Located in southern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is the largest and most populated city in Vietnam. Commonly known as Saigon, this urban city exudes a one-of-a-kind charm unlike other cities in Asia. As a city with a French colonial history and heavy Chinese influence, exploring the city is an interesting experience with its contemporary buildings, historical Renaissance architecture, vibrant local markets and traditional Chinese temples existing alongside each other. There is a long list of things you can do in Ho Chi Minh City. If you can only afford a short trip to this dynamic city, I recommend these 7 things for a fulfilling trip of the city's highlights within 36 hours.
1. Start your morning in the heart of the city — Ben Thanh Market
Without doubt, Ben Thanh Market is the most famous and tourist-friendly local market in Ho Chi Minh City. Established as early as the 17th century during the French colonial period, Ben Thanh Market's current location is in the heart of the city, adjacent to the main bus station and nearby major tourist sights. Since the best way to understand more about a city’s local culture is through a walk at the local market, make Ben Thanh your first stop of the day in Saigon. Look out for fresh produce like dragon fruit, or live poultry and seafood in the wet market section. Try some local delights for breakfast at the cooked food section. After that, shop around at the numerous stalls selling local fashion, apparel and crafts.
Even if you aren't looking for anything in particular, a walk around the market is a great way to experience the lively atmosphere in Ben Thanh. If you do see something you fancy, don't forget to bargain, a common practice used to reduce the original high prices the seller initially quotes. Haggling over prices may be seen as a chore to some, but it can be quite a fun thing to do as you feel victorious with your great bargains! After a vibrant market tour, stroll along the atmospheric streets surrounding Ben Thanh, because this dynamic city is best experienced on foot.
The market opens at around 6 am and runs until about 5 or 6 pm daily. In the evening around 7 pm, the surrounding streets will be closed to vehicular traffic for the night market. Return in the evening to enjoy a unique dining experience, where you sit on stools by the roadside food stalls and tuck into delicious Vietnamese fare.
2. Admire an architectural masterpiece in the city — Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon
About a 15-minute walk northeast from Ben Thanh Market is the impressive Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon. This iconic neo-Romanesque style cathedral was constructed during the French colonial period between 1863 and 1880, using building materials imported from France. While the architectural masterpiece looks stunning from any angle, the best view is from the flower garden with the granite Virgin Mary statue in front of the cathedral. Admire the two 60-metre (197-foot) bell towers standing majestically behind the statue.
Although the structure has been established over a century ago, its red-brick facade remains bright and cheery. Nonetheless, this area is a stark contrast from the bubbly scene around Ben Thanh Market. Enter the cathedral and be amazed by the tranquil magnificence of its candle-lit interiors with gorgeous stained glass mosaic windows. As the church is only open to visitors either in the morning from 8–11 am or afternoon from 2–4 pm, make sure you keep track of time so that you don't miss the chance to fully appreciate the delicate craftsmanship of Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon.
3. Send a postcard home from the impressive Saigon Central Post Office
Next to the symbolic Notre-Dame Basilica of Saigon is the Saigon Central Post Office. Just like the church, it was constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indochina in the late 19th century. Despite its age, this Gothic, Renaissance and French-influenced post office looks like it has withstood the test of time. As you enter the busiest post office in Vietnam, you will be amazed that it doesn't feel congested at all. In fact, you may be forgiven for thinking you are in a 20th century European railway station instead of a post office because of its vaulted roof, elaborate furnishings and beautiful tiled floor.
Right smack in the middle of the post office is a kiosk selling all sorts of lovely souvenirs such as postcards, 3D greeting cards and local handicrafts. Take your pick from the wide selection of momentos available. Stamps can be purchased together with your souvenir from the kiosk so that you can send it right away from Saigon Central Post Office. It will be a pleasant surprise for your loved ones back home when they receive your personal hand-written greetings!
4. Spend your afternoon cafe hopping, with a must-stop at the local favourite L'Usine cafe
As the second largest coffee producer in the world, Vietnamese drip coffee is certainly worth your attention. Cafes are omnipresent in this city with a strong coffee culture, and many are independent coffee shops with unique themes and decor. Saigon is a great place to spend your afternoon sipping aromatic coffee and tasting interesting fusion food hopping between cafes, away from the gridlocked traffic on the streets.
L'Usine cafe stands out amidst the fierce competition in the Saigon cafe scene. Besides the famous Vietnamese coffee the country is known for, chocolate lovers must not miss the rich iced chocolate beverage (85,000 VND, 3.70 USD) here, which uses chocolate sourced from one of the world's finest artisan chocolate makers — Marou Chocolate.
Additionally, the tossed soba noodle salad with roasted salmon, kale, edamame and wasabi (240,000 VND, 10.60 USD) is also a delectable fusion of Japanese-European cuisine. There is also a wonderful selection of fine pastries and desserts for the sweet tooth. The tastefully decorated cafe space is also a pretty sight to behold, an ideal place to gather with your friends and family. No wonder L'Usine is favored by locals. After a satisfying dining experience at the cafe, you can also shop for customised hand-crafted furniture and fashion in their shop. Make sure L'Usine is on your must-visit cafe list in Ho Chi Minh City!
5. Enjoy irresistible street food as you explore the city
As you explore the downtown area on foot, you will come across many roadside stalls peddling authentic Vietnamese cuisine, such as bánh canh (soup with thick Vietnamese noodles made from tapioca flour), bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette stuffed with meat, pickled vegetables, and chilli), bánh cuốn (steamed rice rolls filled with a mixture of savoury ingredients) and bánh tráng nướng (charcoal grilled rice paper pizza). Do not simply pass by these stalls without trying these dishes. Tasting mouth-watering local street food is what completes your Ho Chi Minh City trip. For as low as 5,000 VND (0.20 USD), you will be able to sink your teeth into yummy street food, a convenient way to fill your stomach on the go.
6. End the day with a relaxing spa treatment at Le Meridien Saigon's Explore Spa
After a long day roaming around the city, your limbs must be yearning for a well-deserved break. End your first day in the city with a relaxing spa treatment from one of the many spa and wellness centres in the city. Given that you are strapped for time, pamper yourself with the best rejuvenating spa treatment at Explore Spa. Located on the 9th floor of Le Meridien Saigon, the contemporary spa is bright and welcoming, fitted with cosy private treatment rooms for utmost privacy and comfort. Choose from a wide array of refreshing spa treatments and relax under the professionally-trained hands of the skilful therapists at Explore Spa.
Le Meridien Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City (and vicinity) , Ho Chi Minh City
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7. Venture a little further to the bygone hub of Saigon in Tan Dinh
The next morning, make your way out a little further to the Tan Dinh district, which used to be an important place in Saigon. Tan Dinh Market, the second oldest market after Ben Thanh Market, is located in this district. Built in 1927 by the French colonial government, its main gate is of a unique ancient style, unlike other markets in the city. Furthermore, Tan Dinh Market is less touristy than Ben Thanh and is a great place to immerse yourself in authentic Vietnamese culture. This is also the market to visit if you are looking for quality fabric at reasonable prices.
Just diagonally across the road from the market is the famous Tan Dinh Church, known affectionately as the Pink Church because of its unique rose-coloured façade. On the church ground are towering poplars that are a rare sight in a tropical country like Vietnam. Open daily from 5 am to 5 pm, visit this striking church with Roman-style architecture for some eye-catching photos.
Maximise your whirlwind getaway in Ho Chi Minh City
Even when you are on a short weekend trip in the bustling Ho Chi Minh City, it is easy to explore the city's best and maximise your time for a short yet memorable holiday. The above-mentioned 7 must-do activities will make your time worthwhile in the city. Fall in love with the quirky sense of nostalgia in Ho Chi Minh City within 36 hours. Be inspired to spend more time in the dynamic city the next time you visit Vietnam!