Things to do in Saigon Vietnam: The PERFECT Ho Chi Minh City Itinerary

With so many places to visit in Ho Chi Minh City, it's easily worth two days on your Vietnam itinerary.

Few places on the planet have the buzz and energy of Saigon (otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City). Vietnam’s largest city is one of the most exciting destinations in Southeast Asia — from its 5 am markets to its 24-hour discos. It’s the perfect place to start or end your trip backpacking Vietnam. In this post, I’ll lay out the ideal itinerary for your time here, including the best things to do in Saigon.

 

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How many days do you need to cover the best things to do in Saigon?

 

Many people wonder what to see in Saigon, but half the appeal is just wandering around and seeing the street life.
Visiting Ho Chi Minh City is less about its famous landmarks and more about soaking up the vibe.

 

Despite being enormous, this city actually doesn’t have that many traditional tourist attractions. Half the appeal of visiting Ho Chi Minh City is just soaking up the city’s forward-looking vibe and fast pace of life.

 

If you’re on a short trip, two days is plenty to cover most of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. If you have the time, three days would allow you to travel at a more relaxed pace.

 

For this itinerary, I’ve assumed that you’re arriving on the evening of your first day, and spending the next two full days here. I’ll provide some add-ons at the end that you can consider if you want to extend your stay.

 

Day One: Arrival, finding a guesthouse, and getting to know your neighborhood

 

Most Saigon attractions are a short walk from the backpacker street known as Pham Ngu Lao.
Most Ho Chi Minh City attractions are a short walk from the backpacker street known as Pham Ngu Lao.

 

Unless you arrive in Saigon on a hop-on, hop-off bus, the first thing you’ll need to do is reach the city center. In a city as big and with as much traffic as Saigon has, this can take a really long time. Wherever you arrive, you’ll easily be able to find a local bus, moto taxi, or regular taxi to Ben Thanh Market. It’s a major landmark just a couple blocks’ walk from the main backpacker street. Expect to spend about an hour in transit.

 

Your first order of business once you’re in the city center is finding a place to stay. The backpacker neighborhood, known as Pham Ngu Lao, has literally hundreds of options and is within walking distance of most Saigon attractions. If you’re looking for a dorm bed, I recommend Long Hostel. Great private rooms can be found at Phan Lan 2.

 

It may not be the most exciting of all the things to do in Saigon, but if you have backpacker chores that need doing, your first afternoon here is a great time to do them. Pham Ngu Lao has every travel amenity you could ever want. You can restock on passport photos, visit a doctor, buy your hop-on/hop-off bus ticket, do laundry, and more.

 

Alternatively, spend a couple hours exploring the immediate neighborhood. Take a walk down to the riverside, where families unwind in the large parks. You might even be able to join a game of pick-up Frisbee or soccer with the locals. Then, head over to Ben Thanh Market, where you can peruse the high-end tailors and silk shops. If you want to purchase a custom-made ao dai (traditional Vietnamese clothing), this is one of the best places to do it.

 

When you get hungry, head to Pho Quynh for a classic Ho Chi Minh City meal. A tasty bowl of beef noodle soup with all the usual toppings will run you 60,000 dong. Do as the locals do and wash it down with an iced tea. Then, find a street corner to pass the evening drinking bia hoi (draft beer) with fellow backpackers and young Vietnamese folks.

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Day Two: War history and classic architecture

 

Wondering what to do in Ho Chi Minh City? Start at the War Remnants Museum and then walk around the city center.
One of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City is see the contrasts between war history and the modern city.

 

On your second day, dive into the city’s recent and tragic past. While today it’s hard to believe that Vietnam was at war within the last generation, a few hours perusing the city’s museums will provide a shocking reminder of what happened here. They’re an essential part of your Ho Chi Minh City tour.

 

The War Remnants Museum

 

Perhaps Vietnam’s most heartbreaking monument to the American War is the War Remnants Museum. This belongs on any list of things to do in Saigon — don’t leave the city without a stop here.

 

The museum consists of a few parts: Outside, you’ll find artillery and vehicles the Americans used, along with guillotines and the infamous “tiger cage” prison cells where South Vietnamese kept POW’s. On the first floor, you’ll see displays about the domestic and international anti-war movement (with a heavy dose of propaganda).

 

Next is the real heart of the museum — extensive displays of what happened during the war, told from the Vietnamese perspective. While some of the (English-language) captions may be one-sided, others are nothing more than brutally honest. In particular, the photos and first-hand accounts from the My Lai Massacre will send shivers down your spine.

 

Don’t miss the final section of the museum, on the top floor. It’s an extensive photo collection from international war photographers who were killed in Southeast Asia during the fighting.

 

Admission to the War Remnants Museum is 40,000 dong, and it’s worth every penny. Expect to spend about two hours here. It’s about a 25-minute walk from Pham Ngu Lao.

 

Lunch: Hum Vegetarian Restaurant

 

Stop at Hum Vegetarian Restaurant on the first day of your Ho Chi Minh City tour.
Vegetarians may wonder what to do in Saigon for food, but don’t worry — there are tons of options due to Vietnamese Buddhists not eating meat.

 

Vietnam is the one Southeast Asian country where vegetarians can eat extremely well. Because so many Vietnamese Buddhists decline to eat meat, there is an entire sub-category of meatless Vietnamese cuisine. Best of all, it’s local and authentic — not designed for picky Western backpackers.

 

Hum Vegetarian Restaurant is one of the best places to sample the unique flavors of veggie Vietnam. Even if you’re normally a carnivore, you’ll enjoy the ginger-y, lemongrass-y, brightly colored, extremely fresh dishes enough that you won’t miss the meat.

 

Hum isn’t the cheapest option — meals start at around 60,000 dong — but it’s worth the splurge. If you’re on a tighter budget, opt instead for one of the many nearby bahn mi stands. Banh Mi Sau Minh comes highly recommended. A sandwich to go will cost you around 20,000 dong, depending on your add-ons.

 

Independence Palace

 

If you're not sure what to do in Saigon, you'll surely be fascinated by a tour of the basement of Independence Palace.
The fascinating tour of Independence Palace is one of the best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City.

 

With a full stomach, you’re now ready to move on to more things to do in Saigon. The next stop on your itinerary is Independence Palace (also known as Reunification Palace), where the American War officially ended in 1975. If you’ve followed American war history at all, you’ve surely seen the iconic photos of North Vietnamese tanks crashing through the front gates.

 

Today, the government still uses the palace for meetings and receptions. But unless they’re having an event, you can tour the entire building. You must go with a guide (included in the admission fee; tours depart regularly).

 

The tour starts with a visit to the meeting rooms and reception areas. But things get more interesting when you go to the top floor where the president lived. Here, you’ll see the massive movie theater, card-playing room, nightclub, and helipad.

 

The best part is the end of the tour. You go into the basement of the palace, where you can see the Vietnamese intelligence operation frozen in time. Old radios, maps, and documents lie about in plain sight. One of the rooms is even labeled “The War Room of the President.” It’s truly one of the most fascinating Ho Chi Minh City attractions.

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Admission to the Independence Palace is 40,000 dong. Tours (in English) take about 90 minutes. You can walk around the exterior and see the old American tanks on your own.

 

Colonial architecture in the government quarter

 

One of the most iconic Ho Chi Minh City attractions is the central post office
One of the most iconic Saigon attractions is the central post office

 

If you’ve had enough depressing history for the day, I don’t blame you! Now, it’s time to explore some of the city’s famous architecture.

 

The natural starting point is Notre Dame Cathedral, just outside the Independence Palace. This is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most important churches. The exterior and interior are both worth checking out. You can enter for free, but the church is usually closed around lunchtime.

 

Next, head over to the Central Post Office. You can’t miss this classically French building right on the main square in the downtown area. The exterior is bright pink, while the interior contains paintings, historical maps, and elaborate tile work. You can wander around inside for free — it’s a working post office, after all.

After exploring these two iconic buildings, take some more time to just wander around the neighborhood a bit. On the surface, it looks like a modern city. But look carefully at the shop houses and restaurants and you’ll notice most of them are in refurbished colonial buildings. For even more character, walk down the side streets and alleyways, where you can catch a glimpse of an Old Asia that seems largely lost in the hustle and bustle of Saigon.

 

Dinner: Cô Giang Street

 

Not sure what to do in Ho Chi Minh City for dinner? Start with the famous street food districts.
One of the best parts of a Ho Chi Minh City tour is experiencing the street food.

 

Not far from the backpacker district, but still firmly off the beaten path, this street has some of the best street food in central Saigon.

 

Take your pick of grilled beef, seafood of all varieties, or Chinese-influenced noodle dishes. Most meals run just 20,000 dong. Quan 79 is a particularly well-loved noodle joint.

 

Day Three: Pagodas and Chinatown

 

Wandering around Cholon is one of the best things to do in Saigon.
Cholon’s market culture makes it a highlight of visiting Ho Chi Minh City.

 

On your last day, focus on the more cultural side of things to do in Saigon. Visit one of the city’s most intriguing neighborhoods and some of its iconic pagodas.

 

Wander around Cholon

 

Cholon is Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown. It was once a thriving market district, filled with immigrants from southern China. Today, modernity and solidly Vietnamese culture have crept in. This has created a cultural blend that you won’t find anywhere else in the country.

 

The neighborhood highlight is the traditional herb shops between Ð Luong Nhu Hoc and Ð Trieu Quang Phuc. But simply wander aimlessly for awhile and pop into any of the dozens of pagodas and temples. The Daoist Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda is particularly worthwhile.

 

Don’t leave the neighborhood without a visit to Binh Tay Market. This enormous (and mostly wholesale) market is Saigon’s most colorful. You’ll see everything from dried seafood to weird animal parts to fresh fruits and veggies. It’s also a great place to stop for a very cheap breakfast or coffee.

 

Cholon is a very long walk from the backpacker area — it’ll take you about an hour. A taxi runs about 100,000 dong (bargain hard). Alternatively, take local bus #1 from Ben Thanh Market for 7,000 dong.

 

Lunch: Com Ga Dong Nguyen

 

Not sure what to see in Ho Chi Minh City beyond the famous attractions? Spend a morning in Cholon, eating and drinking your way through the markets and Chinese food stalls.
Eating chicken and rice in Cholon is one of the best things to do in Saigon.

 

Not far from Binh Tay Market, you’ll find one of Cholon’s most popular restaurants. What started as a simple place to eat chicken and rice has since morphed into an elaborate menu of more than 30 dishes.

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The classic combo is chicken, rice and kale, which will run you about 50,000 dong. But you can choose from various soups and other rice dishes as well. It’s not the world’s most veggie-friendly spot.

 

Jade Emperor Pagoda

 

The Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of the top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam.
The Jade Emperor Pagoda is one of the most interesting places in Ho Chi Minh City for culture vultures.

 

After lunch, head back to the city center for the last of the top things to do in Saigon: Jade Emperor Pagoda.

 

You’ll smell the incense from the street. As soon as you step inside the pagoda’s gate, you’ll be surrounded by worshipers, angry-looking Dao gods, and a surprisingly quiet and peaceful atmosphere.

 

The pagoda contains elements of both Buddhism and Daoism, some with a profoundly Chinese orientation while others are visibly Vietnamese. It’s all very atmospheric and culturally fascinating. You’ll need about half an hour to fully explore. Admission is free.

 

Dinner: Chị Thông – Bún Thịt Nướng

 

The top Saigon restaurants are mostly informal places specializing in a single dish.
Order extra spring rolls on the side at one of the best Ho Chi Minh City street food restaurants.

 

Pork, noodles, spring rolls, fresh herbs, and peanuts? A classic Vietnamese combination, but it works so well every time. For a particularly good bowl, head to this restaurant in District One. If you’re wondering what to do in Ho Chi Minh City for your final evening, this is a great option.

 

Order the bún thịt nướng chả giò and add some extra chilis to it for one of the best cheap meals you can have in Saigon. It’ll run you 40,000 dong.

 

For more on how to order and what other options this restaurant has, check out this guide.

 

What to do in Saigon if you have an extra day

 

It's a very long day trip, but you can visit the Mekong Delta from Saigon on a tour.
You can do a day trip from Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta.

 

A full two days in Ho Chi Minh City is plenty to check off the main highlights. But if you have more time, here are a few ideas for how to spend it.

 

If you’re a museum person, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum is worth a couple hours of your time. The main focus is on the Vietnam War era, but it has artifacts dating back far earlier as well. Admission is 30,000 dong and it’s a 25-minute walk from the backpacker district.

 

Alternatively, check out the view of Saigon from above. The most famous skyscraper to visit is Bitexco Financial Tower, but the 200,000-dong admission is kind of insane. Skip the viewing deck and go to the 52nd-floor EON Heli Bar for a pricey cocktail instead. Or, stay closer to the backpacker area and visit Air 360 Sky Lounge — the views are nearly as good.

 

Finally, if you’re up for a really long day, you can do a day trip to the Mekong Delta from Ho Chi Minh City. This isn’t the ideal way to see the delta — you really need 2-3 days to make the most of a trip here — but if it’s your only option, it’s still worth doing. To do this as a day trip you should book a tour (any hotel or travel agency can arrange this). Public transportation takes so long that you’d only have an hour or two in whatever town you visit.

 

I’m sure you’ll agree after you visit — Saigon is one of Vietnam’s most exciting destinations. While many of the things to do in Saigon serve as depressing reminders of a tragic history that is all too recent, this stands in sharp contrast to the locals’ zest for life. Don’t miss the chance to spend a couple days in this fascinating city as you travel through Vietnam!

 

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Discover the best things to do in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam with this two-day itinerary. From war history to the best Ho Chi Minh City street food, this guide has it all. #vietnam #travel

 

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