Hello! Welcome to tropical, sunny Saigon!
Officially, the name is Ho Chi Minh City. The locals knew it as Saigon before 1975 though and the name has been passed down through each generation. It's generally okay to say either name unofficially.
You are visiting Ho Chi Minh City. You don't have much time. Yet, there's so much to do and see. How can you make the most of two days in this city?
A 2-day virtual itinerary
Let me show you what you could do in Ho Chi Minh City over two days. I'll be realistic in my virtual itinerary here. You'll need two full days, morning until evening. This itinerary stretches from around 06.30 on Day 1 to around 23.00 on Day 2.
You'll be able to do almost everything within the two days that are a must-try in Ho Chi Minh City. The time is tight, and you may have to choose between places. You'll definitely see a fair amount of what is on offer in Ho Chi Minh City.
You'll be tired, yet euphoric. You feel energized yet a bit exhausted. You'll want to come back for more. Ho Chi Minh City is one of the most vibrant and energetic cities in Southeast Asia.
Don't worry though. The South Vietnamese are friendly and helpful people. They'll guide you through their city.
Ho Chi Minh City - Day 1
Let's mix this up as a range of sites to be seen and activities to do throughout the day. Times are included as a guide but not strict. You can make your own itinerary. This is generally based on my experience when acting as a tour guide for family and friends.
Breakfast - 06.30 - 07.00
Kick-off the day with a delightful wake me up cafe sua da (Local iced coffee) and some local breakfast. There are plenty of Vietnamese coffee houses around offering takeaway coffees. You can get coffees at some breakfast places and street food stalls as well. Don't like coffee? Try tra da, or iced tea. Refreshing and delicious early morning.
There are breakfast options aplenty in Ho Chi Minh City. The banh mi is a solid Vietnamese baguette. You can get the mixed meat, fried egg, or vegetarian options. Locals like to eat sticky rice cakes for breakfast as well. Pho noodle soup is a breakfast item on the menu throughout all of Vietnam.
Eat something good and filling, and wake up with a coffee or tea in this fascinating city. There's a busy day ahead.
Cu Chi Tunnels 07.30-14.00
I'd recommend this as a first stop, purely because it is one of the main tourist attractions here. It is also a half-day trip. You are best advised to book this trip before you arrive in Ho Chi Minh City or book it when you check in to one of the elegant hotels in Saigon.
The Cu Chi Tunnels is an army playground. It is where the Vietcong hid while the US Air Force was bombing the areas surrounding Saigon during the Vietnam War. The tunnels protected the revolutionary forces. Opposition prisoners were held here. You can visit the traps laid out in the jungle terrain around here. Not pretty.
You can walk, or crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels during this half-day out. You get to see a fair amount of US artillery. You can even shoot an AK-47 on-site! Enjoy the enthralling atmosphere before being further enlightened at the War Remnants Museum.
War Remnants Museum 15.00-16.30
I'd say Cu Chi Tunnels are a must for visitors here. Everything else is about choice. This museum is definitely a place for war enthusiasts or those looking for historical documents stored locally. This has some dark images, some areas of intrigue, and offers some moments of hope.
The grounds have lots of US warplanes and there's a replica war prison area to visit. Inside, the floors are separated into different areas. Each place gives a diverse perception of the Vietnam War. Some of the photos are shocking. The War Remnants Museum is enlightening. It isn't for the faint-hearted.
There's a coffee house on the grounds for those who need a drink and bite to eat, especially if you've been to Cu Chi. Handmade souvenirs can be purchased long-serving victims of the Vietnam War inside. This place is quite an eye-opener.
The old French Colonial area 16.45-18.30
You can get a taxi here, or use a shared car app to book your ride. I put these places together, as these are next to each other. They are also open later than the government-operated tourist spots. This is architecture dating back to colonial french origins.
Notre Dame Cathedral
The Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is one of the finest looking of its kind in Vietnam. The bell towers command your attention. The Romanesque architecture almost tricks you into thinking you're in Western Europe. There are some treasures to be seen here. Some original wood from France is maintained. The statue of Mary looks on outside. She was apparently seen shedding tears before, by passers-by.
Saigon Central Post Office
The Saigon Central Post Office is another wonderful work of 19th century French architecture. There are so many details in the gothic exterior, one being the grand clock. The inside feels like an old train station, with phone booths and counters overseen by the great Ho Chi Minh portrait above. It is open to everyone. Locals and visitors frequently visit the place. Souvenirs and collectible stamps are offered here.
A trip to Ben Thanh Market 18.30-20.30
We'll look at doing two things around Ben Thanh Market. Having dinner, as it is that time. I'd recommend trying some street food. It's all over the city. You can get the famous com tam, or broken rice dish made up of rice, a few veggies, and different cuts of pork. Local stands serve food around the local markets.
You should visit Ben Thanh Market around this time. One reason is that it is the best time to shop, as you can take stuff back to your hotel. Another is for bargaining. This time is perfect to get the end-of-the-day deals the market sellers offer. You can get all kinds of antiques and souvenirs here. Make sure you know the market spot price before buying anything, even gold purchases!
Pham Ngu Lao street and Bui Vien... and other places - Night Owl Times 21.00 - late
It's a long day. Some go back and crash at one of the elegant hotels around.
Too excited for that? Then check out the nightlife, the best in South Vietnam. Pham Ngo Lao and Bui Vien are the most famous spots. You'll be literally bar-crawling around these streets at night. Bars and nightclubs are crammed full of party-goers. They are so busy!
Want a drink without the nightclub scene? Nguyen Hue, or walking street, offers very exquisite places, like street cafes or a rooftop bar. Lots of lovely hotels around have some chic and sophisticated late-night bars, with some amazing views of Saigon life. All districts have unique nightlife happening. The city comes alive at night in Saigon.
Day 2 - Seeing the old and the new
Depending on the time you finished the previous night, you may make a few changes to the itinerary here. Day 2 is a tour around Ho Chi Minh City. You can see the older stuff and look at modern-day Saigon.
China Town - Buddhist and Taoist Temples 08.00-10.00
This bustling Chinese quarter is at number 5 district, southwest of the city. Visitors come to try food and see temples.
It is an actual small town, not just a couple of streets. You can try street food dim sum and sample some herbal tea. Make sure you look around the ornate temples. These are intricately styled, full of beauty and mystery.
The Buddhist and Taoist Temples
The Taoist and Buddhist Temples vary in age and style. They are very unique to Ho Chi Minh. Quan An Pagoda and Ong Bon Temple are two examples of some very articulately carved places for prayer and worship. There are so many Taoist and Buddhist deities worshipped here. Quan An, or Thien Hau, the Goddess of Mercy, is one deity worshipped here. Get permission for pictures and take off your shoes. You won't see such architecture elsewhere!
The Independence Palace - 10.30-12.30
This is in the center of Saigon and within walking distance of Saigon's oldest streets. This was originally a place for the governor of Saigon, built during French Colonial times. It was called the Norodom Palace. The building was reconstructed after the American War. It was renamed the reunification palace. It is at the heart of the city center.
The palace interior and exterior
Old meeting rooms, such as the Minister's Cabinet, can be viewed inside. You can explore the underground old war rooms here, created to avoid heavy bombing in the American War. There's a possibility to view US Military machinery all around here.
The gardens are very pleasant and have some natural fauna displays of diverse beauty during different seasons. Independence Palace is a place which you have to visit in Ho Chi Minh City. It is a landmark spot.
Nguyen Hue and Saigon Center - 13.00-16.30
By this point, you might be feeling a bit tired. It's a lot to do in two days. This is a good time to go to Nguyen Hue or Walking Street. From this road, you can explore shopping malls, markets, restaurants, and prominent spots such as the Opera House.
Nguyen Hue - Walking Street
This is a short walk from the Independence Palace. It stretches from the government offices all the way to the Saigon river. It is usually lined with shops, restaurants, and coffee houses. There are some incredible floral arrangements and displays during the Lunar New Year here. You can do most activities to enjoy your final afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City here. This is a good place to find lunch. There are some great lunchtime deals here.
This is a lovely piece of French architecture. Worth a visit for the photo alone. The whole street feels French. Some of Saigon's oldest streets are around here and the grand roads blend in wonderfully with the intriguing little alleyways around. You can see a show here. Times are scheduled and tickets can be purchased at the venue.
Bitexco Financial Tower
This is modern Saigon. This is Ho Chi Minh City as it turns into the 21st century. It looks like a sailing boat from far away. The glistening silver-like structure shows a helicopter pad as you draw closer. You can see the peak or go get a beer close to the top by joining the Heineken Experience. There are some nice local food places around here, along with western cuisines available.
The views around Nguyen Hue
Hopefully, when you visit, the Opera House will be seen all the way from Ben Thanh Market. Ho Chi Minh is developing a new subway system, which will increase transportation and walking areas. The whole street is the center point of Ho Chi Minh City.
Other fine tourist attractions
If you have more time, visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda. This is a delicately ornate temple and one around the center of the city. An alternative is the Giac Lam Pagoda in District 10. This has a 7-story stupa, bodhi tree, and temple of worship on serene and tranquil grounds.
Another place worth visiting is the Fine Arts Museum. Displays of fine art from across Asia and Europe can be marveled at while strolling around and finely woven old French Town House. Some like to take a Saigon River Cruise, stopping at points along the riverside.
Sunset at the top of the world - The Landmark 81 Building - 17.00 - nighttime
I couldn't end this post without mentioning the tallest skyscraper in the city. The bamboo-shaped Landmark 81 is an icon of modern-day Saigon. It is best visited early evening, to enjoy the fabulous sunset.
You can go to the peak and see an amazing view of the city. You can drink in an ice bar a few floors down. Landmark 81 has a range of cuisine. Visiting during the daytime? Go and take a relaxing stroll in the beautiful park.
End of itinerary
I've listed a few activities. There's so much to do in Ho Chi Minh though. I think you'll come back.
Make sure you have two full days to see what you can. Stay longer if you want to visit the Mekong Delta. That's a day trip.
Have a good time in Saigon guys!