Ho Chi Minh City attractions are a vibrant mix of old and new, with well-preserved colonial structures and war relics from the devastating Vietnam War as well as sleek skyscrapers, elegant sports clubs, and expansive shopping malls against a metropolis backdrop. Great for immersing in the local culture, no two districts are the same in Ho Chi Minh City and there are plenty of ornate pagodas and Buddhist temples to visit and photograph as well. Drawing millions of tourists each year, Ho Chi Minh City is also fitted with a wide array of accommodation options of varying price range and styles while unique modes of transportation such as motorcycle taxis and cyclos make it relatively easy to explore the city centre and beyond. From the ornate Mariamman Hindu Temple to the informational War Remnants Museum, there seems to be an endless list of what to see in Ho Chi Minh City.
Many of the best attractions in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) centre around the events of 20th century war and conquest. It sounds sombre, and in parts it is, but there are some truly fascinating historical activities suitable for all ages. From classic French architecture to perfectly maintained American war planes, walking around Ho Chi Minh is like seeing the past come to life with so many famous places of interest scattered throughout the city. Of course, as Vietnam’s biggest city and business capital, times are changing and modern skyscrapers are starting to punctuate the sky combining the new and old in a uniquely Vietnamese way. With our guide to the Top 10 Best Attractions in Ho Chi Minh you can get all of the information you need to ensure you don’t miss anything this fascinating city has to offer.
1. War Remnants Museum
The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, once known as the ‘Museum of American War Crimes’, first opened to the public in 1975. It offers a shocking reminder of the long and brutal Vietnam War, with many graphic photographs and American military equipment on display, including a helicopter with rocket launchers, a tank, a fighter plane, a single-seater attack aircraft and a 6,800kg conventional bomb. All of these weapons were used by American troops against the Vietnamese at some point during the infamous war that lasted from 1945 until 1975.
One of the most talked-about exhibits are the ‘tiger cages’ in which the South Vietnamese government kept their political prisoners. These small cages are only 2.7m x 1.5m x 3m each and were sometimes used to keep up to 14 prisoners in. There is also a guillotine used by the French and the South Vietnamese to execute prisoners from opposing political groups. Brought to Vietnam by the French; the guillotine was last used in 1960. Also featured are grisly photos that show the disfigured bodies of locals who had prenatal exposure to strong pesticide and chemical sprayed, best known by the name ‘Agent Orange’. Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs believed that there were 500,000 children born with birth defects while as many as 4.8 million people were exposed to it from 1961 to 1971. The War Remnants Museum is in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City and is run by the government. It is open all year round from 07:30 to 17:00. A visit to this war museum is a disturbing experience for most people and may not be suitable for children (though they are allowed to enter).
2. Cu Chi Tunnels
Cu Chi Tunnels are part of a massive war museum that offers a sneak-peek at the underground life of Vietnamese soldiers back in 1948. Located 70km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, the historical site comprises more than 120km of underground tunnels with several trapdoors, living areas, kitchens, storage facilities, armoury, hospitals, and command centres. After the end of the war against French invaders, Cu Chi Tunnels were also utilised and expanded during the American War by incorporating effective air filtration systems, which helped Vietnamese soldiers survive the Cu Chi carpet-bombing by the Americans. As they were built so deep underground, military tanks could pass overhead without causing any damage to the tunnels.
Today, it is one of Ho Chi Minh’s most iconic attractions where visitors can enjoy activities such as following the claustrophobia-inducing routes of the underground army, firing an M16 assault rifle, as well sampling meals that the underground soldiers had to live with years ago. The tunnels have been coated with cement and widened so it is not quite the harrowing experience it would have been all those years ago, plus there are emergency exit points every ten metres for safety. Still, during the 100 metres of tunnel you get a sense of what it would have been like during the war.
Prior to entering the underground tunnels, visitors are presented with a short film of the Cu Chi Tunnels so that they have an understanding of how the tunnel system actually works. There is also a shooting range on site. Those who want to fire an M16 rifle are required to pay VND 35,000 per bullet with a minimum of 10 bullets. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a 40-minute drive from Ho Chi Minh City and there are numerous tour operators that can arrange for a half-day excursion for about VND 825,000 onwards. Do note that the crawl through the underground tunnels may not be suitable for visitors with respiratory difficulties.
3. Cao Dai Temple
The Cao Dai Temple was finished in 1955 when the Cao Dai Army was formed following the Japanese occupation of Indochina. Caodaists believe that all religions are ultimately the same and seek to promote tolerance throughout the world. The Lord Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad and Confucius, in addition to Joan of Arc and Julius Cesar are all honoured at this temple.
There are nine hierarchies of worship including a pope, cardinals and archbishop with festivals, rituals and prayer all practiced regularly. The temple is similar in design to a Christian Cathedral featuring side aisles and an altar, as well as a long central nave, all positioned as they would be in a Christian Church, there is even a high dome decorated with clouds and saints. The main focal point is a Divine Eye symbolising God which has the Ying and Yang icon in its pupil. Ceremonies take place daily with two services accompanied by musicians and a choir singing in English to traditional Vietnamese music.
Worshippers at the Cao Dai Temple strive for world peace and harmony with beliefs steeped in a number of world religions. Followers must obey the five virtues of Confucianism – humanity, obligation, civility, knowledge and reliability and have belief in the Buddhist principles of rebirth and karma. Watching Caodiasts pray is one of the major highlights when visiting the temple as they dress in long flowing robes of white for lay followers, yellow, blue or red for priests whilst bishops have the Divine Eye embroidered on their headpieces. During worship men are seated on the right and women on the left with all devotees seated in orderly rows. The building is a combination of Neo-Gothic, Baroque and Oriental design and is very ornately decorated including dragon wrapped pillars, seven-headed cobras and ceilings of sky blue.
The temple is best visited by booking a tour due to its location close to the Cambodian border, 100km northwest of Ho Chi Minh City in the Long Than village close to Tay Ninh. Worship takes place every six hours and starts at midnight with chanting at 06:00 and 18:00 daily. Visitors are permitted to watch from the galleries and may take photographs, knees must be covered and shoes removed before entering. Silence is requested when a service is taking place. The Cao Dai Temple is one of 1,000 Cao Dai Temples located in Vietnam.
4. Jade Emperor Pagoda
Emperor Jade Pagoda, also known as Tortoise Pagoda, is one of the five most important shrines in Ho Chi Minh City. Built at the turn of the 20th Century by a community of Cantonese who migrated from Guangzhou province in Southwest China, this pagoda is a fine representation of Mahayanist branch of Buddhism that is practiced widely in Vietnam.
In the main hall, the Emperor Jade Chua Ngoc Hoang or the 'God of the Heavens' reigns supreme. Aided by two assistants, the Emperor decides who can enter this higher realm. Those who don't pass this gate will meet with the formidable 'God of Hell', on the left, who will send sinners to one of the 10 levels of hell. Life in purgatory is magnificently if somewhat gruesomely represented by the intricate carvings on the temple wall, depicting different kinds of punishments that await transgressors. In a different hall, the goddess of fertility Kim Hua, surrounded by figures of women and small children, blesses childless couples who pray for an offspring here. The goddess of mercy Kuan Yin, who forms a very important part of any Taoist temple, has an altar in a room on the top floor. Emperor Jade Pagoda is a living and working shrine very much in use by the locals who come here to prayer or make votive offerings of flowers, and light candles and joss sticks. With worshippers coming and going, the temple can get busy and feel a little cramped. Its dimly lit, the narrow passageways filled with smoke lend an atmospheric feel to the place, adding to its charm. There is an overcrowded tortoise pond in front of the temple grounds and feeding the animals is considered part of the merit-making, temple-going rituals.
5. Bitexco Financial Tower
Ho Chi Minh City’s Bitexco Financial Tower & Sky Deck stands 262 metres high at the centre of the city’s business district and offers visitors an unparalleled city view from its Sky Deck. Designed by renowned American Architect Carlos Zapata, this 68-storey tower houses offices, shops, restaurants, and a helipad. CNNGo recently ranked the building fifth in their listing of the world’s 20 most iconic skyscrapers.
The structure also received an ‘Excellence in Structural Engineering’ award from NCSEA in 2011 and is currently the 124th tallest building in the world. The main attraction at the tower is the Sky Deck where visitors can enjoy dramatic views across the bustling city below. Sky Deck visitors are accompanied by an English-speaking guide and can also enjoy interactive touch screen fact boxes delivering information on points of interest regarding city landmarks seen from above.
Six of the Bitexco Financial Tower floors have been given over to retail space although the main draw here is not shopping, rather the views. The public observation deck on the 49th floor is reached by using one of the tower’s 16 elevators which can reach any floor regardless of level within 35 seconds. The tower is also well-known for its Bitexco Vertical Run where competitors race from the ground floor lobby to the Sky Deck. The race covers 178 metres with the latest record standing at 4 minutes and 51 seconds – held by Germany’s Vertical World Circuit Champion Thomas Dold. The Sky Deck delivers breathtaking 360 degree views across the city and the Saigon River. Visitors can also use one of the binocular stands to get a closer look. Great views are also enjoyed from the 50th and 51st-floor restaurants, particularly at night when the metropolis below glitters above. There are also local art exhibitions held on the Sky Deck, where you can also purchase souvenirs, including textiles and locally produced tea.
6. Mariamman Hindu Temple Saigon
Mariamman Hindu Temple is a sacred Hindu Temple dedicated to the goddess of the Rain ‘Mariamman’. This temple was built in the late 19th century by traders coming from India and has been well preserved. This complex is the only Hindu temple in Saigon and is believed to have miraculous powers giving luck and wealth to its visitors. The outer wall of the Temple has a collection of interesting statues of different gods and goddesses like Mariamman, Vishnu, Brahma and Ganesha. The main hall of the complex (The Rajagopuram) stands twelve metres tall and inside you find a well maintained statue of Mariamman flanked by her protectors ‘Maduraiveeran’ and ‘Pechiamman’.
If you would like to enter the Mariamman Hindu Temple than do not forget to take of your shoes and dress appropriately. To favour the goddess of the rain you can also take some offerings such as joss sticks, jasmine, lilies and gladioli. These can be bought in front of the entrance. In the near vicinity of this temple you can also find Ben Thanh Market. Entrance to the temple is free of charge and can be visited from 07:00 – 19:00.
7. Reunification Palace
The iconic Reunification Palace made its name in global history when in 1975 a tank belonging to the North Vietnamese Army crashed through its main gate – thus signifying the end of the Vietnam War. This image is one of the most famous pictures depicting the Reunification Palace which has seen a rich and varied history and once served as the base of the US-backed Vietnamese General Ngo Dinh Diem during the Vietnam War, until his assassination in 1963. The palace is like a time capsule frozen in 1975 with two of the original tanks used in the capture of the palace parked in the grounds. Originally the site of the Nordom Palace also known as the Governor’s Palace its first role was as a home and workplace for the then French Governor of Cochinchina. The Reunification Palace is a landmark not to be missed by any tourist visiting Ho Chi Minh City. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, the palace hides secret rooms, antique furniture and a command bunker within its eerie corridors. The Reunification Palace is still in use to host occasions including APEC summits and national events of significant importance.
The Reunification Palace is a five-storey building with the basement housing a warren of tunnels, a war room and telecommunications centre. The war command room still has maps on its walls and period telecommunications equipment on display, whilst adjoining basement rooms feature war propaganda materials. Other areas of interest are the third floor featuring a card playing room, a fourth floor which once had a casino and was used for entertaining guests and a rooftop terrace with a heliport. The Reunification Palace entered the world history books in 1975 when a Vietnamese Air Force pilot (who was also a communist spy) flew an aircraft over the palace with an attempt to bomb it. Although no real damage was caused this was a significant step towards the fall of Saigon and the ending of the Vietnamese War. On 30th April in 1975 at 10:45 a North Vietnamese Army Tank rammed the main gates and entered the palace grounds before hanging its flag on the balcony to declare victory for the communist party and thus ending the Vietnam War. Meanwhile staff escaped from the rooftop minutes before the palace was overrun, known as Operation Frequent Wind this was part of history’s biggest ever helicopter evacuation and included the departure of General Thieu.
The Reunification Palace is open from 07:30-12:00 then 13:00-16:00. Tickets are purchased at the main gate and visitors will be checked for security reasons. Free guided tours are available in English, French, Japanese and Chinese (invaluable as there are not many signboards inside). The palace is situated on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street close to the Ben Thanh Market with the main gate located on the east side of the palace gardens
8. Binh Tay Market
Binh Tay Market, constructed by the French in the 1880s, is located in the centre of Vietnam’s largest Chinatown district. Unlike Ben Thanh Market in District 1, this market mainly serves the local population with its extensive range of fresh fruits, vegetables, poultry, meat and seafood from regions across Vietnam. Also known as Cholon Chinatown Market, Binh Tay Market occupies a two-storey building along Thap Muoi Street. Travellers can also find an assortment of handicrafts, lacquerware, and textiles that are sold in bulk, though goods are not varied compared to other (more touristy) markets in downtown Hanoi. Along with the interesting historical and cultural aspect of Cholon, Binh Tay Market is great for experiencing the local lifestyle and sampling unique Vietnamese-Chinese delicacies.
A popular breakfast spot amongst locals, there are plenty of food stalls selling Vietnamese staples in the market including pho noodles, goi cuon (spring rolls), and com tam (broken rice) as well as Chinese-influenced delicacies such as banh bao, which are steamed buns filled with pork or chicken, onions, eggs, mushrooms, and vegetables. A courtyard is set the middle of the marketplace, where you can find a stone altar commemorating Guangdong-born philanthropist Quach Dam. Binh Tay Market is accessible within a 15-minute xe om (motorcycle taxi) ride from downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The best time to visit is in the morning as that’s when the locals come for breakfast and shop for fresh produce and household supplies.
9. Central Post Office
The Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh is a beautifully preserved remnant of French colonial times and perhaps the grandest post office in all of Southeast Asia. Located next door to Notre Dame Cathedral, the two cultural sites can be visited together and offers visitors a chance to imagine life in Vietnam during the times of the Indochinese Empire. The building was designed by Gustave Eiffel – the renowned engineer who also designed the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower – and features arched windows and wooden shutters, just as it would have in its heyday in the late 19th Century.
The Central Post Office in Ho Chi Minh was constructed between 1886 and 1891 and once inside, the looping arches, intricately designed marble floors and antiquated telephone boxes all serve as a reminder of the importance the post office played in days before email and mobile phones. Although the architecture is distinctly French, the large portrait of Ho Chi Minh hanging high above everyone at the far end of the building reminds everyone we are definitely in Vietnam. Painted onto walls overhead are two maps of the region; one of them showing the telegraph lines that crisscross Vietnam and Cambodia and the other displaying a map of the Saigon region in 1892.
Although the experience is a fascinating glimpse into history, the fact that this is still a functioning post office makes the experience even sweeter, and we encourage everyone to send a letter or postcard from here – it’s a piece of living history where even the old fashioned glue pots are still in use for sticking stamps to letters. There are two wings branching out from the main office, selling souvenirs, postcards and lacquerware but the prices are inflated and the same products can probably be found elsewhere for a better price.
10. Notre Dame Cathedral
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the late 1880s by French colonists, is one of the few remaining strongholds of Catholicism in the largely Buddhist Vietnam. Located in Paris Square, the name Notre Dame was given after the installation of the statue ‘Peaceful Notre Dame’ in 1959. In 1962, the Vatican conferred the Cathedral status as a basilica and gave it the official name of Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica. Measuring almost 60 metres in height, the cathedral’s distinctive neo-Romanesque features include the all-red brick façade (which were imported from Marseille), stained glass windows, two bell towers containing six bronze bells that still ring to this day, and a peaceful garden setting in the middle of downtown Ho Chi Minh City District 1.
A Virgin Mary statue also stands in front of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, which locals claimed to have shed tears in October 2005. While this incident was refuted by the Catholic Church of Vietnam, thousands of visitors still flock to this statue in hopes of witnessing a miracle. Aside from its status as one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most prominent attractions, Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral still serves as a religious institution for the local population. The best time to visit is during Sunday mass at 09:30. As with any holy places around the world, do dress appropriately and refrain from disturbing the worshippers when you’re exploring (and photographing) Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.
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