Don’t Miss Saigon

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

10 unmissable things to see and do in Saigon, the city of “Chi”.

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is locally known, is famous for its street food, with the city often referred to as one gigantic open-air restaurant. Every day, thousands of street-side eateries offer delicious, inexpensive food on the city’s sidewalks with rickety tables and plastic chairs on uneven cobbled streets providing an atmosphere and ambiance unique to Saigon. Many of these food stalls are quaintly named after family members such as “Aunty” or “Chi” (meaning sister), often followed by a number representing their order in the family. Eating street food is one of the most enjoyable things you can do in Saigon, so it is appropriate to start our top 10 best things to see and do, with food.

  1. Experience Vietnamese street food

One of the highlights of any trip to Vietnam has to be the food and nowhere is it better than in the street stalls and food courts of Saigon. Street food is everywhere, permeating every district, every street and every alleyway. Quite simply, it’s a way of life in Vietnam, with the casual street atmosphere and urban surrounds (and sounds!) adding to the culinary experience. Of the dozens of street food locations in the city, Tran Khac Chan Street is one of our favourite street food destinations and it is an easy walk from our hotel in District 1. Here we can choose traditional Vietnamese dishes served by Chi from dozens of food stalls, all vying for our custom. There are countless street-side eateries in Saigon and in my humble opinion, the food stalls in Tran Khac Chan are amongst the friendliest and best. Whenever we are considering where to eat, we check to see if the locals are eating there. If they are, that good enough for us. Tran Khac Chan street is invariably full of locals. To find out where to eat local in Saigon, go to:

  1. Learning to cook – Vietnamese-style

After numerous visits to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, Dinah and I have grown to love Asian food. We enjoy it whenever we can. On our last trip to Vietnam we decided to learn from the locals how to prepare and cook authentic Vietnamese food. There are any number of cooking tours and classes available in Saigon. Most start with a visit to the Ben Thanh Markets on Phan Chu Trinth Street to purchase garden-fresh ingredients, then back to the kitchen for a hands-on cooking class. In the main these are half day (3 to 4 hour) tours; one hour at the markets and the remainder cooking in the kitchen. In small groups, you will learn to prepare and cook a four course Vietnamese meal. In most instances you’ll also receive a recipe book for future reference. Tours cost in the vicinity of US$45 per person, including ingredients and pick-up and drop-off to your hotel. Discover your tour and book at:

  1. To market, to market

Markets are a central feature of most Asian cities, traditionally a place where people meet to purchase essential goods and produce. Saigon is no different. There are hundreds of small alleyway markets selling food, bric-a-brac and tourist souvenirs. And then there are the ‘serious’ markets, most of which are located within District 1. These are must-see destinations for shopping enthusiasts looking for a bargain. There are 5 main markets: Ben Thanh Market, Cholon (Binh Tay Market), An Dong Market (Craft Market), Dan Sinh Market (War Surplus Market), and The Russian Market selling mainly winter gear. The largest and arguably the best of these is Ben Thanh Market on Phan Chu Trinth Street. Largely undercover, it houses hundreds of individual stalls selling everything from fresh food and produce to household supplies. And of course, ‘knock-off’ branded products – handbags, clothing, watches. Go to: then come and barter, hard!

  1. Dragonfly shopping

The streets of Saigon are lined with souvenir shops selling traditional Vietnamese clothing, craft and curiosities. The most popular souvenirs include traditional Ao Dai (Vietnamese Long Dresses) which you can even have custom-made; Non La (conical leaf hats) popularised by field workers; colourful hand-made Brocade Carry Bags in myriad patterns and designs; Hand Fans decorated with intricate designs and Confucianism-inspired calligraphy; Handicraft Pieces, including wooden trays, vases, boxes, as well as lacquerware, reed mats, carpets and leather work; Shell Craft, decorative objects and shell surfaces; Sand Paintings depicting daily life of the Vietnamese people; and my personal favourite, the Bamboo Dragonfly. These beautiful hand-painted pieces are cleverly balanced so that they can perch gracefully on any surface, even the end of your finger. They are small, inexpensive and unique to Vietnam. Great for friends and family back home. Check them out:

  1. Treasure hunting

Whenever we travel, we are invariably drawn to the antiques and artefacts of the country. We have an excellent collection at home; not all pieces expensive, but all pieces unique and a reminder of our travels. One of the best locations for antiques and artefacts in Vietnam is Le Cong Kiew Street in Saigon’s District 1. Located right opposite Ben Thanh Market in central Saigon and across the enormous central city roundabout, this is Saigon’s premier antique market. About 100 metres long, the street is packed with antique shops selling thousands of interesting items including statues and stone effigies, old coins, art, furniture and colonial memorabilia. This is a great place to spend a morning or afternoon treasure hunting for that special piece of Vietnam to take home with you. As usual, bargain hard. While not quite as accommodating as the general markets price-wise, you should still be able to snare a bargain. More on Le Cong Kiew Street at:

  1. Walk the streets of Saigon

You can see it through the window of a mini-bus or from an air-conditioned tour coach but in my opinion, the best way to see a city, its sights and its smells is to walk its streets. Pick up a street map and set out on your own or  join an organised walking tour. One of the best ways to not only see but learn about the rich history of this city is to join a Saigon Free Walking Tour. The tours are conducted by a network of volunteer students with the objective of supporting authentic and local Saigon. The tour guides are both passionate and knowledgeable about their city and you’ll see the Saigon most tourists don’t see. Beyond historic buildings and landmarks such as the French Colonial-inspired Central Post Office and Notre Dame Cathedral, you’ll glimpse another side of this fascinating city they call ‘The Pearl of the Far East– the Oriental Saigon and its many temples and shrines. The tours are 4 hours and run day and night. You can book your tour at:

  1. Traditional Medicines Museum

They often talk about the wonders of modern medicine. Here’s one place where you can see and learn about the wonders of ancient oriental medicine . A little off the beaten tourist track, the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine is well worth a visit. You’ll gain rare insights into medicines and procedures that date back to the Stone Age. The museum building itself is unique, little rooms filled with instruments and artefacts used to prepare the medicines – knives, scales, cabinets, tea pots, ancient books and documents that track the history of the ancient remedies. There are over 3000 items on display and the museum is equipped with modern audio-visual technology showing documentaries about traditional Vietnamese medicines. The Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine is located at 41 Hoang Dur Khuong Street, Ward 12 in District 10, so if you are staying in central Saigon it is not within walking distance. Get a taxi. For more information about the museum go to:

  1. War Remnants Museum

The history of Vietnam has been one of conflict. In our lifetime, the Vietnam War (locally referred to as the American War) brought the horrors of war to the television screens of millions of people around the world. The War Remnants Museum is this country’s tribute to the struggle that saw over 3 million Vietnamese killed in the conflict. The museum is a sombre place with exhibits relating to the Vietnam War as well as to the first Indochina War. You enter the museum via a forecourt displaying many of the weapons of the war – a Huey helicopter gunship, an F-5A jet fighter, an M48 Patton tank, A-1 Skyraider and A-37 Dragonfly attack bombers, as well as pieces of unexploded ordinance. Inside the building you are confronted by graphic photographic reminders and exhibits representing the horrors of war. Within walking distance of District 1 , the War Remnants Museum is on Vo Van Tan in District 3.

  1. Cu Chi Tunnels

An immense 220-kilometre network of interconnecting underground tunnels, the Cu Chi tunnels are located in the Cu Chi District on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. Originally built by the Viet Cong in the 1940s as protection from French air raids, the tunnels were used by VC soldiers during the Vietnam War as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapons stores, as well as living quarters for the North Vietnamese fighters. The best way to see the tunnels is on a guided small-group tour. You’ll hear the history of the tunnels and, if you are brave enough, you’ll even be able to explore sections of the tunnels for yourself. At the conclusion of the tour there is an outdoor theatre that shows old propaganda films vividly recounting aspects of the conflict. Tours include hotel pick-up and drop-off. Go to: 

The war museum and tunnels are confronting and definitely not for everyone. There is plenty more to see and do in Saigon. Go to:

  1. Saigon by night

On a brighter note and to round out the top 10 unmissable things to see and do, you must explore Saigon by night. This traditional city really comes alive when the sun goes down and Saigon rages into the evening. The street food markets, shops, malls and rooftop bars are the places to go in District 1. We’ve talked about the food stalls at street level, now let’s aim a little higher – rooftop bars like Air360, Chill Skybar and Glow. Here you not only enjoy classy cocktails, mellow lounge music and plush surrounds, you’ll enjoy panoramic views of the Saigon skyline. Saigon also has a great live music scene. From smooth jazz at La Fenetre Soilel to full-on rock and roll at Fang Pub, you can (with apologies to KISS) rock and roll all night and party every day! Or, for a more laid-back evening, take a romantic dinner cruise down the Saigon River while enjoying great food and great music. Saigon is a city that never sleeps. Check out all there is to do when the sun goes down at: www.vietnam-guide-top10-ho-chi-minh

Photo Gallery

Main picture: Local Vietnamese display their patriotism on the streets of Saigon

  • Street food is everywhere in Saigon. It is inexpensive and fantastic
  • While in Saigon, why not learn to cook Vietnamese-style
  • There are any number of large and small markets in Saigon. This is the biggest
  • Bamboo dragonflies are a great little gift and little enough to bring home with you
  • Treasure hunting, but watch for cheap imitations
  • The majestic architecture of the Central Post Office
  • Inside the Traditional Medicines Museum. No idea!
  • The War Remnants Museum is definitely not for the faint-hearted
  • The Cu Chi Tunnels outside Saigon. One small opening into a labyrinth of tunnels
  • And on a brighter note – spectacular evening views of Saigon from the Chill Skybar
  • The only way to end the day