Bird's eye view of canals in Ho Chi Minh City. By Aaron Joel Santos
Ho Chi Minh City's colonial attractions are sprinkled around District 1, with the Reunification Palace looking down tree-lined Le Duan Boulevard where you'll find the Notre Dame Cathedral and the city's Central Post Office. Walk down Dong Khoi street, and you'll pass the Saigon Opera House and the Continental Hotel. On a more local level, the Ben Thanh Market and the Jade Emperor Pagoda are both worth a stop.
Around District 1, a host of old apartments and former office buildings have been repurposed as shopping centers, leading to some surprising retail discoveries. Decades-old buildings such as 22 Ly Tu Trong and 42 Nguyen Hue are good examples of these impromptu shopping malls, as are the shops at 3A Station near the riverfront. The streets and alleys branching off of Dong Khoi are packed with all kinds of fascinating stores.
The War Remnants Museum recounts a tumultuous time in 20th-century Vietnamese history, documenting both the atrocities of the war and the aftermath of the conflict. If you're interested in learning about the war from another point of view, this museum offers a wealth of information as well as some compelling photo exhibits.
The Chinese neighbourhood known as Cho Lon houses Binh Tay Market, a colossal wholesale trading center, as well as Thien Hau Pagoda, an atmospheric temple that pays homage to the goddess of the sea amid clouds of incense and burning votive paper. Next door, the colorful Chaozhou Assembly Hall and pale blue Cho Lon Mosque highlight the neighbourhood's intersection of cultures.
Beyond landmarks, Ho Chi Minh City serves up a taste of urban Vietnam by way of its traffic. Do as the locals do and hop on the back of a motorbike to see the city on street level and feel its energetic pulse. If you can't drive, there are many tour companies offering motorbike tours. Some of the best set off in the evening, when the city is at its most romantic and the sidewalk vendors are out in force.
Ho Chi Minh City's street food draws together countless regional specialties from across Vietnam. Locals love to gather around dented metal tables across the city for incredible roadside feasts. The options are plentiful, but don't miss highlights such as Vietnamese sandwiches (bánh mì), southern-style savoury pancakes (bánh xèo) and broken rice (cơm tấm).
Though they may be small and sometimes difficult to find, Ho Chi Minh City's contemporary art galleries are worth your effort. Start your artistic adventure at the Fine Arts Museum, once the mansion of one of HCMC's wealthiest residents, before venturing out to other spaces. Noteworthy venues include Galerie Quynh, The Factory and Craig Thomas Gallery.
Begin your first day in the southern hub with a visit to the War Remnants Museum. You’ll want to get here early in order to take in all the exhibits before grabbing a bite and heading down to the grand Reunification Palace. Take the free hour-long tour of the grounds and then walk over to the historic Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office nearby. In the evening, sip a drink at one of the city's many rooftop bars.
Start your morning with a jaunt to Ben Thanh Market, the city’s most famous trading centre, before strolling toward Nguyen Hue walking street. Here you’ll find Hotel de Ville, a building now home to the municipal government, as well as the Opera House nearby. Walk a block over to Dong Khoi, a popular shopping street; or swing back toward Ben Thanh for a visit to the city’s antique street and Fine Arts Museum.
For one more day in Ho Chi Minh City, add on a tour, either in town or just beyond the city limits. Book a motorbike excursion out to the Mekong Delta for a taste of rural life, brush up on your history with a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels or get your dose of local culture by heading out to District 6’s Cho Lon area. A handful of other activities such as cooking classes and spa facilities are also worthy options.
Rainy season runs from May to November, however the Ho Chi Minh City is a year-round destination. April and May tend to be especially hot, while cooler weather appears around December and January. Perhaps the only ill-advised time to visit would be during Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, as most residents head back to their hometowns for the holiday.
Travellers can arrive in Ho Chi Minh City by bus, train or plane. Tan Son Nhat, the international airport, welcomes foreign and domestic arrivals everyday, while various bus companies operate shuttles from Phnom Penh and domestic destinations. As the terminus of Vietnam's north-south railway, Ho Chi Minh City also sees a steady stream of train travellers.