Ho Chi Minh City is an overwhelming place – and not just because of the traffic. There’s so much do here, whether you’re a lover of history, art, cuisine, culture or nightlife. With so many great options, many travelers worry they’ll leave something out. But don’t fret, here’s what you should do.
Nothing can compare with the charm of a river tour – to hear the waves lapping with a drink in hand and a cool breeze on your skin. Even if you’re on a budget, there are options, and if you have money to spend, this is one activity we highly recommend you splurge on. The more reputable companies offer amazing dinner and drinks packages, and on boats you have to see to believe. We love the range of views you get from the river as well, from the skyscrapers of downtown to the lush jungle foliage mere minutes up the river. This is a very cool way to see this city.
For history buffs, the Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace, is an absolute must. This is the site of those famous images of tanks crashing through gates during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Aside from the stunning grounds and impressive architecture, the inside of this building almost feels like you’ve gone back in time. You can see where the southern government operated the executive branch during the Vietnam War – even the bomb bunker in the basement, where the maps still hang on the walls.
When you set foot outside around lunchtime in this city, you’ll understand why most people do everything they can to avoid the midday sun. It’ll cook you in minutes, leaving you burnt and miserable. That’s why you should leave the best for dusk, when the sun glows orange on the smoggy horizon and the heat tapers off. For one of the best dining experiences in the city, head to Thao Dien ward in District 2 and dine along the river. There are several excellent choices, including The Deck, The Boathouse and Villa Song Saigon. Trust us, they’re worth the trip.
You probably won’t leave this museum feeling too good about humanity, but that’s the point. This museum is there to remind us of the horrors of war. For most people around the world, the Vietnam War is something that happened in a faraway time and place – not for Vietnamese people, though. This museum takes an abstract conflict and shows us the real people it affected. It shows the struggles endured by the Vietnamese people. This museum plays an important role in the healing process for Vietnam, by showing visitors from around the world how the war changed this nation.
Alright, so you’ve had a somber visit to the War Remnants Museum, now it’s time to lift your spirits again. For one of the best looks at social and dating life in Ho Chi Minh City, head to Nguyen Hue Walking Street. Here you’ll see families enjoying time together and young couples chatting away, taking more selfies than you ever imagined possible. This is a scene to behold at night, when thousands of people come to mingle and enjoy a cool, downtown evening, surrounded by some impressive architecture: the looming Bitexco Tower, the wall of cafes at 42 Nguyen Hue, the statue of Ho Chi Minh and even the old colonial city hall.
Despite the massive influx of new vehicles, Vietnam is still a motorbike nation – so get out of the taxi and onto two wheels. There’s no other way to really feel the manic vitality of this mega city – and no other feeling can quite match the raw adrenaline of flowing along in crazy traffic. But driving in Saigon is also lethally dangerous, so let the professionals do it for you. There’s many tour companies with experienced drivers who are also fluent in English. You could head out on your own, but we highly recommend you let someone else drive until you understand how the traffic flows here.
Most of the items on this list are front and center in every travel guide, but not this one. New Japan Town in Bình Thạnh District is a hip and upcoming area in one of this city’s coolest wards. Little Tokyo in District 1 is more famous, but we’re huge fans of Little Japan. It’s where Japanese entrepreneurs are setting up shop these days. There are so many interesting little bars and restaurants in this area, whether you’re looking for Japanese or Vietnamese. As development continues to change this city at a crazy rate, look no further than the nearby Vinhomes Central Park, this is one area that still feels like authentic Saigon. To find the area, explore north of where Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh Street almost touches Trường Sa Street, near the canal.
If you find that the streets are too hectic for your liking, escape the madness by elevating your evening. There are so many excellent rooftop bars, so you’ll probably have a hard time deciding. If you’re in the backpackers area and don’t want to stray too far, The View is exactly as advertised. But if you have some extra money to spend and want one of the best experiences in the city, check out EON51 in the landmark Bitexco Tower. To see most of the better options, go to this article and check out the section on rooftop bars.
When the night is winding down and the respectable places are shoving you out the door, you’re just in time for the peak weirdness of Bui Vien. This notorious stretch of lewd behavior never shuts down, and even if you want nothing to do with the seedier aspects of Bui Vien, this street is a sensory overload that’s worth taking in at least once. There are fire breathers, strange foods, sidewalk bars, dubious massage parlors, beady-eyed “friends”, gangsters and enough bars to keep you hopping all night long. Keep your phones and cameras in safe places, though, as this is also the petty crime capital of Vietnam.