Ho Chi Minh City is a big place, right? So how much can you accomplish in just one day?
With more than 8 million people, Ho Chi Minh City has plenty to discover. Formerly known as Saigon, this bustling city is a lot to take in, especially if you only have one day. But it’s not impossible to see many of the must-see sights. If you play your cards right, you can really get around. And the people of Ho Chi Minh City are more than happy to help make that happen.
Follow this packed itinerary to spend a perfect day exploring many of the most popular sites in Ho Chi Minh City.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City after spending a week on a river cruise. I booked us into the Alagon Saigon Hotel and Spa, an above-average hotel in a fairly central area, but I hadn’t made any other plans for what to do once we arrived. After a two-hour ride in a motor coach from the boat dock in middle-of-nowhere Vietnam, we finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City around noon, tired from the drive but knowing there was no time to rest.
I sent a quick email to the concierge at our accommodations the day before and learned they could help us arrange a private tour upon arrival. At check in, we found out the concierge had gone above and beyond to have a driver on standby for us. We did our part and invited a few other cruise guests to join us on our adventure. We agreed to meet at our hotel at 2 p.m. to begin our tour.
Since everyone was meeting at our hotel, we had a bit of extra time to relax. We decided to take advantage and hit up the spa on the top floor of the building. We entered the dark, plush space and were instantly greeted by a smiling face. One of my favorite things about Vietnam is how friendly the people are. My second favorite thing? Cheap massages…so, so cheap. Seriously, at the hotel, I got a full-body, 90-minute Thai massage for under $30. And you can get them for even less if you’re okay with taking your chances on a street vendor. If you just want a foot massage, you can find them for under $10. It’s truly a treat to pamper yourself.
After our massages, we were thoroughly relaxed and ready for a whirlwind tour of Ho Chi Minh City. Along with our four new friends from the cruise, we hopped inside a cargo-style van and began making our way through the city streets. It’s important to note that traffic here is unnerving, to say the least. Scooters weave in and out of lanes, narrowly scraping by vehicles with little regard for safety.
Pro tip: People on scooters will approach you, asking if you would like a ride. While it may seem adventurous at the time, official US travel sites warn against doing so. Many North Americans are injured or killed each year and do not have proper insurance to cover their medical costs. Fun or not, it’s simply not worth the risk.
Our first stop was the War Remnants Museum. In the courtyard outside the building, we had a chance to get up close and personal with a handful of massive machines and weapons of destruction that were used during the Vietnam War effort. Tanks, aircraft, and even a French guillotine are available for visitors to check out. Inside the museum, there are several floors of exhibits. Perhaps the most poignant exhibits featured the aftermath of Agent Orange on Vietnamese communities. It was both humbling and disturbing at the same time.
We were given about two hours to explore the museum, which was about an hour too long for my tastes. When you only have a few hours to experience an entire city, there’s no time to linger. But there was a lovely gift shop on the main floor of the museum that had some cute souvenirs I never found anyplace else.
Following our visit to the museum, we made our way to the Reunification Palace. Built by the French in the 1960s, the building once served as the headquarters for the South Vietnamese government. It was also the personal home of the president until he fled in 1975. We spent the next hour touring the deserted halls of this impressive building.
We got a good look at meetings rooms, offices, and living quarters that seemed as though they had been preserved as part of a mid-1900s movie set. But perhaps the most intriguing part of the palace tour took place in the basement. We meandered through a maze of tunnels that led to a war room and telecommunications center used during the Vietnam War.
Upon leaving the palace we promptly made our way downtown, where we had the chance to take a few snaps of the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral. Located in a quiet corner of the city, the towering church was built in the mid-1860s by a French architect. Today, it is one of the most recognizable symbols of Ho Chi Minch City.
Just across the street from the cathedral is the Central Post Office. Built around the same time as the church, it is one of the oldest buildings in the city. Inside, its a bustling hub of activity as people actively send and receive parcels or use the foreign exchange services.
About 15 minutes later, we were back in the hands of our trusty guide, making our way to our next stop. Entering through the back door, we found ourselves amid the artisans at a local ceramic tile shop. We watched in awe as the skilled artists painted miniscule designs on tiny tiles. After snapping a few shots and interacting with the talented team of artists, we took a stroll through the adjacent shop. Though ceramic artwork isn’t typically my style, I did pick up a hand-painted tile as a memento of my day in Ho Chi Minh City. After about 45 minutes—which was about 30 minutes too much—our adventure continued.
On our way to our final destination, we made one more quick pit stop to take photos of the infamous Saigon Opera House. Also built in the French style in the late 1800s, the building is home to many top theatrical performances. Other members of our group planned to take in one of the shows later that night, but this was our only chance to take a look at the building. We had other plans in mind for the evening. While the opera house is fairly simple in its design, it has a sophisticated aura that is hard to deny.
Finally, we reached the last leg of our comprehensive tour—the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Built in the late 1800s to early 1900s, the Taoist temple is one of the most beautiful pagodas in all of Ho Chi Minh City. On your way through the courtyard, it’s impossible to miss the turtle pond near the banyan tree. In Vietnam, turtles are a sign of luck and good fortune. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. Local pagodas act as a sanctuary for unwanted animals, and each one is assigned a specific species, such as gold fish. People can drop off the animals with no questions asked and know they’ll be cared for. The Jade Emperor Pagoda serves as a safe haven for abandoned turtles.
There are several buildings that make up this particular pagoda, and each one is ornately adorned. From walls and doors carved with Buddhist legends to massive shrines, every inch of the pagoda is a feast for the eyes. I could have spent hours taking it all in, but each temple was packed full of people. It was only fair to make way for others to catch a glimpse and say their prayers. Besides, we had no time to waste if we were going to get home in time for our evening plans.
After bidding farewell to our new friends, we had only a few minutes to freshen up before heading back out. When I emailed the hotel asking to ask the concierge to arrange our private tour, I also had them book an evening show. While our friends were going to see equivalent of the Vietnamese Cirque du Soleil at the opera house, we were planning to take in something a little more fun—traditional Vietnamese water puppets. That’s right…puppets…in the water.
The infamous Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater was only a 10-minute walk from our hotel, but we still managed to get a bit lost on the way. And though a man on a scooter offered us a ride, we politely declined. Still, he was kind enough to point us in the right direction, and we arrived with plenty of time to spare.
Entering the dark, dank theater, I was a bit wary. There were stadium-style seats for a few hundred people with a large tank of murky water at one end of the room. The velour seats were dingy, and there was a faint odor lingering in the air. I held my breath—literally—and hoped for the best. I wasn’t disappointed.
As the show started, men and women lined either side of the stage, singing and playing instruments. We didn’t understand a single word, but it didn’t matter. The lively puppets danced and delighted, making up for anything that was lost in translation. We had a blast, and it only cost $10 per ticket.
We left the show invigorated. After a quick bite at one of the many street cafes, we made our way to our final stop of the night, the Ben Than Night Market. Located just a few blocks from our hotel, it was the perfect way to end our long—but thoroughly amazing—day.
Dozens of stalls lined the streets lit only by dim streetlights. We walked from one stall to the next, taking in the array of items on offer. As with other South Asian markets, there were plenty of clothes, handbags, and trinkets to choose from. We bought some coffee beans and called it a night.
By now, rain was pouring down on us, and we knew there was time for a quick visit to the market in the morning before leaving for the airport. We dashed back to our hotel, hunkering down beneath the awnings of local shops to keep from being soaked through.
While it was a lot to pack into one day, it was well worth every minute. We saw so much of Ho Chi Minh City in just a few hours, and we can’t wait to go back to see even more. What are your favorite memories of Ho Chi Minh City? Share them with the Wanderlust Wayfarer Facebook group.