Things to Do in Southern Vietnam
Built by the Viet Cong in the 1940s as protection from French air raids during the Indochina conflict, the Cu Chi Tunnels extend underground for more than 155 miles (250 km) in the vicinity of Ho Chi Minh City alone. This network of subterranean passageways later provided vital access to and strategic control over the rural areas surrounding the city during the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War or the American War), when the tunnels housed living quarters, hospitals, booby traps, and storage facilities for the Viet Cong.
The design of Ho Chi Minh City’s Central Post Office, completed in 1891, mimics an old-world European railway station with soaring ceilings and a giant clock face. These rich details lead travelers to pause and soak up the brilliant interior of this architectural landmark, which includes hand-painted maps of the old city.
The Saigon River (Sông Sài Gòn), the fast-flowing main artery of Ho Chi Minh City, is flanked by both modern skyscrapers and rural villages that give insight into old Vietnamese traditions. Used by locals to escape the urban bustle, the riverbanks are dotted with picnic benches and greenery, making for a pleasant refuge from the metropolitan mania of Saigon.
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saïgon) boasts a striking red façade and towering stone arches constructed with materials imported from France in the 1800s. But its architecture isn’t the only draw. In 2005, visitors reported seeing a tear flow from the eye of a statue of the Virgin Mary here, making it a destination for Catholics on a religious pilgrimage.
A must-visit when in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum (Bảo Tàng Chứng Tích Chiến Tranh) is a poignant reminder of the horrors of war. The grounds house American planes, tanks, helicopters, and weaponry captured during the Vietnam War. Pictorial displays cover everything from the My Lai Massacre to the traumas of Agent Orange and the work of war correspondents.
Originally developed by the French in 1868 to commemorate the establishment of the colony of Indochina, the Reunification Palace (formerly Independence Palace) as it stands today was built during the 1960s. Known in Vietnamese as Dinh Độc Lập or Dinh Thống Nhất, it was most famously the symbolic site of the liberation of Saigon by communist forces that reunited the nation on April 30, 1975.
Right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City is the Ben Thanh Market (Chợ Bến Thành). More than a place to go shopping, the market is also an architectural landmark, a center of local Vietnamese life and commerce, and a meeting point all rolled into one.
The Saigon Opera House (Opéra de Saïgon), aka Ho Chi Minh City Theater (Nhà Hát Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh), is a landmark piece of French colonial architecture. (Saigon was the colonial name for Ho Chi Minh City.) Built in 1897, it is home to the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet and Symphony Orchestra, but is best known for evening cultural shows, such as A O and Teh Dar.
Thien Hau Temple (Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu), built by Cantonese immigrants in the early 19th century, pays tribute to Thien Hau (sometimes called Mazu), goddess of the sea and protector of seafarers. Situated on a busy street in Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, the active temple displays intricate porcelain dioramas from Chinese mythology both inside and out.
Cholon (Saigon Chinatown) is Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese quarter, and the largest in Vietnam. It’s full of Chinese Buddhist temples, as well as other religious buildings and markets. It contrasts with much of the rest of the city, with its narrow streets and varied architectural styles. This is a great place to come to see a different side of Ho Chi Minh City.
More Things to Do in Southern Vietnam
Built at the turn of the 20th century and dedicated to the Taoist god, Emperor Jade Chua Ngoc Hoang (or the God of Heavens), the Jade Emperor Pagoda is a working temple that’s widely considered to be one of the finest and most atmospheric in Ho Chi Minh City.
Beneath a roof adorned with elaborate depictions of dragons, birds, and animals, this fascinating pagoda is filled with exquisite gilt woodcarvings and reinforced papier maché statues of various Buddhist and Taoist deities.
The statue of the Jade Emperor, shrouded in robes and flanked by his guardians, resides in the dramatically named Chamber of 10 Hells. Out the door and to the left of this main chamber is a semi-enclosed room presided over by Thanh Hoang, the Chief of Hell, sitting alongside his red horse, while the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin, an important part of any Taoist temple, has an altar on the top floor.
To the right of the treelined courtyard in front of the temple grounds is an overcrowded tortoise pond, earning the temple its nickname, Tortoise Pagoda.
A high-speed elevator inside the Bitexco Financial Center zips travelers up 49 floors to a glass observation deck ribbed with neon lights. Visitors say views from Saigon Skydeck are some of the best in Ho Chi Minh, offering a 360-degree bird’s-eye view of Ben Thanh Market and Notre Dame Cathedral, among other city icons.
Near Tay Ninh town, in Long Hoa village, this temple is considered the greatest of all Vietnam’s Cao Dai temples. Founded in 1926, the Cao Dai Temple (Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh) complex functions as a Holy See for the Cao Dai religion (Caodaism), Vietnam’s third most popular belief system after Buddhism and Catholicism. Visitors are welcome at prayer sessions in the Great Temple.
At the heart of Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese district, sits Binh Tay Market (Chợ Bình Tây). Built in 1928 after the original bazaar burned down, Binh Tay is the city’s largest market teeming with vendors selling a mind-boggling array of wares, including pottery, flowers, and cheap souvenirs, as well as piping hot noodles and wholesale produce.
Located southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, close to where the Saigon River meets the South China Sea, the low-lying Can Gio island houses a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This is an important natural wetland with attractions like Monkey Island, Rung Sac Military Base, Vam Sat Salt-Marsh Forest Ecological Tourist Center, and a crocodile farm.
Spanning around 25 acres (10 hectares) in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, Tao Dan Park is a fresh green space where locals exercise, particularly tai chi in the morning, aerobics after work, and badminton on weekends. Besides the pool, tennis courts, and sculpture garden, many travelers love the bird café, where local men bring pet birds.
The Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (Bảo Tàng Y Học Cổ Truyền Việt Nam) is housed in a unique traditional building in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 10. One of two Fito Museums, it offers an in-depth look at the fascinating world of traditional Vietnamese medicine, which is heavily influenced by Chinese philosophy.
The museum features a collection of almost 3000 items in relation to traditional remedies, some of which date back to the Stone Age. Visitors can browse the vast and detailed displays of some of the instruments used to prepare traditional medicines, such as mortars and pestles, grinders, and knives. There is also a large collection of books and documents on the subject.
Particularly interesting are the items found in traditional pharmacies, such as scales, printing molds, medicine cabinets, and a variety of pottery and ceramic pieces. The museum is also fitted with audiovisual equipment, which it uses to screen a documentary about the history of traditional medicine in Vietnam.
Dong Khoi Street (Đường Đồng Khởi), with its elite boutiques, French architecture, and trendy cafés, is the premier commercial center of the city andthe place to see and be seen. Stores range from high-quality silk sellers to high-end luxury brands. City highlights such as Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office are both within easy walking distance.
The Dam Sen Water Park (Công Viên Nước Đầm Sen) is a fun place to spend a few hours when the weather’s hot in Ho Chi Minh City, which is most of the time! Kids in particular will love the waterslides, wave pool, and watery rides. There are landscaped gardens, lounge chairs, and food outlets to keep parents happy, too.
Opened in 1995, Suoi Tien is a unique Buddha-themed amusement park located in the Thu Duc district of Ho Chi Minh City. Famous for its oriental architecture, the park showcases its themes of Vietnamese history, religion and culture throughout, with attractions dedicated to legends such as Au Co and Lac Long Quan.
The Suoi Tien Theme Park is a colorful, at times bizarre, place to visit and is filled with giant Chinese dragons and elaborate Buddha statues, as well as all the usual theme park fare. The site features a dinosaur-themed garden, a seawater pool to bathe in, and a man-made beach with a large waterfall with the face of an emperor sculpted into it.
As an amusement park, Suoi Tien features numerous themed attractions and rides, with a large roller coaster, a 4D theater and an air bicycle ride among the most popular. There's also an area specifically for younger children, appropriately named the Children Kingdom. The complex also has an aquarium and hosts various animal shows.
Bach Dang Wharf (Bến Bạch Đằng) is located next to the ferry terminal and close to the Renaissance hotel in central Ho Chi Minh City. The pier is a popular launching point for boat trips along the Saigon River.
From the area, visitors can get involved in all manner of trips and activities. From accessing various parts of the city to explore, to weaving through its canals on a sunset dinner cruise, both tourist and trade boats bustle in and out of Bach Dang Wharf throughout the day and night. Some operators also arrange trips to attractions further afield, such as the Cu Chi Tunnels.
As well as being a good place to find out more about tours and activities available on the river, Bach Dang Wharf has an appeal all of its own, with a number authentic coffee shops, bars, and eateries on offer. It’s a bustling area where you’ll find locals doing tai chi in the mornings and sipping drinks overlooking the river come the early evening.
Ho Chi Minh City’s answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Road, Pham Ngu Lao Street boasts dozens of affordable guesthouses, cheap pubs, and backpacker-focused restaurants. In fact, Saigonese know it simply as the backpacker district. Despite the noise, traffic, and chaos, Phạm Ngũ Lão is a mecca for travelers looking to experience Saigon’s unfiltered energy.
One of the oldest art museums in Ho Chi Minh City, the Museum of Fine Arts occupies a gorgeous colonial-era building from 1929. The collection starts with sculptures from the early Funan and Cham kingdoms, dating back as far as the fourth century, but it’s also home to intriguing modern art pieces, many focused on the Vietnam War.
Paris Square (Công Trường Công Xã Paris) serves as the perfect hub for travelers looking to explore the key landmarks of Ho Chi Minh City in a single stop. The Saigon Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Central Post Office are all within walking distance, and the tree-covered parks, Versace Plaza, and bustling cafés make for great people-watching.
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