I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy my second trip to Ho Chi Minh, also known as Saigon. Since I found so many things to do, tasty eats and hidden gems, I’m sharing my Ho Chi Minh City itinerary in the hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.
When I visited in Ho Chi Minh for 3 days in 2015, it was as a backpacker. I’d previously fallen in love with Hanoi and Hoi An and didn’t give as much time to Ho Chi Minh. This time around, I had more time on my hands and spent two weeks getting immersed in the city while working online.
HCM ESSENTIALSE-sim data planCopy of Lonely Planet VietnamCheck visas requirements: iVisaGetting there: flight (Kayak) / train / bus 12GoAsiaPre-book your airport to city transferAccommodation: Booking.com // HostelworldTours: GetYourGuideFood tours: EatWithTravel insurance: World Nomads
Essential reading: 101 Southeast Asia travel tips
Ho Chi Minh is an essential stop on any Vietnam itinerary. It has a population of 12 million making it the biggest city in Vietnam.It’s full of history and was known as Saigon until the end of the Vietnamese/American War when it was renamed after the revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. For that reason, the name is used interchangeably.
Whether you like war history, cafe culture, food, shopping or art, there’s plenty to do in Saigon.
Related read: 3 month Southeast Asia backpacking route
In terms of its vibe, the hectic buzz of scooters and tightly-knit windy streets and multistorey houses are comparable to Hanoi. The European-style colonial buildings are more even obvious and impressive here in Saigon and it has a more modern and Western feel in some districts.
While there are more things to do in Saigon, I do miss the charming feel of Hanoi’s Old Quarter…
Things to do during a Ho Chi Minh itinerary
I’ll run through my favourites then touch on getting there, where to stay and what to eat. Finally, I’ll share my Ho Chi Minh itinerary for up to 4 days to help you piece it all together. Enjoy!
1. Jade Emperor Pagoda
This 100-year-old temple is decked out with detail and washed in a distinctive shade of pink. Rather than a tourist trap, it’s the perfect place to experience local life.Hundreds of locals visit every day to pray and make offerings to the gods. Lanterns hang from the ceiling, birds flit from the roof and spirals of incense fill the interior with a light, aromatic smoke.
It’s a multi-faith temple taking influence from Taoism and Buddhism. Vietnam was ruled by China for over 1,000 years hence why elements of Taoism remain in the culture today (like the Chinese script that can be seen at most temples).
2. Ban Co Market
Most people would tell you to visit Ben Thanh Market which I’ll mention later – but personally, I preferred this small, local market. There were no vendors hassling you to buy overpriced souvenirs and instead, everyone was pleasantly surprised to see me wandering through.
It’s not the kind of market where you’ll shop for trinkets. Ban Co sells meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and spices – for me, the highlight was soaking up the sights and smells.
3. Tour the street food
If you didn’t eat dinner sat on a plastic stool, did you even go to Saigon? There is so much to eat in this city that I carefully planned my meal times to experience as much as possible during my Saigon itinerary.
Favourites included banh khot, com tam and bahn cuon. Loads of companies will take you on evening scooter tours to experience the eating scene but I just took myself on many such tours.
Related activity: night food tour by motorbike
4. Photograph the cafe apartment building
Better yet, head inside for coffee. The iconic Cafe Apartment building always has a crowd snapping at it for good reason; it’s one of the quirkiest places to add to your Ho Chi Minh city itinerary.
My favourite cafe inside is The Maker which is cool, air-conned and full of great coffee.
5. The War Remnants Museum
If you don’t know much about the war with America and China, you will after a visit to the War Remnants Museum. Don’t expect an impartial take on events – it used to be called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes if that helps set the scene.It’s tragic but one of the most important things to do in Southeast Asia.
Seriously though, bring tissues.
6. Take a trip to the Mekong Delta
The best place to escape the city and experience Vietnam’s natural beauty is the Mekong Delta. The winding river snakes around much of the south of Vietnam, creating islands and different ecosystems as it goes.
From Saigon, you can take a day trip, a multi-day trip where you stay overnight in the region, or even a one-way journey ending in Cambodia (I did this during a three-day tour in 2015).
Book your Mekong Delta day tour from Saigon. If you’re short of time, take a tour to the Delta and Củ Chi Tunnels during the same day.
7. The Reunification Palace
Also known as the Independence Palace, this is the site of the end of the Vietnam War. A North Vietnamese tank burst through the gate in 1975 and held the palace, lived in by the President of the South, hostage whilst the American diplomats escaped by helicopter.
The palace is preserved exactly as it was that day making it a must for your Ho Chi Minh itinerary.
8. Get a roof terrace view
Have you noticed how tall and thin the buildings in many Vietnamese cities are? It’s because property tax is paid based on the width meaning people decided to go upwards rather than out.
It’s not unusual for homes and hotels to have five or six floors – great news if you like a cityscape view. I got my view from Flipside Hostel where there was also a hot tub on the roof. Not bad for a £5 backpackers hostel!
9. Admire the City Hall
You’ll notice a collection of colonial-style buildings in Ho Chi Minh which would look more at home in Paris than the heart of Asia. No prizes for guessing they were built during French rule.
While I feel uncomfortable celebrating colonialism, one of the most impressive is the City Hall which dates back over 100 years.
10. Catch a show at the Opera House
Around the corner from the City Hall is the Opera House built in similar European style. While most tourists just admire the City Hall from the outside, the Opera House has more of an entertainment purpose and you can catch all kinds of shows inside.
Don’t be put off if Opera isn’t your thing – performances include the AO Show which features bamboo cirque, dance and aerobics.
11. Take a trip to the Củ Chi Tunnels
Another one of Vietnam’s war-related sights is Củ Chi Tunnels, a network of tight underground tunnels used by Viet Cong soldiers.During a tour you’ll have the chance to go inside some of the enlarged ones – and even those are harrowingly cramped. The idea of people living in them for years is unimaginable. The system is extremely intricate, featuring ventilation systems camoflagued as tree stumps and undergrowth.
The Củ Chi Tunnels are a 2-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh. If you want to include them in your Ho Chi Minh itinerary, join a group tour that includes return transport.
12. The Tân Định Pink Church
Have you ever seen a bright pink church before? I stumbled across this place while foraging for food at Bánh Xèo 46A Đinh Công Tráng (the best place for a banh xeo pancake BTW) then came back the next day when it was light.
It’s another leftover from the colonial era, built in 1880 but not painted pink until 1949. Apparently, it’s pink inside too, though sadly it was closed for a wedding when I went to visit.
13. Thien Hau Temple in Chinatown
Thien Hau Temple is a more local version of Jade Emperor Pagoda and a bit of a hidden gem for your Saigon itinerary. Part of the fun is arriving to the Chinatown location and spying dancing dragons and lanterns being sold from every other shop.
You’ll find all the things you would in Jade Emperor: incense, statues of the gods and intricate, colourful carvings.
14. Saigon Central Post Office
Visiting a post office might not sound like the best thing to do in Saigon but the sunny yellow Saigon Central Post Office is a decadent spot to rival the impressive architecture of the City Hall and Opera House.
It’s right beside the Notre Dame Cathedral meaning you can tie both into a quick visit… And send your postcards at the same time!
15. Experience Walking Street at night
Whether you go drinking or not, Walking Street at night is a sight to behold. Every single bar, club and restaurant is booming, blaring music and totally packed out.
It goes on until the early hours with people and music flooding the streets, and food vendors coming out to join the party. Be sure to watch your bag around this area after dark.
16. See the view from the Bitexco Tower
Looking for the best sky bar view in Ho Chi Minh? Head up the Bitexco Financial Tower. You’ve got two options here: visit the Skydeck for 200,000 VND or, my personal preference, go for a drink at EON51 Bar.
The prices aren’t cheap but you can get a beer from 115,000 VND or cocktails from 220,000 VND. You get the same views but with alcohol included which seems like a good deal if you ask me. Coffees, mocktails and soft drinks are also available.
17. Notre Dame Cathedral
Yet another French influence in Saigon, the Notre Dame Cathedral is bigger and grander than the pink church but sadly much less pink. A few years ago the Virgin Mary statue at the front apparently cried a real tear and it drew so much attention that police had to shut down the area.
It’s definitely a spot to tick off during your Ho Chi Minh itinerary and you can include a visit to the Central Post Office next door.
18. Eat lunch at Ben Thanh Market
I mentioned earlier that Ban Co was a more local alternative to touristic Ban Thanh Market. While I stand by this, there is some very tasty food at Ben Thanh.It’s a large indoor market where you can buy clothes, trinkets and all the souvenirs under the sun, plus it’s a great place to sample pho, fresh spring rolls, com tam and loads of other typical Vietnamese dishes.
Around the corner you’ll also find Ben Thanh Street Food Market which a more hipster, Western-style market where you can try local dishes as well as Indian and Western street food.
19. The Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts
During my last visit, I spent a cultural afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s not just the art that’s impressive but the grand columns, tiled floors and period features of the sunny yellow building itself.
You’ll find lots of war-themed art at this Saigon gallery but also fun and colourful contemporary pieces. I’d recommend it even if you’re not a huge art fan.
20. The Burning Monk Statue
The Burning Monk Statue remembers Thich Quang Duc who set himself on fire in the 1960s to protest oppression. He’d apparently reached a place of control over his mind where he didn’t feel or react to the flames as he passed away. I’ve seen the famous photo and can honestly say he looked completely calm.
The statue stands exactly where it happened as a poignant reminder of Vietnam’s history.
Ho Chi Minh itinerary in up to 4 days
I would suggest spending 1-2 days seeing the city and the following couple visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta.1 day Ho Chi Minh itinerary – see some of the main sights. I’d recommend Opera House, City Hall and Cafe Apartment building in the morning before walking over to Ben Thanh Market for lunch. In the afternoon, see the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office. Visit Walking Street for evening drinks.2 day Ho Chi Minh itinerary – take a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. For day 2 evening, go for drinks at Bitexco Tower.3 day Ho Chi Minh itinerary – swing by Ban Co Market while this authentic market is bustling. Then, spend a few hours at the War Remnants Museum. Pick another couple of attractions in the afternoon that interest you such as Jade Emperor Pagoda, Reunification Palace or the Fine Arts Museum.Head for dinner at Bánh Xèo 46A Đinh Công Tráng and check out the Tân Định Pink Church on the way.
4 day Ho Chi Minh itinerary – take a Mekong Delta day trip using my guide. Why not catch an evening show at the Opera House?
Where to stay during in Saigon
For backpackers – I stayed in Flipside Hostel which was a sociable base with free breakfasts and a rooftop pool close to Walking Street.
For flashpackers – I didn’t personally stay at any hotels or guesthouses in Saigon but I heard good things about Little Saigon Boutique Hotel. As usual, check Booking.com and Airbnb for other options.
What to eat in Saigon
There are so many delicious dishes in Saigon that could write books about them all. In fact, I nearly did during this Ho Chi Minh food guide.My favourites dishes were bun mam (seafood noodles) and com tam (succulent pork with rice and a gooey fried egg). These are local to Saigon and rarely found in Hanoi or Hoi An. Don’t leave until you’ve had them all 😉
Browse food tours in Ho Ch Minh and check out EatWith, a website connecting travellers with local chefs, cooks and food lovers.
Related reads: My Hanoi street food & Hoi An street food guides
Where to drink coffee in Ho Chi Minh
Matcha dreams in HCM
I angled this guide towards the digital nomad cafes in Saigon but they’re all comfy coffee shops with speedy Wi-Fi that anyone will enjoy. Check out my Saigon cafe guide.
How to get around Ho Chi Minh
While many of Saigon’s sights are walkable distances from each other, I’d recommend getting taxis between those that aren’t. Download the Grab app and opt for scooters rather than cars to save money.
One day I rode seven times for under 150,000 VND ($7). Bargain!
Getting there and away
Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport flies all over Vietnam, greater Asia and internationally. A cab ride from the airport is around 100,000 VND or you can pre-book your transfer.If you’re travelling north in Vietnam, you can catch an 11-hour night bus between Saigon and Nha Trang from 200,000 VND. The train is slightly quicker at 7 hours but often double the price.Other options include an 8-hour bus to Da Lat or a 5-hour bus to Mui Ne.
My flight to Hoi An (via Da Nang airport) set me back $50 and saved me two night buses: Saigon to Nha Trang then Nha Trang to Hoi An. Keep an eye out for bargain flights if you’re short of time or travelling long distances.