For the well-travelled culture connoisseur, Ho Chi Minh City is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. On the surface, it's rough around the edges. But beneath the heat, pollution and organised chaos is a unique place full of one-of-a-kind gems that unveil the city’s heritage.
In this quickly expanding city, knowing where to begin can be overwhelming. Especially if you are looking to dive deeper than the typical things-to-see for tourists. That’s why we put together this three-day itinerary for anyone itching to chart a course less travelled and see the best of the city’s rich history and culture.
AN ARTS AND CULTURE TOUR OF SAIGON
Friday: A Museum Marathon and Some Old-Fashioned Opulence
Start your trip with a fresh coconut at the Tao Dan park sculpture garden, where you can discover local art history as you stroll along meandering pathways lined with some of the city’s oldest trees and modernist sculptures.
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You’ll need caffeine to get you through this day, so consider heading to nearby She Café for a jolt of coffee and some female-inspired photography. The downlit, rustic vibe of the place is just the right amount of artsy.
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Once fueled-up, jump straight into the city’s war-time history by exploring the popular Reunification Palace—the centrefold of the fall of Saigon in 1975.
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A taste of Vietnam’s famous food culture is mere steps away at Quan An Ngon 138. The Chinese pagoda-style restaurant takes you on a culinary voyage across Vietnam’s vast and flavourful food landscape by dishing up high-quality, authentic favourites from different regions of the country.
Image source: quanngon138.com
After lunch, hail a cab to Hung Kings’ Temple, which is located across the same plaza as the Museum of Vietnamese History and the Saigon Botanical Gardens. Completed in 1929, the Hung Kings’ Temple honours fallen heroes with exquisite masonry and architecture. The 2,000 square metre National History Museum is home to plenty of artifacts of ethno-cultural significance.
Image source: National History Museum
Head back along Lê Duẩn street, a wide tree-lined boulevard that passes through ‘consulate row’. Pass the heavily guarded American Consulate, the stunning colonial style Consulate Générale de France, and the recently opened German behemoth, Deutsches Haus. Turn left on Hai Ba Trung, and wander down Saigon’s quaint, pedestrian-only Book Street.
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A day of exploring can be tiring so after some browsing, we recommend quenching your thirst for haute culture with an aperitif at the majestic RuNam d’Or villa. From your happy hour vantage point, you can see two beautiful, if typical, stops on the Saigon tourist map—the Saigon Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral.
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Cruise over to Propaganda restaurant for contemporary Vietnamese cuisine alongside vintage Viet Cong propaganda art.
Image source: Propaganda restaurant
After dinner, indulge in 1930s-style Saigonese luxury. Have a drink in the cigar lounge at the Hotel Des Arts Social Club, then head one floor up to take in the breathtaking rooftop view.
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Saturday: War Remnants, Feminist Fighters and Religious Relics
Kick off day two with a carefully crafted cup of artisanal coffee from Fugashin Coffee. The baristas are coffee artists who bring you along for every step from grinding the beans to sipping.
Right across the street is the War Remnants Museum, a painful but necessary journey to gain understanding of the brutal American War.
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For lunch, rejuvenate your senses with the fusion vegetarian cuisine of Prem Bistro and Café, which offers a tranquil, Tibetan-style ambience as an escape from the heat.
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After you've had your fill, explore Vietnam’s history through the eyes of inspirational local women at the Southern Women’s Museum. The Museum highlights some of Vietnam’s strongest female personalities throughout history including age-old matriarchal leaders and some of the fiercest wartime heroes.
The next stop on our list is the high-class Salon Saigon. This gallery and performance space showcases the artistic prowess of contemporary Vietnamese Artists.
Image source: salonsaigon.com
Just down the street is one of the Ho Chi Minh City’s grandest statements dating back to Saigon’s French Colonial roots: The Archbishop’s Palace. Moved in 1946 from its original 1790 birthplace, the well-maintained mansion is still a colonial site to behold.
For this evening’s meal, feast your five senses at Hoi An Sense, a restaurant that takes cultural fine dining to a new level. Central Vietnamese delights are served alongside traditional Vietnamese music and dance performances.
Image source: Hoi An Sense
To cap off the night, treat yourself to a cocktail at Sky Garden Rooftop lounge, courtesy of the 5-star Rex Hotel. The hotel was the infamous location of the American military’s daily war conferences. Though the rooftop is low compared to today’s high-rise standards, you’ll have a view of the Saigon Opera House and the People’s Committee Hall. But be warned, outside of happy hour the drinks tab can be quite high.
Image source: Rex Hotel
Sunday: Musical Overtures and a River Finale
Don't miss the weekly free live music in front of the Opera House. The Opera House is the premier jewel of French colonial architecture in the city, boasting a repertoire of performances that's easily on par with international standards.
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Today’s recommended breakfast and coffee is just a stone’s throw away at the Caravelle hotel. This lavish hotel is lovely to look at but more importantly it housed the Australian and New Zealand embassies during the 1960s as well as being the nerve centre for many of the major American television networks.
Image source: Caravelle Saigon
The last museum on this list of cultural gems is one you shouldn’t miss! Saigon’s Fine Arts Museum has three floors of extensive exhibits that take you on a journey through Vietnam’s rich art history, with rotating installations including everything from contemporary and political art to Cham, Indian and Khmer artifacts dating as far back as 600 AD.
For a post-museum snack and coffee, check out Cà Phê Cô Ba, a local favourite coffee house known for its vintage and comfortable interior design and affordable drinks.
Image source: Cà Phê Cô Ba
1:45 to 6:15 pm:
It's been a full few days. What better way to see the rest of the city than a jeep and river boat tour? Les Rives offers a comprehensive tour of the town that includes food and refreshments. Sit back, relax, and enjoy different angles of the city along the cities waterways, while taking in a Saigon sunset.