Ho Chi Minh City has fast become one of my favourite cities in the world. This surprises me (it’s E writing this not J), as I’m not really a “city person.” Islands, countryside, nature? Yes. Cities? No. But, Ho Chi Minh City somehow has won me over. Is Ho Chi Minh City worth visiting? A resounding yes from me. Please don’t skip through it, or just spend two hours there. A visit to Ho Chi Minh City is worth way more of your time. Here’s why Ho Chi Minh City is worth visiting:
What is Ho Chi Minh City like?
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is a bit of a shock to the system, for a number of reasons. A bit like London, there are pockets of the city that feel extremely cosmopolitan. A little like NYC, there are seemingly endless amounts of new “place to be” restaurants, bars and coffee shops popping up by the second. There are fancy yoga studios and gyms, the first spinning studio just opened up too. Every coffee shop you go to, there are hoards of young people typing away on laptops. Every restaurant you go to is packed. The shopping malls are full too. People seem to have money to spend.
But then, you turn a corner and suddenly you’re faced with a (not small) red light district. There are also quite a number of homeless people and people begging. Ho Chi Minh is definitely a city in transition, and it’s definitely a city divided into the “have and have nots.” All of this, and I’ve barely even left District One.
HCMC is split into Districts, a bit like Paris or NYC. District One is the centre, the commercial centre and tourism centre at least. Here you’ll find the expensive hotels, the opera house, the cathedral but also the backpacker hostels and the raucous party streets. District One is like a French onion soup, with the occasional hint of spice, washed down by an ice cold beer. That is to say, it’s a confusing hodge podge of everything. The intrigue alone makes Ho Chi Minh City worth visiting.
District Three is just outside of District One, you can move into three quite easily without noticing. District Two however, is across the river. It seems to be up and coming, the place that young hipsters of HCMC are gathering. It’s the Brooklyn to District One’s Manhattan. There are other districts, a total of 13 in fact, but I didn’t have the time or the inclination to venture further. There really is quite enough to see even if you don’t leave District One.
Is Ho Chi Minh different to Hanoi?
HCMC is completely different to Hanoi. How so? Well, HCMC definitely has a more “European” feel, owing to the French historic influence in the city. There are boulevards as well as a number of French design influences to the architecture. Yet, of course it is distinctly Vietnamese with all the hallmarks of the rest of this beautiful country – colourful food markets, noisy scooters, vibrant community and of course coffee. This makes Ho Chi Minh city worth visiting for sure.
Additionally, HCMC has pavements! Hanoi is possibly one of the most difficult cities to walk around as it’s incessantly busy with scooters everywhere and not a pavement in sight. HCMC is much easier for pedestrians to navigate.
Best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City
There’s more than enough to do in Ho Chi Minh City for 48 hours, in fact, there’s enough to do for a week if you had the time. But, if imagining that you do only have 48 hours – here are the top things to do with your time in Ho Chi Minh City:
The Reunification Palace is a special place. Also known as Independence Palace, this is the site of Vietnam gaining it’s independence. It’s been an historical and significant monument in Vietnamese history since 1975.
We would highly recommend a visit here, the exhibits are excellent. We felt that we learnt a lot from this visit -seeing not only the palace but the special exhibit in another building in the grounds. Here you will find out exactly how and why the palace became so significant.
Notre Dame Cathedral
The Notre Dame Cathedral is sadly currently closed for renovations, much like it’s Parisian namesake. However, you can still walk around the outside to see it it all its splendour. We can’t find any information as to when this is set to re-open, but if you’re in HCMC, it’s worth walking by to see if it is.
Ho Chi Minh City Post Office
Right next to Notre Dame Cathedral, is the Ho Chi Minh City Post Office. Built in the late 1880s, this building is an icon in HCMC for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s a very typical French colonial style building. But secondly, because it’s become somewhat of a tourist attraction. This stunning post office, is not just an old building, it is still a functioning post office. Inside, you can buy postcards and post them back to your friends and family at home.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum
Th Ho Chi Minh City Museum is small, but an interesting visit if you really want to learn a little more about Vietnamese culture and HCMC in particularly. It’s set in a beautiful building in District One and will take you around one hour to explore. The price is low, 30,000 VND (less than $2) to enter. The draw back is that some of the special exhibits aren’t always displayed with English information, but otherwise a good visit.
Ben Thahn Market
Ben Thahn Market is one of the most popular and vibrant markets in Ho Chi Minh City. Here you can get anything you need – food, handbags, souvenirs and clothing. It’s extremely busy and a little chaotic – but that makes it more fun!
As an alterative to Ben Thahn, if you actually do need anything whilst in HCMC, there are a few shopping centres around town. Th e Vincom centre for example is a huge mall with eateries downstairs and a few different levels of stores. Here you can find the usual H&M, Zara and Mango for clothes, sports brands and beauty stores.
If you’re looking for a market that’s a little less crazy than Ben Thahn, try Central Market. Found here, this underground market is well air conditioned and just feels a little more organized that Ben Thahn. This is definitely the place for your cheap “Nike” gear. Remember to haggle.
Enjoy HCMC’s green space
For such a large city, HCMC is a little un-served by green space. But you can still find some stretches of green and the odd park bench. My favourite areas for a meander are Tao Dan Park and Saigon Central Park. In the latter park, it’s worth a stroll early in the morning when you can find locals taking their exercise in the outdoor gym or playing some badminton in the park.
Incidentally, if you’re looking for somewhere to sunbathe in HCMC and you’re aren’t lucky enough to have a rooftop pool, I hear the best place is Van Thahn park. This is a large, family and tourist friendly, park with a swimming pool. The entry fee is inexpensive and it doesn’t get too busy Monday to Friday. You can take the bus there from downtown too.
Enjoy the coffee culture
The coffee throughout Vietnam is a thing of beauty. But Ho Chi Minh City is the pinnacle. There are so many great places for coffee to choose from, whether you’re looking for egg coffee, salted coffee, milk coffee (with condensed milk is the Vietnamese way), or coconut coffee. Be warned, if you don’t like your coffee syrupy sweet, make sure you ask for no sugar. Find a good place and relax for a few hours.
My favourite coffee spots are listed here.
Book a tour or activity in Ho Chi Minh City
If you’re short of time and would rather book a tour or activity, Viator has some great options in Ho Chi Minh City and around. For example, you can visit the Mekong Delta for the day. See below for some fun things to do that you can book today!
Best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City at night
Ho Chi Minh City really comes alive at night, there’s so much to see and do. Here’s the best bits that we found:
Visit a speakeasy
Speakeasy bars and cocktail bars are all the rage in Ho Chi Minh City at the moment. We visited some when were there and thoroughly enjoyed them. They do tend to be more “European prices”, but in our view worth it for the fun of an evening out.
Check out the best speakeasy bars in Ho Chi Minh City here.
Promenade the boulevard
Ben Nghe is a pedestrian promenade area in Ho Chi Minh City. This boulevard is a wonderful place for a romantic stroll in the evening. It doesn’t feel like much through the day, but at night it’s a little more special. When we visited (January 2023), the city staff were building crazy golf in the middle of the promenade. Look out for that coming soon.
Visit a brewery
Brewery and craft beer are also super popular in Ho Chi Minh City. We love a Saigon beer (of course), but we also enjoyed exploring the different breweries and craft beer bars around Ho Chi Minh City.
Find out which craft beer places we thought were best here.
Enjoy Vietnamese food
There’s a restaurant for every cuisine you could possibly think of in Ho Chi Minh City. Italian food? Try 4Ps (for incredible pizza and pasta). Japanese? Mexican? Korean? French? I even spotted a German restaurant.
But, chances are if you’re visiting Ho Chi Minh City, you’re looking for Vietnamese food. Well, luckily, it’s everywhere to be seen in HCMC. Here’s our list of some of the best we tried:
- Home Restaurant – if you’re looking for wifi, card payment facilities and a clean environment
- Pho Quyn – for Pho!
- Den Long – for somewhere quiet with good cocktails and great food (also possible to pay on card with no fee)
- Ben Thahn Market – for snacks and a quick bite
Party on Bui Vien street
This street won’t be to everybody’s taste. Particularly, if you have respect for your ear drums. But if you’re in HCMC looking to party amongst crowds of other travellers then Bui Vien is the place to party in Ho Chi Minh City. Arrive here after 20:00 and you’ll find it fenced off to cars, just throngs of party goers and pumping bass. Look out for scams, there are some reports of drink scams in bars here, but it doesn’t seem to be widespread.
For couples, this may not be the best area. We weren’t huge fans as we couldn’t hear each other talk over the music (yes we are in our 30s) and it’s a little on the “tacky” side. But it’s worth stopping by for a quick beer just to see the fun neon lights and soak up a few vibes.
Visit the Ho Chi Minh City opera house
If you’re looking for a little more culture during your evening in HCMC, why not take in a show at the HCMC opera house? This is a really lovely way to spend an evening and a unique experience to the city. You can find our guide to visiting HCMC opera house here.
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City District One
On a Budget
For budget accommodation, you really can’t go wrong with Long Hostel. This family run hostel is around $14 per night for a private double room and much less for a bed in a dorm. This rate even includes a delicious breakfast. Don’t let the pictures online deceive you, it’s really a lovely space. The only draw back, if you’re looking to socialise, is that it doesn’t have a large communal space.
This area is great for budget backpackers or travellers as it’s super close to the main restaurants and party bars. It is a little walk to the museums and opera house, but no more than 25 minutes to anywhere you would want to go. You are also very close to the HCMC bus station (which takes you to the airport) or to the tourist buses heading to Cambodia and other cities in Vietnam.
If you’ve got a slightly bigger budget, we would recommend Nesta Hotel in the heart of District One. This hotels had one of the best locations that we could find in HCMC for the “day time” tourist attractions, plus there re some cool bars nearby. Nesta is very clean and the beds are INCREDIBLE, plus it’s around $30 per night for two people. Don’t expect much of the “rooftop pool” though, it’s no bigger than a bath.
Getting around Ho Chi Minh City
Walking around Ho Chi Minh City
HCMC is a really walkable city, unlike Hanoi. Mostly, the pedestrian crossings have lights, and drivers sort of pay attention to them. Just keep your wits about you when you cross the road, even the crossing light is on green. There are also good pavements in most of District One. If you’re planning to explore outside of District One, you’ll need to consider other transport options.
Scooter or Grab
The Grab App is very much alive and kicking in HCMC. You can download this and simply book a collection. This is seen as a popular and relatively safe way for tourists to get around the city – but you may need a cab if you have a lot of luggage.
Public transport in Ho Chi Minh
There’s a good bus service in Ho Chi Minh City and also a metro. I found that this was easy to navigate and that Google Maps was always fairly accurate too.
Getting to and from Ho Chi Minh City Airport
From the airport to Ho Chi Minh City and from Ho Chi Minh City to the airport, you can get a bus. It’s the number 109 bus from the main bus station in downtown HCMC. From most stops it costs 15,000 VND or less. They actually do take card on the bus, but its handy to have cash. It’s a mini bus rather than public looking bus.
Most of our planning is done using other blogs, but you can’t beat a guide book at the bottom of your case. Find them here on Amazon.to get the travelling started!
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