Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, was our landing point on our trip to Vietnam, after a 13-hour flight from London. Forming our first impression of this dizzyingly beautiful country, it’s busy, chaotic atmosphere may not be the easiest for a jet-lagged couple to digest, yet here we were, tired, yet ready to see everything it had to offer.
Travellers’ opinions on Vietnam’s largest city vary greatly. Some people love its buzz, the hectic streets, while it can be overwhelming for others. I must admit that Matt and I fell into the latter category, and we do wish we’d spent the day there before hopping on the night train and using the extra time for more easy-going destinations like Hoi An, Da Lat, or Sapa later on.
Perhaps it was the fact our trip started on an odd note that saw us unable to find somewhere that was open to buy a sim card, the mysterious disappearance of around £30 worth of currency on top of a major overcharge for coffee while desperately trying to find some wifi. However, I still feel like travelling Vietnam would not be complete without seeing Ho Chi Minh City, and there’s plenty of unforgettable experiences to be had. Moreover, the city can be a good base while you explore the southern region.
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Enjoy some street food
Ho Chi Minh City is one of the best places to enjoy street food thanks to Ben Thanh Street Food Market. It reminded me a bit of some of the street food markets in London, covered in colourful street art, boozy stalls, and it is a fairly clean place to try some of the local treats. I definitely enjoyed tucking into a banh mi after a long day exploring the Mekong Delta!
Visit the War Remnants Museum
To Westerners it may be known as the Vietnam War, but here it is called the American War, and remains a defining moment in the country’s history. One of the most interesting things about visiting Vietnam is seeing this controversial and destructive event from the local perspective.
The inside of the museum is dedicated to accounts of the war, while outside you’ll find a collection of American tanks and planes used during the war.
Pick up some presents
Ben Thanh Market is one of the most popular for tourists for shopping. The large covered market features a vast array of stalls selling souvenirs, clothes, and more.
We didn’t do too much shopping in Ho Chi Minh City, given it was at the start of our trip and we didn’t want to lug stuff around for the rest of the time and because during the time we had to browse the market, we had our backpacks on, which proved quite cumbersome trying to move through the narrow paths between stalls. But for those who visit the city toward the end of their holiday, it’s the perfect chance to grab all those souvenirs you’ve had your eye on. Like any of Vietnam’s market, feel free to haggle on the prices.
Take a day trip
Ho Chi Minh City can be a great base to take a number of day trips around southern Vietnam.
We decided to skip the Củ Chi tunnels as we had limited time (and honestly, I assumed Matt might be too broad to fit in the narrow tunnels and thought maybe it wasn’t for us).
We did decide to take an excursion to the Mekong Delta, an area about two hours south of the city. I’m not a big fan of these sorts of tours, it can feel a bit inauthentic and it seems like they are constantly trying to get more money out of you, but we did have some experiences we might not have been able to do on our own, so it felt like a necessary evil.
We were picked up as a group of eight with a tour guide and driven to the Mekong Delta, first visiting a craft village and trying local sweets, followed by watching a traditional music show. After, we boarded the boat and cruised past the floating markets.
Next, we were rowed in bamboo boats down the narrower, more scenic parts of the river, sided by lush vegetation.
Next, it was time for a cooking lesson making spring rolls and Banh Xeo and dined on our cooking along with local seafood.
After, most of the group went on a bike ride through the local village but my flip flop broke, meaning I had to stay behind. And it was quite the adventure travelling back to the hotel after we were dropped back in Ho Chi Minh City through the busy streets with my shoe strapped to my foot using a mosquito repellent bracelet. Needless to say, it was not my finest moment.
Sightsee around Ho Chi Minh Square
Vietnam’s former colonialism by the French is evident throughout Saigon, particularly in the architecture surrounding Ho Chi Minh Square.
The Romanesque Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral, completed in 1880, sits just around the corner from the Square.
Nearby is the Opera House, which offers some good photo opportunities of its elegant architecture, and still features theatre performances.
Have a 5 o’clock folly
Ho Chi Minh City’s most famous bar sits on the rooftop of the Rex Hotel Saigon, over looking Ho Chi Minh Square below.
Made infamous during the war as the meeting spot for American military command’s daily war conferences, which were often referred to as 5 o’clock follies by journalists at the time.
Today, the upscale bar offers a good view over the city along with a wide range of cocktails. While the cocktails carry a London price tag (at about 270,000 or £9), we enjoyed being able to kick back and watch the view (and meant we had somewhere to spend a bit of time while waiting to take our sleeper train to Nha Trang).
The need to knows for visiting Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh has an international airport served by many major airlines (we chose to go direct from London with Vietnam Air, which will set you back around £500 depending on the time of year). It is also easy to reach via internal flights from such places as Da Nang, Phu Quoc, Nha Trang, and Hanoi. Or there’s sleeper trains from the former three, surprisingly easy to travel on and a great way to save money on your trip.
Like the rest of Vietnam, avoid tap water/ice due to contamination. Beware of scams; this might include someone pointing at and insisting on “fixing” your shoes when there’s nothing really wrong with them (walk away quickly, also they seem more likely to target men for this), overcharging, and in one case for us being overcharged for coconut water that was thrust into our hands.
Be aware that crossing the street is a mission and can get quite stressful. Expect a constant stream of motorcycles and little in the way of traffic laws. Cross slowly, but boldly, and be aware that even a green crossing or zebra crossing doesn’t mean traffic will stop to let you across!
Where to stay
While the Airbnb we stayed in was lovely, it was just too difficult to walk into the main areas and the street we were on was too narrow for a taxi. You can find places to stay in HCMC here.
I mentioned a few day trips and tours in this post that are a great way of seeing some of Ho Chi Minh’s highlights and taking a day trip. Check out tours to take: