Bitexco Financial Tower
Bitexco Financial Tower is destined to become one of Saigon’s most memorable icons. It stands just to the east of the south end of Nguyen Hué and a stone’s throw from the river. Visitors come not so much for its ground-floor car showrooms and offices of wheelers and dealers, but for the sweeping views from the Saigon Skydeck on the forty-ninth floor, 178m above the ground. Look upwards and you’ll see the lip of the helipad on the floor above; look down and you should spot a few familiar sights, such as Ben Thanh market, the Hotel de Ville, the Opera House and the tips of the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral far below you.
Le Duan Boulevard
North of Notre Dame Cathedral, Le Duan Boulevard runs between the Botanical Gardens and the grounds of the Reunification Palace. Known as Norodom Boulevard to the French, who lined it with tamarind trees to imitate a Gallic thoroughfare, it soon became a residential and diplomatic enclave with a crop of fine pastel-hued colonial villas to boot. Its present name doffs a cap to Le Duan, the secretary-general of the Lao Dong, or Workers Party, from 1959 until his death in 1986.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
A few blocks northwest of the Botanical Gardens, the Jade Emperor Pagoda, or Chua Phuoc Hai, was built by the city’s Cantonese community at the beginning of the twentieth century. If you visit just one temple in town, make it this one, with its exquisite panels of carved gilt woodwork, and its panoply of weird and wonderful deities, both Taoist and Buddhist, beneath a roof that groans under the weight of dragons, birds and animals.
To the right of the tree-lined courtyard out front is a grubby pond whose occupants have earned the temple its alternative moniker of Tortoise Pagoda. Once over the threshold, look up and you’ll see Chinese characters announcing: "the only enlightenment is in Heaven". A statue of the Jade Emperor lords it over the main hall’s central altar, sporting an impressive moustache, and he’s surrounded by a retinue of similarly moustached followers.
Le Duan ‘Operation Frequent Wind’
Located at 4 Le Duan, the current nondescript building that houses the US Consulate was built right on top of the site of the infamous former American Embassy, where a commemorative plaque is now the only reminder of its existence and significance in the American War. Two events immortalized the former building on this site, in operation from 1967 to 1975 and left standing half-derelict until 1999 as a sobering legacy. The first came in the pre-dawn hours of January 31, 1968, when a small band of Viet Cong commandos breached the embassy compound during the nationwide Tet Offensive. That the North could mount such an effective attack on the hub of US power in Vietnam was shocking to the American public.
‘Operation Frequent Wind’ was the chaotic helicopter evacuation that marked the United States’ final undignified withdrawal from Vietnam. The embassy building was one of thirteen designated landing zones where all foreigners were to gather upon the secret signal. On April 29, 1975, the signal was broadcast, and for the next eighteen hours scores of helicopters shuttled around two thousand evacuees out to the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet off Vung Tau.
The Botanical Gardens and zoo
Visit the Botanical Gardens, accessed by a gate at the far eastern end of Le Duan, and bounded to the east by the Thi Nghe Channel. Established in 1864 by the Frenchmen Germain and Pierre (respectively a vet and a botanist), the gardens’ social function has remained unchanged in decades, and their tree-shaded paths still attract as many courting couples and promenaders as when Norman Lewis followed the "clusters of Vietnamese beauties on bicycles" and headed there one Sunday morning in 1950 to find the gardens "full of these ethereal creatures, gliding in decorous groups, sometimes accompanied by gallants".
Stray right inside and you’ll soon reach the zoo, home to camels, elephants, crocodiles and big cats, also komodo dragons. Unfortunately, conditions are very poor and some animals look half-crazed, so it could be a harrowing experience if you’re an animal lover. There’s also an amusement park that is sometimes open, and you can get an ice cream or a coconut from one of the several cafés sprinkled around the grounds.
Binh Tay market (or Cho Lon) in Ho Chi Minh © Hien Phung Thu/Shutterstock
The ethnic Chinese, or Hoa, first began to settle in Cho Lon around 1900; many came from existing enclaves in My Tho and Bien Hoa. The area soon became the largest Hoa community in the country, a title it still holds, with a population of over half a million. A short stroll around the dense cluster of streets comprising this Chinese ghetto will make clear that, even by this city’s standards, the mercantile mania here is breathtaking. The largest of Cho Lon’s many covered markets are Tran Phu’s An Dong, built in 1991, and the more recent but equally vast An Dong II. If you’re looking to sightsee rather than shop, then historic Binh Tay is of far more interest. You’ll get the most out of Cho Lon simply by losing yourself in its amorphous mass of life: amid the melee, streetside barbers clip away briskly, bird-sellers squat outside tumbledown pagodas and temples, heaving markets ring to fishwives’ chatter and stores display mushrooms, dried shrimps and rice paper.
The original Hoa residents of Cho Lon gravitated towards others from their region of China, with each congregation commissioning its own places of worship and clawing out its own commercial niche – thus the Cantonese handled retailing and groceries, the Teochew dealt in tea and fish, the Fukien were in charge of rice, and so on.
By the early twentieth century, sassy restaurants, casinos and brothels appeared for the wealthy residents to spend their fortunes. Also prevalent were fumeries, where nuggets of opium were quietly smoked from the cool comfort of a wooden opium bed. Among the expats who frequented them was Graham Greene, and he recorded his experiences in Ways of Escape.
By the 1950s, Cho Lon was a potentially dangerous place to be, its vice industries controlled by the Binh Xuyen gang.
Post-reunification, Cho Lon saw hard times. As Hanoi aligned itself increasingly with the Soviet Union, Sino-Vietnamese tensions became strained. Economic persecution of the Hoa made matters worse, with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese, many of them from Cho Lon, fleeing the country. Today, the business acumen of the Chinese is valued by the local authorities, and the distemper that gripped Cho Lon for over a decade is a memory.
Quan Am Pagoda
North of Nguyen Trai’s junction with Chau Van Liem, on tiny Lao Tu, is the Quan Am Pagoda. Set back from the bustle of Cho Lon, it has an almost tangible air of antiquity, enhanced by the film of dust left by the incense spirals hanging from its rafters. Don’t be too quick to dive inside, as the pagoda’s ridgid roofs are impressive enough from the outside, with their colourful crust of "glove-puppet" figurines, teetering houses and temples from a distance creating the illusion of a gingerbread house. Framing the two door gods and the pair of stone lions assigned to keeping out evil spirits are gilt panels depicting petrified scenes from traditional Chinese court life – dancers, musicians, noblemen in sedan chairs, a game of chequers being played.
When Cho Lon’s Fukien congregation established this pagoda well over a century ago, they dedicated it to the Goddess of Mercy, but it’s A Pho, the Queen of Heaven, who stands in the centre of the main hall, beyond an altar tiled like a mortuary slab.
Me Linh Square
At the bottom of Dong Khoi, take a left onto Ton Duc Thang. From here it’s only a short skip to Me Linh Square, where a statue of Tran Hung Dao points across the river: it’s a striking image when framed by the tall Renaissance Riverside, the Me Linh Point Tower and the Bitexco Financial Tower, currently Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest building.
Tran Hung Dao statue in Me Linh Square of Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam © Efired/Shutterstock
What to do in Ho Chi Minh City
Eating in Ho Chi Minh City
Hanoi may be Vietnam’s administrative capital, but Ho Chi Minh City is without doubt its culinary capital. Besides Vietnamese cuisine, which these days enjoys global popularity, just about every other type of food you could imagine is served here, including Indian, Italian, Brazilian, Japanese, Mexican, Lebanese and German, though perhaps predictably French restaurants comprise the most formidable foreign contingent in town.
Local food in Ho Chi Minh City
Though you’ll probably be tempted by a pizza or burrito at some time during your stay, it would be a crime to ignore the fabulous variety of indigenous food on offer, both in sophisticated restaurants and at street side stalls. Owing to the transitory nature of food stalls, it’s impossible to make specific recommendations, but there are plenty to choose from.
One area well worth checking out in the evening is around Ben Thanh market, where a cluster of food stalls offer a bewildering variety of dishes, many specializing in seafood.
Some of the best things to eat in Ho Chi Minh City can be found in the simple eating houses, where good, filling rice and noodle dishes are served for a pittance from buffet-style tin trays and vast soup urns; these are especially popular at lunchtime.
Cheap restaurants, concentrated around De Tham, Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien, which cater exclusively for travellers, are fine if you want an inexpensive steak and chips or some fried noodles, but hardly in the league of the city’s heavyweights, its specialist restaurants.
Specialist Vietnamese restaurants
When looking for where to eat in Ho Chi Minh City, you have to consider the specialist restaurants. Of course, by Vietnamese standards, these restaurants are incredibly expensive – eat at one and you’ll probably spend enough to feed a Vietnamese family for a month – but by Western standards, many of them are low-priced, and the quality of cooking is consistently high. What’s more, ingredients are fresh, with vegetables transported from Da Lat, and meat often flown in from Australia.
Some of the swankier restaurants lay on reasonably priced set menus and also live traditional music in order to lure diners. Though there are many delectable dishes to discover when finding what to eat in Ho Chi Minh City, keep an eye open for chao bo, slithers of beef grilled on sticks of lemongrass, which can be superb when the beef is well marinated. You’ll find it on the menu of a few of the places listed below, such as Vietnam House and Blue Ginger.
The French legacy is also evident in the city’s abundance of cafés, which are scattered throughout the city. Café culture, introduced by the French, is still very much alive in Ho Chi Minh City, and there are numerous places at which to round dinner off with an ice cream, crêpe or sundae. Earlier in the day, the same venues offer the chance to linger over a coffee and watch the world go by.
Nightlife in Ho Chi Minh City
There is a good range of nightlife in Ho Chi Minh City, so there’s no need to head back to your hotel once dinner is through, although an ongoing crackdown on late opening means you’ll probably be tucked up in bed by midnight unless you’re in the De Tham area.
Later at night, a number of clubs get going, though they often have short lifespans unless they are under the protection of a major hotel. Things seem a bit looser around the budget district, where several places open all night.
The free monthly magazines The Word and Asia Life carry up-to-the-minute listings of the city’s latest bars, plus the hottest new clubs and any more highbrow entertainment on offer.
Bars and pubs in Ho Chi Minh City
Bars and pubs in Ho Chi Minh City range from hole-in-the-wall dives to elegant cocktail lounges that would not be out of place in a European capital. The area around Dong Khoi is predictably well endowed, and another boozy enclave exists around Le Thanh Ton, Hai Ba Trung and Thi Sach, where a glut of places, ranging from slick yuppie haunts to watering holes that hark back to the raunchy GI bars of the 1960s, has developed to cater for expats renting apartments nearby.
At the other end of the scale, all the cheap restaurants and cafés around De Tham turn their hand to drink at night. Many of the bars listed below feature live music either every night or at the weekend. In most places, such as 17 Saloon, you’ll find Filipino bands performing well-rehearsed covers of current hits and old favourites, though there’s also a growing base of local musicians who are making a name for themselves in venues like Thi Café and Yoko.
It isn’t unheard-of for big showbiz names from the West to make appearances in Ho Chi Minh City, so check out the local press for details.
How much do drinks in Ho Chi Minh City cost?
Prices of drinks vary wildly: a Saigon beer at a streetside café in De Tham will cost you around $1, but you can multiply that by four or five in a more upmarket bar on Dong Khoi.
One way to economize while downtown is to take advantage of early-evening happy hours, or check out the surprisingly cheap and tasty bia hoi.
Bun Cha or Vietnamese cold white rice noodles salad served with grilled pork and eaten with a variety of herbs including coriander and mint © Shutterstock
Shopping in Ho Chi Minh City
If you’re looking for somewhere to shop in Ho Chi Minh City, be aware that it can be a dangerous place to go shopping, as you’ll likely buy more than you intended once you see the prices.
Paintings on rice paper, silk ao dai, lacquerware, embroidered cloth, musical instruments and ethnic garments are all popular gifts and souvenirs, as are curious such as opium pipes, antique watches, French colonial stamps and banknotes, while the cheapest items are the ubiquitous T-shirts and conical hats.
Visitors interested in Vietnam’s history will find a wealth of copied books on the subject, sold in tourist areas by wandering vendors with a metre-high stack on their hip. Sadly the range of English-language books available in regular bookshops is very limited.
Bargaining in Ho Chi Minh City
Bargaining is an essential skill to cultivate if you’re going to be shopping around. For cheap and cheerful souvenirs, head for Ben Thanh market, Le Loi or De Tham; for something precious and pricey, browse the upmarket boutiques along Dong Khoi and its tentacles, such as Dong Du and Mac Thi Buoi.
Shopping malls in Ho Chi Minh City attract curious crowds with their glitz and glamour; some offer distractions other than shopping in the form of cinemas and bowling alleys. For something different, intriguing model ships are sold on Cao Ba Quat, north of the Municipal Theatre, just east of the Caravelle Hotel.
Generally speaking, shops open daily 10am to dusk, while larger stores often stay open beyond 8pm.
Ho Chi Minh City travel tips
If you’re visiting Ho Chi Minh City, there are some important things to remember before you go. Below are our travel tips for accommodation, eating and drinking, in our guide to Ho Chi Minh City.
Tips for accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City
Most of the general travel advice for Vietnamese accommodation also rings true in Ho Chi Minh City, especially regarding breakfast (all places listed here include it, unless otherwise stated) and pricing (some places quote in dollars and some in dong, yet all will accept either as payment). However, there are a couple of things that are worth being aware of.
In Ho Chi Minh City, it’s advisable to book accommodation in advance – this will save you hauling your bags around the city, and might even secure you a pick-up from the airport or station. In addition, the city is so popular that accommodation can be difficult to find, especially in December and January.
Until recently, there were very few dorm beds to be found in Ho Chi Minh City, but a glut of guesthouses featuring such facilities have popped up in the De Tham area. Few of them exude a truly hostel-like vibe. Also note that many are unofficial operations that do not pay tax, and therefore risk being closed down at any moment.
This is a big issue in Ho Chi Minh City, and many hotels are fitting double glazing in an attempt to block it out; keep this in mind when choosing a room if you’re a light sleeper.
Buddha heads and other objects for sale at the Ben Thanh market, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam © steve estvanik/Shutterstock
Tips for eating in Ho Chi Minh City
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, where many establishments cater exclusively to tourists.
Ho Chi Minh City is a little better endowed with veggie restaurants than most Vietnamese cities, though the choice is still sparse. As well as dedicated establishments like Loving Hut, Hum and Dinh Y, places such as Asian Kitchen and Indian restaurant Baba’s Kitchen have veggie components to their menus.
Tips for drinking in Ho Chi Minh City
Bars and pubs in Ho Chi Minh City range from hole-in-the-wall dives to elegant cocktail lounges that would not look out of place in a European capital. The area around Dong Khoi is predictably well endowed with fancy spots, and hotels such as the Rex and Caravelle have bars that wouldn’t look out of place in colonial times. Craft beer bars have been a welcome recent addition to the city’s nightlife scene, and you’ll see in-the-know expats flocking en masse to each one’s grand opening.
The city also has plenty of drinking spots at the lower end of the scale. Most popular with locals are the street cafés and cheap restaurants, whose plastic tables often end up creaking under the weight of umpteen beer bottles. In these sorts of places, you’re not even required to purchase food, and you’ll see those on Bui Vien absolutely heaving with boozy foreigners.
In the middle of the scale are the cheery watering holes around Bui Vien and the girlie bars, which hark back to the raunchy GI haunts of the 1960s. In such places, male customers will often quickly find themselves with an attractive, talkative young lady for company, and one is expected – though not obliged – to purchase their drinks. You’ll find stacks of these bars around Thon That Thiep and Pasteur, and most are perfectly harmless (not to mention entertaining) for female visitors.
Ho Chi Minh City travel information
If you’re visiting Ho Chi Minh City, you can find important Ho Chi Minh travel information in our city guide below.
Arrival and departure
The lion’s share of new arrivals to Vietnam fly into Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat Airport, which is also a major hub for domestic flights – these can be even cheaper than the buses, and are perfect for visitors spending a short time in the country. Travelling to Ho Chi Minh City overland, you’ll end up either at the train station, a short distance north of the downtown area, at one of a handful of bus terminals inconveniently scattered across the city, or right in the centre on De Tham at the end of an open-tour bus ride.
Tour agencies abound in Ho Chi Minh City and offer a range of itineraries, from one-day whistle-stop tours around the region to lengthy trips upcountry including accommodation. Most of the recommended operators here can lay on tailor-made itineraries, private cars and personal guides for you, but be aware that we receive numerous reports of inefficient and unscrupulous companies, so it’s worth choosing your agent carefully. Here are some tour agencies in Ho Chi Minh City worth looking at:
- Ann Tours - Highly recommended, offering good-value, tailor-made tours.
- Buffalo Tours - This Western-managed setup specializes in customized tours throughout Indochina, and many run from Ho Chi Minh City. They have shorter trips available too, including the Story of Saigon day-tour ($35).
- Exo Travel - Offers an extensive tour programme that includes special interests such as culinary options and Vespa journeys (both around $75) and a four-day “Unseen Ho Chi Minh City” option. Also adept at making spec hotel bookings across the country.
- Innoviet - This company runs eco friendly, small-group bike and boat tours of the delta (most around $75 for a day-trip) as well as half-day city trips.
- Kim Travel - A veteran of the independent travel scene, this operator offers open-tour buses, flight and rail bookings, car and minibus rental and guides. Their day-trips to My Tho and Ben Tre in the Mekong Delta are super cheap ($19).
- Sinhbalo - Super-efficient setup specializing in customized tours such as bicycle expeditions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (cyclingvietnam.net), motorbike tours, long-distance boat cruises and kayaking in the Mekong Delta. They also offer a wealth of reliable travel info.
- The Sinh Tourist - Offers cut-price organized tours of Vietnam such as dinner cruises ($20), open-bus tours, guides, visa services, buses and boats to Cambodia, and vehicle rental. Beware of copycat operators with similar names.
- TNK Travel - This operator offers cheap tours to destinations across the country, including trips to the Mekong Delta (from $19). It generally gets good feedback.
- Vespa Adventures - This one is up there with the most popular tours in the city. Each night a fleet of Vespas takes to the streets under the charge of charismatic locals; meals, snacks, live music and rather a lot of alcohol are included in the $93 price. There’s also plenty of booze on offer on the nightly craft-beer tour ($89), though dry daytime options are available too.
- XO Tours - Xe om rides with a difference – this company is the first all-female motorbike tour operator in Vietnam, and runs an interesting range of city tours that include food ($75), shopping ($48) and Saigon-by-night ($48) options.
Top image: Ho Chi Minh statue in front of City Hall, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam © Christian Wittmann/Shutterstock