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Things to Do in Saigon - The Largest City in Vietnam

We did a Vietnam tour in the Summer of 2023 as part of our annual summer vacation ritual. It is a wonderful country and offers a diverse set of experiences. On this 10-day trip, our first destination was Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. We had decided to traverse the country from the south towards the north and hence Saigon got to be the first.

To know more about our entire Vietnam Trip in a nutshell (including where we stayed and what to be careful about), please visit our article

Vietnam Trip Itinerary And More – Synopsis Of The Big Picture

Independence Day - The Face of the City

Introduction to Saigon

Let us start with the name - while Ho Chi Minh City is the official name today, the traditional and more popular name is Saigon. In fact, Saigon was the official name of the city until 1975, when it was changed to the current name in honor of Ho Chi Minh, the great North Vietnamese leader who was an influential figure in the independence and reunification movement. Saigon is not the capital of Vietnam but is still one of the most important cities. It is the largest and most populous city in the country and acts as the Financial Capital of Vietnam. Consider it similar to Mumbai in India or New York in the United States.

The city became a center of settlement in South Vietnam and was also the seat of power for the southern partition after the French left Vietnam. Once the reunification happened, where North Vietnam took over the country, Hanoi was made the capital. However, Saigon became the face of economic upliftment for the country. Historically this was also because South Vietnam was a capitalist economy before the reunification.

Night View of the City - Notice Landmark 81 in Backdrop

The city is vibrant with energy and is known for its various tastes and offerings. The city is known for its love for bikes and nearly every household has bikes. There is also a very strong coffee culture in the city. You get to see different types of coffee preparations which are unique from the outside world. This includes egg coffee, coconut milk coffee, and a local version of strong coffee.

The city is divided into 26 administrative districts but the focus of most tourists is District 1 which has become the tourist and economic hub of the city.

Things to Explore While in Saigon

Saigon offers a great variety of experiences for those visiting the city. These range from history, culture, and food along with glimpses of nature. Here are all the things you may want to include in your itinerary:

District 1 - The Economic and Touristy Hub

District 1 has most of the tourist attractions in Saigon and hence has become the hub for tourists. If you are staying in the district itself, most places would be within walking distance. There are a number of museums and churches in the area that tourists love. We explored the War Museum, Independence Palace, and Saigon Central Post Office.

The War Remnants Museum

The War Museum brings to the forefront the story of the Vietnam War (known as the American War here) and depicts the life of soldiers through creative and real-life-like setups. There is a picture gallery running you through the entire timeline of the war. They have also showcased a number of equipment from the war including helicopters, fighter jets, missiles, etc. They have also created some electronically operated humanoids set up in jails resembling the war area to provide a more real-life depiction.

Learn History at War Remnants Museum

Independence Palace

The Independence Palace (also called the Reunification Palace) is an important building in the history of Vietnam. It was the seat of power of South Vietnam and a North Vietnam tank hitting its gate is considered the moment of fall of Saigon. It is a huge complex that has been nicely preserved and maintained. Huge lawns and fountain decor the building on the outside and interesting stories and displays adorn the inside. You could easily spend a couple of hours if you go through the entire set of exhibits here.

The Independence or Reunification Palace

Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon

Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral was built by the French between 1963 and 1980 and is a huge building in the downtown area. It reaches a height of 60 meters and is surrounded by parks and other buildings of historic importance. Since it is under renovation, we could not explore it from inside but the exteriors themselves had a story to tell.

The Notre Dame Cathedral - Under Renovation

Saigon Central Post Office

This is an imposing building in the city and is the headquarters of the postal department for the city. While it may be a touristy spot, it is an active post office and performs all functions of a regular establishment. The yellow and white building from the French times has caught the fancy of visitors and hence has become a spot on tourist maps. Given the footfall, a number of souvenir shops have come up here.

Saigon Central Post Office

Ben Thanh Market

This is a tourist-focused market set up in Saigon which is now a center of attraction. This is an old French-era building with a large covered area. Hundreds of shops line up to create narrow alleyways across. The market is full of tourists, especially during the evening hours. This could be a good place to pick souvenirs as rates are better than other tourist attractions. However, if you are loosening your wallet, make sure you negotiate hard and haggle up to more realistic prices.

Ben Thanh Shopping Area - Busy and Crazy

Walking Streets - Bui Vien and Nguyen Hue Street

The city of Saigon is pedestrian-friendly (obviously the weather sometimes is not) in general as there are sidewalks across the city. In fact, we covered a large part of the city on foot. Traffic is crazy and you need to be careful while crossing roads but in general, it is good to walk in this town. In that spirit, there are a few walking streets in the city which you should aim to get to.

Bui Vien Walking Street

One of the popular ones is Bui Vien Walking Street which is a glamorous part of the nightlife of the city. This street has big cafes, nightclubs, and discs on both sides and is a happening place in the town. However, if you are someone who prefers calm and quiet, this may not be the place for you.

The other walking street that we went to is close to the riverside right near to the ferry terminal - Nguyen Hue Street. This is the opposite of the Bui Vien one as this is an actual pedestrian-only street. There is a huge walkway running from the riverside to the Saigon Opera House which is another tourist attraction in itself.

Riverside and Ride on the Waterbus

Riverside is the area along the Saigon River that has been developed as a promenade. There are well-manicured gardens along the river with a few cafes and restaurants. On weekends, you could find a good crowd along with hawkers selling small toys for kids. It is a good place to hang out on an evening after you visit the walking streets. The views of the river with night cruises and the lighting across are relaxing.

You could also opt to take a ride on the waterbus. Waterbus is the latest addition to the city and is a medium of public transport. While still being expanded, it connects 4 stations as of now and provides a quicker hop to some of the suburbs. It is a good way to explore the skyline of the city and get a view of the city from the water. While there are regular runs, they also run a couple of tourist-focused services that takes you from the starting stop to the last one and bring you back over a 45-minute ride. If you have time, we would definitely recommend a ride.

Reaching the Top - Landmark 81 or Bitexco Financial Center

Saigon is a city of skyscrapers and there are a number of buildings that touch the sky. A few of them actually allow you to take a ride up on a high-speed elevator and feel the view from the sky. One of them is just in District 1 - Bitexco Financial Center. It has a sky deck on the 56th floor that allows a great view of the city. This is a prominent building across the district and is right around the riverside. More information and tickets are available at Visitor Information - Bitexco Financial Tower

However, if you are not yet satisfied, there is an observation deck called Sky-view on the 81st floor of Landmark 81. This deck allows you to get panoramic views of Saigon from 390 m - top of Vietnam's highest building. There are a number of technology-based displays to engage the visitors - including advanced LED screen effects, spectacular floor lighting, and special water effects. The deck also offers virtual reality games and other interactive tools. More information and tickets are available on Landmark 81 webpage

Explore the Local Food

Vietnam has a very unique food culture that offers satiation to all tastes. Saigon offers some of the best of this culture. We would recommend trying Bahn Mi, Pho, and local coffee. Their flavors vary from city to city and hence take a shot at each. Also, if you are the health-conscious one, try local tropical fruits which are really tasty. In Saigon, we would especially call out this small restaurant near Saigon Central Post Office called My Bahn Mi. It is a cozy and friendly set up and we absolutely loved the folks running the place. For Indian food, there is a restaurant called Tandoor, which serves good food in a nice ambiance.

Bahn Mi at My Bahn Mi

There is a lot more

While we limited our excursion to the above sites, there is so much more in Saigon. You could try a performance at the Opera House or attend a puppet show at The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater. Children may also like Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden. There are many more churches, some of them really beautiful. You could also explore a number of museums showcasing the history and art of the region. However, if you have only a day to explore the city, we recommend choosing the ones you like but keeping the number limited.

Day Tours from Saigon - Get Out for More

Cu Chi Tunnels - A Peak into the Logistics of War

If you really want to understand the life of soldiers during the Vietnamese (or American) War, you need to take this half-day tour out of Saigon. Cu Chi Tunnels is a network of underground tunnels used by North Vietnamese soldiers or their supporters. These are over 200 kilometers of a tunnel built with immense thought and engineering mind.

The main structure revolves around three levels with each level having a specified purpose. There were kitchens with chimneys so that the smoke comes far away from where the soldiers are. There are small breathing pipes so that the tunnels were well-ventilated. The entrance to tunnels was stealthy and so designed that entering directly was not an option. The authorities have enlarged some of the tunnels for tourists to go in and get a feel of the place. Overall, a great excursion and an interesting peek into the old history behind Vietnam.

Mekong Delta - The Rice Bowl of Vietnam

This is another day tour from Saigon which takes you to a very different flavor than the one above. Mekong Delta is located about 3 hours out of Saigon. It is a series of four islands and numerous channels across the My Tho city. Owing to the rich fertile land, it is known as the rice bowl of Vietnam. It is because of the importance of cereal in local food. The area grows a number of tropical fruits and coconut and is a food supplier for the region.

We took a motorboat ride from the shores to the largest island of the system. Then we got a sampan (rowing boat) ride across the smaller canals. The tour takes you to a number of unique tasting experiences including coconut chocolates, tea, and fruits. If you are rushed for time, you could also cover the Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta in one day tour. It is a relatively longer day but still manageable - we had to do that one.

Logistics in Saigon

Saigon is well connected to most international and domestic places by air. Further, there is train and bus connectivity if you want a slow travel experience. The Tan Son Nhat International Airport is about 20 minutes out from District 1 and hence easily accessible.

For local travel within the city, we found Grab to be the most convenient option. These are generally easily available with low wait times and economic pricing. There is a decent bus network as well and you can hop on a ride if you are solo. For more than 3 folks, it comes to be equivalent to a grab fare. To access suburbs you may want to take a waterbus ride as well.

For choosing accommodation, we recommend checking for options in District 1. An ideal location for us is by Riverside where there are a few good options available both is the luxury and budget segments.

Day tours and tickets to various places can be booked at www.Klook.com

For more things that you may want to consider while in Vietnam, or Saigon in particular, please refer to our article - Vietnam Trip Itinerary And More – Synopsis Of The Big Picture

For more articles from Vietnam Trip, visit - Vietnam Trip Diaries

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