Times are a changing in Ho Chi Minh City. With Vietnam’s booming economy and young population, the city is rapidly reinventing itself, reflected in its fresh crop of restaurants, bars and hotels.
Formerly known as Saigon, today, this bustling metropolis is a fascinating mix of old and new, with gleaming skyscrapers and shopping malls sharing the streetscape with ancient pagodas and European-style landmarks.
While French colonial-era influences are still woven into the city’s fabric, modern HCMC has a youthful, ambitious energy, vibrantly juxtaposed with its rich cultural past.
The city is divided into geographical districts (also called Quân), each with their own identity. For example, District 1 is the city’s tourism, culture, and economic epicentre, District 3 is known for its colonial-era architecture, museums, and religious sites, and District 5 is home to Chinatown.
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, make sure to add Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as many locals still prefer to call it) to your itinerary. Whether you’re on your honeymoon or just looking for a fun holiday, here are some must-see attractions and activities to check out in HCMC.
Whether you want to play tourist or not, the fact is that you cannot visit HCMC and not experience some of the essential Saigon sights, as cliched as they might seem.
The Reunification Palace (open between 8-11 am and then 1-4.30 pm, entry 20,000 VND or around AUD1.20) is where 30 years of war officially ended on April 30, 1975, and as such, it is a must-do.
Not far away is The War Remnants Museum (7:30am–12pm and 1:30–5pm). Formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes, the exhibits are somewhat toned down compared to when it first opened but be warned, some are still not for the fainthearted. Expect to see the brutality documented with sometimes horrific photographs – the children affected by napalm are particularly disturbing. Often suggested that the point of view on display here is very one-sided, it is, however, an important exhibit.
A real must-do is visiting the Chu Chi Tunnels by speedboat with Les Rives Experience. Usually, a couple of hours is needed to travel by bus, but we chose the more convenient option of arriving by speedboat, allowing us to see life on the riverbanks as we cruised by, and to arrive before most of the other visitors.
A visit to Ben Thanh Market in the centre of District 1 is where you will find plenty of affordable clothing, trinkets, gifts and street food. One of the earliest serving structures in the city, today it is one of the biggest markets in HCMC.
Taka Plaza (02 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St. District 1) is a market-style mall with stall-holders offering a mix of genuine and ‘not so genuine’ branded goods. You’ll need to rummage to find the gems, but it’s here I found a stunning silk skirt with an American designer label and a Mango suit dress, each for less than $10.
Tailors are on every street corner in HCMC. On previous trips to Vietnam, I’d pack some of my favourite outfits and have tailors remake them – from office shirts to that dress that fits just perfectly, I’ve had some fantastic pieces recreated.
If you’re a fan of unique and artistic finds, be sure to check out the New District in Ho Chi Minh City. This bustling flea market is a popular shopping destination, especially on weekends when local designers showcase their work to large crowds. Since its inception in 2015, the market has continued to thrive and attract visitors from all over. Keep an eye out for local brands like Live, Heverly, Ubarnists, and Pop Birdy while you’re there!
Saigon Square is a busy Ho Chi Minh City shopping centre that attracts locals and tourists. This two-story mall is known for its affordable wholesale prices on various items, including clothing for men and women, handbags, swimwear, shoes, luggage, and jewellery. With a huge product collection, shoppers are bound to find something they love at Saigon Square.
Fusion Original Saigon Centre
In the heart of District 1, you’ll find a fabulous urban retreat perfect for lovers of art, shopping, and design. Fusion Original Saigon Centre occupies ten floors in the city’s prestigious Saigon Centre and Takashimaya Shopping Mall, with lavish rooms and amenities, a generous guest lounge, and impeccable service. A special treat (especially after a day exploring the city) is the incredible sixth-floor swimming pool overlooking the buzzing streetscape and breathtaking skyline.
Each of the 146 rooms offers city views and warmly luxurious interiors. Look for the Premium Deluxe room for a comfy king bed, lovely bathtub, city views, complimentary mini-bar, and access to the 24-hour Reload Pantry.
This unique hotel will stir the senses and put the dynamic city at your fingertips, including the Ben Thanh Market and Opera House just minutes away. Our tip? Dine at Miss Thu, the signature restaurant on the 24th floor.
Eat & Drink
Food is at the very heart of Vietnamese culture, so chances are it will play a central role in your time in HCMC. From cheap and cheerful eateries and street food carts to fancier fine-dining haunts. If you’re keen to try an authentic Vietnamese dish, look to pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) a tasty broth bowl with flat rice noodles, herbs, and meat. Or sample the crunchy/soft, French/Vietnamese baguette goodness of bánh mì. Coffee-lovers can join the locals sipping cà phê sua dá (ka-fay sooh-da), a rich iced coffee drink blending condensed milk with robust drip coffee. Here are some of our favourite places to eat and drink in Saigon.
The Triêu Institute
When it comes to bars and restaurants, one of our new favourites is The Triêu Institute. Occupying a vintage two-storey building in the vibrant Mac Thi Buoi neighbourhood of District 1, the street-level dining space and open kitchen leads to an atmospheric upstairs bar and lounge spilling out to an open-air terrace.
Australian-born Executive Chef Chris Donnellan has crafted a menu of contemporary dishes incorporating the aromatic herbs and botanicals found in Lady Triêu gins, using premium ingredients and local flavours from Vietnam and highlighting the diverse regional flavours of the country. Perfect for a fun night out.
Chill Rooftop Bar
Since opening in late 2011, Chill has been one of the city’s most highly rated venues for views and stylish cocktails. Located on the 26th floor of the AB Tower, you’ll feel as if you can see all of Ho Chi Minh City laid out before you. Note that dress code applies. Although the city’s first real rooftop bar, Chill remains as popular with local high-rollers and expats alike.
Miss Thu Restaurant
Miss Thu Restaurant, situated on the top floor of Fusion Original Saigon Centre in HCMC’s District 1, offers a unique dining experience with stunning city views and delectable cuisine. The restaurant’s modern and vibrant interior design, featuring quirky artwork of the figurative Miss Thu, adds to the sensory journey. With an executive chef with a Michelin-star background leading the talented team, the menu is a fusion of Vietnamese flavors with international influences, providing guests with an unforgettable upscale dining experience. Open to outside guests, Miss Thu Restaurant is the perfect destination for those seeking a memorable culinary adventure.
Another Australian connection can be found at the Summer Experiment cocktail bar in District 1, the brainchild of Aussie mixologist Jay Moir. Think moody yet upbeat bar vibes and playful, experiential cocktails with fruits, vegetables, and herbs plucked from the rooftop garden or sourced locally.
Local Vietnamese coffee is available pretty much everywhere. Named ca phe su da, it is simply filtered coffee with condensed milk… and a kick.
Pho Hoa Pasteur is in District 1 and is said to be one of the best places in Ho Chi Minh City for southern style Pho – possibly Vietnam’s most famous dish. Due to its popularity with international visitors the restaurant even offers a menu in English. (Pho Hoa Pasteur260 Pasteur street, District 1.)
Australian expat Barbara Adam and her Vietnamese husband, Vo Vu, created Saigon Street Eats in early 2008 as an anti-tour option for visitors wanting to immerse themselves in the real HCMC food scene. On the tour you’ll travel on the back of motorbikes, or do what we did and go for the scaredy-cat option where we met Vu at the hotel and went off by taxi. Offering everything from a morning Pho trail to an evening seafood option and even private tailored tours, we chose the Street-food 101 option where we spent three hours navigating some of the best local stalls and sampling everyday cheap and cheerful Vietnamese favourites. Another highlight of our HCMC holiday, we found ourselves in areas of the city we’d never have visited otherwise, eating food from stalls we’d never have been brave enough to stop at.
Experience the Best of Vietnam’s Hospitality at This Romantic Boutique Hotel just a few hours’ drive from HCMC.