On my trip to Vietnam I was fortunate enough to visit Vietnam’s two biggest cities- the capital of Hanoi in the north, and Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as the locals still refer to it), the much cooler, more Western feeling, and former capital of long defunct South Vietnam. While I personally preferred Hanoi in terms of culture and sights, Ho Chi Mini City was still a pretty neat place and as an American, a fascinating place to visit in terms of its connection to the Vietnam War. For a city of over 20 million people in its metropolitan confines, there’s a ton of things to see and do but these are the 5 best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.
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Note: At tourist attractions throughout the city, I always found signage readily available in English.
1.) Grab at cocktail at the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel
During the Vietnam War, this luxury hotel played host to the American military command’s daily briefings about the status of the conflict. The daily conferences were cynically renamed the “Five O’Clock Follies” by those who found the naivete and woefully misguided optimism of the American officers to be ridiculous. Its rooftop bar (although it’s a short rooftop as the hotel is only five stories in total) was a well-known hangout for military officials and war correspondents. It offered beautiful views of Ho Chi Minh Square and the surrounding French colonial buildings including City Hall.
141 Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, Quận 1 (District 1)
2.) War Remnants Museum
While the extremely popular War Remnants Museum didn’t have as much jarring and outright ridiculous propaganda as what I saw at the Hỏa Lò Prison (the Hanoi Hilton) in Hanoi, there was still a good amount here. However, it was a worthy museum containing exhibits relating to the First Indochina War (when the Vietnamese fought for independence from the French) and then the Vietnam War.
Many of the museum’s exhibits feature and emphasize the horrific effects of war on the civilian populations. They contain many graphic and gruesome photographs (many of which are not easy to look at such as the My Lai massacre and the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange). I particularly liked the Requiem Exhibition which is a photographic collection that documents the work of photographers from the Vietnam War who were killed in action, on both sides. This is the rare exhibit that isn’t one sided and simply points out that these men and women just wanted to report the truth.
In the courtyard of the museum are authentic pieces of military equipment- aircraft, jeeps. As the North Vietnamese Army pushed towards Saigon to capture it, the ARVN (the South Vietnamese army) fled, leaving behind billions of dollars of American equipment.
28 Võ Văn Tần, Phường 6, Quận 3 (District 3)
3.) Admiring the French colonial architecture in District 1
My hotel was located right in Saigon Times Square and was less than a five minute walk to the Ho Chi Minh City Hall and less than a 10 minute walk to the Saigon Central Post Office and the Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. While so many of the French colonial-era buildings in Hanoi appeared crumbling, here in Saigon they simply dazzled.
Although you can’t go inside the City Hall which was built between the years of 1902-1908, you can definitely marvel at it from the outside (or enjoy that cocktail of yours at the Rex Hotel’s rooftop bar which offers a prime view of it). It’s especially lovely lit up and illuminated against the night sky. After South Vietnam fell in 1975, City Hall was renamed to the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City.
The Saigon Central Post Office was constructed in the late 19th century, when Vietnam was part of the French Indochina Empire and contains Gothic, Renaissance, and French influences in its design. It still functions as a post office today (where the few who still buy stamps to send postcards can do so) but it also contains kitschy souvenir type stalls as well.
Visitors will particularly love the two painted maps that date to when the post office was built. The first one, located on the left side of the building, is a map of southern Vietnam and Cambodia and is named Lignes telegraphiques du Sud Vietnam et Cambodge 1892 which translates to “Telegraphic Lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892.” The second map depicts greater Saigon and is named Saigon et ses environs 1892 which translates to “Saigon and its surroundings 1892.”
City Hall-Số 86 Lê Thánh Tôn, Bến Nghé, Quận 1
Saigon Central Post Office-2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1
4.) Reunification Palace
Also known as Independence Palace, this building in Saigon’s District 1 served as the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was also the site of the end of the Vietnam War during the Fall of Saigon when on April 30, 1975, a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its gate, thus ending 21 years of conflict and division.
If you’re thinking Reunification Palace looks very “60s,” and out of place amongst the elegant French Colonial buildings of District 1, well, it is. The current palace was built on the grounds of Norodom Palace which served as the home of the Colonial Governor of Saigon during French colonial rule. However, the building was bombed and heavily damaged during an attempted coup in 1962, and torn down and replaced by the current structure.
135 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1
5.) Củ Chi Tunnels
The Củ Chi Tunnels are not located in Saigon proper but rather in the city’s greater metropolitan area and as such are around a 100 minute drive due Saigon’s insane traffic, even though they’re less than 40 miles away from District 1.
During their fight for independence from the French, Communist forces began digging a network of tunnels under the jungle terrain of South Vietnam in the late 1940s. They expanded the tunnels once the United States military increased its presence in the country as a means of contending against the better-supplied American and South Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. At one point, the Củ Chi Tunnels even ran to the length of the Cambodian border.
The Communist troops (known as the Viet Cong) dug tens of thousands of miles of tunnels including an extensive network that ran underneath the Củ Chi district northwest of Saigon. The soldiers used the subterranean routes to house troops, transport communications and supplies, lay booby traps, and mount surprise attacks. These extensive tunnels became little cities were and much was done down there, including some even featuring large theaters and music halls.
Today, you can go down into some of the tunnels although the openings have been enlarged for Western-size bodies (Vietnamese people as a whole are typically petite and skinny). It was truly amazing to think that people without the use of modern machinery simply created these tunnels. My favorite part, though, was seeing a local guide go down into one of the original openings that has not been enlarged. To see him simply “disappear” was surreal and it’s easy to see why these tunnels provided such an advantage against the Viet Cong’s enemy.
Note: Countless tour companies operate half-day trips to the tunnels from Saigon. Simply do your research online or inquire at your hotel. Be sure to apply bug spray as the tunnels are in a jungle-heavy area replete with many trees and bushes.
TL15, Phú Hiệp, Củ Chi, Hồ Chí Minh
Runner’s Up: Street Food Adventure Tours
I had originally planned and booked a food tour in Saigon (on top of already having done ones in Hanoi and Singapore). It was to be a nighttime one and with Street Food Adventure Tours, they would have picked me up and dropped me off at my hotel (thus eliminating the need to be intimidated about not getting ripped off in a taxi). I ended up canceling as I thought I’d be too hot and tired after the long drive to Củ Chi earlier in the day. Well, in hindsight I wish I hadn’t canceled since once I was on my river cruise, I didn’t feel I was having a ton of authentic food, not to mention the world basically stopped because of the pandemic and I now regret not having done one more great food tour in a fascinating part of the world. The staff was always extremely prompt when replying to my emails. The four hour walking tour at night (which is what I had originally booked) was only $45USD, SO cheap when compared to food tours in Europe.