Is visiting Ho Chi Minh City worth it?
Undeniably yes. Over the last few months, I have been asked by several friends, colleagues and family members about visiting Ho Chi Minh. Is it worth it they ask? Yes! Is it safe? Yes! We have visited several times and this post covers some of the things we have learnt over five years of visiting. This post covers things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, a great Ho Chi Minh market or two, our best experience with a Ho Chi Minh City tour and which hotels in Ho Chi Minh City we think make the grade.
Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC is definitely worth spending some time in. Like visiting any big city, if you don’t do a bit of research before you go you may just miss out on a spectacular time. Read along to find out more about what to do in Ho Chi Minh City. You can also see here what we always pack when we head to Vietnam.
Visiting Ho Chi Minh City
South East Asia is one of our favourite areas of the world to visit. Alongside Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia we have been to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, Vietnam four times – these are some of our highlights you should think about if HCMC is on your list. Or even better, hopefully, this post will encourage you to give Ho Chi Minh City a try!
Sure there are some things that are frustrating about HCMC – but no more than any other large city. HCMC is a bustling metropolis, with a population of almost 8 million people. This size means you can create your own type of experience depending on your own preferences. We are flashpackers, in that we like to have comfortable accommodation and are prepared to get out of our comfort zone. We will spend a little bit to get decent accommodation and we are happy to be scoping out bargains where ever we can. We also aren’t particularly interested in staying in huge hotels where it is really easy to stay cosseted away – and meet no one other than other tourists. Of course, each traveller has their own likes, dislikes and preferences. This blog covers some of the things we love about Ho Chi Minh city – some may suit you, some may not.
It is a city that is changing quickly – there were two years between our most recent visits and the change was astounding.
Hopefully, this starter guide can take some of the hard work out of your planning for a visit to HCMC – or even better, convinces you to put HCMC on your list!
Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City
Like any big city there are plenty of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. There are the general points of interest that are on most bucket lists, but you have to choose what suits you and your type of holiday. If you are into Museums, great – there are plenty to visit in Ho Chi Minh. Food – plenty to discover. Sitting by the pool and drinking beer – you can do that too. Eating and drinking amazing fresh food and beverages – yep, that too!
What to do in Ho Chi Minh
We think Ho Chi Minh is a great place to visit. Here are some of the things we loved doing and seeing in HCMC:
Museums & Attractions
There are many museums and attractions to visit in Ho Chi Minh. As to be expected there is a wide variety covering many topics – including Vietnam’s recent history. Many of the museums are within walking distance of each other which is great – but it can be easy to get overwhelmed, especially given the subjects being covered in some of the museums. If you have the time we would recommend splitting up the museums and doing one a day.
This museum was once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes and is located at 28 Vo Van Tan, in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and is open from 7.30am to 6 pm. The War Remnants Museum is a relatively modern museum and is one of the most popular visitor attractions in Ho Chi Minh City. When we visited it was teeming with people and school groups.that covers some pretty gruesome subject matters including the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, and also looks at many war remnants. It is well worth visiting.
The museum covers some pretty gruesome subject matter including the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and also looks at many war remnants. It is well worth visiting.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum
Located in a large imposing neo classical building the Ho Chi Minh City Museum is focused on telling the story of the city. It is located at 65 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City and is open from 7.30am to 6 pm. The building itself is as memorable as the exhibitions and artefacts inside, and the war machines outside.
Ho Chi Minh Museum
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is located in a former French customs house, and is nicknamed Nga Rhong (Dragon House). It is located at 01 Nguyen Tat Thanh, District 4. It is open 8am – 5pm, and closed on Mondays. This museum holds many of ‘Uncle Ho’s’ personal items including clothing and shoes, and covers the story of his life.
The Women’s Museum established in 1985 is well worth checking out. It is located at 202 Võ Thị Sáu, District 3 and is a historical museum focused on celebrating Vietnamese women.
Reunification, or Independence, Palace is an immediately recognisable place – as a North Vietnamese Army tank crashing through the Palace gates signified the end of the Vietnam War. Images of the event are widely available. especially if you have seen photos about the war and Ho Chi Minh City. It is a time capsule to 60’s design, so do check it out if that is your thing!
It is located at 106 Nguyen Du, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.
Thien Hau Temple
The beautiful Thien Hau Temple (Pagoda of Lady Thien Hau) is a lovely, quiet and reflective place in the noise of Ho Chi Minh. It has a partially covered courtyard and an altar to Thien Hau – who is revered for her ability to travel over the sea. Within the courtyard, you will find incense coils and also see the amazing porcelain dioramas which decorate the roof. Worshippers purchase the incense coils and attach their names to them, their prayers are then transmitted on the smoke of the coils as they burn. For a quiet retreat, this is a great place to see, observe and watch quietly.
Saigon Cathedral of Notre Dame
The Saigon Cathedral of Notre Dame (officially Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception) is an impressive site. The Cathedral is an important landmark in Ho Chi Minh City. It was constructed between 1863 and 1880 by the French colonists, following their conquest of the city.
It is still a functioning Cathedral where services are still held, so be mindful of that when you go inside. If you visit on any day other than Sunday, try to be there between 8 am – 11 am or from 3 pm – 6 pm. Outside of these hours, you may find the gates to the Cathedral are locked and you can’t get in.
In front of the cathedral stands a Virgin Mary statue, which is said to have shed tears in 2005, causing thousands of people to stop around the Basilica.
The best place to take a photo that includes the Virgin Mary and the Cathedral is at the front near the road.
The Cathedral is open seven days a week. There are seven masses each Sunday, with the 9.30am session in English. For up to date Opening Hours and Mass Times check here: Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica | Mass times & Opening hours
It is located at No. 1 Cong truong Cong xa Paris St., right at the intersection of Pham Ngoc Thach St, Le Duan St and Cong xa Paris St.
Saigon Central Post Office
Saigon Central Post Office is directly across the road from the Cathedral and is well worth popping over to see. It was designed by Mr Eiffel – yep him who did the Tower in Paris – and built between 1886 and 1891. You can go inside and post a letter, and you can even make a phone call from the still functioning telephone boxes.
Out and About
Andy loves a good market. Me, not so much. Most neighbourhoods have their own local markets, and they are an eye opening experience. Most Vietnamese households pick up fresh ingredients several times a week – so markets remain an important part of communities – even in big cities. You may notice markets have everything from the kitchen sink (literally) to beautiful delicate herbs – and everything in between. Wet markets will have fresh seafood and meats – many of which may be unfamiliar. There is very little refrigeration (if any) in the wet markets – and very little smell or flies. Amazing. Such a different experience from going to the supermarket and getting everything in lovely, little packages.
Ben Thanh Market in District 1 is targeted at tourists – so expect to haggle prices down. It is centrally located and is a distinctive building – so it is pretty hard to miss! It is worth having a nose around and seeing what there is. It can be overwhelming though – vendors tug on your arm or clothing as you walk by – trying to entice you into their space.
We also recommended venturing out to Binh Tay Market in Chinatown. Binh Tay has a wet market and street market outside, and inside you can find anything and everything. If you want to see the wet and street markets at their thriving best get there early. The markets open at 5 am, so if you meander in at 8 am you may miss the market in full flight. There is a delicious food market to get breakfast, lunch, second breakfasts or elevenses. And there is so much choice. We had a wee snack, wandered around the market, and then returned to the food market for another wee snack (or two) after.
The traffic in Ho Chi Minh is a sight to behold. For the uninitiated, it can be a daunting experience stepping out into the traffic. – try and cross the road – just walk out and keep going – don’t stop! The first few times we followed the lead of the locals and ventured out into the traffic when they did. Give it a go – fairly soon you will be tackling those big streets with ease.
Where to eat in Ho Chi Minh
We think one of the best things about Vietnam is the amazing food, and Saigon food is definitely up there. The food is so varied (as you would expect in a country as diverse and big as Vietnam) and fresh. In most traditional places to eat in Ho Chi Minh your meal will often be served with heaps (literally) of fresh herbs and greens, and condiments (chilli, pepper, lime/lemon) that you can add to your meal so it is flavoured to exactly your requirements. Take it slow – it is easier to add than take away! The abundance of fresh fruit is also amazing – mango is my favourite, followed closely by mangosteen, dragon fruit, passion fruit and the trusty banana.
Andy loves to get out early in the morning – and have some of the famous Saigon street food, especially pho or coffee with the locals. The food carts and choices available in the morning differ from those in the day and at night. So make sure you wander around at different times of day and night and sample different types of street food – you may make some new discoveries in the same place.
If you are a coffee drinker then definitely give Vietnamese coffee a go. It is good – very good. We love Cafe Sua Da – iced black coffee over condensed milk. Sounds a bit odd – but goodness me – it is very refreshing on a hot day!
A good starting point is the Ben Thanh Street Food market where you will be able to sample a whole lot of stuff and figure out what you may like. It is geared towards tourists, but it will give you a chance to try new things and gain a bit of confidence before you hit up some street food purveyors. Directly across the road on the corner is also a good bbq place.
Our ‘must do’ places to eat in Ho Chi Minh City is Banh Xeo 46A. We have been coming here since our first trip to Vietnam so it holds a bit of sentimental value. It is a bit further out in District 1, but easy to get to in a cab/uber. The food there is slightly pricier than other venues but the atmosphere is great. You can watch the chefs churn out great dishes, which I suspect they are doing for hours on end.
One of the best things about hot weather and being on holiday is that it is acceptable to have a beer. And there are plenty of Vietnamese options available. We also noticed a few craft beer places popping up too. If you get a chance to park up with the locals on tiny stools having a quiet beer – then give it a go. Don’t be surprised when your beer either arrives with, or you are offered, ice. For westerners, this can be an odd addition to beer, but it keeps your beer cold. We always have ice in our beer (and cocktails too) and haven’t been sick. We understand most ice is commercially produced in the big cities.
Hotels in Ho Chi Minh City
You have plenty of choice for where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City. You can go luxurious, budget or anywhere in between. We find Vietnamese hotels to be good value for money, with most providing a very good breakfast to start your day off right. We tend to go for mid-range small or boutique hotels, a few of our favourites are below. If you subscribe to www.reddoorponderings.com we will send you a $15USD discount code you can use for your next Booking.com booking!
Our Tips for booking hotels
- Make sure to check the room has an external window (we have been caught out in the past – some rooms have internal windows only)
- District 1 is the prime location for tourist accommodation – be warned though, District 1 is big. On our first trip we booked a great hotel in District 1, but it was located in an office area, so food options were limited
- District 3 is worth taking a look at. It is close enough to District 1 so you can experience all the tourist activities, but it is also far enough away that you can experience locals going about their business and lives, with very little reference to tourists. Plus you can find lots of good street food on the side streets.
- Get your hotel to pick you up from the airport – saves a lot of hassle and mucking around (prob cost about $20USD), and if there are a group of you it makes it, even more, value for money
Ho Chi Minh Hotels we like
Here are a couple of Ho Chi Minh City hotels we love. We managed to forget to take photos for most of them – a rookie trick – but you can find plenty of photos online – just follow the links provided. If you are staying over a week or travelling with children we recommend finding a place with a pool. We don’t usually go out of our way to find a place with a pool.
Oakwood Apartments Ho Chi Minh City was a lovely discovery. We decided to return to Ho Chi Minh two days early from Mui Ne, and found this hotel. It had only been open a few weeks by the time we got there in mid-January. It was still suffering a few teething problems (wifi didn’t work for a couple of hours, the restaurant wasn’t open yet) but overall it was well worth it. We think Oakwood Apartments has the potential to be one of the best hotels in Ho Chi Minh City. We suspect this place is going to get busy quickly, definitely check if there are any rooms!
- the room size – the rooms were big. We stayed in a Deluxe Studio, which was 39m2. This was much bigger than other rooms we have stayed in Ho Chi Minh. There were several comfortable chairs and a sofa to sit on too.
- kitchen and laundry facilities – we found that it is unusual to have good kitchen and laundry facilities in Ho Chi Minh hotels, but I suppose that is the advantage of an apartment rather than hotel room
- we were given an access card each, plus there was also a card for the lights and a/c which could be left in the room
- there was plenty of storage
- loads of street food options within short walking distance – including a fabulous coffee cart just outside the hotel each morning
- at least two supermarkets within a few minutes walk
- swimming pool, gym facilities and sauna – all were in very good condition
- friendly and very helpful staff – the staff really made this place. One of the young ladies on the front desk had spent several years in New Zealand so was eager to discuss our homeland with us.
What we didn’t like
- wifi was a bit iffy – but it was fixed quickly. I think this was more of a symptom of the hotel just opening. The staff responded really quickly, and when it was restored it was good enough for me to do some work.
- very loud announcements being made at the school next door from 6.45am. This only happened 1 out of the 3 mornings we were there.
Sanouva Saigon Hotel
Sanouva Saigon is centrally located and in very good walking distance from key attractions. It is a good choice if you are looking for a hotel near Ben Thanh market. There are plenty of options to eat right at your doorstep including some great Saigon Street food options and the Ben Thanh Street Food Market. It is an older style hotel but nevertheless is a good choice. We liked staying here and would go back again. It is a tall narrow building with the entrance up some steps, as is standard in Vietnam. Sanouva is worth staying at if you would like a centrally located hotel that enables you to walk to all the key destinations, eat good street food and partake in a coffee or beer or two. Check out if there are any rooms.
What we liked
- central location – you can’t really beat this Hotel on location. It is in District 1 – 5 minutes walk from Benh Tanh Markets, plenty of convenience stores right outside your door
- good room size – rooms were a decent size
- good wifi – the password was changed a couple of times while we were there. This is good thing but can be frustrating.
- good bathroom
- thick doors meant very little noise from the hallways.
What we didn’t like
- the hotel has only one lift – which is standard for hotels of this type. Not usually an issue – but if the lift isn’t working or you are trying to get anywhere at checkout time, use the stairs.
La Luna was a lovely little find – also in District 1. It was in a busy part of town that gave easy access to plenty of street food. Really great service – very friendly and helpful. They also organised a great massage for me. Really enjoyed our stay at La Luna. It is a great little hotel with lovely warm friendly service. We booked a room with a balcony and it was well worth it. La Luna is a lovely place to stay, but because it is a small hotel rooms sell out quickly, so do make sure you book ahead.
What we liked
- good room size
- free snacks in the room – a generous selection
- balcony to sit on and watch the world go by
- excellent wifi
- they made us a very early breakfast and coffee on our departure day, which was very welcome
What we didn’t like
- there is a nightclub next door so there was a bit of doof doof action for while. Although to be fair the music was turned off relatively early – around 10 pm.
We stayed at this hotel, now called Silverland Jolie, on our first visit to HCMC. I made the rookie mistake of not checking if the room had external windows – and it didn’t – it had a large window that looked out into the hallway. So if anyone was walking to their room they could see directly into your room. By the looks of it, this hotel has been renovated since we last stayed, with the addition of a roof top bar and pool.
What we liked
- Overall the room was a good size
- onsite spa – I had a great massage
- good breakfasts
- great views over the River
- GFC liked the Bia Hoi downstairs. No ladies in there though – so that was me out.
What we didn’t like
- no external window in our room – but we take responsibility for that
- location – this hotel was located close to the river, and right next to a nightclub. It was a bit of hike to the museums, and we struggled to find any street food.
Some things to keep in mind
- Uber is really good in Ho Chi Minh – just load up the app at home before you go. They also have local equivalent – Go. If you are going to get cabs – get green Vina Sun cabs. Make sure the driver puts on the meter and you are clear about how much it is going to cost.
- Cash – when we arrive in Vietnam we will withdraw a small amount of cash from an ATM at the airport. We use Travel Debit cards that we picked up from our bank. We can load several currencies on to the cards and should you lose the card or it gets stolen or comprised, none of your other accounts can get accessed. Plus it won’t leave you in a financial hole – like it may do if your credit card gets compromised (as one of ours did in London).
- always take the hotel’s business card with you when you leave for the day. It is an easy way of letting taxis know where to go, and they often have instructions written in Vietnamese. We now do this all over the world – a small thing that really can make like easier when you are disorientated in a big foreign city.
- We also buy a sim for our phone – mostly to access data and viber/whats app when we are doing things – most hotels have pretty good wifi
- be careful with Vietnamese banknotes – the 100,000 ($4USD) and the 500,000 ($22USD) Dong notes are very similar colours. It is easy to get distracted if you are rushing – we have made cab drivers very happy from making this mistake
- Visa – we organise our Visas before we leave New Zealand. The first time we arrived in Vietnam we arrived late at night, the queue to get Visas was long and there were only a couple of people processing them. The last time we were there we crossed the border at Ha Tien – where they didn’t issue Visas on Arrival. We just find getting the Visa at home saves a lot of hassle, and is one less thing to worry about when travelling. We recommend you check with the Vietnamese Embassy in your country to confirm requirements.
- Border Crossing – Cambodia to Vietnam. We crossed the border at Ha Tien, after travelling by mini bus from Kep. We organised the mini bus through our hotel the day before departure. It was fairly straightforward, with the mini bus company helping us through the process. Be warned though, our mini bus was a very, very tight squeeze – with just the people, let alone the bags that couldn’t fit in the trunk. It is a relatively short journey – just be aware you may get to know your neighbour very very well!
- the weather – ok, the weather in Ho Chi Minh can be hot or hotter and wet. It is blooming hot. The kind of hot where you need to change your t-shirt a couple of times a day, and really really deserve that beer/ice cream/iced coffee mid afternoon. I tend to pack (or you can buy them cheaply at the market) a fan. The fan will at least get the air moving around a wee bit. A hat is also a good call. Try and do activities first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon. If possible, relax during the hottest part of the day.
- What to wear – we tend to dress relatively conservatively when travelling in South East Asia. For ladies (ie me) that means no cleavage or short skirts. I tend to wear cotton dresses, skirts and tops – easy to hand wash and will dry overnight. I love the dresses from eShakti as they are made to measure (for a very reasonable price) and you can customise their existing designs. I have these ones eShakti Women’s Cotton seersucker check trapunto belt cotton dress 3X-24W Regular Multi and eShakti Women’s Embellished blouson sleeve cotton voile dress 6X-36W Regular Multi – which are perfect for travelling with the addition of sleeves.
- A hat is always good for keeping the sun off your face. Good comfortable shoes or sandals are always good too – I tend to wear these or these. Pavements (even in Ho Chi Minh) can be uneven so sensible shoes are also useful. I also have a tattoo – which I like to keep covered when travelling in Asia (except of course when swimming!). Our quick guide can be found here.
- Safety – we have never felt unsafe in Ho Chi Minh. But it is a big city, so it is always useful to be careful with your possessions and how you carry yourself. As with travelling in any big city, don’t go flashing your cash around and be aware of your surroundings. Don’t stand on the side of the road with your phone in your hand – you become a target for someone to swipe it as they drive by. We tend to carry a bag that crosses the body like this one Pacsafe Metrosafe LS200 Anti-Theft Shoulder Bag, Pine Green. We leave valuables (although we tend not to travel with too many) in the hotel safe.
- Water – we don’t drink the water in Vietnam. We drink bottled water or will boil tap water for coffee/tea. It does bother me about the number of plastic bottles we throw away. Some hotels now have water filters you can use to fill up your own water bottles. We are not worried at all about ice. We have it in our beers (yes, our beer!) and in cocktails – and have had not problems yet.
Is visiting Ho Chi Minh worth it?? Definitely yes!
Let us know if you have any questions or suggestions in the comments below.