Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City, is the largest city in southern Vietnam, but there isn’t an abundance of things to do here as a tourist. You can easily see the most fascinating sights in a day if you follow this guide of the best things to do on a quick trip to Saigon.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VISITING SAIGON
Book your bus ticket to Saigon easily on Bookaway.com. The best way to get around the massive metropolis is to use Grab motorbike taxi. Don’t worry–the drivers are licensed and a helmet is always provided! My friend Frances of So The Adventure Begins was so kind to give me a pollution mask from AQblue masks. Pollution is very hard on my lung as I have asthma but breathing in dirty air is bad for anyone. Using the AQblue mask made a massive difference from the inexpensive dust masks. It’s much more eco-friendly to purchase a mask that you can use long-term rather than single-use masks that don’t actually filter the air.
Today, the urban city is formerly called Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC, after the communist leader from Northern Vietnam who conquered the south. His communist party is still in rule today, and is the only party on ballots, even though citizens are allowed to vote. There are many sites around Saigon in honor of places Ho Chi Minh lived, but I personally didn’t feel compelled to visit them as I detest his bloody regime. So do locals, which is why they are fighting for their right to vote for politicians that believe in capitalism and still call their beloved city Saigon.
HOW TO GET TO HCMC AND WHERE TO STAY IN SAIGON
It’s easy to reach Saigon from surrounding Southeast Asian countries the region or from further away locales due to the massive international airport. I like to check flights on Skyscanner and bus or train tickets on 12go.asia or Baolau.
Most tourists in Saigon stay in D1 as it’s centrally located and near many excellent food and drink options. If you’re a digital nomad, you’ll probably like staying in D2 as that’s where many expats live and there are an abundance of cute cafes to work from. In D1 I stayed at Spotlight Hotel and C Central Saigon. Both were lovely and very affordable. Find the right accommodation for your budget and preferred amenities by searching through Saigon properties on Booking.com or getting the best prices on hostels via Hostelz.com.
Purchase travel insurance for your explorations of Vietnam from World Nomads. Better safe than sorry!
START YOUR MORNING WITH A COFFEE OR 3 AT THE CAFE APARTMENTS
If you’re a lover of coffee–or just cute cafes–you’ll easily be able to spend a morning wandering around this former military housing unit. The structure was abandoned after the war but was saved when businesses started to revamp the space that’s ideally located centrally in Saigon’s D1 on the Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street.
Today, the Cafe Apartments (Google Maps) building is a mall that boasts an assortment of locally owned and operated boutiques, cafes, and other creative businesses. Vegans be warned–most of the cafes don’t provide plant-based options or milks from beans or nuts. So, just head here for coffee or to get some work done like I did! If you aren’t vegan pick up a donut at Dosh or treat yourself to a bowl at Poke Saigon.
My favorite cafes were the picturesque Thinker&Dreamer Coffee and Saigon Oi. Both had darling decor that was inspiring but not distracting–I like to work in minimalistic spaces so I have room to think–and had strong WiFi.
TAKE IN SWEEPING VIEWS FROM THE SKYDECK
There are many rooftop bars in Saigon but the best way to get a panoramic city view of HCMC is to visit the staggeringly tall Bitexco Financial Tower (Google Maps). Visitors are allowed to take in the sweeping views from the Skydeck which is on the 49th floor. Beat the lines by purchasing your ticket in advance on this GetYourGuide fast pass, or you can opt to visit the Heineken Experience on the ground floor and get your own custom engraved beer bottle. We added on the beer tour and engraved two bottles with Mendez for our parents! There’s also the option to combine the Skydeck visit with a dinner cruise on the Saigon River.
Bitexco is the tallest building in Saigon’s D1 with 68 floors coming in at 262 meters. It was the tallest building in Vietnam until 2011. It was actually designed to look like a lotus flower, the national flora of Vietnam–can you see the similarity?
The scenic views are really amazing! We can around 5 PM and hoped to stay until sunset but the weather was overcast so we weren’t treated to much of a show by Mother Nature. I was shocked how empty it was during our afternoon visit but the lack of crowds meant we had plenty of time to read the detailed signage and learn about the city and try to find certain important landmarks from our vantage point high above Saigon.
SHOP FOR FAIR-TRADE SOUVENIRS THAT GIVE BACK
Mekong Creations (Google Maps) is the beautiful artisan shop of the NGO Mekong+. At the shop, you’ll find handmade goods produced by artisans living in disadvantaged areas in the Mekong region. The 200+ craftswoman who are employed by the collection are each given professional training a, a fair wage, and additional benefits to help their families prosper. The crafts honor the local heritage and are created using locally sourced materials. Mekong Creations have locations throughout the Mekong region but the Saigon location is one of the largest fair-trade boutiques. This is a great place to pick up meaningful souvenirs for yourself or gifts for loved ones at home.
VISIT THE PINK TAN DINH CHURCH
Without a doubt, the most famous building in Saigon, and possibly all of Vietnam, is the baby pink Tan Dinh Church (Google Maps). I don’t normally visit churches in Asia because–colonization. But, even I couldn’t stay away from the rose-hued house of worship. Now, I was expecting the church to be completely fluorescent but as per usual, various Instagram influencers have altered their photos so far past reality that they’re completely misrepresenting the places that serve as backdrops in their photos. The Gothic-Renaissance architecture is lovely and at some times of the day they do open the interior for visitors–apparently, the inside is also pink! Some of my favorite vegan restaurants in Saigon are near the pink Tan Dinh Church!
SEE EVEN MORE COLONIAL ARCHITECTURE
The French occupied Vietnam for nearly a decade and left behind their baguettes and architecture. Saigon has evolved a lot since they gained independence from the French in ‘54 but there are still some traces of the French colony that are apparent today–mostly through beautiful buildings. Many of the best examples are located near Saigon walking street of Nguyen Hue. Above is the Saigon Opera House which is also known as The Municipal Theatre (Google Maps). Here is where you’ll be able to watch the spectacular A O Show! The small yet delightful structure really looks like it could be nestled along a Parisian lane and was built in 1897.
Not far from the Saigon Opera House is the Ho Chi Minh City Hall (Google Maps). The buttery yellow building is meant to look like the city hall building in Paris. It’s a government building so you can’t go inside but you can admire from afar as much as you’d like!
Another stunning Gothic-Renaissance building is the Saigon Central Post Office (Google Maps) that is still functioning today! You can send a postcard to your loved ones here and admire the interior design that hasn’t changed much over the last few centuries.
LEARN ABOUT TAOISM AT THE JADE EMPEROR TEMPLE
There are several Buddhist temples in Saigon but I was most amazed by the Taoist Jade Emperor Temple (Google Maps). The serene scene was hazy from smoke from zillions of incense as worshipers prayed and left offerings at beautiful altars. I visited with Nam of Laugh Travel Eat who speaks Mandarin and was able to translate what some of the Chinese characters on the wall said which made my visit extra special.
GO TO THE WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM TO SEE PROPAGANDA
I was really eager to visit the War Museum in Saigon in hopes that I’d learn about the terrible Vietnam War. I foolishly expected an exhibit presented without bias but should’ve known better. The museum is a tool of communist propaganda, so take what you read here with a grain of salt. It bills the war as the American War, and even blames America for the French occupation. There’s no mention of the civil war between the south and north of Vietnam. However, there’s no denying what you’ll see in photographs. America unjustly entered the war and that some unforgivable war crimes occurred. No one is innocent in war. Communist northern Vietnam won the war so they get to dictate history, at least within Vietnam. I recommend taking notes of what shocks you and researching the historic events independently afterward with reputable resources.
TRY A FLIGHT OF PASTEUR STREET BREWING CO BEERS
Perhaps Vietnam’s most famous brewery, Pasteur Street (Google Maps) has a massive brewhouse and tasting room right in the center of Saigon. They use American techniques with traditional Vietnamese ingredients to make some seriously unique brews. The best thing to do is order a customized flight so you can try all of the beers that pique your interest. Pasteur Street has released over 70 different beers! We tried the Pomelo, Jasmine, Passion, and Spice Island Saison. The Passion Fruit Wheat Ale was, of course, my favorite–which doesn’t come as a surprise as it’s a beer that’s won many awards! It’s infused with fresh passion fruit from Dalat. The Jasmine IPA was also great and is the flagship beer of Pasteur Street–it remains the top-selling IPA in Vietnam. The Pomelo was also amazing and a very crisp, light, summer ale. Even the Belgian-inspired Spice Island Saigon was lovely. All of the beer here was great! Cheers!
GO TO A SPEAKEASY TO HEAR LIVE MUSIC
Every night local musicians take the stage at Cafe Vừng Ơi Mở Ra. Live Music (Google Maps). The speakeasy is located above a garage–the mark is correct on Google Maps, just walk inside and up the stairs to the left with confidence. You’ll open the door and find yourself in a romantic music den.
THE BEST DAY TRIPS FROM SAIGON
There are so many day trip options from Saigon! I explored the Mekong Delta one day and the next visit the sacred main temple Cao Dai. Both day trips are really fantastic and unique! If you have limited time try to see Saigon in a half day so that you can visit the beautiful surrounding region.
Have you been to Saigon? What were your favorite things to do in HCMC?
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