If you’re ticking things off a bucket list, Vietnam is bound to rank highly on your list of places to see. However most itineraries focus on the surreal beauty of Halong Bay and the tiered tea and coffee plantations of Dalat. Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now known, is often overlooked. This might be because Saigon is the business hub of the country and is infamous for its manic traffic.
But we love urban spaces, so we really enjoyed the pace of this chaotic city. Saigon’s frenzied rhythm, colonial architecture, and dynamic food culture can be endlessly fascinating and endearing all at once. The city might not have seductive beaches or plantations enveloped in bewitching mist but there is no dearth of things to do in Saigon. From day tours and cultural monuments to food tours and country-side jaunts, Saigon offers everything one could ask for. Here’s 10 of our favourite things to do in Saigon :-
1) Celebrate Tet (Lunar New Year)
This is definitely a controversial one. This is because Tet is a special time of the year for Vietnamese people – houses are cleaned and painted, gifts are exchanged, ancestors are honoured, prayers are conducted, and special meals are prepared from scratch.
For tourists this translates into closed shops and markets. In addition to this, most restaurants have special menus for Tet which are much more expensive than regular menus. Shops only open on the sixth day of Tet with a small ceremony.
But happiness is in the air. Locals are in a celebratory mood and there are processions and fairs almost everyday. The entire city is adorned with bunting and lights. Then there are bright red trees, bedecked with Chinese lanterns, wishing papers, and trinkets that pop up everywhere. Saigon transforms into a magical, albeit chaotic, wonderland over Tet – it needs to be seen to be believed 🙂
2) Take a Food Tour
Eating is such an intrinsic part of Vietnamese culture that a food tour offers the perfect introduction to the city. We opted for an amazing street food tour with Tiger Tours in order to familiarise ourselves with Vietnamese street food staples. We would highly recommend taking this tour on your first or second day in the city because it offers a great introduction to the sights and sounds of Saigon.
Kim and Ngoc, our guides, took us around the city on motorbikes and showed us most of the major landmarks. The highlight of the tour is definitely the scrumptious food but we also loved Saigon’s wholesale flower market – it’s easy on the eyes and offers amazing value for money. It’s possible for pay less that £2 for 50 stems of roses (yes FIFTY) – perfect for an impromptu romantic surprise eh? 🙂
Interested in exploring the street food scene of Vietnam? Don’t forget to read our detailed Guide to the Street Food of Vietnam (opens in new tab)
3) Explore China Town (Cholon)
Ho Chi Minh’s teeming China Town is the largest in Vietnam. China Town, or Cholon, is laden with pagodas, street food hawkers, and tea houses at every corner. The area is away from the tourist centre and there are few tourists here. But it’s one of our favourite parts of the city purely because it has so much character.
Come without an itinerary and let yourselves loose in the narrow bustling lanes of this area. Observe the rhythm of daily life and watch locals go about their routine, explore crumbling Chinese buildings, or follow the wafting aromas of food. It’s hard to go wrong here – the labyrinthine alleys are brimming with things to do and wandering aimlessly is bound to yield returns 🙂
4) Go offbeat with an immersive tour in Cholon
If you want to do something completely different, we suggest Urban Tales’ scripted tours as one of the unique things to do in Saigon. We’ve experienced several investigative treasure hunts in Europe but none in Asia. Urban Tales offers an exciting way to explore Saigon’s Cholon District for independent travellers like us who like to discover little-known sites, talk to locals, and really get to know a new city.
The thick plot is laden with all the usual suspects : a murder, red-herrings, and the chaos of Cholon district. In finding out more information about the ‘murderer’, the participants will experience a self-guided tour of the bustling area. We love such immersive tours – definitely a fun way to go off-the-beaten path and come back home with a tale to tell. Make sure your camera has loads of memory – who knows when you’ll find yourself in tiny Chinese medicine shops, little-known pagodas, or restaurants known only to locals again?
5) Visit The Mekong Delta
Less than 3 hours away from the chaos of Saigon lies the idyllic Mekong Delta. Here dozens of sampan boats peacefully glide down the river that is the lifeline of South East Asia. The seductive flow of the Mekong River is enchanting and offers the perfect respite from Saigon’s urbanity. It is possible to explore The Mekong Delta on a day trip but we would highly recommend keeping aside 2-3 days for this experience.
Hop over to our full-length article about A Day Trip To The Mekong Delta for details on planning your trip from Saigon to The Mekong Delta (opens in new tab)
Don’t you know what they say? When in South East Asia, shop 🙂 Ben Thanh Market is usually the recommended shopping mecca to tourists visiting Ho Chi Minh City. Here you can find everything from coffee beans and bags to fruit and street food. However it tends to be overpriced and really crowded. If you want to grab some good bargains on clothes and accessories, head to Saigon Square, which can best be described as a flea market in an air-conditioned building. Put your bargaining boots on and go, go, go 🙂
7) Explore Saigon’s religious buildings
Saigon’s streets are dotted with religious buildings – temples, cathedrals, pagodas – that bear testimony to its troubled past and its cosmopolitan fabric in the present day.
Saigon’s colonial past ensures the dominance of French architecture in the city. The Notre Dame Cathedral, established by French Colonialists, is one of the prettiest buildings in downtown Saigon and is frequented by Vietnamese Christians on a regular basis. We also enjoyed visiting the Mariamman Hindu Temple that serves the small community of Vietnamese Tamil Hindus in the city. The colourful facade is adorned with Hindu deities while the atmosphere is clouded by the smoke and fragrance of incense sticks. These buildings offer an engrossing peek into Vietnam’s history and must be explored, irrespective of whether you’re believers or atheists like us.
The highlight of a visit to China Town is definitely its pagodas. They offer a spiritual experience like no other. The fragrance of incense sticks hangs heavily in the tepid air while devotees pray with conviction, and unravel in the pagodas’ expansive courtyards.
There are 3 prominent pagodas in China Town. At the Thien Hau Pagoda hundreds of spiral incense sticks impart a smoky, hazy glow to the surroundings and bright pink wishing papers adorn walls. Then there is Phuoc Hai Tu (Jade Emperor Pagoda). A tortoise pond occupies pride of place here. Chinese people believe that turtles are ambassadors from heaven. They buy turtles from vendors outside the pagoda, write messages on them, and free them from captivity by letting them loose in the pond. At Hôi Quán Nghia, deliciously lacquered porcelain figures are everywhere to be seen. Despite the number of devotees, the atmosphere is extremely peaceful, almost sublime.
There are very few tourists at these pagodas since they are off-the-beaten-path but we were greeted with warm smiles everywhere we went. A young Vietnamese couple even took upon themselves the task of explaining the importance of turtles in Chinese mythology to us 🙂 Highly recommended.
8) Hang Out With The Locals
If you’ve ever been to South-East Asia, you’d know that the people here are extremely friendly and love to share their culture with visitors. If you’re really interested in making some friends and learning more about Vietnamese culture, try taking tours with locals in Vietnam through WithLocals. Given the amazing variety of street food in Saigon, it’d be perfect to get on a scooter with a local and visit those hidden alleys for scrumptious street food that only the locals know about. We love interacting with locals wherever we go – be it for discovering local hidden gems or for sharing stories with them – we feel that such interaction with locals enhances our travel experiences and gives us a different perspective on life.
9) Visit The War Remnants Museum
This museum might not be as haunting as the Killing Fields of Cambodia but it is a scary reminder of the atrocities committed by the US government and soldiers during the Vietnam war. Graphic photographs, paraphernalia from the war, and propagandist posters are bound to send a chill down your spine. Put this on your list of things to do in Vietnam. The museum definitely offers a watered down version of history due to diplomatic reasons but it is definitely worth the 15000 VND (£0.50) entry fee.
10) Take in the Coffee Culture
We’ve already spoken about Vietnam’s obsession with coffee in an earlier article, so we won’t write reams about this but it is safe to say that coffee, especially Iced Coffee, is a national obsession here. Of course it is possible to sample coffee at street food vendors, breakfast buffets, and every restaurant in town. But Saigon’s increasing number of modern cafés, which serve nothing but coffee and tea based drinks, offer a perfect chance to unwind after a long day of shopping and sightseeing. Then there’s the free wifi – we’re not complaining 🙂
FURTHER READING ON VIETNAM
- You can apply for your Vietnam Visa online and save the hassle of going to the consulate.
- Going to Vietnam? Stuck on where to go, where to stay, or what to pack? Check out all our recommendations here 🙂
- Packing for Vietnam? Check out our outfit posts from Vietnam for some fashion inspiration
- Looking for a place to stay in Saigon? We stayed at Intercontinental Asiana and loved it
- Read our article on the Top 10 Things To Do in Mui Ne to get off the beaten track in Vietnam