The museums and attractions of Ho Chi Minh City are mostly in the downtown areas of districts 1 and 3. And although the museums are interesting, the bustling city itself is the major attraction here.
Typical 1-Day Itinerary
In the morning, start off at tranquil Giac Lam Pagoda and tour the city's nearby Chinatown and busy Binh Te Market in the historic Cholon area of District 5; there are a number of hidden temples among Chinese shop houses, and this is a great district to have a guide to take you around. From there, hit the large, central Ben Thanh Market (a good place for lunch or you might try nearby Don Khoi).
In the afternoon, take a walk through the Reunification Hall, where the jig was up for the Saigon government in 1975; then walk through the square flanked by the towering Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon's historic Post Office. From there, head toward the War Museum, which tells the tale of Vietnam at war with the French and Americans. The museum is a bit much for some visitors, and certain groups opt instead for a visit to the Emperor Jade Pagoda, a large Chinese compound in the northeast of the city also a good stop if you have time after visiting the War Museum. Afterward, enjoy a casual stroll down central Don Khoi likely near your hotel and take a rest (you'll be whipped), or enjoy a coffee or snack at one of the many restaurants or cafes along this busy strip.
Note: This is a lot to do in 1 day, especially if you take motorbike taxis and try to find your own way. With an additional day, try to catch some of the more out-of-the-way sights, such as the Hoa Binh (Peace) Noodle Shop and nearby Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, or the sprawling Vietnamese History Museum or raggedy old Ho Chi Minh City Museum.
More than 2 full days in Saigon certainly calls for a day trip out to the Cau Dai Temple and/or the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Cholon ("Chinatown" of Ho Chi Minh City)
Cholon is a sizable district bordered by Hung Vuong to the north, Nguyen Van Cu to the east, the Ben Nghe Chanel to the south, and Nguyen Thi Nho to the west. Cholon is the predominately Chinese district of Saigon and probably the largest Chinatown in the world. Cholon exists in many ways as a city quite apart from Saigon. The Chinese began to settle the area in the early 1900s and never quite assimilated with the rest of Saigon, which causes a bit of resentment among the greater Vietnamese community. You'll sense the different environment immediately, and not only because of the Chinese-language signs. Cholon is where you might have found dark, exotic opium dens and brothels in the French colonial time, the same opium dens and brothels that greeted American troops. Story has it that a huge number of U.S. troops went AWOL in Cholon during the war when the fall of Saigon was imminent, U.S. expeditionary forces advertised a period of amnesty for U.S. citizens on the lamb in the district only one dazed and confused soldier came stumbling out.
A bustling commercial center, Cholon is a fascinating maze of temples, restaurants, jade ornaments, and medicine shops. Gone, however, are the brothels and opium dens of earlier days. You can lose yourself walking the narrow streets, but it makes sense to take a cyclo by the hour to see the sights. Many of the city tours start at Giac Lam Pagoda and make a few stops in the district, including the large market.
If on your own, start with a motorbike or taxi ride to the Binh Tay Market, on Phan Van Khoe Street, which is even more crowded than Ben Thanh and has much the same goods, but with a Chinese flavor. There's much more produce, along with medicines, spices, and cooking utensils, and you'll find plenty of hapless ducks and chickens tied in heaps. From Binh Tay, head up to Nguyen Trai, the district's main artery, to see some of the major temples on or around it. Be sure to see Quan Am, on Lao Tu Street off Luong Nhu Hoc, for its ornate exterior. Back on Nguyen Trai, Thien Hau pagoda is dedicated to the goddess of the sea and was popular with seafarers making thanks for their safe trip from China to Vietnam. Finally, as you follow Nguyen Trai Street past Ly Thuong Kiet, you'll see the Cholon Mosque, the one indication of Cholon's small Muslim community. Other sights in Cholon include the following:
Chua Quan Am Temple (12 Laoth St.) is a classic Chinese temple wafting with incense, blaring with music meant to soothe and speak of mountains but crackling speakers at high decibels mean different things to different people. Nearly 20 resident monks and a cherubic abbot are on hand and welcome foreign visitors. In fact, they'll even take the time to show you around and allow you to take photos, but the expectation is a small donation in the alms box at the altar. Buy one of the oversize incense the size of a large flashlight and make a wish for your journey (in Vietnam or in life). The temple is heavily gilded in snazzy gold and red paint, and don't miss the cool mechanized rotating offering stands. This is a "working temple," and that means the place is busy day and night with visiting supplicants. Just outside the entrance, don't miss the busy cabinetmakers at work in a large collective at streetside.
Cha Tam is Cholon's small Catholic cathedral, with high vaulted ceilings and surrounded by the Stations of the Cross. A statue of Mary stands in a small grotto out front and looks like a Buddhist Bodhisattva with all of the offerings, placards, and prayer entreaties at her feet. This little cathedral is a cool place to take a break and visit an imposing white statue of Jesus or a standing statue of St. Francis of Assisi. Don't miss the large relief of the Last Supper.
Thien Hau The Lady Temple was originally built by a Cantonese congregation in the early 19th century. The temple pays homage to a special psychic lady, Thien Hau, born A.D. 940, who was said to be able to predict the weather and protect sailors. The classic Chinese temple has a wooden entry; small central ponds flanked by heavy, bright red pillars; and elaborate carvings of gods and monsters. The place is busy all day and echoes with sounds from the adjacent schoolhouse. The huge coils of incense hanging over the central courtyard space make for great photos.
As corny as it sounds, Saigon is a paradise for shoppers. Beautiful handicrafts and deliciously tacky tourist junk are in endless supply. If you love to shop and have at least elementary bargaining skills and a good eye, your money will go a long way and you can enjoy virtually endless retail entertainment. Your bargaining skills will come in handy everywhere except major tourist shops. Generally speaking, anything not marked with a price sticker can be had for about two thirds the price first quoted.
While there are fine shops throughout District 1, there are several streets which are especially good for shopping, particularly Dong Khai, and Le Thanh Ton behind the Rex Hotel. Many shops here sell jewelry, amber, ceramics, antiques, furniture, silk and apparel. The stalls along Le Loi Street between Ben Thanh Market and the New World Hotel sell all kinds of war surplus and hardware items.
Lacquerware made here is practically the best in the world and is still a real bargain. Scores of shops around District 1 sell boxes, trays, desk accessories, vases and other lacquerware items. Rosewood boxes and bowls are especially lovely. These make wonderful gifts.
If your friends at home love tacky tourist crap, you are in luck! You will find an astounding array of toy helicopters made from Coca Cola cans, fake Zippos and cigarette lighters made from hollow M-16 ammunition, and Good Morning Vietnam T-shirts.
HCMC's tailors are reminiscent of Hong Kong's before the seventies. Custom made shirts usually take three to four days and cost seven to ten dollars, not including the fabric.
If you are a Coffee lover, buy enough to fill those empty corner of your luggage. Vietnamese coffees are among the best in the world, and very inexpensive. Because Saigonites drink so much of it, the beans on display in scores of shops around District 1 are always quite fresh. Whole beans sealed in a plastic bag will last quite well until you return, and provide a lingering souvenir of your visit to Ho Chi Minh City.
Thanks to its fast growing economy, Ho Chi Minh is well connected to the world by a vast amount of airlines. Operating airlines to Ho Chi Minh city includes big names such as Air France, Japan Airlines, Asiana, Lufthansa, United Airlines, etc.
These airlines serve direct flights to major cities in Asia (Hongkong, Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul and all Southeast Asian capitals), Europe (Frankfurt, Paris, Moscow), Australia (Melbourne, Sydney) and America (San Francisco). The recently renovated international terminal made Tan Son Nhat airport the largest, both in size and capacity, among all airports in Vietnam.
Domestically, there are daily flights from major cities such as Hanoi, Danang, Hue. Others have 3-4 flights per week to Ho Chi Minh City, depending on seasons. There are only two airlines serving domestic routes: Vietnam Airlines and Jetstar Pacific Airlines.
Bus runs from Phnompenh to Hochiminh City everyday, crossing Moc Bai border or ferry transfer in Chau Doc. The trip is about 6-7 hours and costs about $12.
For intercity travel, you can book a ticket from Mai Linh or Phuong Trang from almost any destinations. These two companies are reliable in terms of timing and bus quality. Other options include Sinh Cafe or Hanh cafe though there have been reports for scams and passengers pick-up along the way. Check out 2 main bus hub in Ho Chi Minh city Mien Dong and Mien Tay bus station.