When traveling around Vietnam, you shouldn’t miss the bustling Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south of the country. Saigon is not only great for ending or starting your Vietnam trip due to the well-connected international airport, but also has some cool attractions to offer. Here I tell you everything you need to know about backpacking Saigon!
By the way: The city was formerly known as Saigon, but was then renamed in honor of the former president and national hero Ho Chi Minh. Although HCMC is the official name these days, both are used. I talked to local students in the city and they assured me that Saigon is still more common, as it is a lot easier to say than Ho Chi Minh City!
Backpacking Saigon: Best Things to Do and See in Ho Chi Minh City!
These are the things you can’t miss when backpacking Saigon!
War Remnants Museum
This is not only one of the main things to see when backpacking Saigon, but one of the most important things in whole of Vietnam. The War Remnants Museum is dedicated to the terrible Vietnam War, and a visit to this museum should definitely be on your “to-do list” for Ho Chi Minh City.
Personally, I found it shocking how little we know about the Vietnam War in Europe. For example, the subject was never properly addressed during my high school days. That’s why it’s even more important to learn more about the country’s history on a Vietnam trip, and the War Remnants Museum in Saigon is the perfect place to do so.
Admission costs 40,000 VND
The Reunification Palace in Saigon, Vietnam is one of the most historically important places in the city. During the Vietnam War, the palace was the seat of government in South Vietnam and finally, the war was officially ended here.
You can see the palace from the outside, but you can also visit the inside for an admission fee of 40,000 VND.
Notre Dame Cathedral Saigon
Around Saigon (and Vietnam in general) you will find some colonial buildings and remnants of French colonial rule. These include Ho Chi Minh City’s impressive Notre Dame Cathedral, right in the city center and close to the Reunification Palace. For Europeans, temples are usually more exciting to see than churches in Asia, but you should still visit the Notre Dame Cathedral during your backpacking trip in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Bitexco Tower and Skydeck
This extraordinary building can not be overlooked in Saigon and differs clearly from the French colonial buildings. This is one of the tallest buildings in Vietnam, with even a helipad on it! Further, there is a sky deck on the 49th floor where tourists can enjoy a 360 degree view for a fee of 200,000 VND.
Find more information about the skydeck here.
Opera House of Saigon
This is another French colonial building in Ho Chi Minh City and a landmark of the capital of Vietnam. I have seen the Opera House only from the outside and there is also a similar opera house in Hanoi.
Central Post Office
The post office, which is still in use and right next to the cathedral, is a nice place to visit when backpacking Saigon. You can visit it free of charge and it’s worth seeing the inside as well as the outside of the building. You can also send your mail home from here!
The City Hall of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
This is probably the most beautiful building in Saigon for me and you rather feel like you’re somewhere in Europe than in Vietnam. The City Hall is a masterpiece of French architecture and a great place for nice pictures. Right in front of it, there is a larger square, where especially in the evening a lot is going on and people hang out together.
A visit to the town hall and the surrounding area is therefore worthwhile both by day and at night.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
This is an important Taoist temple and one of the most famous sights in Ho Chi Minh City. Here you can admire the various altars, statues and rooms of the temple complex, which was very crowded with locals during my visit. This is the right opportunity to learn more about the spirituality of the Vietnamese and is worth a visit. Admission is free.
Mariamman Hindu Temple
You’ve seen enough Buddhist temples and churches and would like a change in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam? Then this place is for you, because here you can see a Hindu temple from the outside as well as inside. Here you can almost feel like you’d be in India or Sri Lanka!
Dong Khoi Street
Saigon’s Dong Khoi Road is one of the city’s most beautiful streets due to the remnants of French colonial buildings. Here you will find, for example, the already mentioned opera house of Ho Chi Minh City. In addition, you can see countless expensive boutiques and fashion shops and you suddenly feel very far away from the typical chaos of Vietnam.
Museum of Vietnamese History
The most important museum in Saigon is the already mentioned war remnants museum. But if you want to learn more about Vietnam’s history apart from the Vietnam War, you should visit the City History Museum.
Ben Thanh Market
The Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City is arguably Saigon’s most famous market and is located right in the city center. Note, however, that this market is not necessarily authentic (you should rather go to the Binh Tay market in Chinatown if this is what you want). This market is much more know as the souvenir or tourist market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. If you still need a few souvenirs, it is worth the visit. But keep in mind that the prices here are sometimes quite exaggerated and you should therefore bargain extensively before your purchase.
Nightlife at Bui Vien Street
Bui Vien Street is considered the Vietnamese version of the notorious Khao San Road in Bangkok. Luckily, it’s not quite as wild here, but there’s still a lot going on here in the evening. The street is considered the backpacker area of Saigon and is therefore packed with hostels, bars, cafés and restaurants. If you want to go for a few drinks in the evening, this is the right address.
Experience the crazy traffic
Although not a classical sight, but still very worth seeing is the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. Since Saigon was the last stop of my Vietnam trip, I was already used to the chaos of scooters, people and cars on the streets of the country. Nevertheless, Saigon is probably even more extreme than most other places.
Here’s an insider tip for Saigon: A great view of the traffic chaos is the intersection of Cao Thang Road and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Road, in the immediate vicinity of my hostel (the Saigon Hub Hostel). At this crossroad, there is a Paris Baguette Café with a roof terrace. My tip would be to just sit down with a coffee (and a camera or mobile phone for a time-lapse) and watch the chaos from above – you’ll be entertained.
The September 23 Park
I always criticize that there are very few parks or green spaces in the typical chaotic Asian cities. However, I was happy to see the September 23 Park in Ho Chi Minh City! This one is not too big, but a nice change from the hectic streets. Here you can watch the locals doing sports or just relax.
Chinatown (District 5)
The area around Chinatown (also called Cholon) in Saigon is just outside the city center (which is called District 1) and you will probably need a taxi or scooter to get there. But it’s worth it! Here you are far away from the tourist crowds and you can experience the real chaos of Vietnam. The streets here are full of markets and of course you will find temples and even churches.
Binh Tay Market
Especially famous in Chinatown is the Binh Tay market. Compared to the Ben Thanh market in the center of Ho Chi Minh City, which is considered rather a tourist market, the Binh Tay market is a lot more authentic. Here you can see the real life and easily get lost in the chaos of the narrow streets. Of course, Chinatown is quite exhausting due to the hectic streets and the unbearable heat in Saigon, but I can recommend a short visit.
Thien Hau Temple (Pagoda)
You have not seen enough Vietnamese temples yet? Then that’s the right address. The temples of Vietnam remind me a lot of China and sooner or later you should definitely visit a temple on your Vietnam trip.
Cu Chi Tunnels
This is probably one of the main attractions and most interesting things do to in Saigon, if not in the whole of Vietnam. The Cu Chi tunnels describe the vast underground tunnel system built and used by the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Some of these tunnels stretch over 200 kilometers to the border with Cambodia! You can get a glimpse of these tunnels on an excursion from Saigon. A half-day tour can be booked at many places (such as your accommodation or travel agency) in Saigon. The Cu Chi tunnels are located just outside the city. In my hostel, I paid 170,000 VND for it and I was booked a place on a tour of the travel agency “TNK Travel”.
First, we drove in a bus about 2 hours out of the city, until we arrived at the tunnels. Here you will be shown the various tunnel systems, as well as the “traps” that were set up for the American soldiers in the jungle. Now you also have the opportunity to see and experience the underground tunnel system with your own eyes. But beware – you should not have claustrophobia. The tunnels are pitch-dark and for the typical European person just too small and tight. While the Vietnamese can get around there pretty fast, I had to crawl through the tunnel on all fours. Afterwards, I was really happy to be out in the fresh air again. The Cu Chi tunnels are unique and a significant part of the Vietnam War, so you should definitely visit this place when backpacking Ho Chi Minh City. By the way, here you also have the opportunity to shoot an AK47 for an extra fee.
Important travel tips when backpacking Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Find everything you need to know for your Saigon backpacking adventure!
How do I get from the airport to the city center?
You can of course take a taxi from the airport to the city center (only from the official companies to avoid scams). That will cost you probably 150.000-170.000 VND. But it is cheaper and more practical to use the bus, which takes you from the airport to the center. Here you can either take the better and newer airport bus with the number 109 (costs 20,000 VND) or the slightly older bus No. 152 (for 5,000 VND). The buses run regularly and have several stops in downtown Saigon.
Is Ho Chi Minh City safe for backpackers?
Generally, Saigon, like all of Vietnam, is a fairly safe backpacking destination. However, you have to be careful here (same as in Hanoi) when it comes to pickpockets. Be especially careful when walking along a street with your mobile phone in your hand – it’s a popular method to drive past on a scooter, grab your cell phone out of your hand, and drive away quickly.
Where should I stay in Saigon?
In Ho Chi Minh City there are some good places to stay and you will find both hostels and guesthouses, as well as chic and luxurious hotels. I personally stayed at the Saigon Hub Hostel and would recommend it – it was clean, the location was good, the staff were friendly.
Where can I work or relax in cafés in Ho Chi Minh City?
Since some parts of Saigon are very modern and hip, the Vietnamese city is now also a popular destination for digital nomads who settle here and work online. I also spend a day in Saigon getting some emails done. Fortunately, there are countless shopping malls and good cafés in the city where you can sit and work for a few hours with fast internet. Therefore, you can take Saigon as a convenient break from backpacking and do some important things here.
How long should I spend in Saigon?
Saigon certainly does not have as many attractions as other Southeast Asian cities (such as Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur). Nevertheless, you should not miss the attractions in Ho Chi Minh City. In general, I would say that you should schedule about 2 days to get to know Saigon.
Are there tours to the Mekong Delta?
Yes, you can book tours to the famous Mekong Delta directly from Saigon. But keep in mind that I’ve heard rater mixed opinion from the classic day trips and then decided against it. These day tours require a lot of travel time and on the other hand, apparently you won’t have much time in the exciting places since you’ll be dragged from one souvenir store to the other. I’ve already had plenty of tours to see “traditional work of the locals” followed by visits to huge souvenir shops (which I found incredibly annoying at Lake Inle in Myanmar, for example). That’s why I decided against it. Don’t get me wrong – you may find it interesting and even want to buy something. Just be aware that this tour is probably not as authentic as you might expect. I’ve heard that the best way to see the Mekong Delta in on a multi-day tour. Unfortunately, I did not have time for that, but I guess it would be a cooler option than the classic tourist day trip.
How do I get around Saigon?
In the city center (District 1) you can walk to some of the main attractions. In general, however, Ho Chi Minh City is not as compact and walkable as Hanoi. I generally advise against street taxis in Asia (negotiating for a fair price is simply annoying, and there is a risk of being ripped off by a manipulated taximeter). If you have mobile internet (I recommend you get a local sim card for your Vietnam trip) you can order practical and reliable taxis via the App Grab (as well as scooter taxis), where the price is fixed in advance. This is the most convenient and safes way to get around Saigon.
Travel tip for backpacking Saigon: Go on a free student city tour
Here is a real insider tip for Ho Chi Minh City. You can book a free (!) scooter tour in Saigon with a local student who will show you the sights of Ho Chi Minh City! Here I was picked up at 8 in the morning by a nice Vietnamese girl called Kris, who took me around on her scooter. Not only did we visit the classic attractions and landmarks in the center, but we also went to local neighborhoods, visited an authentic market, a local student café and even Chinatown. This was probably my coolest experience in Saigon and I can only recommend this tour to you.
By the way, you’re expected to tip your student in the end. I can not quite judge what is appropriate here and personally gave 150,000 VND for the half-day tour in the end.
You need to book the tour in advance. More information on the scooter student tour can be found here.
Conclusion on Backpacking Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
I hope that my travel tips as well as my information about the most interesting attractions and highlights of Ho Chi Minh City could help you on your trip. As you can see, Saigon is probably not my most favorite city in Asia, but a short stay is certaily worth it while backpacking around Vietnam. Further, my time in Ho Chi Minh City, and especially the visit to the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels, motivated me to do a bit more research on the Vietnam War and Saigon is a great opportunity to learn more about the history of the country.
Have you been to Saigon before? How did you like it? Let me know in the comments!