What to See and Do in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon)

Most sights are in central Saigon and located in clusters so with some good planning you can cover most of them easily in a day.

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Around Dong Khoi St

Dong Khoi, formerly known as Rue Catinat have gone through much transformation so it no wonder that it is now a district of colourful activity – souvenir shops, high-end hotels and galleries aplenty. At Le Loi St, you pass the old OPERA HOUSE. This magnificent building is a classic example of French colonial style building in Vietnam. Built with the purpose of staging classical opera to entertain French colonists, the building was later used as the home of the Lower House assembly of South Vietnam after 1956. It was not until 1975 that it was again used as a theater and the restorative works have been ongoing since 1995.

A block south and you will come to the SAIGON CENTRAL MOSQUE (66 Dong Du St), also known as ‘Jamia Mosque’. In front of the sparkling white-and-blue structure, with its four nonfunctional minarets, is a pool for the ritual washing of oneself as required by Islamic law before prayers. Take off your shoes before entering the sanctuary.

North District One

The following sights, in the northern streets of central District One, are easily seen by foot. From Dong Khoi, you can walk up to the post office, make a left on Le Duan to Reunification Palace, then north on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia to Vo Van Tan (three blocks), and the War Remnants Museum (two blocks west). Or from the palace, go south to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

One of Saigon’s biggest and most prominent landmarks, the Reunification Palace is also one of the most frequented sight and a must see for anybody who’s keen on the history of the country. The palace is well preserved with much of the building left intact as it was at that time Walking through is like walking through Vietnam 1966 – original faded carpets, lacquer wall art, and burnt-orange curtains still hang in some of the rooms.

It will be advisable to join the guided tours (in English) that leave every 10 minutes or so. Tours begin in the wide-open ground floor and go through each floor to the fourth-floor rooftop, where you can see the helicopter landing. The tour ends in the basement, where you can visit the rooms where numerous meetings took place on discussing war strategies. There is also a museum here on the history of the building. Note the famous photo of the VC tank ‘crashing’ through the front gates on April 30, 1975 – the photo was actually restaged (you can see the gate is already knocked down).

106 Nguyen Du; adult/children 15,000/2000D (US$0.95/0.15); open 7.30-11am, 1-4pm daily

One of the world’s most compelling cases against war is here. No more the rundown ‘Museum of American War Crimes’ with over-the-top propaganda messages. It is not a place that a French or American tourist will leave feeling very proud.

Rebuilt in 2000, the new museum now has eight themed rooms. One such room contains various exhibit honouring many international photographers who died while documenting the wars against France and the USA.

Outside is a recreation of a Con Dao island prison – where VC captured were taken during both wars – as well as a French guillotine, supposedly last used in 1960. Military tanks and artillery line the yard. In the main building, you will come upon visually disturbing sights of jars containing deformed babies (all victims of Agent Orange) and gruesome war photos of decapitated VC soldiers. If you are able to go through the former exhibits without feeling faint, you might be able to sit through a video on Agent Orange which shows at 9am, 10am, 11am, 2.30pm and 3.30pm daily.

Tel 08-939-2112; warm@cinet.vnnews.com; 28 Vo Van Tan, D3; admission 15,000D (US$0.95); open 7.30am to noon, 1.30 to 5pm

You do not need to have a reason to visit this ultra-grand French post office, finished in 1891, in Gothic architectural style. Within the elaborate peach-and-green interior a huge portrait of Ho overlooks the whole hall. Note the recently renovated maps of Saigon et sus Environs (1892) and Sud Vietn Nam et Cambodge (1936) on either wall as you enter. Sending a post card or letter to the USA/UK/Australia is 9000/8000/7000D (US$0.55/0.50/0.45). Post cards available for sale here.

2 Coq Xu Paris Q1, open 7am to 9pm daily

Established by French colonists between 1863 and 1880, this lovely red bricked building was constructed with all original building materials imported from France – bricks and tiles were from Marseilles and stained glass windows from Chartres. It is flanked by two bell towers, reaching a height of over 58 meters (190 feet).Take pleasure in its neo-Romanesque style architecture which at that time was the most beautiful one in a French colony. The sacred atmosphere inside is indeed very contrasting against the busy traffic right outside the cathedral.

Full services in English are held every Sunday morning at 930 am and are well attended by Vietnamese and foreigners alike. The iconic cathedral has also become a favourite choice of location for Vietnamese couple taking their bridal photos regardless of religion. It’s always a delight to chance upon such special moment and sometimes the whole process can be interesting to watch too.

Dong Khoi & Han Thuyen Sts; visiting hours (supposedly) 8-10.30am, 3-4pm Mon-Fri, plus Sunday mass from 5.30am

You’ll see Ho Con Rua (Turtle Lake) towering concrete lotus flower from a few blocks away. What you cannot see though is the turtle statue that used to at the lake. Back then, South Vietnamese President Thieu had it built Ho Con Rua for Feng Shui reasons and the turtle to represent wisdom. However, not long after the fall of Saigon, a group of national minorities apparently blew up the structure and it has been left as it is. Across the street, quiet little cafes serve fresh coconut and coffees, and at night, sellers of dried-squid and balloons set up their pushcarts along the circle.

Pham Ngoc Thach & Vo Van Tan Sts, two blocks north of Notre Dame

This museum houses covers various aspects of the city’s past such as traditional crafts, war relics, traditional Chinese-style Hoa weddings and photos of peace protests in Saigon in 1970. Don’t forget to visit the collection of military hardware outside such as the F-5 jet which apparently bombed the Independence Palace in 1975.

Tel 08-829-9741; 65 Ly Tu Trong D1; admission 15,000D (US$0.95); open 8am-5pm daily

Five or six blocks east of Reunification Palace on Le Duan St is the former US embassy where crowds stormed in late April 1975 to try and get on a helicopter to leave the city. It was later demolished in 1998 and is now the walled site of the US consulate. There is not much to see here but you can try to imagine the scene then.

4 Le Duan, between Mac Dinh Chi & Hai Ba Trung Sts

At the end end of Le Duan St, inside the city zoo, the ‘Museum of Vietnamese History’ occupies a great old 1929 French-built place, with Asian-style tiered tower and sunken courtyards. Inside a bust of Ho Chi Minh greets you and exhibits with English subtitles uncovers Vietnam’s past. Don’t miss the Tran Hung Dao bit which illustrated how he mounted wood spikes in the nearby river to pierce Chinese warships in the 13th century. It was a victorious moment in the country’s history, telling the Chinese they couldn’t conquer them. When they got stuck, he sent flamed arrows and they died from fire.’ The museum hosts a water-puppet show at 9am, 10am, 11am, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm (it’s $2 extra).

Tel 08-825-8784; corner of Le Duan & Nguyen Binh Kiem Sts; admission 15,000D (US$0.95), plus 8000D (US$0.50) for the zoo; open 8-11am, 1.30-4.30pm Tue-Sun, zoo open 7am-8pm daily

Around Ben Thanh Market

At the end of Le Loi, a few blocks west of Nguyen Hue, the Ben Thanh Market is the heart of central Saigon. From here, you can visit the Fine Arts Museum just south, then head on to the riverside, or north to the Reunification Palace.

Ben Thanh market has long been one of Saigon’s most famous landmark. The market has been in existence since the French occupation. The Market is a little faded but the same cannot be said of the energy level inside. With over 3000 stalls, it is a whirlwind of activity with fresh produce brought in daily from the Mekong, t-shirts stalls, noodle and coffee stands. A good time is to come after 5pm when the street stretches along with open-air seafood and noodle stands, ideal for a meal in the busy action and more people watching.

Corner of Lei Loi, Tran Hung Dao, Ham Nghi & Le Thanh Ton Sts

The Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum may not be particularly notable for its art, but it is still worth visiting for they offer a good glimpse into the local art scene. The displays spans over three floors of the building with the first floor showcasing exhibits of contemporary art by local and international artists. This section is changed frequently. The second floor galleries display contemporary art from the museum’s permanent collection. The collection features sketches, paintings and statues, many of which focus on the resistance to the various colonial rulers. Lastly, the third floor displays older works from the first century to the early twentieth century.

Tel 829-4441, 97A Pho Duc Chinh, Q1, admission 10,000d (US$0.65), open 9am-5pm Tue-Sun

Not to be confused with the far superior Ho Chi Minh City Museum, this museum housed in a French colonial era building is located near the dock of Saigon. The life story of the modern day father of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and many of his personal possessions is being displayed here as a tribute.

Tel 825-5740, 1 Nguyen Tat Thanh Q1, admission 10,000D (US$0.65), open 7am-11.30am, 1.30-5pm Tue-Sun

North of the Center

The sights here are easiest reached by taxi though you can also reach them by walking from the center.

Built by the local chinese community in 1909,the Jade Emperor Pagoda is Saigon’s most impressive. Dedicated to their Taoist God, this colourful temple also houses a number of other deities statues. Beyond the turtle pond to the right side of the red building is where the worshippers pray and thus most atmospheric. Walls blackened by the joss sticks smoke and the Chinese tablets placed inside attest to the history of the place. The Jade Emperor who is responsible for monitoring the entry to heaven is strategically placed iat the back of the main building. Follow the direction he looks to a side ride, down a betel juice–colored hall to the ‘Hall of Ten Hells’. Here, you can see ten wood carved panels depicting scenes from Hell. Old Vietnamese women sell birds outside the pagoda that can be bought and set free – a practice popular with the faithfuls with the purpose of accumulating merits in one’s life.

73 Mai Thi Luu St, half a block north of Dien Bien Phu St; open 7am-6pm daily

Often overlooked by visitors to Saigon, this free well-arranged museum devoted to women of the south is worth a visit if time permits. Spread out over 2 floors, the first floor entails how traditions has evolved with time and you can also find many types of the ao dai (traditional dress) and Vietnamese crafts on display.

Upstairs, the exhibits honors many women revolutionaries who made a difference. Photos include foreign women who supposedly supported the northern cause – including Jane Fonda, who famously visited Hanoi during the war.

Also honored are many teenage women (including Vo Thi Sau, whom the street outside is named for), who would meet their deaths by torture in prison camps. Look for the 1968 photo of a student-protestor Vo Thi Thang, who left a Saigon court with a 20-year jail sentence and escorted by the police with a giant defiant smile on her face – something that made quite an impact on front pages here and abroad.

202 Vo Thi Sau St, D3; admission free; open 7.30-11.30am, 1-5pm daily

The largest district of its kind in Vietnam, being in Cholon (big market) is like being transported to a different time and place compared to central Saigon. There are no high-rise buildings here. Old colonial style architecture still surrounds this market and adds to its charm. There are several pagodas within walking distance here but you may wish to just shortlist a few and spend more time at the Binh Tay Market.

A good starting point is the QUAN AM PAGODA (23 Lao Tu St, off Chau Van Liem, between Hung Vuong & Nguyen Trai Sts), built in 1816 and believed to be Saigon’s oldest existing pagoda. It’s ornate – with woodcarved figures and doorways – but well worn by the normal tourist route, as visitors with cameras shuffle by smoking joss sticks toward the central altar of A Pho (the Queen of Heaven).
A block north, on Hung Vuong St, is a lesser-visited pagoda, the brick-exterior PHUOC AN HOI QUAN PAGODA (184 Hung Vuong, half a block east of Chau Van Liem St). Phuoc An is noted for its finely crafted ceramic walls and arches, porcelain figures, and intricate woodcarvings

TAM SON HOI QUAN PAGODA (118 Duong Trieu Quang Phuc) This pagoda is dedicated to the Goddess of Fertility, Mae Sanh. Many women who wish to have greater fertility will be seen praying and making offerings here in hope of being blessed.

HA CHUONG HOI QUAN PAGODA (802 Duong Nguyen Trai) The four elaborately carved stone dragon pillars make this pagoda well worth a visit. ONG BON PAGODA (264 Duong Hai Thuong Lai Ong. Open 5 am to 5 pm.) Dedicated to Ong Bon, the guardian of Happiness and Virtue, the pagoda features an intricately carved wooden altar. The pagoda sits next to a huge school, so expect to be inundated by throngs of happy and curious kids if you arrive between 4 and 5 pm

From Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda, it’s a five-minute walk (via Chau Van Liem St to Tran Hung Dao St) to the sprawling FABRIC MARKET (Tran Hung Dao & Phung Hung Sts). Fabric shopping in Ho Chi Minh City is a serious affair not to be treated lightly especially with the variety available here. You can find every type of silk in every colour and numerous types of cotton, wool and even tweed!

Looking over Tran Hung Dao St from its western end (a few blocks west) is CHA TAM CHURCH (Tran Hung Dao & Hoc Lac Sts), where South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother hid following a 1963 coup attempt. Eventually they surrendered and were killed in the vehicle taking them back to central Saigon.

Follow Hoc Lac St south a couple blocks to Thap Muoi St and turn right. Four blocks west this busy thoroughfare becomes Hau Giant St and reaches Cholon’s top attraction, the golden French-era BINH TAY MARKET (Hau Giang St), with a clock-tower and Moorish-style domes and a cramped maze of stalls on two floors. Although the business is mainly wholesale, the sellers will be happy to serve you as well. The aisles are narrow, the din is loud most probably from the noise of all the bargaining of going on, and the people are scurrying about or squatting in the narrow passages to talk or eat but this is what makes the experience more fun. The variety of goods here is positively astounding and will give you uncanny glimpses into modern Vietnamese life.

About ten blocks east of the market, past Chau Van Liem St, there is a row lined with Traditional Medicine Shops and it can be fun to see peek in and see the types of herbs they use. This area has some lovely old buildings was used as the setting for scenes of the controversial film Cyclo in 1995. Serves as an excellent pit stop for a beer or coffee and stretching those tired legs before proceeding on.

District 11

If you’re looking for an unusual day away from tourist hordes and the more touristy parts of Saigon, you can go to District 11. But only if you are really looking for something to do.

Goofy but well-kept, western Saigon’s Dam Sen Park has been Saigon’s Disneyland for years, where kids come to ride water slides, ferris wheels and bumper cars, and newlyweds pose in front of lush gardens and fountains. Going around the lake in a clockwise direction, you’ll see the lovely Royal Garden with bonsai, traditional pavilions and ponds, a bird sanctuary with a steamy glassed-in observatory to watch long-beaked storks walk about, a fake waterfall, a dinosaur park.

Dam Sen Park: tel 969-3272, Lac Long Quan & Hoa Binh Q11, admission adult/children 18,000/12,000D (US$1.15/0.75), open 7am-9pm. Dam Sen Water Park: admission 45,000/30,000D (US$2.80/1.90), open 9am-6pm.

Two pagodas nearby are worth mentioning here. About a half a mile south, Lac Long Quan St veers west, where an alley sign leads down a cobbled road to GIAC VIEN PAGODA. Almost two centuries old, the crumbling pagoda is certainly atmospheric, with funeral tablets lining dark walls in the entrance and altars with ornate Buddha statues and incense sticks. Several monks live in the premises.

A little over a mile north along Lac Long Quan St (past the Au Co St intersection and to the left), GIAC LAM PAGODA (‘Forest of Enlightenment’ Pagoda) is Saigon’s oldest and far most well preserved. It has a sacred Bodhi tree in the courtyard, the gift of a monk from Sri Lanka and inside the hall you’ll see ornate tables with teapots where you’re free to sit and enjoy some tea. Note the two 10-panel illustrations along the right wall. The first, showing an ox gradually growing from black to white, follows the road to ‘truth’, the second traces the grisly sides of Hell, ending with the six types of reincarnation. Particularly interesting is also an exquisite 49-Buddha oil lamp. The monks are very friendly and will be glad to share with visitors about the history of the pagoda.

Giac Vien Pagoda, open 7-11.30am, 1.30-7pm. Giac Lam Pagoda, open 5am-noon, 2-9pm.

On the way back to the center, three-quarters of a mile southeast on Le Dai Hanh St, PHU TO RACE COURSE, a fun art-deco-styled race track with food stands, coffee shops, and ballcapped guys squatting over the race sheets can turn out to be an interesting outing. GIs spent free time here during the French and American wars but the communist government closed the place in 1975 and reopened only in 1989. Races go on the half-hour and hour, some betting windows can help place bets in English.

Tel 962-8205, admission 5000D (US$0.30), races from 12.30-7pm Sat & Sun

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