15 Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City on Your First Visit

15 Fun Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City on Your First Visit

Ready to take on Saigon?

For those of you planning to visit Vietnam in the near future, your first stop absolutely needs to be Ho Chi Minh City. Once called Saigon, this bustling metropolis has grown by leaps and bounds since stepping away from the shadow of French imperialism and healing from the Vietnam-American war. Today, it’s a hub of history and culture that simply demands to be experienced firsthand. 

Get ready to admire beautiful French architecture, marvel at soaring skyscrapers, enjoy delicious meals, and sample amazing coffees. Here are all the incredible things to do in Ho Chi Minh City on your first visit.

Also read: 10 Airbnbs in Ho Chi Minh City That Are Both Stylish & Wallet-Friendly

Best things to do in Ho Chi Minh City for first-timers

1. Visit the War Remnants Museum

More than 40 years later, the final echoes of the Vietnam War rest within the walls of the War Remnants Museum. The courtyard is filled with an impressive display of tanks, helicopters, and other vehicles used at the time. Within the museum, you’ll find exhibits displaying various anti-war posters, war memorabilia, and other more grim reminders of the war. 

Viewing photographs of the Vietnamese families affected by the war and the atrocities inflicted upon them is a sobering reminder that conflict of any sort is always a double-edged sword. Do give yourself a couple of hours to be part of this incredibly moving experience, as it’s definitely one of the most important things to do in Saigon.

2. Shop at Ben Thanh Market

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What started off as a rambling collection of traders coming up the Saigon River in the 17th century is now one of the most popular Ho Chi Minh City attractions. There has always been a market of sorts here, and over the years, it has evolved into what is now Ben Thanh Market. The current building it resides in was built in 1870 by the French, and was originally called Les Halles Centrales.

Here, you’ll find fresh produce, dry foods, clothes, and various trinkets to purchase. On that note, remember that bargaining is a must in any Vietnamese market. You’ll ideally want to negotiate things down to roughly 50% of the initial offer. This is mostly because vendors tend to unnecessarily hike up the prices, especially for foreign tourists!

3. Sample some Vietnamese coffee through cafe hopping

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It’s hardly a secret that Vietnam has a thriving coffee culture, and Ho Chi Minh City is no exception to that particular norm. If you’re a coffee aficionado in search of high-quality Vietnamese brews, there are tons of cafes scattered throughout the city to explore. 

You can visit The Workshop Cafe in District 1 for some modern ambience, or check out Padma de Fleur for a more Instagrammable coffee experience. The latter is actually a flower store-turned-coffee shop, and all the beverages are served with a little bouquet. For a cup of classic Vietnamese egg coffee, try out Goc Ha Noi Cafe, which sits in the centre of Bui Vien Street in District 1. Another great spot for egg coffee is Okkio Cafe on Le Loi Street.

Also read: Your Guide to Saigon’s Coffee Scene: 15 Must-Visit Ho Chi Minh Cafes

4. See the view from Saigon Skydeck

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Looking for more things to do in Ho Chi Minh City? Well, if you’d like a bird’s-eye view of this majestic metropolis, Saigon Skydeck is the place to be. This lookout point is located on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, which is the tallest building in the city. You’ll need to pay a small fee to access the Skydeck, but the sights from up there are certainly worth it. 

From here, you can enjoy a 360° view of the city and get some stellar photos for the ’Gram. The best time to take pictures here is at sunset (around 5pm), so you’ll want to reach the Skydeck before that! If photos are your priority, avoid going at night. The glass windows are highly reflective and that might mess with your attempts to get the perfect shot.

5. Visit Giac Lam Pagoda

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Giac Lam Pagoda is a must-visit among Ho Chi Minh City attractions, especially for its historical value. This structure is one of the oldest pagodas in all of Vietnam. It was built in 1744 and has stood for roughly 300 years. 

Besides being a place of religious significance for Buddhism, the temple is also home to valuable historical artefacts. Interestingly enough, deities from Vietnamese folk religion are also worshipped at Giac Lam Pagoda, despite the main focus of veneration still being the Buddha.

6. Stop by the Central Post Office

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When it comes to searching for things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, why not send out a letter from the Central Post Office? It was constructed way back in the 1800s, and stands out as one of the more impressive examples of French colonial architecture in the city. 

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Inside, you’ll be able to gaze upon grand Roman arches, a beautiful marble floor, and rows of old wooden telephone booths. Despite its age, the Central Post Office is completely functional, and still serves as the post hub of Ho Chi Minh City. So, if you’re paying it a visit, don’t forget to send a letter or postcard to your friends and family back home!

7. Watch a show at the Municipal Theatre

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If you’re a fan of the arts looking for more places to visit in Ho Chi Minh City, then head over to the Municipal Theatre. Also known as Saigon Opera House, this grand building was built in 1898 by a French architect named Eugene Ferret, in the style of the French Third Republic. 

From the outside, you’ll be able to admire the stone-carved ornaments and statues at the entrance. Inside, the opera house has floors of polished granite, as well as crystal chandeliers sparkling as they hang from the ceiling. The Municipal Theatre is home to various art performances, including the popular À Ố Show, which depicts the Vietnamese lifestyle through the use of bamboo tools as props. It also hosts various performances by the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera.

8. See the Reunification Palace

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The Reunification Palace is arguably one of the most popular and important Ho Chi Minh attractions. An opulent and somewhat imposing structure, it was originally known as Norodom Palace and served as the headquarters for General Ngo Dinh Diem. He was a Vietnamese political leader that took control of what was then South Vietnam, with dictatorial powers.

He was rather unceremoniously deposed and shuffled off this mortal coil in the year 1963, after being killed by his own generals in a coup d’etat. After that, the Reunification Palace became the residence of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam-American War until 1975. Today, the structure serves as a historical monument, and is open to visitors to help people better understand Vietnam’s past. 

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The architect, Ngo Viet Thu, designed the Reunification Palace to reflect principles of Eastern philosophy as well as the integration of traditional and modern styles. It’s filled with various meeting rooms and grand reception rooms. These are used to welcome foreign and national dignitaries. 

You can also visit the president’s office, the kitschy card-playing room on the second floor, and the basement. There is also a warren of tunnels, which houses a telecommunications centre, as well as a war room — both of which hold well-preserved equipment.

9. Visit the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Saigon

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Located right next to the Central Post Office, the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon is yet another one of many important places to visit in Ho Chi Minh City. It is the official seat of the Archbishop of Saigon, and one of only four churches in Vietnam to bear the title of basilica. 

Construction first began in the year 1877, under the supervision of French architect J. Bourad. One of the basilica’s most special features is its variety of stained glass windows that depict saints and stories from the Bible. 

10. Check out the botanical gardens

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Once you’re ready to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden instantly stands out as one of the best Ho Chi Minh City attractions. The quintessential green lung of the city, the botanical garden was one of the first projects undertaken by French colonists. 

It contains more than 200 species of plants, including exotic varieties from all around the world. Within the gardens, you’ll find plenty of spots to take pretty pictures for the ’Gram. The zoo is home to a variety of fascinating animals too, such as white Bengal tigers and clouded leopards.

11. Take a food trip on Vinh Khanh Food Street

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Hankering for some gastropod gastronomy? You might want to pay a visit to Vinh Khanh Street, aka Vietnam’s premier snail-eating destination! Also known as “Seafood Street,” it’s one of the Ho Chi Minh attractions you definitely don’t want to miss, especially if you’d like to try slurping up some yummy snails. Besides that, there are all sorts of delicious seafood to enjoy here including crabs, cuttlefish, and scallops.

12. Try some waterfall chicken

The food adventure continues on with another HCMC spot that seems to have been pioneered by one visionary cook. At Com Ga Xoi Mo Su Su Restaurant on Pham Ngu Lao Street, they serve a dish called waterfall chicken. But why is it called as such? 

Well, the owner of the restaurant invented a machine that sends a stream of hot oil down onto a poached chicken, crisping up the skin and further bringing out the flavours. The oil then trickles down onto a tray before being sent up again until the chicken is deemed ready.

13. Explore the Cu Chi Tunnels

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For all you outdoorsy adventurers out there, visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels should definitely be on your list of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. Stretching for 75 miles, this maze-like network of underground tunnels was used by the Vietnamese military during the war against the Americans. 

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These served not only as hiding spots, but also as routes for transporting supplies and communication. Some soldiers had to live in these tunnels for prolonged periods of time, battling against starvation and the creatures that lived within these tunnels. In some of the safer tunnels, you can even see some of the old booby traps set up by the Viet Cong during the war.  

The Cu Chi Tunnels are definitely worth checking out for a better understanding of Vietnam during the war. Although, you might want to avoid entering the actual tunnels if you’re claustrophobic.

14. Chow down the best banh mi in the city

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Contrary to what it may sound like at first, banh mi isn’t a type of noodle. It’s actually a traditional Vietnamese sandwich and a national dish. Picture a short baguette garnished with a variety of yummy fillings like cold cuts, cilantro, and pickled vegetables. 

Back when Vietnam was a French colony, the locals used to eat baguettes in the French way, alongside a platter of meat, cheeses, and butter. Somewhere down the line, a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Le decided to make the meal portable by taking the traditional baguette accompaniments and sandwiching them inside the bread! 

Fast forward to the present day, there are plenty of shops around Ho Chi Minh that serve banh mi. So, be sure to give it a try; it makes for quite a filling meal or snack!

Also read: 10 Best Vietnamese Food That You Have to Try

15. See the city on a cyclo

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There are many Ho Chi Minh City attractions that can be traced back to its French colonial past, and one of them is the cyclo. This is basically a three-wheeled bicycle taxi, but it quickly faded out as a means of transportation when motorcycles rose to fame in the city. Nonetheless, taking a cyclo tour makes for a more relaxed (and possibly even romantic) way to get around, and it’s an experience that’s unique to Ho Chi Minh.

Also read: 11 Best Beaches in Vietnam You Must Know About

Now, I’m not saying that Ho Chi Minh should be a mandatory destination for your next visit to Vietnam. However, if you’re a first-timer looking for a great destination to experience this country’s history and culture, then there are plenty of incredible things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. 

Of course, that shouldn’t be the end of your odyssey! You can also check out the capital city, explore the port city of Da Nang, or enjoy Vietnam’s very own winter wonderland.

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Jeremiah Patrick
Jeremiah Patrick

A journeyman wordsmith wandering the creative lexicon, looking to craft a masterpiece. The only thing on par with Jerry’s love for a good story is the time he spends playing dauntingly difficult video games, reading works of fiction, and listening to horror podcasts. His mood shifts between dark brooding and cheery quips, depending on how much caffeine swirls in his system.