“Pearl of the Far East” is the name the French called and “Big Market” called Chinese called it —Ho Chi Minh City of Vietnam, colloquially known as Saigon, is Vietnam’s largest city and cultural capital.
According to a report by Dan Q. Dao on Forbes, Saigon is also one of the world’s fastest growing cities, with an expected population of nearly 14 million by the year 2025. That growth speaks to the city’s boundless energy—seen in the dizzying dance of motorbikes and street carts as well as the the rapid rise of skyscrapers towering over French colonial structures and ancient pagodas.
Naturally, there’s plenty to see, eat, and explore in and around Saigon, whether you’re a street food connoisseur, beach lover, or history buff. For first-timers: the city is made up of 24 districts, though most visitors stay in Districts 1 and 3, where you’ll find most of the hotels, shopping, and nightlife. Each has its distinct appeal: District 1 offers plenty of Wild West fun on the world-famous backpacker street, Bui Vien, for example, while District 3 is home to some of Vietnam’s best fresh seafood stands.
If you’re planning a trip to Saigon, consider the weather, which can be at once brutally hot and rainy. The best time of year to visit would be the dry season, which runs from December to May. You’ll also want to avoid the Vietnamese New Year, which falls in late January or early February, depending on the Lunar calendar, as the city all but shuts down during for the holiday. Lastly, don’t forget to apply for a visa beforehand, which is much cheaper (and time-efficient) than doing so on arrival.
Ready to explore? From architectural attractions to nightlife and island day trips, we’ve got you covered with the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.
If there were ever a Mecca for tourists and backpackers looking to revel in budget-friendly debauchery, Saigon’s backpacker’s street might be it. The walking area comprises several lanes, streets, and alleys on the western edge of District 1, with the most popular avenues being Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao Street. Set along the streets are western-style restaurants and coffee shops, hostels, and guesthouses for rent. Yes, it’s grimy, but there’s a certain magic to pulling a plastic stool, drinking cheap beers, and watching some of the craziest nightlife culture come to life.
Saigon Municipal Opera House
The history of the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City tells the story cultural and governmental changes in Vietnam over the past 200 years. Completed in 1900 by French colonists to feature Parisian theatre companies, the three-story building is a testament to the opulent architectural style of the Third French Republic, serving as a stark contrast to the modern high-rises popping up nearby. The opera house fell out of use in the mid 20th-century as nightclubs and dance halls became popular, and was converted into a government building during the Vietnam War era. Today, it’s since been restored as a performance space for opera, ballet, concerts, and plays.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Sitting in a peaceful park at the bustling heart of the city is Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the few remaining Catholic sites in the largely Buddhist Vietnam. Constructed in the late 19th Century by French colonists, the 200-foot-tall house of worship remains an awe-inspiring sight, boasting a facade of red brick imported from Marseilles accented with neo-Roman stained glass windows. The Cathedral’s two bell-towers still reverberate throughout downtown, reminding the Saigonese of its existence amidst the steel and glass behemoths that’ve been erected around it.
To try local street food and people-watch among the locals, head to Turtle Lake, an urban park situated in the middle of a roundabout in District 3. There’s fascinating history here: the lake was originally the site of the city gate during the Nguyen Dynasty—the last in Vietnam’s history. But when the French colonized Vietnam, they turned it into a water tower, which was eventually knocked down to connect roads. The name, however, refers to copper turtle once installed at the site for good luck by the former president of what was then South Vietnam.
Cu Chi Tunnels
History buffs and fans of war flicks will enjoy a short trip to the outskirts of town to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. First built in the 1940s as protection from French air raids, the tunnels unravel more than 150 miles in the Saigon area alone. They’re perhaps best-known for their role in the Vietnam War, during which housed living areas, makeshift hospitals, booby traps, and storage for Viet Cong fighters. The tunnels have been expanded a bit to allow for easier passage, but they’re still quite tight and serve as a poignant testimony to the plight of war. While most tour groups visit the Ben Dinh section, you might be better off traveling an extra 30 minutes to the Ben Duoc section where tunnels are less crowded and noisy.
Time has essentially stood still at Independence Palace since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Built in the 1960’s, the five-story building features open and airy rooms with plenty of natural lighting. Since 1975, it’s been used for occasional government meetings, but is open for tours most of the time. Visitors can explore the lush grounds, which were also home once the site of a palace for the colonial French governor, as well as see a basement command bunker, meeting rooms with antique furniture from the 1960s, and two of the original tanks used during the war.
Ben Thanh Market
A visit to Saigon would be incomplete without a trip to the wonderfully chaotic Ben Thanh. The origins of the market date back to the 17th century, and today it serves as a bargain hunter’s heaven with locally-made handicraft, faux luxury items, food stalls, and souvenirs around every corner. Occupying nearly 140,000 square feet of real estate, the market can be a bit dizzying if you walk in without a game plan. Don’t be afraid to haggle down prices or walk away from an unfair deal—and beware the “extra charges” added for foreigners.