Ho Chi Minh City is a sprawling, seething megacity. A master at overloading the senses, it beats with life. Cyclists whizz under filigreed Chinese temples in Phu Nhuan. District 1 pulses with beer bars and steamy noodle stalls where Indochinese babushkas are stooped over frying five spice and ginger.
Ramshackle backpacker pubs spill onto the pavements in Pham Ngu Lao, beers and whisky and soy-topped rice in hand. There’s always something to see, to smell, to taste, to explore.
But there are pockets of calm and plenty of sobering moments to be had too. You can trace the startling story of the Vietnam War, which often played out on the very streets of erstwhile Saigon.
The likes of the Reunification Palace and the haunting War Remnants Museum offer that. You can also find replicas of Notre Dame Cathedral, and wander the tree-lined pathways of the Le Van Tam Park, for some hard-earned peace and quiet.
Where exactly is Ho Chi Minh City?
Ho Chi Minh City was once the capital of the south. During the Vietnam War, it was the headquarters of the Republic of Vietnam; the base camp of the American invasion forces. Look for it just on the cusp of the uber-fertile Mekong Delta, which fans out in countless streams, riverways and wetlands before flooding into the South China Sea.
The big Saigon River flows through the heart of the town, while the rice paddies, forests, and low hills that meet Cambodia take over to the west.
Top Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City.
Ho Chi Minh City melds the old and the new, the cultured and the hedonistic. From mystical temples to sobering museums that chronicle the struggles of the 20th century, there are all sorts of intriguing things to get stuck into.
Be struck by the exhibits at the War Remnants Museum.
Ho Chi Minh was pushed into the spotlight back in 1975 when the Viet Cong and the armies of North Vietnam flooded back into the city to bring the hard-fought Vietnam War to a close. That is the subject of the town’s War Remnants Museum, and it’s precisely the sort of sobering, striking, and unforgettable ride you might expect.
The collections roll through decommissioned American helicopters that were in action during the fighting, cages used to keep Vietnamese POWs, and displays of anti-war posters and art.
The most memorable aspect is surely the comprehensive photographic display that depicts the horrific effect of Agent Orange. It’s not an easy visit, but it’s invaluable for those who want to learn the story of the infamous conflict.
Reunification Palace – a glimpse into the past.
The onetime home of the South Vietnamese President, Reunification Palace should be instantly recognisable to anyone who followed the twists and turns of the Vietnamese War back in the 60s and 70s.
Most notably, this is the place where the official end of the conflict occurred, when a T-54 tank crashed through the gates in 1975. You can still see that piece of armour (albeit in replica form) on the grounds as you walk in.
Then, take some time to hit the five-stories of preserved interiors. They are a real glimpse into the city of old, with gaudy retro designs and cabinet rooms where South Vietnam’s war cabinet would once have met.
Stunning views from the Saigon Skydeck.
There’s arguably no better place to take in Ho Chi Minh City in all its 360-degree glory than the Saigon Skydeck. It sits upon the pinnacle (well…the 49th floor to be exact) of the soaring Bitexco Financial Tower.
That’s the tallest building in town, so the views should be uninterrupted for miles around. Strangely, the World of Heineken experience is also located within, just in case you wanted to supplement the sightseeing with cold Dutch beer or two.
Go underground at the Cu Chi Tunnels.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are such a startling undertaking that it can be hard to believe that they even exist. But they do. Find them wiggling and winding beneath the northern quarters of Ho Chi Minh City, clocking up a total length of more than 75 miles.
Today, large sections of the complex can be visited. You’ll learn all about the dangerous booby traps that were pockmarked throughout to prevent infiltration by American soldiers – just wait for those punji sticks! And you’ll get to understand the tactical advantage that the tunnels brought for the Viet Cong, particularly in the build-up to the pivotal attacks of the Tet Offensive.
Party on Bui Vien
Beers froth in body-packed bars all down the length of Bui Vien Street. It’s one of the most happening and lively corners of the city, with more backpacker hostels and bumping clubs than you can shake a bowl of pho at.
The parties start in the early evening but continue on until the early hours. Some of the most famous bars include Beer 102 and the more stylish Ong Cao (perfect if you prefer artisan craft beers to mainstay brands).
Ho Chi Minh has had a craft beer boom over the recent years, and it might even be the best craft beer city in the whole of south-east Asia these days. It´seems like very street around the city has it´s own brewery now, so it´s no problem finding a good beer these days.
Take some shots of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Perhaps the most eye-catching and curious landmark in all of Ho Chi Minh City is the Notre Dame Cathedral. Built to mirror the sumptuous French Gothic looks of its namesake in Paris, it’s fronted with two handsome spires with window inlays in carved stone, much of which was imported from France.
It was built back in the 1860s by the French colonists of Vietnam, replacing an older pagoda. Outside, streets like Nguyen Du buzz with cafés, ice-cream shops, and Vietnamese restaurants.
How to get to Ho Chi Minh City.
HCMC is one of the most popular arrival points for travellers heading into Vietnam. It’s got the busiest international airport in the country, at Tan Son Nhat.
Services go to the two terminals there from right across the globe, with long-haul links connecting to Australia, the Middle East, North America, and Europe. The smaller domestic hub also receives flights from Southeast Asia and Vietnam. Bangkok, the bustling capital of Thailand, is just an hour flight away.
Backpackers will often arrive at Ho Chi Minh by bus or train. Regular so-called VIP coaches (though they are hardly luxury) run south and north from popular tourist spots like Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Hoi An, and the Mekong Delta. The Reunification Express train links the city to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi.
It takes around 35 hours to complete in total but will take you down the whole length of Indochina before pulling into Ga Sai Gon station – it’s a truly bucket-list journey.
Best Place To Stay In Ho Chi Minh City
The very definition of cheap and cheerful, the dorm rooms at The Hideout start at a mere 300,000 VND per night. They certainly don’t offer luxury, but the barebones are all taken care of – comfy beds, clean shared bathrooms, friendly staff. The real reason you’d come here is to meet and mingle with other travellers. An on-site bar with a foosball table and DJ nights help to get the good vibes a-flowing.
Duc Vuong Hotel ($$)
A charming, clean, and highly rated hotel, Duc Vuong promises spacious doubles, twins and suites. The location could hardly be better, especially if you’re eager to get stuck into the beer bars on Bui Vien Street (where the hotel is located) or get lost between the food stalls and hawkers of Ben Thanh Market. The piece de resistance has to be the breezy rooftop terrace with its seating gazing out over the rooftops of downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Hotel des Arts Saigon – Mgallery ($$$)
Money, not an object? Treat yourself to a stay at the plush Hotel des Arts Saigon – Mgallery. A five-star resort that looks down to the lovely Notre Dame Cathedral, it’s perfect for balancing out the heady vibes of the metropolis.
Inside, the rooms are elegant and stylish, fusing together touches of the colonial, the Parisian, and the modern. An infinity pool on the roof almost takes the biscuit, but that coffee terrace and bar also has panoramic views that are to die for.
If you’ve got anything to add to this ultimate guide to Ho Chi Minh City, we’d sure love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. There are oodles more things to do and places to stay in this vast Vietnamese metropolis, so extra tips and hints are always welcome.
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