Vietnam is not commonly on Americans’ top travel list…we could tell by the quirked eyebrows we received from friends, family and co-workers when talking about our upcoming trip to travel Vietnam.
However, all it takes is a good flight deal for us to pull the trigger on yet another trip to Southeast Asia. For approximately $550 pp we flew 30+ hours from Fort Lauderdale > Chicago > Shanghai > Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where we started our 8-day journey northbound through the country.
With little information available online and the uncertainty as to the economic/civil state of the country, we weren’t sure if we would be able to intricately self-plan this trip like we did Thailand. So, for the first time in our traveling careers, we signed up for a semi-inclusive tour with Intrepid Travel. Our expedition started in bustling Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, where 24 hours wasn’t nearly enough time to explore the dynamic and rich history of this buzzing metropolis. If you are planning your trip to Vietnam, hopefully this list of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City will help make things easier or convince you that Vietnam belongs on your bucket list!
Things to do | Ho Chi Minh City
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels is about an hour and a half drive from Ho Chi Minh City. The air-conditioned bus provides an ideal viewing window of the city where motorbikes pile in the hundreds at every stop light. This is where we first learned that yellow means go and red means go faster. We do not recommend driving in Vietnam for first-timers.
The tunnels took over 35 years to dig the 121 km set of passageways which provided a safe haven for entire villages during the Vietnam War. Within those tunnels there were sections carved out for the people to eat, meet, go to school, escape the enemy, and everything in between. As we walked through the forest on top of the tunnels, there were showcases of all sorts of booby traps built by the ingenious Viet Cong which lay waiting for the enemy.
We had a chance to experience the tunnels, we had to crouch so much we were practically on our hands and knees. We walked 20 meters through the sweltering hot and pitch-black tunnels which only took a few minutes but we cannot even begin to fathom how people lived like this for years, especially in the dead of summer. We highly encourage you to take in the experience for yourselves.
War Remnants Museum
Visiting the War Remnants museum after experiencing the Cu Chi Tunnels was a sobering occurrence. Sad to admit, we were not as educated on the Vietnam War as many that came to visit. It was a great learning experience to dive into not only Vietnam’s history, but that of the US as well. We traveled through exhibit after exhibit contemplating the necessity of war and the outcomes that negatively affected generations upon generations. Some of the displays and real-time photographs were hard to stomach and the numbers affected by the tragedies of war were astounding. If you have an opportunity to witness this piece of history, we highly recommend it.
We took a quick trip to the Reunification Museum, also known as the Independence Palace, where the President of South Vietnam lived and worked during the Vietnam War. Its historical significance was etched when a tank belonging to the North Vietnamese Army crashed through its main gate, ending the Vietnam War. It was interesting to see the rooms and underground bunkers however, if you are short on time this place can be skipped.
The Post Office is a landmark in Ho Chi Minh City. The interior of the iconic yellow building looks like a train station and is humming with locals and tourists alike. We picked out a postcard and mailed it to ourselves as a fun reminder for when we are back at work and reminiscing about good times.
Ben Thanh Market
An indoor market by day and a street market by night, the Ben Thanh Market will have all of the Vietnam souvenirs you’ll want and an abundance of knock-offs that you don’t (just kidding!). The market has everything from clothing, jewelry, food stalls, athletic wear and Vietnamese coffee by the kilogram. Take your time and make sure you haggle, they usually come down to less than half of their original ask. Hopefully, you won’t have to shop through the rain like we to! If you are done shopping for the day, hitch a stool at one of the counters serving aromatic beef noodle pho, get to know your neighbors and enjoy a meal like Anthony Bourdain. Tip: If you are traveling throughout Vietnam, Hoian had the most affordable souvenirs – so save that money!
If you are looking for more of an upscale experience, across the street from the Ben Thanh Market, the Saigon Center is shiny and new and full of luxurious brands. We took a quick stroll through the multiple floors and ended up taking a break at the Khanhcasa Tea House.
Places to eat | Ho Chi Minh City
Known for its Pho dish (duh!) and it did not disappoint. The restaurant was crowded, the service was attentive and the food came out piping hot and spicy. We got the Beef Pho (noodle soup) and a Chicken curry with baguette. The fresh herb aromas with the rich broth made for a mouth-watering meal and the portions were large to boot! This restaurant is famous for having served former President Bill Clinton – just a random tid bit we thought you guys might enjoy!
Highlands Coffee, like our Starbucks, can be found on every block, but if you think Pike Place coffee is strong…Vietnamese coffee will grow some hairs on your...? The first Vietnamese coffee experience was one to remember as the thick iced coffee didn’t get a chance to blend with the sweetened condensed milk so we got a good shot of straight strong coffee; it woke us up and then some! Once we got a good stir, we were hooked and wired for the remainder of our trip.
Khancasa Tea House
Located inside Saigon Centre, this quaint Tea House was just what we needed after a long day of sightseeing. We ordered two loose leaf teas and split gold flaked macaroons.
BBQ & Beer Grill
The BBQ and Beer grill was located next door to our hotel and with the little time we had in Ho Chi Minh City, we tried to eat and visit as many places as we could and this was just mere convenience. We ordered the chili lime shrimp and garlic bread and the waiter encouraged us to eat the shrimp Vietnamese style – which included munching on the shrimp with skin, head, eyes and all. Kashif gave it a go but it wasn’t for me since seafood is barely part of my palate.
Where to stay | Ho Chi Minh City
Our tour made all hotel accommodations throughout the trip and though we didn’t have much choice in the matter, the Asia Ruby Luxury Hotel had decent sized bedrooms and clean showers. On average, the hotel costs between $40-$50 USD and would be the equivalent of a 3-star hotel in American standards. It was centrally located, safe, clean and breakfast was included.
With limited time in Ho Chi Minh City, we tried to make the most of it and hope that when you go you’ll be able to take out at least 2-3 days to explore everything around you.
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