As Vietnam’s commercial center and an essential feature of any Southeast Asia travel itinerary, Ho Chi Minh City is full of tourist attractions, fascinating historical landmarks, beautiful buildings and monuments. Ho Chi Minh City is so vast and so diverse that many first-time visitors have no idea where to begin. What are the top things to see in Saigon? What are the top things to do? Well, we think the best way to tackle this city is to break it into districts.
District 1 is Ho Chi Minh City’s beating heart. Virtually all of the city’s top historical and cultural attractions are here, and as the backpacker area and central business district this area is the most popular part of Saigon for sightseeing. The huge traffic junction at Ben Thanh market is a focal landmark for the city, where bargain hunters can haggle their way to a great deal. Must-see sights include the Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Saigon Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, all of which are within walking distance of each other and a 20-30 minute brisk meander from the center of town. The Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens are also in this district, and make a great day out with the kids.
Pham Ngu Lao is Ho Chi Minh City’s version of the Khao San Road in Bangkok. This area is where most travelers to Saigon start and finish their trip, thanks mainly to its plentiful budget accommodations, cheap bars and appetizing eateries. The nightlife is at its liveliest here and rowdy revellers can be seen stumbling from one bar to the next almost every night. If you’re looking for a little respite, check out the peaceful Huyen Sy Church in the north-western corner of the Pham Ngu Lao – it’s the oldest church in the city and quite beautiful.
Also in District 1, Dong Khoi street, formerly the Rue Catinat, is the most upscale avenue in central Saigon, housing most of the city’s 5-star hotels and designer boutiques. Running parallel to this street is Nguyen Hue, and newly renovated Ho Chi Minh Square, one of Saigon’s most popular evening hang-outs and a new favorite for the city’s local selfie-lovers. Vietnamese classics are played over loudspeakers, and the area is full of smiling groups of people enjoying their night. If you’re looking for photo opportunities and some great people watching we definitely recommend a visit.
A little off the beaten track is District 3, bordering District 1 in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, more peaceful than its noisy neighbour. The tree-lined roads wind through foreign embassies, French colonial villas and up fresh, creative dining locales. The largest Mahayana pagoda in Ho Chi Minh city, Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, falls inside District 3.
Districts 2 and 7 are expat central, with ample space on their significantly wider roads, bigger, cleaner houses and few out-and-out tourist attractions. This is not to say that they aren’t worth a visit – there are a number of hip bars and eateries in District 2, while District 7 is worth visiting for the air quality alone. These two districts are also excellent examples of expat life in Ho Chi Minh City, and a lot of the city’s entrepreneurs and new start-ups are based here. If you’re an art lover, a musician or simply into alternative culture, we recommend you check out Saigon Outcast in District 2, the city’s artists’ hub. Some of Saigon’s most spacious shopping malls have opened in District 7 in the last few years, including popular Crescent Mall and SC VivoCity, so it’s a definite must-do for keen shoppers. District 10 and 11 are slowly gaining popularity among expatriates as well.
District 5 is better known as Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown. Popular Cholon markets are key attractions in this district. Clearly influenced by their high Chinese population, the alleys that wind through District 5 are full of new foods, smells, sights and sounds. Be careful with your things and be sure not to get too lost! Catch bus number 1 from the Pham Ngu Lau side of Tran Hung Dau street and ask the bus driver for Cholon.
District 9 and Binh Thanh are not very popular with tourists, yet they are great off-the-beaten-track areas of the city in which to experience local Saigon ways of life. Binh Thanh is slowly accumulating its Expat community as well. Most of their residents are from the middle class, so the area is an accurate slice of average family and corporate life in Ho Chi Minh City.
Overall, Saigon is a wonderland of things to see and things to do. A must see in Vietnam’s busiest metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City is home to countless pagodas and temples, the well-known Zoo and Botanical Gardens, museums, beautiful churches, period buildings and the fascinating hustle and bustle of a Southeast Asian center of commerce.