When I stepped down from the bus I took from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh city I was ready to hate it. To be honest, I originally planned on avoiding this Vietnamese city, for what I thought was good reason. I had been told over and over again that it was overrated, too hectic and crazy, and dangerous. However, it was also the cheapest way for me to enter Vietnam, so I sucked it and prepared to see Ho Chi Minh City in 1 day before moving on.
However, some places have a funny way of growing on you and I quickly began to admire and like the city I was convinced I would hate. And although I think one day was perfect for exploring the city itself (especially if you only have about 2-3 weeks for Vietnam), I think everyone should give it a chance. So based on my experience, here is the best of Ho Chi Minh City in 1 day.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), sometimes referred to by its old name of Saigon, is located in the south of Vietnam. Visitors can arrive by bus, train, plane, or even motorbike depending on where they are coming from.
If you are coming from Cambodia, the cheapest way is to come by bus. If you are coming from elsewhere in Vietnam, there are plenty of trains and busses and even flights. Overnight busses tend to be the most popular option (depending on where you are coming from, travel times are usually quite long). Of course some people are extra adventurous travel the country by motorbike Note to those that do this: the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City is no joke, and the worst in the country.
HCMC has a large international airport, making it easy to get in from almost everywhere around the world. Flights in Vietnam tend to be pretty inexpensive, especially with VietJet airlines, so if you would rather fly than take a lengthy bus or train ride that’s an option as well.
Please be aware of whether or not you need a visa for Vietnam. As a Canadian I needed one before arrival. Tourist agencies and airports will check to make sure you have one before they take you.
If you are coming from a nearby country such as Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos it is probably cheaper to get a visa there. Many travel agencies and even hostels or hotels will help you take care of this. I went through the office Vietnamese Embassy in Canada and paid nearly 3x more than I would have if I had just sorted everything in Cambodia.
If you are staying in central HCMC the best way to get around is walking. The main attractions are pretty close to each other. Just make sure you have a bottle of water and some courage to step out into the mayhem of HCMC traffic (which is terrifying and fun at the same time). If you would prefer not to walk, motorbike taxis can easily be found on almost every corner. You can’t go too far without them approaching you. As always, make sure to bargain and set a price before getting on. There is a public bus system, however considering the time you need to wait and the stops along the way, it’s probably faster just to walk. If you are going outside the city, like to the airport, but public busses are great. Finally, both taxis and Uber are available. Uber is recommended to avoid being overcharged, and is generally deemed to be safer than taxis, especially for women at night.
It is important to note that theft and robberies are a regular complaint in HCMC. Usually motorbike drivers target tourists and grab their bags and cellphones out of their hands while driving by. To best avoid this don’t pull you phone out unnecessarily in public and use a cross body bag or backpack and keep it facing away from the street and in front of you.
Where to Stay
Ho Chi Minh City is made up of 24 districts, and I definitely suggest staying in district 1 which is downtown, close to the attractions, and easy to get around. It’s also pretty busy and hectic, but that’s part of the fun of this city.
If you are on a budget or a backpacker, I highly recommend Long Hostel. Everything is clean and tidy, free breakfast is delicious, the location is good, and the atmosphere is awesome. They have a happy hour every day with free beer which brings all guests into the common room. It’s easy to socialize, meet people, and make friends. I have to say, Long Hostel was one of my all-time favourite hostels.
If a hostel isn’t your style, worry not. There are plenty of hotels in the area as well. If you are on a midrange budget take a look at the Hotel Continental Saigon, and if you are ready to splurge why not try the opulent Reverie Saigon hotel.
What to See
War Remnants Museum
If you only go to one site during your day in HCMC make sure it’s this one. While I won’t get into detail about it too much because everyone’s experience is difference, expect to be affected on an emotional level. As a Canadian I knew very little about the American/Vietnamese war and was, quite honestly, astounded. Plan on spending about 2-3 hours here and know that there is a route to follow- the outside section is last, so upon buying a ticket head inside the main building to the top floor and work your way down.
Saigon Post Office
Another Iconic building in HCMC is the Post Office. Again, it was built by the French Colonists and upon entering visitors feel more like they have stepped into an old European train station rather than a southeast Asian post office. It’s a beautiful building that does actually function as a post office, so if you need stamps or a postcard it’s the perfect place to pick some up.
Saigon Notre Dame Basilica
A large basilica located in district 1, the Saigon Notre Dame basilica is definitely worth a quick peek. It was built by French colonists in the late 1800s and is an icon of the city Hours are a little odd though, so if you do plan on visiting inside go mid-afternoon or early morning as it seemed to be closed around lunch time.
Phạm Ngũ Lão Street
This is the backpacker district, and although it’s busy and hectic it’s a whole lot of fun. Expect lots of bars, restaurants, street food vendors and more. It’s a great place to explore by foot, especially at night. Keep reading this post for my favourite restaurant, where I had the best bun cha in Vietnam, which is located in this area.
Bến Thành Market
Bến Thành market is the large central market in HCMC and a must visit, just be ready to haggle. From food to coffee, jewelry to textiles, and souvenirs of all kinds you can find everything here. It’s hot, busy, and loud but everything a good Asian market should be.
What to Eat
In my opinion, HCMC had the best food in all of Vietnam. First off, go for the street food; watch where the locals go and grab a seat. Chances are the vendors may not speak English but pointing and indicating how many people it’s for is all you need to do. Locals will be happy to help translate (or show you how to eat the food properly) when they can.
There are plenty of restaurant choices as well ranging from western style to traditional Vietnamese, sushi, and the usual McDonalds and Burger King. If you are looking for a good traditional Vietnamese restaurant I highly recommend Bun Cha 145 Bui Vien.
Must try Vietnamese dishes include: Pho (pronounced fuh) which is a soup. Bahn mi, which are sandwiches, spring rolls (fresh over fried), and my personal favourite, bun cha which is a broth with pork, herbs, and vermicelli noodles.
The best nightlife activity in HCMC is to visit the rooftop bars. Of course it was pouring rain when I was there so that was not an option. While I can’t give any personal recommendations, this list of epic rooftop bars in the city should help.
If, like me, weather gets in the way of checking out the rooftop bars I can highly recommend grabbing a group of friends and going to a karaoke bar.
If You have More Time
Ho Chi Minh City is pretty big, with lots to see including plenty more museums and pagodas. It’s also the gateway to the Mekong Delta and Cu Chi tunnels; both which are day trips on their own. If either of those sites are on your list be sure to add extra time for your stay, and plan on going in dry weather as I have been told both are miserable to experience in the rain.
While it wasn’t my favourite city in Vietnam I still think it’s worth a short visit. There is plenty to see and do in Ho Chi Minh City in 1 day.