Still often referred to by its old name, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is a clamorous, chaotic sensory feast. Motorbikes honk in a tidal wave across clogged intersections, locals crouch on street corners slurping steaming hot bowls of Pho (noodle soup); and the sultry air is thick with exhaust fumes and exotic spices.

Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s commercial hub and largest city, and it’s a place where old abuts new with striking contrast. Temples huddle amid skyscrapers and designer shops; locals cast bamboo fishing rods into the languorous Saigon River; and in places, the city feels almost European, with its elegant French colonial architecture and wide, tree-lined avenues.

Adding to the fascinating cultural jolt is a clutch of intriguing tourist attractions, from the poignant War Remnants Museum and captivating water puppet shows to colorful markets and the time warp of the Reunification Palace.

Not far from the city, the famous Cu Chi tunnels are a must-see attraction, and the lush waterscapes and small villages of the Mekong Delta provide a fascinating glimpse of rural life.

For more ideas on the best places to visit and the most rewarding things to do, read our list of the top attractions in Ho Chi Minh City.

The primary economic center of Vietnam, it is also an emerging international destination, with popular landmarks related to remnants of its history showcased through its architecture. A major transportation hub, the city hosts the Tan Son Nhat International Airport, the busiest airport in Vietnam. SàiGòn or ThànhphốHồChí Minh is also undergoing construction of educational institutions and transportation, and also serves as a major media and entertainment outlet.

1. Cu Chi Tunnels

About 60 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a must-see half-day trip and one of the top tours for visitors to the city. This vast 250-kilometer-plus network of tunnels served as the base for the Viet Cong’s military operations during the Vietnam War. Soldiers used the excruciatingly cramped tunnels as hiding places, hospitals, communication bases, supply routes, and even living quarters.

A visit usually includes the chance to crawl through part of the tunnel network, an experience that enhances your appreciation for the stamina and adaptability of the soldiers who lived here. Even if you’re not a fan of modern military history, the tunnels offer powerful insight into the conditions faced by troops during the conflict and the strategies that strengthened the VC’s resistance against American forces.

To make the most of your visit, consider joining a Cu Chi Tunnels & Mekong Delta Full-Day VIP Tour from Ho Chi Minh city. This 11-hour tour includes round-trip transfers by VIP limousine or air-conditioned bus, snacks and cold drinks during the trip, as well as a full Vietnamese lunch (with a vegetarian option available). You’ll visit the Cu Chi tunnels, learn about the guerrilla welfare and the booby traps used in the tunnels, then step right into one of the tunnels.

After the tour, you’ll head to a local restaurant to enjoy lunch before you continue on to the Mekong Delta. Here, you’ll board a small boat to paddle along the coconut-fringed canals before you head to a farm to try local products, including honey tea and fruits grown there.

2. War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum is one of the most popular museums in Vietnam, with harrowing exhibits related to the horrors of war in this battle-worn nation. The museum primarily focuses on the Vietnam War, however, some exhibits relate to the first Indochina War with French colonialists.

It’s a good idea to start on the top floor and work your way down, so you cap off your experience with the lighter exhibits on the ground floor.

Most of the displays are photographic images, and some of these are confronting – especially the graphic shots of child Agent Orange victims. Artifacts on display include a guillotine and the “tiger cages” used for Viet Cong prisoners.

Many argue that the museum’s approach is biased; however, the exhibits poignantly portray the brutality of war. The museum also includes a fascinating display on the work of war photographers, from both sides, who lost their lives during the conflicts.

Period military vehicles and weapons are displayed in the museum’s courtyard. After touring the countryside and the Cu Chi Tunnels, you’ll find these exhibits even more moving, but note that some of the exhibits are not suitable for small children.

Address: 28 Vo Van Tan, Ward 6, District 3, HCMC

3. Mekong Delta

Cruising through the lush labyrinth of palm-fringed channels, rivers, and islands of the Mekong Delta is a popular day trip that seems a world away from hectic Ho Chi Minh City. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the way of life of the people who depend on this fragile waterway for their survival.

Encompassing about 40,000 square kilometers, the delta produces more than half of the country’s grain and 90 percent of its exports, and it’s well-known for its floating markets, which usually take place during the early morning.

From Ho Chi Minh City, tours to the delta, usually involve a 70-kilometer drive to My Tho, a market town on the banks of the Mekong River; a cruise along the delta; and visits to local villages, farms, and factories. The Mekong Delta Discovery Small Group Adventure Tour offers these activities, as well as the chance to sample traditional dishes and tropical fruit from the region.

4. Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre

The Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre is perfect for families with young children and anyone who enjoys light-hearted traditional entertainment. Water puppetry originated in rural villages in the Red River Delta and has been performed in Vietnam for more than 1,000 years.

The captivating 50-minute show provides a window into the country’s culture. It’s presented in Vietnamese, but the strength of the puppet characters, both people and animals, transcends the language barrier.

Live music enhances the experience; the talented musicians play traditional instruments such as bamboo flutes and two-stringed violins. The theater is air-conditioned, and if you’re sitting in the front row, be prepared for some gentle splashes.

Address: 55B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

5. Thiên Hau Temple, Chinatown

The atmospheric 19th-century Thiên Hau Temple is one of the best places to visit in Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown (ChoLon) and one of the oldest Chinese temples in the city. Dedicated to the Lady of the Sea, Thiên Hau, this evocative temple is visited by local worshippers, as well as tourists, and many of the materials used in its construction were brought from China.

Clouds of incense billow in the air, candles flicker on altars, and shafts of sunlight pierce through the partial roof as you enter the green wrought-iron gates and stroll across the small courtyard. From here, you can see the altar, with statues of the goddess, and the intricate porcelain dioramas adorning the roof depicting scenes from 19th-century Chinese life.

According to legend, the goddess left two turtles to guard the temple in her absence. On the 23rd day of the third lunar month, a parade takes place in the neighborhood featuring a figure of Thiên Hau, who is believed to save seafarers stranded on the high seas. Entry to the temple is free.

While you’re visiting China Town, it’s also worth stopping by the hectic Binh Tay Market, which sells everything from fresh produce to Chinese trinkets. The area is also home to some beautiful examples of classical Chinese architecture.

Address: 710 Nguyen Trai Street, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City

6. Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon and the Post Office

A fine example of Neo-Romanesque architecture, the red-brick Notre Dame Cathedral is a distinctive landmark in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. Its twin square towers rise almost 60 meters above the city, capped by iron spires.

Built from 1877 to around 1883, the cathedral was intended to be a place for the colonial missions to worship and a symbol of the power of the French colony.

The exterior consists of red bricks from Marseille, and the clock between the two bell towers was built in Switzerland in 1887.

Notable features of the interior include 56 squares of stained glass by Lorin from Chartres, France; the 12 pillars representing the 12 apostles; and one of Vietnam’s oldest organs. To see the interior, try visiting in the morning or attending a Sunday mass.

Across the street, the French colonial-style post office, completed in 1891, was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the French architect of the Eiffel Tower. Today, the post office is still in use and is a popular meeting place for locals.

Address: Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, Ben Nghé, tp. Ho Chí Minh, Ho Chi Minh;

7. Saigon Opera House

Also known as The Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, the elegant Saigon Opera House, at the start of the famous tree-lined Le Loi Avenue, is eye-candy for architecture buffs – especially fans of the French colonial style. It was built as Opera de Saigon in 1897 by Eugene Ferret, a French architect, to entertain French colonists, and its striking facade echoes the style of the Petit Palais, which was built in the same year in Paris.

After 1956, the building was used as the home of the Lower House assembly of South Vietnam and again became a theater in 1975, after the fall of Saigon. The only way to see the theater’s interior is to purchase a ticket to a show.

Both the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera perform here, and tickets are available at the box office or local travel agents. In the area around the opera house are some of the city’s new shopping malls and exclusive hotels. You can also combine a visit here with the nearby Notre Dame Cathedral and Reunification Palace.

Address: 7 Lam Son Square, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

8. Reunification Palace

A visit to the Reunification Palace, once known as Independence Palace, is more about the historic events that took place here than any pomp and grandeur. In fact, this 1960s-style building, with its large, airy rooms and dated furnishings, seems frozen in time since April 30, 1975, when a North Vietnamese army tank crashed through the iron gates here, bringing an end to the Vietnam War. For locals, the palace represents this historic event and the reunification of the country.

Set on 44 acres of lush lawns and gardens, the palace also offers a fascinating glimpse at the lifestyle of privileged heads of state in 1960s Saigon. It was built on the site of the former Norodom Palace, which was bombed by fighter jets in 1962 in an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem.

The current building was completed in 1966 and became the home and workplace of the successive president when Vietnam was split between the north and the south. Notable features include the president’s living quarters, the war command room with large maps and antiquated communications equipment, and the maze of basement tunnels.

You’ll also see military vehicles outside, including the fighter jet that destroyed the Norodom Palace, and tank 843, which rammed through the palace gate on that fateful day in April more than four decades ago. Guided tours in English are available.

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