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Vietnam Diaries – 10 Things to do in Saigon

Vietnam Diaries – 10 Things to do in Saigon
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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 :-

 

things to do in Saigon

Consider yourself warned – Saigon’s traffic might do this to you but that won’t stop you from falling in love with the city 🙂

 

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 🙂

 

things to do in Saigon

The streets of Saigon are lined with heavily-adorned trees to celebrate Tet (Chinese New Year)

 

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)

 

things to do in Saigon

Vid with Kim and Ngoc, our guides on the food tour

 

things to do in Saigon

Saigon’s gorgeous flower market

 

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 🙂

things to do in Saigon

China Town in Saigon

 

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.

 

Going off the beaten path in Cholon

Going off the beaten path in Cholon (image credit: Urban Tales)

 

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)

 

things to do in Saigon

Visiting the Mekong Delta should definitely be on your itinerary

 

6) Shop

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 🙂

 

things to do in Saigon

Hit the shops in Saigon Square to grab a few bargains

 

things to do in Saigon

Ben Thanh market can be overpriced and crowded but it’s definitely worth a gander

 

 

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.

 

things to do in Saigon

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon

 

things to do in Saigon

Colourful and intricate architecture at The Mariamman Hindu Temple

 

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.

things to do in Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City’s pagodas are gorgeous to say the least

 

things to do in Saigon

Dozens of spiral incense sticks suspended from the ceilings of pagodas in Saigon

 

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.

Trying our hand at making food with the locals :-)


Trying our hand at making food with the locals 🙂

 

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.

 

things to do in Saigon

Visit the War Remnants Museum for a history lesson

 

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 🙂

 

things to do in Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City has a dynamic coffee culture

 

 

FURTHER READING ON VIETNAM

 

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24 Comments

  1. We’ve never been to Asia, let alone Vietnam. You’ve convinced us to make Vietnam one of our first stops on a continental tour. Saigon looks amazing.

    • Hey Matthew – I think I’ve said this before, but Vid and I are absolutely smitten with Asia. You must experience it soon – would love to hear your take on the continent 🙂

  2. Saigon was one of my favorite cities that I visited in Southeast Asia … I didn’t get to stay as long as I had hoped though. Next time, I will explore it more thoroughly though!

    • Hey Elaine, Saigon is a great place but guess it can be overwhelming for people who aren’t used to the chaos of a big city. We love sprawling urban cities, so we loved it 🙂

  3. I love South East Asia and have been curious about Vietnam for the longest time. Would love to spend a few days in Saigon – it looks chaotic and exciting 🙂

  4. You’ve seen more of Saigon than we have, and that’s the motherland for us! LOL. Great guide for first timers, even seasoned ones like us. We mostly just hangout with family and eat to our hearts content. hehe

    • Kieu we must’ve done something right to deserve a compliment from you guys, Saigon being your hometown and all 🙂 Btw we don’t blame you guys for binging in Vietnam – the food in that part of the world is just.so.good!!

  5. Hi. Nice article. Just to let you know the photo you show at #6 “chinatown” is not in Chinatown. It shows the Jade Emperor Pagoda situated in D3. Also, visiting Vietnam during Tet is quite the worse advise you could give to travelers. It is THE time of the year when tourists should avoid the country at all cost.

    • Hi,

      You’re right – that’s not a photo from Chinatown. We’ll correct that shortly. Actually, Jade Emperor Pagoda is in D1 (not D3) from what we remember 🙂

      As for Tet, we LOVED being in Veitnam at that time and that’s why we recommend it to our readers!

      Thanks for pointing out the mistake. Cheers!

      • Yes, Emperor Pagoda is in District 1. Thanks for your interesting post about Saigon. I live in Saigon now and sometimes tired of busy daily life here 🙂

        • So glad you enjoyed it Tam. I can understand getting jaded of Saigon – the traffic is CRAZY!! Having said that, we did love the vibe of your city 🙂

  6. I would further suggest Sophie’s Art Tour. One of the best ways to learn about the art and culture in HCMC. Best wishes, Stu http://www.sophiesarttour.com

  7. After living in Ho Chi Minh City for 3 years, I agree with most of your suggestions. However, you have only scratched the surface on possible things to do there.

    • Hey Dennis – you’re right. We were there only for a few days, would love to go back for longer and explore the nooks and crannies of HCMC 🙂

  8. The Modern Meets Culture signboard caught my eye. 🙂 We just returned from Vietnam and I remember walking into this cafe, but not this space! The photo you posted showed a very different (and likely, new startup) M2C cafe. Now it’s renovated to a 2-storey cafe and it was one of the prettiest cafes we’ve ever been. Keep travelling!

    • Hey Priyanka,

      We had a great time in Vietnam too 🙂

  9. Hey! Awesome blog. It was indeed a great pleasure to come across your lovely travel blogs. Keep posting.

    • Thanks Karan – glad you enjoyed going through our vlogs 🙂

  10. Hello guys,

    Its always a treat to watch your pictures and read your blogs. I am planning a trip yo Vietnam and cambodia and am in a fix about which airline to pick. I wantesd to check if youlll used Vietnam airlines In yuoir trip, if yes How was it ?

    • Hey Nisha,

      Yes, we did use Vietnam Airlines – it was absolutely fine and we did not have any problems 🙂

      Have a great trip!

  11. SO excited to finally go on a bruised-passports inspired trip! When my husband suggested a trip to Vietnam, I quickly open this blog and scrolled through the (very long) list of countries – cities and shrieked with joy when I saw Vietnam! After going through all your Vietnam articles, I am convinced that Vietnam is the next holiday 🙂 We have decided to visit Ho Chi Minh – Nha Trang and Hoi An! Any tips and tricks ? Recommended areas to stay in HCM ?

    • Yayyy!!This is such good news Aayushi. We hope you have a blast in Vietnam and enjoy it as much as we did 🙂

  12. After drawing much inspiration and tips from this blog and visiting Vietnam, I thought I’ll write a quick update based on my trip. Here goes:
    1. The flower market at Mekong Delta has shifted further into the interiors due to the ongoing industrialization and therefore cannot be seen on a day trip to Mekong Delta – Please keep aside at least 2 days for this excursion.
    2. Cabs from the airport to Disctrict 1 are between $10 – 15$. So dont get stuckn with hotel cabs which charge as much as 40-60$.
    3. Saigon square is a must visit for export quality clothes (Read linen clothes that you see at Zara/ Mango)
    4. Go for a meal to La Villa (District 2). Rather expensive for Vietnam standards, but nowhere else will you have a 3 course meal served my a Michelin Star Chef along with a bottle of wine at 200$. Also try and catch a meal at Propaganda – Its a very hip cafe serving very delicious food.
    5. WALK – Most of the popular spots in Ho Chi Minh are in District 1 and within 5-30 mins walking distance. You’ll be amazed by the sights and smells you see along the way.
    6. COFFEE !!!!!! Coffee will never be the same for me <3

    • Hey Aayushi,

      Thanks a lot for those tips – will definitely come in handy for people heading there 😀

      Cheers!

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