There will be plenty of interesting things to do in Saigon. Although, I never thought it would be such an intense city! If you are planning a trip to Vietnam and Saigon is on your travel itinerary, you must read this post.
Explore the artful buzz of Vietnam’s largest and brashest city. Experience a dazzling array of cool things to do in Saigon for the perfect weekend jaunt.
There is a youthful, inventive energy about Ho Chi Minh City that makes for the perfect port of call on a long weekend urban adventure. As Vietnam’s most modern metropolis, it brims with malls, swanky hotels, glitzy bars and clubs. Still referred to by locals as Saigon, the evocative past is still very palpable.
Ancient pagodas and crumbling colonial mansions steadfastly remain amongst the gleaming high-rises. There is a heady mix of timeless history and hedonism with a multitude of colourful quirks to discover as you traipse those frenetic city streets.
Things to do in Saigon are manifold – concentrate your energies within District 1 for a comprehensive exploration into HCMC’s complex history and cultural quirks. An uber-cool coffee scene, fashion, art and food best characterises the here and now of Ho Chi Minh City life which has developed at a whirlwind pace in the last couple of decades.
In short, Ho Chi Minh City promises a cultural awakening and more bang for your buck as a destination that is still very affordable. Start planning your Saigon long weekend getaway with our ultimate short stay guide.
Browsing and bargain hunting at Ben Thanh Market
What is a weekend without splashing the cash in a swanky mall? Yet modern mall culture is not the be all and end all of shopping in Ho Chi Minh. The commercial vigour that emanates from iconic Ben Thanh Market is what a true HCMC shopping experience is really all about.
The pillbox-style clock tower attests to its heritage but only once you enter the cacophony within its walls, do you get a sense of what it is really all about. It is teeming with noisy, determined traders selling every conceivable product known to man. Tiny aisles separate stalls stacked high with souvenirs of varying quality, kitschy knick-knacks, cheap knock-off designer gear and so much more.
It’s a lively, raucous place, but even this barely compares to the eye-popping spectacle that is the adjacent wet market. Here you will (quite literally) stumble upon bucket loads of slippery eels, live frogs, huge fish, containers overflowing with edible insects, poultry and all manner of exotic fruits.
It is quite literally bursting at the seams with dozens more stalls spilling out onto the surrounding streets. You’ll be confronted by the ‘fixed price’ signs at every turn but the good news is bargaining is still alive and well. However, you’ll need a degree in the dark arts of haggling as the traders here are masters of their craft. You may pay a little more than you wanted, but you’ll have great fun doing it.
For a taste of Saigon market life with a little more contemporary pizazz, and much less touristy, head to Hello Weekend Market. It caters mostly to a younger crowd and is always packed like sardines but it’s the perfect place to get a glimpse of the local way of life. Plus, you can always find something offbeat to buy. The merchandise ranges from locally designed clothes to imported cosmetics to one-off home décor items.
Stall owners are usually twenty-something entrepreneurs and designers with impeccable taste and bags of style. It’s a haven for those who want to shop locally and seek out unique gems. Hello Weekend Market takes place at Hoa Lư Stadium in District 1.
On the colonial history trail – things to do in Saigon
Since the 1990s, Ho Chi Minh City has been rushing headlong into modernity at a frenetic pace but the past still plays a huge role in everyday life. Saigon’s history is a colourful melange of ancient Khmer roots, French colonial style and the stamp left by the American GI. You can explore much of it on foot too or just sit back and take it all in on a cheap cyclo tour.
Top of the list undoubtedly is the city’s emblematic colonial era masterpiece – Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica. Standing tall in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s government quarter, the red-brick neo-classical church is extremely photogenic topped off with soaring twin spires. The serene candle-lit interior with stained glass mosaic windows is a unique spectacle in the city. Enter and soak up the quietude (and to momentarily escape the heat).
Saigon Central Post Office is arguably even more impressive from an architectural standpoint. It has an eye-catching Gothic-Renaissance mix of styles and the wrought ironwork and stunning tiling is definitely an image worthy of your Instagram feed. For a more modern perspective check out the War Remnants Museum, before a little soul searching amid the pungent aroma of incense at the delightful Jade Emperor Pagoda.
Weekend brunch Saigon style
After that you will have no doubt built up an appetite. Vietnamese street food deserves all the plaudits it gets but sometimes a more stylish vibe is the order of the day for a lazy weekend. Decamp to Đông Phố, a popular joint for Vietnamese families to gather on weekends. The restaurant serves an unusual amalgamation of authentic central Vietnamese cuisine and lush French pastries but it works seamlessly.
Tuck into a meal of Bún Bò Huế soup and assorted fresh rolls, then try the mint rose macaroons and a steaming cup of smooth espresso. The decor is chic and high-end but the prices are surprisingly affordable. The outdoor lightning also sets the mood for the night. You’ll find Đông Phố Restaurant at 57 Hồ Xuân Hương in District 3.
The expat influence of HCMC has resulted in many interesting east meets west mash-ups. This is evident right across the food scene and never more so than the love of a languid weekend brunch. A top brunch pick is the Refinery, a cool District 1 foodie haven delivering French Bistro style goodies with a hint of Southern Mediterranean.
There is a choice of several brunch menus including one just for kids, featuring cold cut platters, silky eggs Benedict, premium cheeses, home-made pastries and yummy cheesecakes and tarts. In particular, the free-flow chocolate fountain is sure to be a kid-pleaser. The Refinery takes its name from its former use as a colonial era opium factory, and still exudes timeless history. The Refinery is at 74 Hai Ba Trung, District 1.
Water Puppet Theatre
Perhaps the most colourful example of traditional performance art in Ho Chi Minh City is the famous Water Puppet Theatre. While performed only in Vietnamese, it’s a hugely entertaining show with humorous visual skits depicting pastoral life in days gone by. There are many LOL moments of pure slapstick fun that kids will find a real delight. The ‘stage’ is actually a tank filled with murky water and it’s all brought to life by skilful puppeteers from behind a curtain to the sound of music and song. It’s a big cultural draws for travellers so advance booking for the twice nightly 50-minute shows is required.
A walk in the park
In between chalking off the sights and shopping, you’ll no doubt want to escape for some shady quietude far from the incessant din of blaring motorcycle horns. There are numerous quaint green courtyards dotted with frangipani trees across the city but for something more substantial make tracks for the lush surroundings of the Botanical Garden.
It houses the Saigon Zoo but if wildlife of the four-legged variety is not your thing, there is a wide expanse of serene water features and lush foliage to explore. Amid towering Tung and So Khi trees, get horizontal on immaculate lawns for an afternoon picnic or venture along the meandering pathways past wild orchids, prickly cacti and bonsai trees.
Grab an ice cream or coffee and banh mi from one of the park food stalls, sit back and watch local teens and families at play. Located next door is the History Museum, well worth dropping by for its striking 1920s Indochine design alone. There is a huge array of priceless exhibits to feast your eyes upon, from idiosyncratic Cham art to elegant French colonial sculptures.
Bright lights and late nights in Saigon
For many visitors, the weekend means hard partying and things to do in Ho Chi Minh at night is as eclectic as any city in Southeast Asia. Ho Chi Minh City nightlife covers every conceivable whim from hole-in-the-wall dive bars to elegant cocktail lounges and big ticket live music venues. Want to party down and sink cheap beers with like-minded travellers?
Then head to Phạm Ngũ Lão Street – the city’s crazy, colourful answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Road. This cheapo backpacker hub has bars on every corner, many with live bands, while the after dark street entertainment on show is just as electrifying. For raucous hard drinking and dancing the Crazy Buffalo is the go-to spot while adjacent Go2 Bar ramps up the party vibe until dawn.
For a more stylish late night adventure, head to District 2’s Saigon Outcast. It is nothing if not diverse – expect top notch experimental live music, awesome DJ sets, film nights and funky street performers. Perhaps the most infamous joint in town is long-running Apocalypse Now. A staple on the dance scene since the 1990s it’s a rowdy institution that has put Ho Chi Minh City on the map as a top nightlife destination. ‘Apo’ attracts a diverse bunch of travellers, expats and HCMC’s coolest kids. They pack in like sardines at weekends for deafening techno and trance music.
Time for pampering
Before the weekend is through, you’ll likely want to restore mind and body with a blissed out hour or two of pampering. If so, head to the unique Golden Lotus Healing Land Spa in District 7, for an authentic Korean ‘Jjimjilbang’ bathhouse treatment – a rare pleasure in Vietnam. First, you will alternate between sauna/steambath and icy cold bath to sweat out all those toxins.
Then you get dressed again and join the communal areas to you experience different types of caves such as the volcanic rock room, Himalaya salt room, or the icy igloos. This is great fun among friends and you can sip fermented rice drinks or even order a full-on Korean dinner. After a couple of hours losing yourself in Golden Lotus Spa, all those aching bones and that post hangover lethargy will become a distant memory. Golden Lotus Healing Land Spa is at 139 Tôn Dật Tiên, District 7.
Round off the weekend and enjoy the after-spa glow with a pleasant stroll along the Starlight Bridge — so named for its evening lights which flicker in the dark like a flowing rainbow. This is one of the most romantic things to do in Saigon so is definitely best enjoyed with your significant other by your side. The surrounding area has numerous open spaces so it’s perfect to unwind too. District 7 is well off the tourist radar so you get to fully immerse in a true local experience.
Conclusion – Saigon, a city brimming with surprises
There is the obvious temptation on a Ho Chi Minh City weekend trip to beat the clock and cram in as much as humanly possible. You’ll no doubt have a long list earmarked for what to do in Ho Chi Minh City in 3 days, but save ample time for frequent pitstops at the city’s legendary coffee shops and for copious street snacking.
There are oodles of things to do in Saigon and even on a short weekend trip, it pays to be as spontaneous as possible. You’ll likely take a wrong turning at some point and just happen upon an absolute gem of a restaurant, a quirky little boutique or a rooftop bar with views to die for. In supercharged Saigon, a 2-night, 3-day jaunt will bring out the weekend warrior in even the most jaded, hard to please traveller.
More inspiration: 10 Lofty Spots for a Chilled-out Asian Getaway ▸
Ray Montgomery is a seasoned travel copywriter and journalist based for more than a dozen years in Southeast Asia. Ray’s big passions are eating, tweeting and constantly seeking the next perfect ocean sunset.