Things to Do in Southern Vietnam
Built by the Viet Cong in the 1940s as protection from French air raids during the Indochina conflict, the Cu Chi Tunnels extend underground for more than 155 miles (250 km) in the vicinity of Ho Chi Minh City alone. This network of subterranean passageways later provided vital access to and strategic control over the rural areas surrounding the city during the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War or the American War), when the tunnels housed living quarters, hospitals, booby traps, and storage facilities for the Viet Cong.
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saïgon) boasts a striking red façade and towering stone arches constructed with materials imported from France in the 1800s. But its architecture isn’t the only draw. In 2005, visitors reported seeing a tear flow from the eye of a statue of the Virgin Mary here, making it a destination for Catholics on a religious pilgrimage.
A must-visit when in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum (Bảo Tàng Chứng Tích Chiến Tranh) is a poignant reminder of the horrors of war. The grounds house American planes, tanks, helicopters, and weaponry captured during the Vietnam War. Pictorial displays cover everything from the My Lai Massacre to the traumas of Agent Orange and the work of war correspondents.
The design of Ho Chi Minh City’s Central Post Office, completed in 1891, mimics an old-world European railway station with soaring ceilings and a giant clock face. These rich details lead travelers to pause and soak up the brilliant interior of this architectural landmark, which includes hand-painted maps of the old city.
The Saigon River (Sông Sài Gòn), the fast-flowing main artery of Ho Chi Minh City, is flanked by both modern skyscrapers and rural villages that give insight into old Vietnamese traditions. Used by locals to escape the urban bustle, the riverbanks are dotted with picnic benches and greenery, making for a pleasant refuge from the metropolitan mania of Saigon.
Originally developed by the French in 1868 to commemorate the establishment of the colony of Indochina, the Reunification Palace (formerly Independence Palace) as it stands today was built during the 1960s. Known in Vietnamese as Dinh Độc Lập or Dinh Thống Nhất, it was most famously the symbolic site of the liberation of Saigon by communist forces that reunited the nation on April 30, 1975.
The Saigon Opera House (Opéra de Saïgon), aka Ho Chi Minh City Theater (Nhà Hát Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh), is a landmark piece of French colonial architecture. (Saigon was the colonial name for Ho Chi Minh City.) Built in 1897, it is home to the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet and Symphony Orchestra, but is best known for evening cultural shows, such as A O and Teh Dar.
Right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City is the Ben Thanh Market (Chợ Bến Thành). More than a place to go shopping, the market is also an architectural landmark, a center of local Vietnamese life and commerce, and a meeting point all rolled into one.
Thien Hau Temple (Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu), built by Cantonese immigrants in the early 19th century, pays tribute to Thien Hau (sometimes called Mazu), goddess of the sea and protector of seafarers. Situated on a busy street in Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, the active temple displays intricate porcelain dioramas from Chinese mythology both inside and out.
A high-speed elevator inside the Bitexco Financial Center zips travelers up 49 floors to a glass observation deck ribbed with neon lights. Visitors say views from Saigon Skydeck are some of the best in Ho Chi Minh, offering a 360-degree bird’s-eye view of Ben Thanh Market and Notre Dame Cathedral, among other city icons.
More Things to Do in Southern Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City’s Jade Emperor Pagoda is considered to be one of the city’s finest temples. It’s dedicated to the Taoist Jade Emperor Chua Ngoc Hoang, but Buddhist elements can also be seen. Its nickname is the Tortoise Pagoda, because of the many tortoises that live in the grounds. It’s a must-see attraction in HCMC.
Cholon (Saigon Chinatown) is Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese quarter, and the largest in Vietnam. It’s full of Chinese Buddhist temples, as well as other religious buildings and markets. It contrasts with much of the rest of the city, with its narrow streets and varied architectural styles. This is a great place to come to see a different side of Ho Chi Minh City.
Dong Khoi Street (Đường Đồng Khởi), with its elite boutiques, French architecture, and trendy cafés, is the premier commercial center of the city andthe place to see and be seen. Stores range from high-quality silk sellers to high-end luxury brands. City highlights such as Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office are both within easy walking distance.
Near Tay Ninh town, in Long Hoa village, this temple is considered the greatest of all Vietnam’s Cao Dai temples. Founded in 1926, the Cao Dai Temple (Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh) complex functions as a Holy See for the Cao Dai religion (Caodaism), Vietnam’s third most popular belief system after Buddhism and Catholicism. Visitors are welcome at prayer sessions in the Great Temple.
Located southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, close to where the Saigon River meets the South China Sea, the low-lying Can Gio island houses a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This is an important natural wetland with attractions like Monkey Island, Rung Sac Military Base, Vam Sat Salt-Marsh Forest Ecological Tourist Center, and a crocodile farm.
At the heart of Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese district, sits Binh Tay Market (Chợ Bình Tây). Built in 1928 after the original bazaar burned down, Binh Tay is the city’s largest market teeming with vendors selling a mind-boggling array of wares, including pottery, flowers, and cheap souvenirs, as well as piping hot noodles and wholesale produce.
The Dam Sen Water Park (Công Viên Nước Đầm Sen) is a fun place to spend a few hours when the weather’s hot in Ho Chi Minh City, which is most of the time! Kids in particular will love the waterslides, wave pool, and watery rides. There are landscaped gardens, lounge chairs, and food outlets to keep parents happy, too.
From the giant bearded god towering over the water park to slides that emerge through a dragon’s mouth, Suoi Tien Theme Park takes its Buddhist theme to the limit. Local families flock here for games, local eats, swimming, child-centric rides, the zoo, and the grounds. Most overseas travelers visit to enjoy the bizarre design.
Spanning around 25 acres (10 hectares) in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, Tao Dan Park is a fresh green space where locals exercise, particularly tai chi in the morning, aerobics after work, and badminton on weekends. Besides the pool, tennis courts, and sculpture garden, many travelers love the bird café, where local men bring pet birds.
Fronting the Saigon River in the heart of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Bach Dang Wharf (Bến Bạch Đằng is so much more than just a jumpoff point for river cruises and water buses. A landscaped circular garden forms the centerpiece of a waterfront promenade with street eats as well as more upscale dining.
With dusty jars of ingredients, an altar devoted to two long-dead doctors, a disturbing selection of historical medical instruments, and more, the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (Fito Museum is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s quirkiest museums. A documentary introduces the tradition, while the souvenir shop offers unusual gifts.
One of the oldest art museums in Ho Chi Minh City, the Museum of Fine Arts occupies a gorgeous colonial-era building from 1929. The collection starts with sculptures from the early Funan and Cham kingdoms, dating back as far as the fourth century, but it’s also home to intriguing modern art pieces, many focused on the Vietnam War.
Ho Chi Minh City’s answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Road, Pham Ngu Lao Street boasts dozens of affordable guesthouses, cheap pubs, and backpacker-focused restaurants. In fact, Saigonese know it simply as the backpacker district. Despite the noise, traffic, and chaos, Phạm Ngũ Lão is a mecca for travelers looking to experience Saigon’s unfiltered energy.
Built in 1744, the Giac Lam Pagoda is one of the oldest temples in Ho Chi Minh City. A Buddhist structure designated as a historic site by the Vietnamese government, the site boasts an impressive sanctuary filled with gold figures and a fat laughing Buddha. The large gardens surrounding the pagoda also contain a sacred bodhi tree.