Ho Chi Minh City, popularly known as Saigon, can be a chaotic place that asks whether you are ready to go along for a ride.
It starts the moment you arrive into the city. At first, the hustle and bustle of the busy streets can be quite overwhelming, especially with the number of two-wheelers that zip by. However, in time, you realise there is a certain order to this chaos.
Let me explain. Crossing the streets must be the most daunting task any traveller would face in Vietnam, and especially in Saigon. While the four-wheel vehicles are fine, it’s the sheer number of two-wheelers that can, from the sides, be a sight to see. Sure, there are signals and pedestrian crossings. But that is of not much help. In time, I figured that if I needed to get across to the other side of the road, I simply needed to walk ahead, without pausing for the incoming two-wheeler traffic. And it worked fine, each time. When two-wheeler riders see you crossing the street, they have already decided whether they are going to pass in front or behind you and make their adjustments accordingly. This is of course so long as you don’t change your plans, or worse, decide to pause while crossing, however briefly. If you do, then expect it be chaotic.
In time, once you have understood how the city moves, then exploring Saigon can be a richly rewarding experience. It’s got something for everyone. Be it French-colonial style architecture or high-rise towers, fine dining in restaurants or slurping on pho on the streets, the city is both traditional and yet modern
However, with time being a luxury for most travellers, it’s important to try and see as much of the city, without burning yourself or your pocket. While in no order, here’s my list of things to do if you have five full days to spend in the city. I haven’t included your arrival and departures days. While there are more things to do, including some that I was unable to see, am sure it will help you get the most from your visit.
Let your first day in Saigon be all about absorbing the various sites and sounds. Now that you have figured out how to cross roads and are quite nicely going with the flow, find you way to the center of Saigon. That’s where the Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, Opera House, and City Hall are all located.
The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is bang in the center of downtown Saigon. It was constructed between 1863 and 1880. Perfectionists that the French were, they chose to import all the building material from France.
Initially named as Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saigon, it has two bell towers that reach a height of 58 meters. The towers themselves hold six bronze bells. Among its most striking features are the red coloured bricks which have surprisingly managed to retain their hue.
In 1959, a statue of Our Lady of Peace, made from granite in Rome, was set up in front of the church. That same year, it was also conferred a Basilica by the Vatican, thus giving it its current name.
Central Post Office
The Ho Chi Minh City Post Office, or the Saigon Central Post Office is a main post office. It is right next door to the Notre-Dame Cathedral.
The building was constructed between 1886 and 1891, when France ruled over Vietnam, then known as Indochina. With touches of Gothic, Renaissance and French colonial design, it features arched windows and wooden shutters. Today, more than a century later, it continues to fascinate and inspire those who see it.
While a lot of people mistakenly believe it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the credit goes to Marie-Alfred Foulhoux.
Its official name is the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City. However, everyone knows it as Saigon Municipal Opera House. Within vicinity of the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office, this is another fine example of French colonial architecture that is so prevalent in Vietnam.
This 500-seat opera was built in 1897 by Eugène Ferret as the Opera de Saigon. However, from 1956 right until the city’s liberation in 1975, it housed the Lower House assembly of South Vietnam. It was finally restored to its former glory in 1995. Today, it is the main venue for high-profile and cultural events.
An interesting note: the building was set two meters above street level to avoid any traffic noise from disturbing performances.
Ho Chi Minh City Hall or Saigon City Hall was originally called Hotel de Ville de Saigon. It’s been the head office for the People’s Committee since 1975. Which makes it out of bounds for the general public.
Modelled on the lines of City Hall in Paris, it was built between 1902 and 1908 by the architect P Gardes. Featured on top of the building is a bell tower, a feature common across most European town halls of those times.
At night, the outer building is illuminated with LED lights, making it for a spectacular photo-op. Unfortunately, I couldn’t be there at night on both occasions when I visited the city.
Nguyen Van Binh
Book Street, or Nguyen Van Binh, is a paradise for book lovers. It’s around 100 meters long, but is full of shops, kiosk and stalls selling all forms of books – from literature and travelogues, to fiction and children’s books. Some of them also sell second-hand books and postcards too.
Should you feel the need to take a break, do so. The walkway is lined with trees on either side, with comfortable benches to sit down. Alternatively, step into any of the coffee shops for your cup of happiness. They even have books in some of these cafes.
Now that you have seen the highlights of Saigon on your first full day, plan your second day such, that you get out of the city. Cu Chi tunnels offers you an opportunity to experience life down under, literally. Most travel agents will be happy to arrange a trip for you. However, I would recommend that you make it by yourself, renting a motorbike or a taxi to take you there.
Cu Chi tunnels and Ben Duoc Memorial Complex
Drive about 60 odd kilometers out of Ho Chi Minh City, and you will reach The Cu Chi tunnels. They are best remembered as a symbol of the Viet Cong’s resistance against the Americans. However, they were built over a period, stretching all the way from 1948, when the Viet Minh fought the French. Back then, they were mostly used to connect and communicate with different villages around the countryside, while also helping the soldiers disappear every time the French soldiers were patrolling the area.
There are two different tunnels. Yes, Ben Duoc and Ben Dinh are part of the same tunnel network. However, they are two different sites.
Your experience will be different, depending on which of the two sites you visit. I visited Ben Duoc. It is a bit further from Ho Chi Minh City, and is also less crowded. The tunnels are also a lot more authentic and closer to how they were during the Vietnam war.
You can read more on my trip to Ben Duoc here.
Now that you have made it to your third full day in Saigon, why not start your day at the local market. Follow it up with visits to two museums that delve a bit more deeply into the Vietnam War and the struggle for independence from the French colonists. It can be an extremely draining experience, which is why, later in the evening, you should let you hair down and party all night long.
Ben Thanh Market
For a difference shopping experience, make your way to Ben Thanh market. Also spelt as Bin Tay market, it’s a bustling with vendors selling everything, from cheap clothing to Vietnamese art and souvenirs. If you are feeling hungry or thirsty, stop at any of the food stalls and order yourself a quick snack or a refreshing fresh juice.
The area can get very crowded especially as the day progresses and the weather warms up. I suggest you head there as early as possible. That way, you avoid both the crowd and the hot sun which can make moving around a bit of a bother, especially if you tend to perspire like I do.
Like a proper tourist, make sure you haggle before agreeing on a price. While some of them are adamant, they will budge, if they get a hint that you are interested.
While it was renamed as the Reunification Palace immediately after the fall of Saigon, it is today, known officially by its original name – Independence Palace.
It used to be called Norodom Palace and was the French colonial headquarters when the French ruled Indochina. When they departed, it became the residence of the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. However, he was such a despised leader that his own air force tried to finish him off by bombing the palace in 1962. He ordered a new residence to be built on the same site, with a bomb shelter, which was completed in 1966. Unfortunately, for him, he never got to see it. He was killed by his own troops in 1963.
You can read more on Independence Palace here.
War Remnants Museum
While not for everyone, a visit to the War Remnants Museum is an absolute must if you want to understand what transpired under both the French colonialists and during the Vietnam War.
Today, it is a shocking reminder of the long and brutal war that initially started with their fight for independence from the French and culminated with the last American being evacuated decades later. Among the major highlights are the ‘tiger cages’ and a guillotine.
Read more on the War Remnants Museum here.
Bui Vien Street
As the sun sets over Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is popularly known as, there’s one street that is slowly waking up. Bui Vien Street.
If there’s one word that, to me, describes this street, it’s ‘Madness’. It’s loud. It’s bright. It’s seedy. It can get aggressive. And it goes on till the wee hours of the morning. It’s got to be one of the craziest streets I’ve ventured into.
It’s no wonder, as it is also Saigon’s backpack quarter. Which means cheap hotels and hostels, and even more cheap beer and street food. Massage parlours flourish and disco lights light up the street through the night.
Read more on all the action on the street here.
On your fourth day in Saigon, it’s time to head out of town again. This time, to go see what they refer to as the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam. The Mekong Delta is about a three-hour drive from Saigon. After that, there is a boat ride across the river.
Mekong Delta One-Day Tour
No visit to Saigon is complete without a trip to the Mekong Delta. Often called the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam, it’s a glimpse into a way of life in the delta. Flat rice fields and floating markets, narrow streams and large boats – it has it all.
Is it worth it? Well yes, for the money you pay, it’s an ideal introduction to the Mekong Delta. Unfortunately, it’s become way too commercial for my liking. There are various packages available, including a full day and an overnight trip. I opted for a full day trip. Ask around any of the travel agents close to where you stay, and they can set you up with an itinerary that works best for you. If you are looking for something more exclusive and tailored, that’s an option too.
You can read my take on the trip to the Mekong Delta here.
It’s your last full day in Saigon. You’ve done with most of the sights and sounds. Perhaps, today is the day you take it easy. Maybe you sit pillion on a motorbike, then later walk down the promenade before finally making your way for dinner along the Saigon river.
Go pillion riding
I wouldn’t advise you ride or drive anywhere in Vietnam. It’s dangerous and should anything happen to you or the vehicle you have rented, then that’s even more trouble.
Nevertheless, a motorbike ride is something that you should do. Work out a good rate with the many motorbike taxis in the city, either for a couple of hours, or even out of town, to places like the Cu Chi tunnels. These experienced riders take it to another level, especially when they maneuver between other riders, heavy vehicles and pedestrians on the streets. Just make sure you hold on tight.
Nguyen Hue Street
Nguyen Hue Street is a broad walking promenade and in close vicinity to the other major attractions. At one end is the City Hall, while at the other end is the Saigon river.
Walking from end to end, there are several restaurants and bars, to sip a coffee or enjoy a drink. If neither of them appeals to you, then take a seat along the benches and do some people watching.
While on the promenade, you are sure to spot a dilapidated looking building that seems out of sorts amid French colonial architectures. Don’t let that put you off. 42 Nguyen Hue Street is a shopping center that offers some of the best deals on clothing, has cool cafes and when photographed from outside, is instantly Instagram-worthy.
Dine along the Saigon river
At one end of Nguyen Hue Street is the Saigon river.
Stretching for more than 225 kilometers, the Saigon river is an important source of water to Saigon. It’s also home to the main port of the city.
Along its banks are quite a few restaurants and bars where you can stretch your legs, catch on a beer and an early dinner, and watch the sun set in the horizon. It’s also a great spot to watch barges chugging up and down the muddy water.
There are also boats that take you on a dinner cruise. Most cruises include includes buffet dinner with live entertainment. Ask around or check online for the best possible deals.
Are you are looking to visit Vietnam, either for the first time or after years? Not sure about the visa regulations and fees? No issues, hopefully my blog article on Vietnam visa should help. You can find it here.