Perhaps you’ve already read my post on creating a sample two week itinerary for Vietnam, and now you feel inspired to plan your trip there. Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon) is the largest city in Vietnam. On the sample itinerary, you’d be staying there for four nights. Here’s my list of seven things you should not miss during that time.
My list of seven unmissable things to do in Saigon
1. Take a tour of the Reunification Palace
For many people, the photograph of the North Vietnamese army tank crashing through the gates of Saigon’s Presidential Palace at 11.30am on April 30, 1975, is one of the most enduring images of the Vietnam War (or American War, as it is known in Vietnam).
The Palace, which is a fine example of 1960s Modernist architecture, was both the home and the workplace of the President of South Vietnam during that time, and the tank-crashing-event marked the Fall of Saigon and the end of the War. Since then, the Reunification or Independence Palace (as it is now known) has been preserved as it was in 1975 as a museum and is also used for government conferences and entertaining. It offers a fascinating glimpse of the lives of the South Vietnamese ruling elite in the 1970s.
The Palace opens at 7.30am each morning with the first guided tour setting off shortly after. Both times we’ve visited we’ve joined early tours before the crowds get too large and the heat and humidity too overbearing.
Reunification Palace135 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa, Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh City
2. Go to the Cu Chi Tunnels via speedboat
As far as I’m concerned there is no better way to do a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnel complex than going by speedboat. A couple of hours in a bus on those crazy Vietnam roads…versus an hour in a luxury speedboat up the Saigon River. No contest!
Back in 2010 when we first went, we used the relatively new Saigon River Express company. They have since expanded and changed name to Les Rives Experience, and we used them again in 2013 for both Cu Chi tunnels (again) and Mekong River tours. Speedboat is a quick and enjoyable way to get to and from the Cu Chi tunnel complex.
The Cu Chi tunnel complex is just a small part of the 250 km of interconnecting tunnels which played a key part in the guerilla warfare of the Vietnam/American War. They consist of several levels of tunnels up to 10 metres deep. There are living spaces, kitchens, hospitals, factory rooms.
During the tour you have an opportunity to enter a small part of the tunnel network and experience the truly claustrophobia conditions so many people lived, worked and fought in during the War.
Les Rives ExperienceDeparture Point and Kiosk Vietnam
Les Rives Kiosk, Vuon Kieng Pier (opp. Renaissance Hotel)
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
3. Have a sunset drink at Saigon Saigon rooftop bar at The Caravelle
In Saigon, the sunsets can be spectacular. And there is no better place to watch the sun go down while enjoying a beverage or two than the rooftop Saigon Saigon bar at The Caravelle hotel, which is located right in the heart of Saigon on the corner of Dong Khoi and Lam Son (Theatre) Square.
The Caravelle was constructed in the 1950s as the most modern and luxurious hotel in the Indochina colony. Its rooftop terrace bar played an important role just a few years later when it played host to many of the foreign press covering the conflict in Vietnam. Saigon Saigon at The Caravelle was legendary as the preferred drinking place of the city’s foreign correspondents, who could even at times listen to and watch hostilities from that viewpoint.
As your enjoy half-price cocktails during happy hour, you can imagine what it must have been like for those members of the press to sit there, watching and listening as over 1,000 rounds of heavy artillery pounded the fringes of Saigon each night.
You can read more about Saigon Saigon at The Caravelle in my post about it here.
Saigon Saigon BarRooftop of The Caravelle Saigon, 19-23 Lam Son Square (access via stairs from the 9th Floor of the old wing)
Open from 11:00am until late with Happy Hour from 4:00pm to 7:00 pm each day (50% off the total bill)
Phone: 3823 4999 Ext 27100
4. Snag a bargain at the Ben Thanh Markets
Bến Thành Market is a large marketplace in central Saigon/HCMC where the actual market building is one of the earliest surviving structures in the city. You name it, you can find it, in the corridors and stalls of this bustling market. Meat, fruit and vegetables, live seafood, chickens and ducks, scorpion wine, knock-off designer handbags, watches, clothing and shoes, fabrics by the metre, spices, cookware.
Navigating through the market without engaging any stall holders in spirited sales tactics takes some skill. However, if you have found something you are interested in, you can start the negotiations over the price (if it is not fixed – many stalls are moving to fixed pricing). Bartering is enthusiastic, and the stall holders can be very persuasive, even turning a bit nasty if they think you’re not going to buy afterall. All part of the theatre of the market.
I particularly love the flower stalls which offer floral arrangements so cheap I have no qualms about buying one for the hotel room on the first day, knowing I’d be moving on in four nights and leaving it behind.
Ben Thanh Market
Lê Lợi, Bến Thành, District 1, HCMC
5. Dine in the dark at Noir Restaurant
The concept of Noir: Dining in the Dark restaurant is exactly that – guests dine in total darkness. And when I say total, I mean, you can’t even see your hand if you hold it in front of your face. The restaurant is located down the end of an alley off Hai Ba Trung Street (at no. 178) in a colonial style house. There is a choice of two set menus – a From the East menu or a From the West one, with each consisting of starters, main course and desserts. Details of the actual dishes however are not given prior to the meal.
The wait staff are all blind or visually impaired people who are naturally more comfortable and efficient in low light situations. As you enter the pitch-black dining room, you place your total trust in your server, who guides you to the table and assists you through the meal as well as professionally and efficiently provides a full food and beverage service.
This is a stand out experience in Saigon and is one of our all-time memorable moments. You can read more about our experience at Noir here.
Noir: Dining in the DarkAddress: Lane 178 Hai Ba Trung . Dakao . District 1 . HCMC
6. Glam up with some nail art
Throughout the city, you can find a multitude of nail bars. On our last morning in HCMC earlier this year, my daughters and I wandered into Fame Nails to get our nails painted. The girls were keen to get some toenail art.
Oh my goodness…what a selection we had to choose from. Cards and cards of examples of designs. Full sets of nail art started from 140,000 VND (about USD $6.50). The ladies painted these intricate designs so carefully and with such great humour. The lady doing The Impossible Princess’s ‘fruit’ designs laughed about having to paint pineapples on such tiny 11 year old little toe nails!
Our Vietnamese toe nail art was a souvenir that took no room in our luggage and lasted for weeks after we returned home.
Fame NailsDistrict 1 – No. 18, Pham Hong Thai, Ben Thanh Ward, HCMC
District 1 – 45 Mac Thi Buoi Street, Ben Nghe Ward, HCMC
7. Have some new threads custom-tailored
Vietnam has a long history of manufacturing on various scales, and one of the specialties is the tailoring of clothing. There are numerous tailors dotted throughout Saigon/HCMC and it is a super-fun thing experience to have some clothing tailored. Four nights is enough time to get a good result if you get straight onto it on your first day on the ground in the city. Check out my previous post for all my best tips for getting a great result with any tailoring you select: you can read my guide to having clothing tailored in Vietnam here.
Have you been to Saigon/HCMC? What was your unmissable experience?
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