There are so many things to experience in Saigon. Oh Saigon. One of my all-time favourite cities. Saigon (also known as Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC for short) is like a whirlwind. It may feel chaotic and overwhelming at first, but stick around long enough and you’ll discover a lively city with a contagious energy that you can’t help but fall in love with. One of the cheapest cities in south east Asia, Saigon is known for it’s great street food, millions of mopeds, French colonial style buildings, complex history and wild nightlife. There are so many things to do in and around this dynamic city – are you ready for my top 10 things you must experience in Saigon?!
Most travellers to Vietnam will enter through Saigon as it is the biggest and most populated city in Vietnam, even though it isn’t actually the capital: Hanoi up in the north bags that title. Saigon is huge, hot, crazy and noisy, and life moves at a much faster pace here than in the capital. The city was formerly known as Saigon but changed it’s name to Ho Chi Minh City (often abbreviated to HCMC) in 1976 after the communist revolutionary leader who united the country after the Vietnam War ended. Most people however, especially the locals, still refer to it affectionately as Saigon.
1. Hop on the back of a scooter
The traffic in Saigon is mental. Mopeds are a necessity for the Vietnamese and the sheer amount of mopeds on the road barely leaves any room for any other forms of transport. At first it seems like the roads are pure chaos and there are no rules. But spend a few minutes watching the traffic: it’s absolutely fascinating. You’ll see mopeds weighed down with all sorts: from livestock to flowers, vegetables, window frames, plumbing equipment – seriously nothing surprises me any more! Often you’ll also see a whole family of 4 or 5 on one moped!
If you’re feeling adventurous, instead of getting a cab you can get a ride on the back of a moped using the ‘grab’ app. The is south east Asia’s version of Uber and is much cheaper and quicker than a taxi, and way more fun! Definitely the best way to see the city! Moto rides on ‘grab’ are super cheap, with a 10 minute ride costing around 12,000VND (40p). A helmet is always provided for your safety.
2. Haggle at Ben Thanh Market
Ben Thanh Market is one of Saigon’s landmarks and a trip to Saigon is not complete without a visit to its largest market. You can pick up a wide variety of lovely souvenirs here and remember, as with all of South-East Asia, haggling is expected. I usually start at half the price of what they initially say, and then meet somewhere in the middle. The vendors at this market are very polite so remember to keep it light-hearted.
Behind the souvenir stalls you can grab some delicious street food and fresh fruit drinks for rock bottom prices. Plus at the back of the market you will see all the fresh fish, meat and vegetables being sold at a very reasonable price. It is a truly fascinating place, and a wonderful way to experience the daily life of the Vietnamese people.
3. Visit the French style Colonial buildings
From 1859 to 1955 Vietnam was a French colony, so a lot of the buildings in Vietnam were built in the French colonial style. In District 1 (downtown Saigon) there are 4 particular French style buildings, all within a half a mile radius of each other that definitely deserve your attention:
The Old Post Office, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the City Hall and the Opera House.
The Old Post Office
A grand yellow ornate building, the Old Post Office still serves as a post office is a popular tourist spot. It was designed by Gustav Eiffel, the designer of Paris’ Eiffel Tower, and there is a nice airy feel to the building.
Notre Dame Cathedral
The beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral, built in 1883 is just across the square from The Old Post Office. It is nice that in a largely Buddhist Vietnam, this is one of the few remaining Catholic strongholds in the country, thanks to the French.
The Ho Chi Minh City Hall is just a few minutes away by walking and it is extremely impressive – probably one of my favourite buildings in Vietnam! Also built in the French colonial style in the early 1900s, it is a magnificent intricately decorated cream and red building and the statue of Ho Chi Minh stands in front of the City Hall. It lies at the end of Nguyen Hue walking street, a pocket of calm within a crazy city.
Just a stone’s throw from The City Hall is The Opera House: another beautifully preserved French Colonial style building.
4. See Saigon from above
If you want to get a birds eye view of Saigon, head up the Bitexco Tower (Saigon’s tallest tower). You have two choices here: you can either pay to visit the Skydeck viewing platform on floor 49 or go 2 floors up and buy a drink at The Heli Bar on floor 51. My advice is to skip the Skydeck public observation platform and head straight for The Heli Bar. It is Saigon’s highest lounge bar and there is a nice relaxed atmosphere here with great views both during the day and the night.
By heading to The Heli Bar instead of the Skydeck observation platform, you’ll forfeit paying the 200,000VND (£7.50) entrance fee for the Skydeck and can treat yourself to a nice cocktail for the same price instead. The 360 views here are amazing (you can see many famous landmarks including Ben Thanh market and the City Hall) and every time I’ve been I’ve always been able to get a prime window table even without reserving beforehand.
5. Experience the nightlife on Bui Vien street
Bui Vien street is the main road in Saigon’s backpacker district. Filled with bars, souvenir shops, travel agents and budget hotels, this place really comes alive at night where the street becomes absolutely packed with people socialising and partying until the small hours of the morning. Plenty of locals and tourists alike are found in the area and the atmosphere is very friendly and exciting. Many locals sit on tiny plastic stools on the street and chat amongst themselves over dinner, whilst others can be found chatting to tourists on the bar tables spilling out onto the street.
Be sure to explore the secret alleyways coming off Bui Vien street to get a glimpse into local life there – you’ll come across some stores and also many Vietnamese homes coming off these small alleyways and often they leave their front doors open whilst they are sitting inside watching tv and socialising. It’s really cool to see but obviously don’t stare or take photos!
My favourite restaurant here is called Five Oysters, on the quieter end of Bui Vien Street. The food is great and the staff are very friendly – I’ve eaten here several times and can’t recommend it enough! Conveniently this restaurant is opposite Duc Vuong hotel, which holds the cutest rooftop bar in Saigon: The View. Make sure to check out this bar – you’ll see it from the street if you look up as there are lots of lanterns on the balcony, reminiscent of Hoi An.
6. Sample the Vietnamese street food
You must try Vietnam’s delicious cuisine. I would go so far as to say it’s my favourite Asian cuisine: I love it even more than Thai food! Try the famous Vietnamese dishes Pho and Banh Mi: Pho is a beef noodle soup and Banh Mi is a meat and vegetable baguette sandwich topped with cucumber, coriander and carrots. Vietnamese spring rolls are also a firm favourite here! All are simple but yet delicious wherever you go in Saigon!
You’ll see lots of locals eating on small stools on the streets from street food vendors but you won’t usually see tourists eating at these places, however I promise you if you eat food from one of these street food vendors not only will you get great quality local food, but you’ll pay almost next to nothing (I once paid 10,000VND (30p) for the most delicious Banh Mi sandwich at a street food stall!) and the locals will be super friendly to you!
In the evenings head down to the modern Street Food Market, behind Ben Thanh Market – for great quality upmarket street food and a lively atmosphere, full of travellers. All the stalls specialise in different foods and it feels more like you are in London’s Shoreditch than Vietnam here! This place is a great introduction if you are apprehensive about trying street food for the first time.
7. Learn about the Vietnam War
If you’re only going to visit one museum during your time in Saigon, make it the War Remnants Museum. This museum is a must visit to understand the history of this country and the past struggles between the communist North (helped by the Soviet Union) and the capitalist South Vietnam (helped by the United States) in the Vietnam War. Emotionally you may find it hard going round this museum. It is fairly graphic and a sobering experience but well worth your while. And at just VND15,000 entrance (50p) there’s no excuse to not go in. Opening times are from 07.30-midday and again from 13.30-17.00 hours, open 7 days a week.
8. Go underground at the Cu Chi tunnels
The Cu Chi tunnels make for a great half day excursion and give you an even greater insight into Vietnam’s history. They are a massively popular tourist destination so arrive early to beat the crowds. 70km (one hour drive) north of Saigon, they are a vast intricate system of underground tunnels built and used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War (which ended in 1975) to hide from the US-backed South Vietnamese Government. Over 250km long, they are very impressive with underground living quarters, kitchens and even hospitals.
You can opt to go through a couple of the tunnels that are roughly 100metres long. However do bear in mind the tunnels are small and feel a little claustrophobic. You will be going through the tunnels crouched down with bent knees, so your legs may be a bit sore or shaky afterwards. But if you’re up for it, it is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I absolutely loved it!
After you’ve been through the tunnels, you have the chance to visit the shooting range and shoot an AK47 or M-16 machine gun! A bullet costs about VND35,000 and you need to purchase a minimum of 10. Shooting is not something I have any interest in, but I did it anyway and it was a really cool experience!
There are many travel agents in Saigon who can organise the half-day trip for you, just be sure to compare prices as they can vary greatly. Trips start at around 5USD for a tour group, or for a higher price you can book a private trip. Click here if you would like to book online.
9. Drink coffee and watch the bird club at the Culture Park
There are actually many parts of downtown Saigon that are undiscovered to tourists – one of my favourites being the Culture Park! Head here in the mornings and you’ll see a bizarre and unique sight: many of the older local men of Saigon are bird enthusiasts who come here every morning and bring their pet birds in their cages.
The owners hang up the cages and sit drinking Vietnamese iced coffee and socialise with each other, whilst the birds sit in their cages and socialise and sing in unison. The coffee culture here in Vietnam is big, so order a coffee, grab a table, relax and listen to the sweet, soothing melodies of the birds and enjoy this experience that not many tourists even know about.
At the other side of the park you will also see locals doing Tai Chi, and in general this is a very nice park to walk around and escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
10. Head to the spa
Make sure to take advantage of cheap prices and pamper yourself whenever in South East Asian countries. The price of beauty treatments such as massages, manicures, facials and waxing is at bargain basement prices when compared to Europe! Saigon is full of beauty spas and on average a 60 minute massage can cost around £6 and a manicure £3!! So after your long day of sightseeing be sure to indulge and treat yourself, you deserve it!
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