James Travel

10 Things To Do in HCMC – A Local’s Guide To The City

Youthful, colorful, chaotic, and captivating—that’s Ho Chi Minh City. As soon as you set foot in the city, it grabs you, shakes you, and drags you into an energetic rhythm of life.

Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, was bestowed upon the city in 1776 and retained until 1976. The former name still resonates with the locals. They love to call it Saigon, Saigonese, or beloved Saigon. I also find ‘Saigon’ more evocative, as it conjures up vivid memories that are deeply intertwined with the city’s history.

As the commercial capital of Vietnam, HCMC attracts people from all over the country to come for new opportunities and life. Here, you can find foods and hear accents from every region of Vietnam. People are friendly, straightforward, and less likely to be regionally biased. 

The traffic is chaotic, especially for first-time visitors. In the mid-19th century, the French developed HCMC as a city for 500,000 people. By 2021, HCMC recorded a population of 9.1 million, with 8.3 million motorbikes. You now get a sense of the traffic. (A tip: Never ask a Saigonese ‘how far’ but rather ‘how long’ when you want to know the distance between two places.)

HCMC is a youngster compared to Hanoi’s 4000-year history. Lord Nguyen reclaimed the southern region in the 17th century. Today, the city is a melting pot of free spirit, openness, vibrancy, and warm embraces of new people and cultures.

Despite its relatively young age, HCMC is full of history. Here, you find French colonial landmarks and famous buildings that witnessed the fall of Saigon. The city hides touching stories that it only tells those who take the time to sit down and listen.

Like my article about ten things to do in Hanoi, this article contains a list of things I believe will give you a deep understanding of HCMC.

Scroll down and see a Ho Chi Minh City I love to introduce to you.

How To Enjoy HCMC At Its Best?

Saigoneses have a short but comprehensive saying: “Eat in District 5. Live in District 3. Hang out in District 1.”

District 5 is where most Chinese people live in HCMC (45% of the district’s population). Here, you will find typical Chinese dishes with distinctive flavors, such as roasted duck, dim sum, and duck noodle soup. Hence, if you want good food, head straight to District 5.

District 3 is considered the most livable for its location. A multitude of villas and residential complexes situated on the most beautiful and tranquil streets of the city, such as Tú Xương, Đoàn Thị Điểm, Ngô Thời Nhiệm, Hồ Xuân Hương are a dream of Saigonese. If you want to find somewhere to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, District 3 is the place for you.

District 1 is the liveliest and most lavish district. It is concentrated with historic landmarks, banks, skyscrapers, shopping centers, bars, restaurants, and luxury hotels. Day and night, District 1 is always busy, making it a favorite place for tourists.

HCMC is a big city with a treasure trove of surprises. Just stopping at famous landmarks means you’ve missed many things that make HCMC an exciting and dynamic city. Go to other districts spontaneously with an open mind and plan for the unexpected, and you’ll have an overall picture of this city.

10 Fun Things To Do in HCMC

1. Explore Chợ Lớn Downtown

Chợ Lớn, or Chinatown, is home to most Chinese people in HCMC. The first Chinese to arrive in Saigon can be traced back to anti-Qing Han refugees. About 3,00  immigrants fled to Southern Vietnam at the end of the 17th century. Under the Nguyen Lord’s orders, they explored the new land of the Mekong Delta, built markets and large ports, and established a prosperous community in the Chợ Lớn area. 

Today, the Chinese in Cholon continue to enrich the city’s heritage and preserve their unique culture, architecture, religion, language, and cuisine. Temples and assembly halls, some dating back hundreds of years, such as Ba Thien Hau Temple of the Cantonese Chinese and Quang An Assembly Hall of the Teochew Chinese, still maintain their characteristic ancient architecture and bas-reliefs, which depict stories of sea voyages to new lands. Some assembly halls offer traditional Chinese opera performances.

When visiting Chợ Lớn, try Chinese food. Eateries as old as humans with bilingual Vietnamese-Chinese menus offer juicy dishes dipped in soy sauce, like dumplings, meatballs, and wontons, at affordable prices.

At the crossroads of Hai Thuong Lan Ong and Trieu Quang Phuc Streets lies the Hai Thuong Lan Ong Quarter, the oldest quarter of Saigon. This historical gem is home to hundred-year-old houses, traditional Chinese herbal medicine shops, and a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Chinese community from bygone eras. 

People in Chợ Lớn still communicate in Chinese. Don’t be surprised if you’re wandering Chợ Lớn and encounter an elder who can’t speak a complete sentence in Vietnamese despite living over half their life in the country.

2. Drink Cà Phê Vợt For A Taste of Slow-Paced HCMC

If Cà phê Trứng (Egg Coffee) is a symbol of Hanoi, then Cà phê Vợt (Racket Coffee) is unique to Saigon. The name refers to how people process the coffee. They hand-roast coffee beans with salt and butter and then filter them through an oversized cloth racket (vợt – in Vietnamese) that resembles a butterfly net. After that, they store the coffee in a clay pot, which they believe can maintain flavor and enhance the quality of coffee better than metal pots. 

Cà phê Vợt first appeared in the Chinese community in Chợ Lớn, sold to laborers, small traders in markets, and regular customers at dirt-cheap prices. The beans have a unique aroma, consisting of a fatty note of butter and a smokey taste. 

Racket coffee shops often host daily patrons, mostly older people or neighbors. They come to meet acquaintances, drink a cup of coffee, and chat to catch up on news as a daily habit that has been with them for most of their lives. But in recent years, young people have also started seeking racket coffee to enjoy a slow, gentle, and nostalgic vibe.

(Credit: VietNamNet)

Sitting at the end of Phung Hung Market, Ba Lu Cafe cannot help refraining from the bustle in the morning. You’ll have to duck down through the dark-colored umbrellas of numerous stalls to find the old, small café. I recommend visiting in the afternoon when the market has closed. Order a cup of coffee (priced at just VND15,000), look at the aging charm of this 60-year-old café, and soak in the tranquil atmosphere of the Chinese neighborhood. Not far ahead is Thuan Kieu Plaza, also known as the Three Incense Sticks Tower, a famous Saigon landmark with eerie ghost stories.

In alley 109 Nguyen Thien Thuat, District 3, sits another racket coffee shop that has been around since 1938. Cheo Leo offers a menu in English and Vietnamese, making it easier for tourists to know what they are ordering. Coffee here is priced slightly higher than Ba Lu coffee, at VND25,000 per cup. Photos tell the cafe’s story and traditional racket brewing method on one wall. Another wall features faded patches of smoke from the stove and time. The quiet cafe has only about four small tables accommodating around ten guests—a beautiful way to relax and take in the city.

3. Navigate the Street Food Scene For More Than Just Food

I was born and raised in Hanoi, heaven for street food, but I love how HCMC always surprises me with its culinary creations. You can always eat and drink well here even when you have hardly any money. 

Street food was already a fascinating part of old Saigon before 1975. Since then, Saigonese’s love for food has never ended. Today, Saigon has become one of Asia’s food paradises.

I can never tell enough if you ask me about my favorite dishes. But indeed, there are always Cơm Tấm (Broken Rice), Bún Thịt Nướng (Grilled Pork with Vermicelli Noodles), Bánh Mì (Bread), Bò Lá Nốt (Grilled Beef Wrapped in Betel Leaf), and Nam Vang Noodle Soup. Oh, and snails, the most beloved street food in Saigon. My favorite addresses are Oc Chut Chit on Cach Mang Thang Tam Street, District 10, and Oc Loan on Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, District 3. They wake up at 2 AM to head to the market to select fresh snails. While Hanoians usually boil snails, Saigonese has dozens of ways to prepare snails, such as coconut curry and tamarind sauce or stir-frying them with chili, oil, and garlic. And they taste so delicious when paired with cold beer. 

HCMC is where people from all over the country come to live, work, and save every penny to support their families in their homelands. To them, good food at a cheap price is highly precious. In the city leading the country in GDP, you can still find dishes priced at 15,000VND and 20,000VND (less than US1). A bottle of cold pandan tea sold on the sidewalk that immediately quenches your thirst on a summer day costs only VND10,000. The price is next to nothing to many of us, but it warms up the stomachs and hearts of many working men in a big city.

Therefore, when stopping by a sidewalk stall, you not only enjoy the food but also see the kindness and listen to sad-happy stories of life on the street. That’s how Saigoneses are: friendly and open-minded, treating everyone the same whether they are familiar faces or strangers met today.

Sài Gòn is bustling, yet its people are warm-hearted. Each dish, each loaf of bread, and each cup of coffee is a thread that binds us – strangers, together. 

4. See The Beauty And Growth of The City from The Bird’s Eye View

5:30 p.m. The weather cools down after a sunny day. Motorbikes, scooters, bushes, and cars rush out onto the road at the same time, filling the city’s gaps. Simultaneously, lights from lamp posts, vehicles, restaurants, supermarkets, and shopping centers all come on. Looking down from a bird’s eye view, old and modern buildings, riversriver, and residential areas intertwine, sparkling and brilliant. 

Once the tallest building in Vietnam, standing at a height of 264 meters (that honor is succeeded by the 461-meter Landmark 81), Bitexco Financial Tower is a symbolic structure in the HCMC skyline.

The tower, which cost $220 million to build, was completed in October 2010. Its arrogant appearance represents the city’s beauty and prosperous development. In 2013, CNN voted Bitexco Tower one of the world’s 25 iconic buildings, alongside the Empire State Building in New York, the China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing, and the Kingdom Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

It features a helipad on the 52nd floor and an observation deck on the 47th floor, opening from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. It is no exaggeration to say that the Bitexco sky deck has the best city view. The ticket price is 200,000 VND. For 50,000 VND more, you can combine it with a ticket to the World of Heineken, which includes a Heineken tour and a bottle of beer.

I love coming here to bid farewell to the day. Sitting quietly in my favorite spot, I see the sun gradually disappear from the sky, during which the city transitions from the somber gray of late afternoon to the magical colors of dusk and then to the lively glow of city lights. Beneath me, the city lines up along the flow of the Saigon River. The patches of light and shadow and the unevenness of high-rise and low-rise buildings paint a magnificent picture of the city by night.

5. Explore The Life of Saigon River

A river is the lifeblood of any city on its banks: without that river, that city would not exist. Most big cities with a long history are associated with a river: Rome has the Tiber, Paris has the Seine, and London has the Thames; Cairo has the Nile; Bangkok has the Chao Phraya; and Saigon has the Saigon River. But rarely do we stop to appreciate them. 

From its inception 300 years ago, HCMC was a city along the river with an intricate network of canals and channels. At that time, everywhere had boats, small and large, either used as floating homes, means of transportation, or vessels to carry goods for trade. The city’s development into what it is today was mainly due to the thriving maritime trade along the river.

An interesting way to explore the life of the Saigon River is by water bus. The service began operating in 2017 with a route spanning nearly 11 km from Bach Dang Pier to Linh Dong Pier in Thu Duc City, which costs 15,000 VND. The trip takes 30 minutes, but there are five stops to get ashore. I typically prefer to stop at Thanh Da Peninsula, where I can explore the small, forgotten corner of the city. 

HCMC, as seen from the river, always brings me different feelings. On one side are modern, high-rise buildings trying to reach the sky. On the other side are low, tiny, quiet houses of poorer communities. The river slowly meanders between past and present, leisure and hustle, simple and luxury. It carries not just water, but memories are long forgotten that only those who stop can hear.

6. Look Back on The History with A Visit To Independence Palace

Independence Palace has undergone many political upheavals since the French built it in 1868. Initially named Norodom Palace, it served as the residence of the Governor of Cochinchina. The Palace witnessed the period of French colonial rule, the Japanese coup d’état in 1945, the return of the French, and became the residence of the family of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem during the Vietnam War in 1954. In February 1962, coup forces bombed Independence Palace in an attempt to assassinate Ngo Dinh Diem. The assassination attempt failed, but the Palace’s left wing was destroyed entirely. 

In July 1962, Ngo Dinh Diem began reconstructing the Independence Palace. The new one had an area of 4,500 square meters with 100 functional rooms. He also constructed an underground bomb shelter in the basement. However, while the construction was still incomplete, he was assassinated and died on November 2, 1963. Visitors to the Palace can still descend into the bomb shelter for sightseeing.

Independence Palace also marks the end of the Vietnam War when a Viet Cong tank crashed its gates on April 30, 1975. Today, it makes it onto the list of must-visit places in Ho Chi Minh City. 

The Palace is open to visitors from 8 AM to 4:30 PM, with an admission fee of 40,000 VND. For an additional 25,000 VND, visitors can explore the collection “From Norodom Palace to Independence Palace 1868 – 1966.” The collection consists of 500 historical artifacts collected over four years and displayed in the only remaining building of the Norodom Palace complex, built in 1868.

7. Discover How Saigonese Transforms Old Walk-up Apartment Buildings

474—That’s the number of buildings built before 1975 in Ho Chi Minh City. Many of these apartments were constructed during the French colonial period. Life here resembles a microcosm of Saigon society, with ups and downs, sorrows and joys. Open the doors, and you see the rhythm of Saigon right before your eyes.

Air conditioning was uncommon in Saigon during the 1960s, so to alleviate the heat of Southern Vietnam, apartment buildings’ corridors were cleverly designed to cool down with natural ventilation. But nowadays, residents use these corridors as public spaces, decorating them with fish tanks and plants or for more practical purposes, such as shoe racks or storage for miscellaneous items. The ground floor serves as the communal parking area for the entire apartment building. Some units also house breakfast eateries and coffee shops.

After all those years, old buildings in Ho Chi Minh City have deteriorated. Most households have moved out to more spacious and modern apartments. However, some residents remain content with their old way of life. They are the ones who preserve the old charm of HCMC amidst the rapid pace of urbanization.

While the government is still struggling to find solutions, Saigonese has devised a clever way to breathe new life into dilapidated buildings. They renovated their apartments into cafes, fashion stores, spas, restaurants, and bars. Most of these establishments adopt a retro style to match the old-fashioned atmosphere. As night falls and the lights are on, these old structures become colorful, like Rubik’s cubes in the city center. All your entertainment needs will be met without leaving the building.

Some of the most famous blocks you can visit include the Tôn Thất Đạm apartment building in District 1. Built in 1886, it has survived through three centuries. The apartment corridors show the Bitexco Financial Tower as an interesting contrast between the old and new Saigon. 

The 42 Nguyễn Huệ apartment building was once home to high-ranking government officials and US military officers during the 1960s. Today, shops and bars fill up its nine floors. It gained even more fame when the city government designed Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard as a walking street in 2015. If you don’t mind climbing the decrepit stairs, head to Krystalini Hidden Cocktail Bar on the 4th floor. It’s one of the most beloved speakeasy bars in Saigon.

8. Unlock Secret Weapon Bunkers

In the history of the Vietnam War, one cannot overlook the Saigon Special Forces. This special unit was equipped on the spot, fighting secretly inside enemy lines in temporarily occupied urban areas. This post will guide you in unlocking some secret bunkers that the Saigon Special Forces used during the Vietnam War in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

Mr. Tran Van Lai, a Saigon Special Forces soldier, once operated secretly under the guise of a wealthy contractor. He bought over 20 houses, constructed them with secret cellars, and brought in tons of weapons, including TNT, C4 explosives, detonators, rocket launchers, rifles, guns, and grenades. These weapons would be used in 1968 attacks on the US Embassy, Independence Palace, and Joint General Staff (JGS) Compound – the headquarters of the Republic of Vietnam Military Forces. These events were better known as the Tet Offensive.

Today, thanks to Mr Lai’s son, some of these houses are small museums open freely to the public. He has persistently sought to repurchase and restore the houses, hoping to preserve witnesses of his father and comrades’ proud yet silent achievements.

Below are secret bases of the Saigon Special Forces that you can climb down to discover the bunkers: 

– The museum at 287/70 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Road, District 3, classified as a historical, cultural relic in 1986 by the Ministry of Culture; and the coffee shop next door, Cà Phê Đỗ Phủ. The cafe also displays the Citroen car with license plate NCE-345 used by the Saigon Special Forces to carry troops and weapons to attack Independence Palace in 1968.

– Cơm Tấm Đại Hàn (Dai Han Broken Rice Restaurant) at 113A Dang Dung Street, District 1. The house still retains three underground bunkers and two secret mailboxes, with many weapons and artifacts used by Mr. Lai during his secret operations.

– Saigon Special Forces Museum at 145 Tran Quang Khai Street, District 1. It displays seven collections presenting different stages of the Saigon Special Forces.

There is no official entrance fee, but donations to the museum and food/ drinks ordered at the restaurant and cafe are highly encouraged.

9. Attend The Spectacular À Ố Show

À Ố – the phonetic transcription of ‘Lang Pho’ (Village & City) is currently the best show performed at the city theater (in my opinion). It is an intriguing hour of acrobatics, dance, theater, and folk music recounting Vietnam’s transition from quiet villages to modern cities. The Vietnamese culture in À Ố Show is portrayed naturally, without exaggeration or constraint.

The show begins with pictures of the innocent and simple life in a southern rural countryside, where light is the moon, air conditioning is the breeze, and music is the sound of insects chirping and children’s laughter. The audience then follows the village’s sons and daughters to HCMC, where they seek new opportunities and confront cramped living spaces, heavy traffic, stifling heat, and other urban disadvantages. 

All the artists in the show are young. Some are circus performers. Others are street performers like parkourists or hip-hoppers. Behind them is the talented director Tuấn Lê, who has spent most of his time in Germany. It took Tuấn Lê and his team years searching for performers and then more years rehearsing before bringing the show to the public. Finally, their efforts have paid off. À Ố Show has become a must-do for tourists visiting Saigon.

Bamboo is the soul. It represents the symbol of rural Vietnam and the foundation of the musical instrument collection used in the show. You’ll be amazed to see how bamboo can create such melodious tunes. À Ố Show also succeeds in offering the audience a visually stunning feast.

The show is suitable for all ages – a fun activity for families. Ticket prices start at 800,000 VND. The show runs every evening from 6 PM to 7 PM at Saigon Opera House, one of the most impressive architecture in the city. 

Lune Productions, which produces the A O Show, has another spectacular show in Hoi An, Ted Dar, which is also worth watching.

10. Enjoy The Alive And Thriving Nightlife

You surely would want to experience the vibrant nightlife in this city of 9 million. From eateries on the sidewalks and the haven for backpackers at Bui Vien Street to upscale bars on the top floor of a 5-star hotel, there’s always something exciting waiting for you after dark.

One of the great things about nightlife in HCMC is that the entertainment spots are close. You can easily try out many things in one night.

If you love craft beer, you’ll find countless taphouses in Saigon. Talented craft brewers worldwide come here to unleash their creativity with local flavors like passion fruit and dragon fruit. Some well-known names include Pasteur Street Brewing, Heart of Darkness, and East-West Brewing. Most taphouses offer nice seating areas with delicious food menus. A perfect afternoon escape from the city’s heat is not far-fetched with a cold beer in hand.

Saigon Outcast – a pioneer of Saigon’s hipster culture – is a spot frequented by expats living in HCMC and young citizens who love street culture. Saigon Outcast regularly hosts tasteful music and film events.

The list of nightlife spots goes on, with intimate bars where friendly bartenders craft cocktails perfectly. My favorite spot is Climb Hidden Bar for its adventurous entrance, intimate ambiance, and bespoke cocktails tailored just for you.

Choose a rooftop bar for a more luxurious experience, such as Cocoon Rooftop, seated on the 8th floor of PLS Tower, which stays open until 4 AM on weekends, and Broma Not A Bar, a small trendy bar overlooking Nguyen Hue Boulevard, or M Bar at the historic Majestic Hotel for a spectacular city vista.

How To Get Around Ho Chi Minh City

Taxis are available everywhere. The two most reputable taxi brands are Mai Linh and Vinasun. If you can ride a motorbike, you can rent one to get around the city as this is the most efficient way to navigate traffic congestion. Motorbike rental services are ubiquitous in Saigon; make a phone call, and they will deliver the bike to your hotel.

If you have a Vietnamese SIM card, you can use ride-hailing apps like Grab or Be (similar to Uber). In my experience, Grab rides in HCMC are safer than in Hanoi, even though traffic in both cities is as busy.  

If you enjoy walking, you can use Google Maps or any map app you know. If you’re afraid of getting lost or tired of walking, you can always book a taxi or ride-hailing service, like I usually do.

Day Trips from Ho Chi Minh City

You might want to take a one-hour trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. During the Indochina War, villagers in the Cu Chi District dug underground tunnels to evade French military sweeps. The tunnel system continuously expanded into a complex network during the Vietnam War, stretching up to 200km. You can crawl in the tunnels to learn more about the lives of Vietnamese soldiers in the past, but be aware that it can be quite a dark, cramped, and suffocating experience.

50km from the Cu Chi Tunnels lies the Cao Dai Temple of Tay Ninh, a testament to the religious diversity of Southern Vietnam. This temple, the most beautiful and holiest of Caodaism, a relatively new but popular religion in the region, is worth a visit for its architectural grandeur and cultural role. You can combine it with Cu Chi Tunnels into a single trip

Another must-do is the famed Mekong Delta. While the Mekong region is vast, you can easily visit places like Ben Tre, Cai Be, and Vinh Long within a day. Here, you’ll witness a fertile and luxurious countryside nurtured by the iconic brown waters of the Mekong River.

A one-hour drive takes you to Vung Tau, a favorite weekend getaway of Saigonese. This beach city features a statue of Jesus atop a mountain, from which you can enjoy panoramic views. The beachside boulevard is also ideal for walking. Food in Vung Tau is delicious and quite affordable.

FAQ About Ho Chi Minh City

Are Saigon And Ho Chi Minh City The Same City?

As mentioned earlier, this city has both names. Before the Vietnam War, it had been called Saigon. On July 2nd, 1976, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the name of Vietnam’s national hero. But those born in Southern Vietnam still prefer the name Saigon. 

Is HCMC Safe?

The central streets, which are always crowded and well-lit, are considered safe for tourists. Violent crime is almost unheard of in this city. 

A decade ago, street theft, such as pick-pocketing and phone snatching, was a big concern. However, the city government has addressed this issue quite well in recent years. However, you should minimize risks by keeping valuables secure and out of sight. 

What Is The Weather Like in HCMC?

The weather in HCMC is relatively stable. It is hot and sunny during the day and cooler down from late afternoon until night. The rain doesn’t last long, typically just for an hour. However, the summer in this city is uneasy for foreigners.

What Is Pollution Level Like in HCMC?

The air pollution here is quite an issue. Just think about the exhaust emissions from millions of cars and motorcycles running on the streets of Saigon every day, and you’ll see. However, HCMC is less polluted during the wet season, when the rain helps clean the air.

Which City Is More Fun, HCMC or Hanoi?

Both cities have backpacker quarters with tons of fun, food, and drinks. Those are Ta Hien in Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Bui Vien in HCMC’s District 1. 

From Saigon, you can head to the peaceful countryside of the Mekong Delta, while from Hanoi, you can venture to the northern mountains, famous for their trekking routes. 

Most world-famous dishes originate from Hanoi: Phở (Beef Noodles), Bún Chả (Noodles with Grilled Pork), Bánh Mì (Vietnamese Sandwich), Chả Cá (Noodles with Grilled Fish). On the other hand, Ho Chi Minh City is famous for its busy nightlife, where you can sit behind a lady wearing traditional Áo Dài, riding a scooter that takes you on a food trail around the city.

So, each city has its unique appeal.

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