Got 3 days in Saigon? Wondering what you should do here? At first glance, the city can be overwhelming. However, if you take a deep breath and dive in – there is much to love about this bustling South East Asian hub.
While officially named Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, as it is most commonly known, is its historic name and one that seems to be much preferred by locals.
The city is home to over eight and a half million people, making it one of South East Asia’s largest cities and that is just what it feels like, a big Asian city. It lacked the immediate appeal of Hanoi for us but did we change our minds over three days? You will have to read on to find out.
Saigon is an increasingly popular hub for many businesses and startups. As a result, the city mixes old and new, with ancient temples and glittering skyscrapers just blocks from one another.
The city could accurately be described as ‘an assault on the senses.’ Even though we had been in the country for four weeks, by the time we arrived here it still hit me like a fresh dose of culture shock.
It felt overwhelming and hot…. so hot! Perhaps we were tired; perhaps it was the humidity? I am not sure I think in the end while Saigon has its riverfront it lacked a spot of central focus that was immediate, like say Ho Kiem Lake in Hanoi or the old town in HoiAn. It’s a city you need to warm to.
Unlike the northern capital of Hanoi, HCMC doesn’t get cold. The temperature sits between 26-30 degrees year-round. Many consider the dry season, which begins in December and ends in April, to be the most comfortable time to visit.
Our visit was in late November, early December, and we still found it pretty humid! It was, however, a great time for both reasonable prices and low crowds.
Unless you have a very high tolerance to the humidity, we would avoid March, April and May. In May the wet season begins, and the rains can be pretty heavy, but it does not last all day.
We took a train from Danang to Saigon as it was the last stop on our Vietnam trip. On our return trip to the airport, we took a taxi. Our several taxis rides were fine but would probably use Grab on our next visit for the convenience.
From Saigon Main train station
It is just 4km from the station to the centre of District 1. A taxi is your best bet, just make sure they turn on the meter. It should only be a few dollars and finding your hotel when you first arrive is challenging, as is getting across the road with luggage so take the plunge and get a taxi.
From the Airport
The airport is 6km from town and thanks to some pretty hectic traffic the trip takes at least 30 minutes. The taxi situation at the airport is pretty confusing. A regular taxi from the airport is very affordable (under $10USD) if you take one from the official taxi rank. You can also book a taxi at a desk in the arrivals hall. This costs a few dollars more than going directly to the queue but having the ticket does make it easier to find your ride.
If you choose the regular queue be sure you pick a Vina, Vinasun or Mai Linh company taxi, we were given this advice by our hotel in Hanoi and by sticking with these brands we had no issues with dodgy meters or scamming drivers.
Best to avoid the official-looking guys when you exit the arrivals hall if you are on a budget. They charge a lot more ($20-40 on average) but if you have just arrived and are tired it might be worth the money not to have to navigate the process
If you are on a budget or don’t like the stress of wondering if you will get ripped off by your taxi driver you can book a private transfer service or take the very affordable and clean number 109 Airport Bus that will cost you under $2USD.
Related: Five things we loved about Hanoi
At times, the roads can seem like a literal sea of motorbikes, and just crossing them is quite an adventure. No matter how tempting it may be, we don’t recommend hiring one for yourself unless you’re a very experienced rider – the streets of Saigon can seem entirely lawless! If you do go ahead, then make sure your insurance covers you.
Instead, taxis and Grab (similar to Uber) are a cheap and convenient way to get around the city safely. They are particularly ideal for longer journeys – if taking a shorter route, then a Xe Om – or motorbike taxi – is convenient and very affordable. When you are leaving tourist hotspots, walk a few blocks away before you get your taxi to avoid the worst of the scammers who frequent these areas looking for cashed-up travellers.
Uber doesn’t operate in Ho Chi Minh after merging with the alternative app, Grab. It pays to download the app and be aware of some subtle differences – Grab will let you pay by cash instead of card upfront, and you can also get Grab Bikes if you don’t mind getting a motorbike taxi.
Although Ho Chi Minh is safe overall, scams and petty crime are pretty common. It’s best to keep your wits about you, especially in crowded places. Simple things like making sure your wallet is not an easy target for pickpockets will make sure you have a great time in the city.
Violent crime is not a big problem, and we felt safe walking the streets of inner Saigon at night. A taxi driver is scamming the most likely issue you may face. Avoid wearing expensive jewellery; we leave ours at home when we travel. Keep your phone and camera out of sight when you are not using them.
Ho Chi Minh is very, very humid. Be sure to drink plenty of water dress appropriately. General health precautions include avoiding tap water – bottled is cheap and while buying bottled water is something we try to avoid at all cost, there is not a lot of choice here. You might like to buy a water bottle with a purifying filter before you leave home.
It can be good to plan the bulk of your activities for the early morning and evening.
The official currency of Vietnam is the Dong, although the USD is also widely accepted. One hundred Australia dollars worth is currently 1.3 million Dong. Notes come in paper and polymer (like we use in Australia) varieties. Paper is used for the small notes under VND$10,000, but you probably won’t need many of these, their value starts at 1c and goes to 22c. The polymer notes start at VND$10,000 about 70c , $20,000, $50,000, $100,000, $200,000, and the $500,000 which is $35 AUD
We used our credit cards at hotels and for any online tour bookings but for almost, all dining and shopping you will need cash. ATM’s are plentiful although you will need a decent size wallet as the official currency the Dong is very inflated and when you ask the atm for say $200AUD or USD worth of Dong a small book’s worth of money is dispensed.
Related: A 2-day cruise on Halong Bay
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Unsurprisingly for such a bustling city, there is no shortage of things to do in Saigon. While it may be tempting to fill your itinerary with activities, we recommend leaving plenty of time just to soak up the city. It can be overwhelming if you try to do too much, but if you slow down and take it all in the city begins to grow on you! We have listed some great places to go in Saigon and also included an easy to follow itinerary for 3 nights in Saigon to make your planning simple.
Saigon offers Michelin-starred luxury restaurants, and humble street food stalls offer amazing foodie experiences. You cannot visit the city without indulging in a very generous amount of delicious food.
It is a true food lovers paradise, with an enormous selection of dishes, and street food stalls to try. There are also lots of foodie tours that will introduce you to local hotspots, and these are an excellent idea if you are not familiar with Vietnamese food or are nervous to order off the street stalls.
Prices are low, and servings are small so while you figuring out what you like, buy one dish and split it. If you like it, buy another! We suggest sampling plenty of Vietnamese dishes.
Some of the most delicious and least intimidating are:
We used Migrationology’s Guide to eating in Vietnam for ideas
The city is quite the multicultural hub, so you will find plenty of other cuisines on offer – District 5’s Chinatown restaurants rival those in Beijing or Shanghai. At the same time, Japanese and French are also plentiful. If you are a less adventurous eater, don’t worry, there are so many western restaurants here you will be fine!
The best-known museum in town is the War Museum and rightly so, this historic event that has fundamentally shaped Ho Chi Minh, and much of Vietnam is the Vietnam war. Although at times it can be sobering and confronting, we think it’s essential to get to know and understand this period in the country’s history.
Consider stopping in at one of these museums as well to get out of the heat for a few hours:
Another way to live like a local is to visit a market. From amazing fresh produce markets (selling all kinds of fruit and vegetables, meat, spices and way more) to beautiful artisan markets, they’re an unmissable sight in Ho Chi Minh.
Some of the most popular include the Ben Tanh Market in District 1 (which is great for souvenirs and handicrafts), and the similarly named (but totally different) Bin Tay Market in District 5 (Chinatown), which is a popular local’s food market. The latter is a better experience in our opinion if you can fit one in. Whichever you choose, be prepared to haggle – it’s expected, and you can score some great bargains.
If you prefer someone to show you around there are a few tours that include market visits. This one run by Lonely Planet includes a visit to the flower market and Ben Tanh.
As more and more skyscrapers have popped up around Ho Chi Minh, one great byproduct is an abundance of rooftop bars and gardens. Enjoying a drink with a view in a rooftop bar has become one of the most unmissable things to do in Saigon.
One of the flashiest of Ho Chi Minh’s rooftop bars is EON Heli Bar atop the ultra-modern Bitexco Tower. Here, you’ll enjoy great cocktails and small plates, but the view is what sets it apart. If you can, a visit at sunset is particularly magical.
We went old school and went to the iconic Rex Hotel, it’s only five stories high, but there is so much historical significance.
Where: Rex Hotel Saigon – 141 Nguyen Hue Street, District 1
Check out these night tours of Saigon
Start the day on a walk that will take in the cities key colonial buildings and end with rooftop drinks overlooking the city at sunset
Key sites today: City walk visiting Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, Saigon Central Post Office, Ben Thanh Market, Saigon Skydeck
The character of Ho Chi Minh city has been strongly influenced by its past colonisation by the French. As a result, you’ll see many beautiful historic buildings that seem somewhat out of place with their surrounds.
You can find lots of walking tours, or create a DIY route or save our Google Map (just above this section) and wander past (and into) beauties including:
Take a Saigon Free Walking Tours local university students who are studying hospitality and tourism.
Saigon Central Post Office – Some people list Gustav Eiffel as the architect; however, others suggest it was Alfred Foulhoux. I think the latter is correct but regardless it’s worth popping inside this impressive building for a look. It has the feel of a large train station terminal rather than a post office.
Where: 2 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh,
Saigon Notre Dame Basilica – Directly opposite the Post Office, Notre Dame dates from the 1880s and is the most important building for Catholics in Vietnam. Modelled on its French namesake the church is closed for renovation until late 2020.
Where: 1 Cong Xa Paris, Ben Nghe, District 1
Ho Chi Minh City Hall – Built in 1898 the city hall was originally a hotel modelled on the Paris Hôtel de Ville and was called Hotel de Ville de Saigon. Since 1975 it has been home to the People’s Committee, and sadly there is no public access. It is well lit at night and a popular spot for nighttime photography.
Saigon Opera House – Built in 1897 and the best example of French architecture in the city. You can book a performance at the Opera House if you enjoy that site of thing.
The Rex Hotel Rooftop bar offers a fantastic view of the Opera house and the surrounding buildings. If you feel like a western coffee and some airconditioning, there is a Highlands coffee shop right behind the Opera House.
If you are not familiar with the history of the hotel, this is where the American military officials held their daily briefings that became known as the “5 O’Clock Follies”, a name given by war correspondents who felt a bar was not a suitable place to hold a war briefing! The bar is open 24 hours a day!
Where: 07 Công Trường Lam Sơn, Bến Nghé, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Now it’s time to eat so head to the central market and find something delicious to sample.
Ben Thanh Market Head straight to the back of the market for the food – the range and quality is great. Unless you want to take home a bunch of stuff you will never use again stroll the rest of the market with your hands firmly in your pockets, even the slightest look of interest will have you being pursued.
Charlie had to steer me quickly back to the hotel one night as my patience with overzealous salespeople had worn way too thin!
Where: 26-28-30 Thủ Khoa Huân, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1,
When: Daily 6am to 6pm. Once the markets close an outdoor market springs up outside.
Bitexco Financial Tower It’s pretty hard to miss this skyscraper down on the Saigon Riverfront, and you know a building this tall is going to have some pretty impressive views. This one offers two options. The Saigon Skydeck on level 49 or the Eon Cafe on level 50.
Which to choose? Well, entry to the cafe may work out a little cheaper depending on what you order. The Skydeck opens and closes 2 hours earlier so that may play a factor in your decision. The cafe also has live music on some nights.
Where: 36 Hồ Tùng Mậu, Bến Nghé Hồ Chí Minh
When: daily Skydeck 9:30am – 9:30pm Cafe 11:30am – 11pm
You can book tickets to the Skydeck and The Heineken Experience for just a few dollars more.
Key sites today: Jade Pagoda, Pink Church, War Remnants Museum, Independence Palace, Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street
Ngoc Hoang Pagoda – (known in English as the Jade Pagoda). Ho Chi Minh city is home to several beautiful pagodas, but probably the most famous is the Jade Pagoda. It was originally built by Chinese Taoists in the early 1900s, however; Buddhist worshippers (and visitors of all faiths) are welcomed as well.
It’s a colourful, beautiful pagoda that offers a glimpse into local life in bustling Ho Chi Minh city. I recommend going early in the morning before the combination of crowds, heat and humidity get too unbearable.
Where: 73 Đường Mai Thị Lựu, Đa Kao, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh
Tan Dinh Church. (Pink Church) A gothic style church built in the 1920s and painted hot pink! The Pink Church reminded me very much of Bratislava’s Blue Church, where my brother was married. Like a perfectly iced cake or something, you would find at Disneyland.
The church is operational, and you can attend a catholic mass if you time it right.
Where: 289 Hai Bà Trưng, Phường 8, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh
When: 8am-11am 2pm-4.30pm Tuesday and Saturday.
War Remnants Museum The Vietnamese called what we know as the Vietnam War as American War or The Resistance War Against America.
A visit to the War Remnants Museum is emotional and challenging, much like a visit to a WWII concentration camp. These exhibits don’t hold back and the graphic photography was quite distressing. It unashamedly presents the war from a Vietnamese perspective, allowing you to see and understand a different side of a well-known story.
I think its important to visit but I recommend you take your time, and if it gets too much, retreat to the garden for a break. Charles completed the entire collection, but I exited shortly after the agent orange exhibit began. I would not bring young children or even early teens here.
The outside area has an extensive collection of tanks, aircraft and other equipment that war history buffs will love. You could also amuse the kids should parents want to take turns to visit the interior.
When: every day from 7:30am to 6pm
Independence Palace The Palace, previously known as the Reunification Palace. It was once the home and workplace of the President of South of Vietnam. If you love 1970s design, this is well worth a short visit. |
Where: 135 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Phường Bến Thành, District 1,
When: Daily from 7:30 a.m- 4 pm
Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street is the flashiest street in the city. Located in District one and lined with some of the cities most impressive buildings, both old and new.
Looking for a coffee, check out all the options at Café Apartment at 42 Nguyen Hue Street
By day it reminds me of Vietnam’s answer to Champs Elysees, As the day ends, the lights come on, people start to hang about, the lotus water fountain looks particularly pretty, and there is a fun ambience. On weekend evenings the street is shut to traffic.
Night owls will find there are lots of music clubs from Jazz to 70s rock, K-pop and everything in between.
Two of the most popular day trips are to see the Chi Chi tunnels and explore life on the Mekong River. Resist all temptation to book a cheap tour because generally, these are awful. With multiple stops at questionable craft factories and boring itineraries or substandard vehicles.
Buying through a recognised tour agency like Get Your Guide, who is our preferred choice, gives you a level of assurance that your tour operator is licenced and the reviews will help you to know what to expect.
Key sites today: Two of the most popular day trips
Cu Chi Tunnels – Technically not within Ho Chi Minh but an easy day trip away is the Cu Chi Tunnels. This network of tunnels that covers 121 kilometres in total is the most popular day tour from the city. Most famously, these tunnels were used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War and were integral to their military strategy.
There are two tunnel sites to choose from for your visit, Ben Dinh or Ben Duoc. Most organised tours go to Ben Dinh, which has had a lot of reconstruction work done to make them easier for tourists to access. The site is more developed, and this is where the shooting ranges are.
Ben Duoc, is further from town and considered a more authentic experience. The tunnels here have not been modified to fit western bodies so are smaller.
The tunnels are not ideal if you’re prone to claustrophobia perhaps give them a miss and go to the Mekong instead!
You can visit the tunnels alone by public transport with a bit of effort.
It is a 90 minute trip to the tunnels from HCMC, and many half-day tours are available. Often these include the chance to fire an automatic weapon. We didn’t do this, but it is hugely popular.
Getting to the Chi Chi Tunnels is not easy by public transport, so a tour is your best bet
The Mekong Delta – The other popular day tour spot in the Mekong. The Mekong River runs from they Himalayas via Saigon to Cambodia, a distance of
Most day tours include a visit to a floating market, a sampan rides along one of the smaller waterways of the river and a visit to a village or pagoda. We left the city at about 8am, and 2 hours later we made our first stop.
We visited Mỹ Tho on our tour and along with the things mentioned above we visited an orchid and a coconut candy factory on Turtle Island. Ours was a full day tour, and we didn’t get back to Saigon until after 6pm.
Check out these Mekong Delta Day tours
Street food and beer – Bui Vien or Pham Ngu Lao Street
Once you have had a bit of a rest after your big day out, make your way to one of these two famous local streets for fresh beer and street food. We had a little too much dong left so we spent up big and ordered way too much food.
The city is divided up into various neighbourhoods, in a similar way as Paris, Buenos Aires or New York. Each neighbourhood has its own distinct character and feel – for example, District 1 is the city’s beating heart, while District 5 is known as ‘Chinatown’ or ‘Cholong’.
Note: A 5-star hotel in Saigon can be upwards of $300-$500 a night, but an excellent 4-star can be found for $100-$150.
We stayed in District 1 on our visit. It is a convenient base for many of the sites and the market; however, it was pretty noisy and quite full on! I was just a little envious that I had booked one of the hotels a colleague recommended.
The Hammock Hotel Fine Arts Museum Located near Ben Thanh Market, this hotel is very cool. The rooms are modern and furnished as if designed by an Instagrammer. There is a rooftop bar, free laundry and 24 food available.
Hotel Continental Saigon This old school colonial hotel has large rooms, many with balconies overlooking the Opera House across the road. The rooms are basic, but the public areas are stunning, and the breakfast is very good.
New Boutique Hotel (Jan 2020) Our friends stayed in this recently opened hotel and raved. After seeing the photos we have put it on our shortlist for the next time we are there. The location is perfect, just off Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street, and close to the river. There is an onsite bar, cafe and restaurant. Rooms are bright, modern and many have balconies.
Bordering District one and home to the War Remnants Museum and a little less hectic than District one, on our next visit, we would most certainly choose District 3, especially after visiting friends in their hotel there.
Au Lac Legend Hotel – one look at the rooftop pool where you can sit and watch the sunset and you will be wanting to book. Be sure to book a room with
The Hut Boutique Hotel-Notre Dame – This small hotel of just 11 rooms is a short walk from the Pink Church. Rooms are large and there is a coffee shop on the ground floor.
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We usually recommend you purchase your tours and attraction tickets from Get Your Guide because they often have a 24 hour no reason cancellation policy. On most occasions, it is much easier to get your money back from them than via direct booking.