As the largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City definitely has something for everyone. The city’s eight million residents still call the city by its old name, Saigon, and for many, that name still carries with it the exotic charm of its long and fascinating history.
The busy, bustling, and growing city never seems to sleep. The noise of construction workers and equipment working on dozens of new office buildings and hotels mingles with the happy voices of street vendors and the honking of motorbikes and buses. Elegant restaurants, educational museums, ancient pagodas, and quiet botanical gardens are steps away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life of Ho Chi Minh City, and a fascinating mix of cultures has been woven into the tapestry of this increasingly popular tourist destination.
The History of Ho Chi Minh City
While the centuries-old history of Ho Chi Minh City can be a bit unclear due to a lack of written records, we know that a once sleepy fishing village called Prei Nokor, located in a strategic spot along the Saigon River, slowly developed into a vastly important port of trade in the South China Sea. This trading port was later named Saigon after the Viets swept down from the north to conquer the kingdom of Champa in the 18th century.
In 1861, the French military seized control of Saigon in retaliation for the mistreatment of French missionaries; and in 1862, the Treaty of Saigon named Saigon as the capital of French Cochinchina, which covered the southernmost one-third portion of what is modern-day Vietnam. The French influence during their nearly 100 years of rule shaped the form and character of the growing sea port, and modern visitors can see this influence in the architecture, street design, cuisine, fashion, and European-style hospitality.
French rule was hard on the native population, and the growing resentment and rebellion toward French colonialism produced a surge of support for Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Viet Minh, which is the League for the Independence for Vietnam. Though Ho Chi Minh was Communist, this was not a major concern for the native population, who desperately wanted to be independent from all foreign governments.
After WWII, Ho Chi Minh’s forces seized the northern city of Hanoi and set up the Democratic State of Vietnam in the north, with “Uncle Ho” as president. It was the clash between President Ho’s Communist North and the anti-Communist South and its ally, the United States, which caused the Vietnam War to begin. In 1973, two years after American troops pulled out of Saigon, the Ho Chi Minh Campaign rolled into Saigon, and the city was quickly re-named Ho Chi Minh.
Later, the Vietnamese government embraced a market economy, which allowed the city’s thousands of innovative and entrepreneurial leaders to begin creating remarkable wealth and prosperity. Today, visitors enjoy the benefits of this thriving economy while still being able to savor the historical remnants of Ho Chi Minh City’s interesting past.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City is during the dry season, which runs from December to April. Because it is located in a tropical climate, you can expect average year-round temperatures to be between 26 and 29 degrees Celsius, or 79 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Because the wet season from May to November produces many tropical storms, visitors who visit then should plan on being a bit flexible with their travel itinerary to accommodate any storms that may occur. Truly, any time of year is a great time to soak in the beautiful scenery and fascinating activities this incredible city has to offer.
Learn about Ho Chi Minh City Culture
Visitors who wish to learn more about Ho Chi Minh City’s culture can find plenty of ways to do just that during their stay. Beautiful museums and ancient places of worship will teach visitors about the way past generations lived in the area. The following sites are well worth your time:
War Remnants Museum: Many Western visitors to Ho Chi Minh City are generally knowledgeable about how the West was involved in the Vietnam War, but the War Remnants Museum will give you a perspective on how it played out from a Vietnam citizen’s viewpoint. Please note that the upper level of the museum has a number of graphic images, such as victims of weapons like Agent Orange and napalm, on display. The museum also contains exhibits relating to the Indochina War (December 19, 1946 – August 1, 1954), which was known as the Anti-French Resistance War to the people of Vietnam. The museum is located in District 3.
Ben Than Market: Known as the ultimate in Ho Chi Minh City’s market culture, you can find just about anything in this centrally located, bustling daily market: produce and other food, clothing, jewelry, handbags, souvenirs, housewares, and much, much more. Bargaining is expected, so hone your haggling skills to try to get a lower price and ignore the “fixed price” signs. Please note, pickpockets do operate in this area, so please take special care to secure your valuable personal items against theft when visiting the market.
Water Puppet Show: After the 11th century, puppeteers brought this unique and exceptionally fascinating form of entertainment to the south from the rice paddies of Northern Vietnam’s Red River Delta. Lacquered wooden puppets perform on a water stage, which is a waist-deep pool that hides the poles on which the puppets are manipulated. Puppeteers hide behind a bamboo screen while performing tales of magic and myth that are so beloved in Vietnamese culture, and the shows are set to live, traditional music. While the plays are performed in Vietnamese, exaggerated puppet movements and helpful sound effects from the orchestra make plotlines easy to follow. Be sure to visit the Golden Dragon Water Puppetry Theater or the Villa Song Saigon (formerly Thao Dien Village) as part of your stay in Ho Chi Minh City.
Jade Emperor Pagoda: The Taoist shrine, which is over a century old and meant to be a place of worship for all faiths, features the gods and heroes of Taoist beliefs along with Cantonese Buddhist inscriptions and carvings. The Jade Emperor, who is the supreme Taoism god, reigns swathed in clouds of incense in the Chamber of 10 Hells, with various gods and goddesses scattered throughout the intricately designed interior. In one of the courtyards, a shelter houses dozens of turtles, which represent longevity, fortune, and good luck in Asian culture. Admission is free, and the pagoda is open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Ho Chi Minh City Art & Architecture Tours
Though many French colonial buildings are being demolished to make room for modern buildings, there is still a sense of freshness and innovation in Ho Chi Minh City’s current architectural plans. The mainstays of the French colonial era have remained intact, and you can visit these beautiful remnants while admiring the new buildings, including the following places:
Reunification Palace: Completed in 1966, Reunification Palace was built on the site of the original home of the French governor of Cochinchina in 1868. The residence was gradually expanded to become Norodom Palace before becoming the home of the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, after Vietnam gained independence from France. After surviving an assassination attempt by his own air force, which destroyed the palace with bombs, President Ngo built another one called Independence Palace; however, he was killed by his troops three years before its completion. After Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, the palace was renamed Reunification Palace, and visitors can enjoy its cheery, open 1960s-era architecture and furnishings, which have been left in place since the palace was abandoned. Daily tours can accommodate English and French speakers.
Bitexco Financial Tower – Saigon Skydeck: A 68-story marvel, this airy tower graces the Ho Chi Minh City skyline as the 124th tallest tower in the world. The tower houses a number of offices, shops, restaurants, and a helipad, but the biggest draw is the Saigon Skydeck, an observation deck that provides 360-degree views of Ho Chi Minh City and the Saigon River below. Designed by American architect Carlos Zapata, the award-winning financial tower is on CNNGo’s list of 20 of the world’s most iconic skyscrapers. Shop, eat, and enjoy art shows as well as take in the amazing views and the city’s other landmarks while at the tower’, which is located at 36 Ho Tung Mau Street in District 1. The sky deck is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Notre Dame Cathedral: Started by the French in 1877 and not completed for many decades, Notre Dame Cathedral in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City served as the Catholic office headquarters in Cochinchina as well as a testament to the Vietnamese of France’s might and power. The cathedral was anointed as a basilica by the Vatican in 1962, which officially renamed it the Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Unlike more elaborate cathedrals in other countries, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City has a fairly simple interior and is a place of peace and serenity amongst the noise and chaos of life downtown. Sunday masses, which are open to the public, are conducted in both English and Vietnamese, and the cathedral is open to the public daily for tours. The front doors are open for Sunday masses; on weekdays, please use the side door.
Food & Authentic Cooking of Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon Street Food
Food in Vietnam culture really is about love: the devotion to the ingredients, the process of cooking, and the act of eating. When you visit Ho Chi Minh City, you must make it a point to sample the cuisine, which will allow you to truly begin to understand the people and the culture. From street vendors to the most elegant five-star restaurants, Ho Chi Minh City offers a sampling of regional cuisine from all over the entire country—the North, the Central area, and, of course, the South, including the following delicious options:
Street Food & Local Stalls: From pho to ban tam bi, you can find almost any Vietnamese dish served by a street vendor. Grazing among the stalls and tiny shops is definitely one of the classic experiences when visiting Ho Chi Minh City. As a helpful tip, consider choosing vendors and stalls where there are lines, as this usually means that the ingredients are fresher and replaced often. For added advice on how to safely enjoy these local foods, please read Jodi Ettenberg’s excellent guide on safely eating street food at Legal Nomads blog. But whatever you do, don’t refuse to give street food a try. If you do, you will miss out on some of the best food you’ve ever had, as well as the opportunity to tell your friends and family about the delicious local meals you enjoyed while in Ho Chi Minh City.
XO Tours: A food tour from a local company is one of the best ways to both see and taste what a city has to offer. XO Tours offers family-friendly motorbike tours, and the friendly, knowledgeable female guides will take you to parts of the city you aren’t likely to see otherwise—all while sampling dishes that keep your taste buds tingling. XO Tour guides also deliver all kinds of interesting information about the history and way of life in Ho Chi Minh City, and many speak English very well.
Ho Chi Minh City Adventure Tours
One of the biggest advantages of having a tour guide is that you get a wealth of information that a basic guidebook can’t deliver. Adventure tours of the city and the surrounding area make it extra easy and fun to enjoy must-see sights. Book a tour, show up at the appointed time, and take it all in, including at these locations:
Cu Chi Tunnels: Part of the Vietnam War Memorial Park, the Cu Chi tunnels were created by the Communist Viet Cong (VC) during the Vietnam War in order to escape U.S. and South Vietnam bombs and searches. Located under the Cu Chi district in northwest Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi tunnels are part of a larger network of tunnels the VC used to link with other bases that stretched from Saigon all the way to the Cambodian border. Many civilians also lived in the tunnels. Today, visitors are allowed to crawl through some of the safer tunnel areas, sample food that a typical VC soldier would have eaten and shoot an AK-47 on a shooting range.
Mekong Delta Private Day Tour: The Mekong Delta produces an impressive one-third of Vietnam’s annual food crop, including rice, coconut palms, sugar cane, and tropical fruits. All of this lush agriculture means that visitors can revel in the diverse scenery and greenery, visiting farms, food stalls, and restaurants that specialize in cuisine derived from the freshest fruits, vegetables, and seafood available. Quiet rides down the river in a longtail boat while spotting exotic flora and fauna are also not to be missed. Book a tour with Viator for an incredibly reasonable price and spend a day exploring the beautiful Mekong Delta.
Vietnam Vespa Adventures: Touring Saigon at night from the back of a Vespa scooter is a magical experience. As you sit in the seat behind a skilled driver, you’ll enjoy sights and sounds that you will not experience from the inside of an air-conditioned car. Guides will show you both the popular and hidden parts of Ho Chi Minh City as well as introduce you to special restaurants and hidden-away eateries—which is all the more fun when you know that the food and drink are included in the price of the tour.
Ho Chi Minh City is a wonderland of sights, smells, tastes, and experiences. While you will probably not be able to visit it all, it is still fun to try to see and experience as much as you can. Busy, vibrant, growing, and the perfect mix of old-world charm and modern industry, you’ll never regret adding Ho Chi Minh City to your Vietnam itinerary.