From its beautiful colonial buildings and historical sites to hidden cafes, tasty street food and cool rooftops, Ho Chi Minh City has more to offer than most visitors expect. For some inspiration on how to spend some extra time in the cultural capital of southern Vietnam, check out our one-week itinerary below.
Day 1: Learn your history
Start your first day in Ho Chi Minh City off like a local with some steaming hot pho, Vietnam’s national dish. You’ll see countless little restaurants and street food stalls selling freshly prepared pho to customers sitting on tiny plastic stools. How do you find a good pho stall? A solid rule of thumb is to follow the locals. See a busy stall? That’s where you’ll want to get in line.
No trip to Ho Chi Minh City is complete without a stop at the Independence Palace. Also known as the Reunification Palace, this famous building used to house the South Vietnamese government as well as the president and his family. Spend a few hours here to learn about how the president’s life looked while his country was at war and understand how the final days of the Republic of South Vietnam went down.
After seeing one of the city’s most famous landmarks, take only a few steps and you’ll find yourself right in front of the Notre Dame cathedral, another iconic spot in Ho Chi Minh City’s center. Surrounded by huge old trees, the church is a perfect example of French influence on both architecture and culture in Vietnam.
Right next to the cathedral, you’ll see the central post office, a must on every visitor’s list. Why? Because Ho Chi Minh City’s post office is a bit like a time machine. The elegant colonial building welcomes guests with a striking entrance hall. The old hardwood counters are beautifully carved and the ornate floor tiles and maps on the walls make you feel like you’ve gone back in time a hundred years. What’s best about the post office though, is that it’s still fully functioning. So, if you want to send your friends and family a postcard, there’s no better place to do it! You’ll also find ATMs of all major banks here, so if you’re looking for a safe place to withdraw cash, search no more.
After all this, you’ve earned yourself a break and some AC! Stop at the famous Cong Café, a coffee shop known for its vintage décor and delicious coconut coffee. Once you’ve cooled off a bit, it’s time to catch a cab to the city’s most popular market, Cho Ben Thanh. The market has a large food court where you’ll find many stalls serving various noodle soups, steamed buns and other Vietnamese treats which are perfect for lunch. Again, choose a booth where you see plenty of locals. Here you can be sure it’s good, clean and fairly priced.
Once you’re full, wander around the market and explore. From fresh produce to clothes and souvenirs, you’ll get it all here. Be prepared to haggle and walk away if you feel the price is unreasonable. Chances are high you’ll come across the same things again later. The area outside the market is fun and lively too. Here you’ll find plenty more coffee shops and little stores selling souvenirs and more tasty food.
To end your day like a local, you have two choices. Either you can head back to the cathedral or catch a taxi to the Turtle Lake (which is more like a pond in the middle of a large roundabout). Both places are popular among couples and groups of friends who get together in the evenings to share a street food dinner and hang out. Here you’ll get a great chance to do some people watching, enjoy more great food and perfectly end your first day in Ho Chi Minh City.
Day 2: Ho Chi Minh City Then and Now
To get yourself going, start your day with another yummy Vietnamese breakfast like pho or banh mi, a baguette stuffed with meat, fresh veggies and generous amounts of fresh coriander. After that, it’s time to visit another one of the city’s famous museums, the War Remnants Museum.
In countless pictures taken by international war photographers, the exhibit illustrates the horrors of the Vietnam War (referred to as the American War here). While it’s sad to see so much tragedy and destruction, it also highlights how far Vietnam has come since then and sets an optimistic tone for the future.
Once you’ve brushed up on your history, you might be ready for a quick stop at a coffee shop to refuel. Going for the strong Vietnamese coffee served over ice and condensed milk will take care of that. Depending on how much time you took at the museum, a quick stop for lunch might also be in order. To make sure you find the best spots for food, we’ve put together an article with more inspiration on some of Ho Chi Minh City’s best (and oldest) street food stalls.
After your break, it’s time to visit one of the city’s most famous modern buildings, the Bitexco Financial Tower. At over fifty stories high, this building is one of the tallest in the city and offers amazing views of Ho Chi Minh City. The best way to visit is to get a combo ticket for the Ho Chi Minh City Skydeck (the tower’s official viewing platform) and the Heineken museum. Yes, you read that right! Bitexco’s top floors are occupied by the “World of Heineken”, a museum dedicated to one of the most popular beers in Vietnam. What’s the best thing about the museum? After the tour, you get to serve yourself a beer fresh from the tap and enjoy it while you overlook the city.
To end the day on a cultural note, head over to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater for a 50-minute show of this traditional Vietnamese art form. Intricately carved figures are worked by artists behind the scenes to perform fun skits you’ll understand easily even without speaking Vietnamese. To be sure you get a seat, book tickets in advance as the show is quite popular and sells out quickly.
For a yummy dinner and a fun experience, you can head over to Bui Vien, Ho Chi Minh’s famous backpacker district. There you’ll find plenty of bars with cheap beer and great food as well as a few rooftop bars with a city view. Bui Vien is also a great place to meet fellow travelers, exchange stories of your recent adventures and find out about the best day trips around Ho Chi Minh City.
Day 3: Eat your heart out
Spending time in Ho Chi Minh City wouldn’t be complete without a day dedicated to the amazing food the city has to offer.
So you don’t miss Vietnamese food too much once you head back home, why not participate in a one-day cooking class! That way you can learn how to make a few of your favorites and wow your friends and family with your new culinary skills once you get home.
Usually, classes start early in the morning with a trip to the local wet market where you’ll learn how to pick the ingredients for your meal. Get ready to see fruits, veggies and herbs you’ve never seen before! Once you’re back at the cooking school, your teacher will guide you through the process of making a variety of starters, main courses and desserts. Be sure to take notes if you want to recreate these treats back home!
A few cooking schools which get consistently high reviews and great feedback are the Saigon Culinary Arts Center, M.O.M. Cooking Class and Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc. Calling ahead to book a spot is necessary as this is quite a popular activity. Are you vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free? If so, most cooking schools can accommodate special dietary requirements if you let them know a few days in advance.
If you want to enjoy all the goodies without getting your hands dirty, a street food tour might be more your thing. Follow a local guide who knows all the city’s nooks and crannies with the best spots in town and be wowed by what you’ll find. Our friends at Onetrip organize a great tour of Ho Chi Minh City’s best eateries, so if you’re looking for a reliable operator to book with, check out our review of their tour.
Alternatively, you can go and explore on your own, armed with our list of top eateries to try. We have curated lists of the best authentic Vietnamese sit-down restaurants as well as a collection of street food stalls all around the city. Want to know more about street food culture in Vietnam, how it has developed in recent years and where to find local favorite spots? We’ve got a great piece about that too!
Day 4: Explore Cho Lon
Known as the biggest Chinatown in Southeast Asia, Cho Lon spans over three of Ho Chi Minh City’s districts. Its many small alleyways, Chinese shop signs and countless charming pagodas set this area apart from the rest of Ho Chi Minh City. If you’re curious by nature and love exploring by simply walking around a new neighborhood, you could easily spend several days here.
To give you a head start on what to look for in Cho Lon, here are a few things you should have on your itinerary. The Quan Am and Thien Hau pagodas are two of the city’s most well-known pagodas and are an absolute must. Both are several centuries old and are wonderful examples of Chinese Buddhist architecture.
Step inside to get away from the hustle and bustle of Cho Lon’s busy streets and enjoy the peace and tranquility of these spiritual sites. Note that respectful clothing is appreciated when you visit these places. That means no sleeveless shirts or short skirts and shorts.
As you wander the streets and alleyways of Cho Lon, you’ll want to stop for some food here and there. And of course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this part of the city offers specialties which are best tried right here. They include the expertly roasted Peking Duck served with fresh cucumbers and a tasty dipping sauce, freshly made noodles served with soup, veggies and fresh herbs and of course the famous Dim Sum dumplings. Where to find the best of each of these foods? Check this article on the top food spots in Cho Lon!
Once you’ve refueled, it’s time to visit Binh Tay market, the biggest market in Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown. It’s chock full of everything you could ever want and need. From fresh produce and meat as well as dry goods like nuts and coffee to electronics, clothes, designer knock-offs and jewelry, you will get everything and more right here. Why visit another market after seeing Benh Thanh the other day? Because Binh Tay is less touristy and more frequented by locals. That gives it a whole other vibe and makes it a great place to practice your bargaining skills and pick up a few less expensive souvenirs.
After a fun day of exploring Cho Lon and taking amazing photos there, you’ve earned yourself a break. To relax, head to one of the city’s big parks, grab a coffee there and enjoy some of the best people watching around the city. Ho Chi Minh City’s parks are a great place to unwind and get close to nature in the middle of a bustling metropolis. The age-old trees which seem to reach the sky cast shade during the day and make for a beautiful haven in the heart of the city. Popular parks to visit include Le Van Tam and Tao Dan Park.
To end the day on a high note, grab a beer (or two) at one of Ho Chi Minh City’s famed craft beer bars. In recent years, craft beer has rapidly gained popularity. Several cool venues have sprung up around the city and are now drawing crowds of loyal guests. Many places brew their own beers which include traditional IPAs and lagers as well as exotic creations such as passion fruit or chili flavored beer. Curious? Find out where to get the best craft beer in Ho Chi Minh City right now!
Day 5: Museums, anyone?
The more time you take to explore Ho Chi Minh City, the more you’ll understand that there are endless things to see and do here. Today, we suggest you take it easy since you spent the day before walking all around Chinatown.
After a yummy breakfast and the obligatory Vietnamese coffee, today’s first stop is the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. Here you’ll learn more about the history of the city and the role it played in Vietnam’s long fight for independence. There are also some interesting exhibits about Vietnamese culture in general which are great to check out if you want to learn more about the traditional way of life and how it has developed over time. To top it all off, the museum is housed in a beautiful colonial building, so even just for that, it’s already worth a visit.
Once you’ve had some lunch and rested a bit in a nearby coffee shop, it’s time to grab a taxi and head over to the FITO Museum. Here you’ll learn everything about traditional Vietnamese medicine. There are many interesting displays explaining how doctors diagnosed their patients and then chose ingredients to prepare the required medication. The museum’s owners are also happy to answer any questions and shed more light on the age-old practices explained in the exhibit.
If you still have energy now, grab another taxi to go downtown. There you can do some shopping at one of the city’s fancy new malls like Takashimaya or Vincom Center on Le Thanh Ton road. In general, you’ll find many boutiques selling one-of-a-kind pieces all around District 1, so keep your eyes open for cute hole-in-the-wall stores. If you’re more interested in a bargain, head over to Lucky Plaza or Saigon Square for souvenirs and countless designer knock-offs.
Just in time for sunset, you can move over to M Gallery, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s chic new hotels. They have a rooftop bar with a fantastic view of the city and cocktails are delicious.
Day 6: Venture out to Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple
Time to get out of the city a bit and explore the surroundings! Today, why not leave Ho Chi Minh City and head out to one of the most iconic historical sites from the Vietnam War? We’re talking about checking out the Cu Chi Tunnels, a famous network of tunnels used by Vietnamese resistance fighters to hide from American forces and combat them.
You can easily get to Cu Chi with your own hired motorbike or with a tour bus. If that’s your choice, it’s best to book your tickets a few days ahead as this is a popular activity and spots fill up quickly. You can do this online or at one of the many tour operator offices you saw at Bui Vien.
Once you get to Cu Chi, you’ll first notice beautiful green landscapes, full of orchards and rubber tree plantations. Past all that you will find the museum dedicated to the darker chapter of this area’s history and get a first-hand peek at how resistance fighters lived and fought during the war.
Many of the tunnels still remain intact and your guide will show you a few you can actually go down into to see how tiny they are. And keep in mind, the tunnels you get to visit have been enlarged for tourists!
Close to Cu Chi you’ll find Tay Ninh, a town home to the main Cao Dai temple. Caodaism is a monotheistic religion founded in Vietnam in 1926. Its followers believe in a supreme power which created the universe and is represented by the depiction of the left eye of God. Today it’s estimated that about four million people around Vietnam follow Caodaism. Why should you pay the main Cao Dai temple a visit? Its beautiful architecture already makes the temple worth a stop. But of course, learning about this little-known religion is also interesting as it’s not something you’ll easily find somewhere else.
If you book a day trip to Cu Chi, chances are, a trip to Cao Dai is included as well. And since these two spots are close together, why not do them both since you’re already taking the trip?
After your long day of sightseeing, you’ve earned a yummy dinner! Today, why not try something a lot of Saigonese people absolutely love: Pizza 4Ps. Now you might be wondering why we’re suggesting you have pizza while in Vietnam. It’s because Pizza 4Ps quickly is one of the most popular pizza spots in the city and is booked out every single day. Their food is delicious and inspired by many local ingredients. For example, alongside Italian classics, you’ll find pizza and pasta with fresh crab or marinated meats. Curious? Then book your table in advance and bring an empty stomach.
Day 7: More culture and shopping…
On your last day in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s time to get in some more amazing local food, a bit of shopping and of course some more culture.
Start the day with a trip to any of the city’s many great wet markets. You’ll see several in every district and they’ll easily catch your eye as they attract all the locals shopping for their groceries or wanting to grab a quick bite.
A great market to visit right in the center of town is Cho Thi Nghe. There you can stock up on fruits as snacks for the day and once again marvel at the variety of tropical produce you likely won’t find back home. Grab a quick breakfast of noodles or banh mi along with some Vietnamese coffee and be on your way to our next stop, either the Museum of Vietnamese History or the Fine Arts Museum.
Both museums are set in beautiful buildings which are a sight to see. Inside you’ll find exhibits full of Buddhist artifacts like ancient statues and stone carvings as well as more modern artwork. The Museum of Vietnamese History also adds more information about Vietnam’s development through the millennia. You’ll learn how the earliest settlers started farming the land and how ethnic minorities were formed in the remote hill countries and mountain ranges.
After all that exploring, you’ve earned yourself another Vietnamese coffee and a snack before you head back out. Explore some of the cute boutiques in District 1 or relax in one of the city’s many parks.
For your last evening in the city, book tickets to AO Show. It takes place in Ho Chi Minh City’s historical opera house and combines modern dance with traditional Vietnamese music and props. The show has won several awards for its great choreography and some of the acrobatic stunts are quite impressive. To not miss your chance of seeing this show, grab your tickets a few days ahead of time either at the opera house directly or online. That way you’ll be sure to have good seats!
After the show, stroll over to Nguyen Hue, one of Ho Chi Minh City’s most popular streets for people to hang in the evening. Here you’ll find a large pedestrian zone full of street food vendors and street artists as well as many cute boutiques and great restaurants. As you walk along the street, you’ll come towards the beautifully lit up city hall, another wonderful example of elegant colonial architecture.
About halfway down Nguyen Hue, you’ll find SH Garden, a rooftop restaurant which serves yummy food and offers a great view of the street below and the city’s skyline. After dinner, grab a drink in one of the little cafes in the famous café building on Nguyen Hue. You’ll easily recognize it, as its façade is dotted with several brightly lit and colorfully decorated balconies. Head up the run-down looking stairway to find a cute café you like and enjoy some people watching and the view of Bitexco while you sip on a fresh peach tea.
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City offers no shortage of places to stay. Whether you’re on a budget or not, traveling alone or with friends and family, you’ll easily find something to fit your needs and pocketbook.
To start with, we at Christina’s have plenty of great apartments and studios for rent in some of the city’s coolest spots. Check out our website now to see the latest listings and availabilities.
If you’re looking for a budget-friendly option and want to be where the action’s happening, look into getting a hostel on Bui Vien. There you can find beds in shared dormitories or smaller rooms to share with your friends. By staying in Bui Vien you’ll also be close to local travel agent offices, so you can easily book further trips.
Of course, there are some fancier places available as well. Both District 1 and 3 offer great accommodations close to the most important spots you’ll want to visit. If you really want to splurge, go for a hotel right on the river with a great view of the city such as the Liberty Riverside or the Renaissance Hotel.
With so many suggestions on things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll easily keep busy for a week or more. We hope our itinerary has made it a bit easier for you to plan your trip to Ho Chi Minh City and make the most of every day in this beautiful city. And once you’ve been here, let us know in the comments below which were your favorite activities!
If you enjoyed reading this article and would like some more fun info about what to see, do and eat (and a bunch of interesting cafes!) in Vietnam, follow us at the Christina’s blog!