Before we get into discussing all the wonderful things to do in Ho Chi Minh City (AKA Saigon), we first need to decide what on earth to call this sprawling city in southern Vietnam. Known to many as Saigon, mostly because of how iconic the city became due to the Vietnam / American War, it is now officially referred to as Ho Chi Minh City. Most Vietnamese still call it Saigon, so I ended up following their lead.
Now that we have that issue sorted, we can move on to the important stuff. You have two days in Saigon before moving on to more interesting locations further north. What do you do, where do you go and what do you eat? You’ll have to keep reading to find out.
Arriving in Saigon: Phạm Ngũ Lão
I’ve been to Saigon a few times now and I have always stayed in the Phạm Ngũ Lão area (it’s a street but that name has come to be used for the little backpacker area that has sprung up around it). This is Saigon’s version of Khao San Road — the tourist epicentre of the city where cheap rooms and street food are never far away. Rats are never far away either. On my first visit to Saigon I arrived at Phạm Ngũ Lão just after midnight and the streets were crawling with them — arrive by day if you’re scared of rats!
It’s easy to arrive at Phạm Ngũ Lão without any kind of plan and find a room straight away. The small alleyways around the main roads are full of hotels and guesthouses.
FURTHER READING: The Rat Factor: What Is the Cleanest Countries in Southeast Asia?
Ben Thành Market
If you only have two days in Saigon (and that’s all I’d recommend dedicating to it) it’s best to get out early and see some of the sights. There aren’t many must-see spots and you can see most of them in a full day, leaving day two open to a trip outside the city.
Ben Thành Market is a massive indoor shopping space where you can find all sorts of items, including knock-off clothes, hand-made souvenirs and the key to any successful overnight bus ride — silk sleeping bags. If you’re travelling by bus around Vietnam definitely pick up a couple. Ben Thành Market makes for a fun shopping experience, but make sure you bargain hard as most vendors will try and overcharge you (think of it as practice for the rest of your Vietnam trip). There are also other markets nearby — we bought a few things at Taka Plaza and found it to be slightly cheaper. Ben Thành Market (and most of the other things to do in Saigon) is located a short walk from Phạm Ngũ Lão.
Seeking out Saigon’s colonial architecture
Saigon isn’t one of the great cities for colonial architecture, but there are a few nice buildings to seek out. The old post office, designed by Gustave Eiffel (you may have heard of that tower he built) is one of the nicest old buildings in Saigon. The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, built in 1880, dominates this part of the city. There are some other old buildings scattered around this area as well (including the opera house and city hall) — it’s a cool place to hang out and see a small remnant of Vietnam’s French colonial past.
This 1960s era palace makes for a strange contrast to the more elegant colonial buildings nearby. A North Vietnamese tank crashed through the palace’s gates on April 30, 1975, marking the end of the Vietnam / American War. It looks like you can visit the inside of the palace but it was closed when we were there.
The War Remnants Museum
The Vietnam War (referred to in Vietnam as the American War) ended in 1975 and certainly hasn’t been forgotten. There are several war related sights and museums to visit in and around Saigon. The War Remnants Museum is pretty confronting and isn’t exactly fun to visit, but I think it’s important to see the Vietnamese side of that brutal conflict.
Eating in Saigon
After a sobering visit to the War Remnants Museum you’ll probably want to cheer yourself up with some delicious food. There is good food all over Saigon (and Vietnam in general) so hit the streets and try some different dishes. Phở is always popular, as is BBQ pork and rice. Bánh mì (a French style baguette sandwich) is the ultimate street snack — you’ll eat dozens of these on your travels through the country. Coffee is big business in Vietnam and you’ll find a cafe almost everywhere you look.
Frozen yogurt may not be the most authentically Vietnamese thing to eat in Saigon, but it is the most refreshing. There’s a big frozen yoghurt shop in the Phạm Ngũ Lão area and it’s pretty awesome (there is also air-con and comfortable seats, which come in handy after a hot and humid bout of sightseeing.
Day trips from Saigon
If you’re spending two days in Saigon it’s a good idea to get out of the city on day two. There are a few options, the most popular being the Mekong Delta and Cu Chi Tunnels. I took a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels on my first trip to Saigon and I really enjoyed the experience. This huge network of tunnels (up to 120 km of them) can be visited on a half day trip from Saigon and the tours are very cheap. Don’t book them online as you’ll pay a lot more than everyone else for the same tour. You can book it at your hotel or a travel agent in Saigon (make sure to bargain).
You can walk through some of the tunnels (which have been adjusted for tourists) and you’ll learn a lot about life underground during the war. When I visited they asked our group if anyone wanted to crawl through one of the “real” tunnels. A guy on my tour and I volunteered. We proceeded to crawl through the most cramped space I’ve ever been in. It was pitch black and a bat flew just past my face. I don’t get claustrophobic but it was a very uncomfortable experience (I’m glad I did it though).
The Mekong Delta
I’ve spent around five months in Vietnam (over a few different visits) but still haven’t made it to the Mekong Delta. Gia has though, so I roped her into writing about it for me.
If you love river boat rides, you’re in for a treat with the Mekong Delta Tour. After a short bus ride, we went from one boat to another to explore the waterways of the Mekong Delta. It was a great way to experience rural Vietnam in a short amount of time. During the boat tour, we stopped by a few different islands to meet the locals and try local produce such as fruits, tea, honey and coconut candy. While the Mekong Delta tour is a great escape from the city, it can be very busy (as is the case with most tours in Vietnam). Don’t let this put you off though as it is an incredible experience! Make sure to get a traditional hat (nón lá) before the tour; it can be very hot under the sun.
An alternative to the Mekong Delta tour is the Floating Market tour. I didn’t get the chance to do it during my visit to Saigon as we didn’t book it early enough.
Two days in Saigon: The Details
- Where to stay: Phạm Ngũ Lão — there are many hotels and guesthouses and it’s close to all the sights — book in advance if you’re arriving late.
- Getting from the airport to the city: There are buses which stop off close to the tourist area or you can take a taxi. Taxis are reasonably priced (150,000 – 200,000 VND) and it’s a much easier option.
- Getting around the city: You can walk everywhere I mentioned above (Google Maps comes in handy) so there’s really no need to take taxis, cyclos or xe-om (motorcycle taxis).
- Travelling north: After two days in Saigon you’ll most likely want to move on. You can buy a motorbike and ride it north or you can take buses and trains. I’ve never travelled by train in Vietnam as it’s quite expensive. Buses are cheap but it’s not always the nicest way to travel. The staff are often rude, but the long journeys take place on sleeper buses so at least you can stretch out. I’d avoid booking open tour buses to Hanoi and just book leg to leg — that way you don’t get stuck with a really horrible bus company.
FURTHER READING: Backpacking in Vietnam: Costs, Tips and Places to See
Are you planning a trip to Vietnam? Which places are you most excited to visit? Let me know in the comments below!
Latest posts by Jon Algie (see all)
- Rarotonga Travel Guide and Itinerary: Everything You Need to Know to Plan Your Trip - May 10, 2023
- What’s a Trip to Singapore Really Like? - April 9, 2023
- 12 of the Best Things to Do in Rarotonga, Cook Islands - March 22, 2023