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

To be perfectly honest, I really didn’t know what to expect from this place! While I was noting the top things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, I was constantly overwhelmed by its sheer size. I was also a lot more worried about the “hectic” adjective a lot of travel bloggers liked to tack on as a descriptor, worrying I’d be in a concrete jungle lost in a sea of motorbikes, clinging to my purse in fear.

However, I was totally wrong. While, yes, there is a certain craziness about HCMC, it’s also got a ton of charm, probably best reflected in its architecture. It actually became one of my favorite cities in my Vietnam trip. Most of the bigger sites can be found within District 1, which is very easy to do all by foot. If I had had more time, I would have loved to venture out to the other districts where a lot of the more traditional, pre-French Colonial structures are. However, I really only had my feet to take me around and a full day for all of it. To make your list searching easier, I thought I’d outline some of the places to see!

Tips on Visiting Ho Chi Minh City

VISAS

If you’re a U.S. traveler, yes, you DO need a visa to enter the country even as a tourist. Unlike Cambodia, you can’t just do everything at the airport. You’ll need to get a letter of approval online first. Print it and bring it with you to the airport. You’ll then pay around $25 USD there to get the actual visa in your passport. You can use iVisa to handle getting your letter of approval or even doing an e-visa and paying online instead of waiting until you arrive. Check their quotes here.

GETTING THERE

I actually found a decent deal with Asiana Airlines, my favorite since 2011! Michelle flew the budget VietJetAir, which she said was okay. I booked mine on Expedia, but I’ve also been impressed with Kiwi lately, especially if you’re on more of a budget.

WHERE TO STAY

So I got a private room at Lily Hostel. I was traveling alone for the first few days, and Michelle was joining me at the end for the rest our Vietnam trip. I really enjoyed my stay, and the owners were super kind. It’s on Bui Ven, which is a big backpacker road, and it’s in walking distance of all the major attractions in District 1. I wrote a whole review here about it, and you can check prices on Agoda here.

In general, if you want to see the main sites of HCMC, stay in District 1 or nearby. The nicer, luxury hotels are in the same area, which is close to the Opera House and Nguyen Hue Street.

GETTING AROUND

I would recommend not getting on motorbikes here. It’s ultimately up to you though. I took taxis a few times, but mostly I just walked. Actually one day, I wanted to challenge myself, so I only took my camera, some money, and a paper map that I had made little notes on.

MONEY + SAFETY

I took out money at ATMs just fine. I have Citibank, and there were actually a few Citibanks in the city as well as an ATM right at the airport. In terms of safety, just take precautions. I never felt unsafe, but I was also in the most popular area during the day.

WHAT TO WEAR

You’re fine with whatever you want to wear. HCMC is quite humid, even when I was there in February, so dress in loose, comfortable fabrics.

TRAVEL INSURANCE

Check with your insurance at home and see if they cover you abroad. You do want some sort of insurance for Vietnam just in case, especially if you plan on using a motorbike! If your insurance at home doesn’t cover you, get a quote on World Nomads. It’s really quite cheap and covers a lot of things.

Top Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City

Drink ca phe su dua. Scratch that, become mildly addicted to ca phe sua da.

Oh sweet, Vietnamese coffee. Made with condensed milk, it’s so flippin’ good, I still dream about it and try to make it on my own. You’re going to want to try this and then drink it the rest of your trip! It’s all around, the city, and only $1-2, so indulge!

Get a view of the city from Bitexco Tower.

This is the place to go if you want a landscape view of Ho Chi Minh! You can go to the observation deck on the 49th floor or go up to the 52nd floor and eat or grab a drink at EON 51.

Cost: 200,000 VND
Times: 
Observation Deck: 9:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (ticket sales end at 8:45 p.m.), EON 51 Menu, 8:00 a.m.-11:00 p.m.
Address: Tòa nhà tài chính Bitexco, 2 Hải Triều, Bến Nghé

Visit the War Remnants Museum.

Of all the things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, visiting the War Remnants Museum is the most sobering. Give yourself enough time to wander through because it’s a lot to take in. It’s divided into different parts with a recommended order, and you can see the varying effects the war had on Vietnam. Before you go, I’d do some research so you know what to expect. Crash Courses has a good video that lays down the basics.

Cost: 15,000 VND
Times:  7:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m., 1:30 p.m.- 5:00 p.m.
Address: 28 Võ Văn Tần

Visit the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon.

Built in the mid-1800s after France took over the city, it’s official name is Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception. Its bricks were imported from France, and it was considered the loveliest cathedral among the French colonies. It’s an excellent starting point to explore the area.

Cost: Free
Times: 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.
Address: Bến Nghé

Send a postcard from the Saigon Central Post Office.

Literally, right next door to the Cathedral is the Post Office, built in the later 1800’s. It’s a mixture of French, Renaissance, and Gothic architecture. Inside is spacious and lovely, and it’s still functioning! If you can, get a postcard to send!

Cost: Free
Times: 6:00 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Address: 2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé

Snap a photo of Saigon Opera House.

A few blocks down and past the swanky hotels (Hyatt, Continental), you’ll find the Opera house nestled in the midst. This is also probably the fanciest part of Ho Chi Minh City because it’s also where I stumbled across the big name brand stores. Built at the turn of the twentieth century, its majestic style is similar to Le Petit Palais found in France.

Cost: Free, though I never went in and photographed it from the outside
Times: Opening hours vary.
Address: 7 Lam Son Square

Walk near the Ho Chi Minh City Supreme People’s Court

There’s not a lot of information out there on this building. According to this Google search, it’s in the beginning stages of restoration. It’s hard to not walk by at some point, and with its bright yellow and blue color scheme, you’re not going to miss it.

Address: 131 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa

Enjoy Nguyen Hue Street!

This seems to be the main street of Ho Chi Minh City. I was there on Tet and it was flooded with people in their best outfits taking photos with the flowers. It’s absolutely gorgeous! Walk along the whole thing and enjoy the colors and cheerful crowds.

Head up to 42 Nguyen Hue Street (an old looking building with a sketchy entrance) and find Saigon Oi, a delicious coffee shop, for a lovely view of the whole street! I also loved Parttea, a cute English tea room.

Address: Nguyễn Huệ

Eat Banh Mi outside City Hall.

At the front end of Nguyen Hue street is HCMC’s City Hall (or known as the People’s Committee Hall). It’s a massive structure with a plaza in front of it for viewing. It’s an awesome meeting point, and it’s nice to hang out and eat some Banh Mi with friends. Banh Mi is this delicious baguette sandwich, and you can buy it from one of the ladies with stalls nearby.

Address: Lê Thánh Tôn

Take a Day Trip to the Mekong Delta.

Since I was kind of nervous visiting Vietnam on my own, I booked a full day tour as soon as I arrived. I’d wanted to see the Mekong Delta anyway, and it was the perfect way for me to get comfortable in a new country. Also, it’s pretty much impossible to visit on your own. I wrote a post reviewing my day trip and what you’ll see exactly if you want more info.

If you have more time, you can actually stay overnight in the Mekong at a homestay, which I always thought would be a unique experience. Check out Viator for all the different tour options. Alternatively, your hotel can help you with booking tours.

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What would you add to this list of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City? I know only 3 days is NOT nearly enough!

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