I was surprised how much I loved Ho Chi Minh City. With all the anticipation I had building around Hanoi and Hoi An, I almost considered skipping it all together. Perhaps my lack of excitement was exactly why I found myself enjoying it so much.
Maybe it was because I had such a great travel companion. Maybe it was because it was my last stop in Vietnam and I was sad to leave. Perhaps it was because I found places here that opened up a new part of me and put real historic events into perspective.
It could have been the time I spent in cafes, bars, and restaurants with my best friend just talking and laughing or watching old boy band videos.
Whatever the reason, I loved it more than I expected. I really let go of a travel itinerary here and just let things happen that wanted to happen, so I missed a few things that were on the list. But I decided to compile a list of all the things I did experience that I think you must do on your first visit to Ho Chi Minh City.
Visit The War Remnants Museum
I think this is the most important thing you can put on your to do list for Ho Chi Minh City, especially if you are an American. In the darkest way possible, this was easily the highlight of my trip to Southern Vietnam.
What we (as Americans) are so used to calling the Vietnam War is known as the American War on that side of the world. If you watched the recent Ken Berns documentary or just know the truth about this period of our history, this will be a very hard visit for you.
I watched the documentary while I was traveling and although this isn’t a review, you should absolutely watch it. Especially if you’re planning a visit to Vietnam. Learning more about the war from my laptop screen while on long buses and trains navigating through the very places the war took place was hard. But being in that museum was harder.
Knowing the devastation brought on by your home country is a tough reality to face. Prepare yourself to feel ashamed as an America when wandering the different exhibits. Prepare yourself for the tears when you see photos of every major country in the world protesting against the war. You will see evidence of the ongoing effects of war weapons like unexploded bombs and agent orange birth defects.
I do think as sad and upsetting as it is, this is a mandatory visit. It was humbling and shocking, but most importantly it gave me even more respect for the country and culture.
Spend Time at Jade Emperor Pagoda
A beautiful pagoda with a lot of history and centrally located, the Jade Emperor Pagoda is definitely worth a visit. Built by the Chinese in 1909, this religious site with its bright colors and overly crowded tortoise pond, is a quick and easy attraction to visit.
Here you will find statues and shrines important in both Taoist and Buddhist temples. Appreciate the exquisite entryway, with a mix of locals, tourists and animals. Then enter the smoke-filled temple with minimal light to visit the statue of the Chief of Hell or watch as women pray for fertility at the shrine of Kim Hua.
I don’t know about you, but when seeing a city, the amount of advice you read on the internet can get overwhelming. I love learning about the culture, but at some point it becomes redundant. In Europe it’s endless museums and cathedrals. In Southeast Asia it’s temples and pagodas. And if you travel for long enough and see enough of them, they blur together. It’s always really hard for me to decide what to see, especially when I have a limited amount of time.
If you only see one temple or pagoda in Saigon, I suggest you see this one. It’s a wonderful place to take in the Vietnamese culture, while watching locals pray and practice their rituals. The fact that there is no entry fee, also makes it budget-travel friendly.
Saigon Central Post Office and Beyond
Every piece of travel literature that exists on Ho Chi Minh City will tell you to visit the Saigon Central Post Office. And you absolutely should. The French colonial architecture stands out as one of the cities most well known landmarks. It is still a working post office and sending post cards from this location is a must do experience.
This is a central location to some other major tourists attractions, including the Notre Dame Cathedral. I recommend hitting all the big spots and then just getting lost in the area. You can actually walk from here to the the Jade Emperor Pagoda and War Remnant Museum.
It all can’t be done in a day, but I came back to this square on two occasions to use it as a starting point. I also saw the post office at night and during the day which I think is worth the trip to see it at both times of day.
I ended up spending full afternoons and evenings with my best friend in restaurants and cafes that we stumbled onto and didn’t want to leave. Because of that, some things got left off the list with my limited time. I know there are plenty other things that could be added, but these were my favorite.