Anyone who has ever accompanied me on a trip knows just how slow I travel. It’s actually one of the reasons I travel solo – more freedom to move at my ridiculous snail’s pace. But I’m well aware that where I spent five days holing up in cafes and reading every single museum plaque, others could very well get their travel fix in a single day. Case in point: Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly known (by travelers and locals alike) as Saigon. HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam, forming a kind of southern bookend to the country with capital Hanoi in the north. Many visitors use it as a base for exploring the Cu Chi tunnels or the Mekong Delta, but there are plenty of attractions within the city itself. Follow this itinerary to make the most of one day in Ho Chi Minh City.
Central Post Office
When I was preparing for this leg of my trip, it seemed strange to me that the post office was listed as one of the top things to do everywhere I looked. But considering it was within walking distance of my hostel, I gave it a chance, and guys – it’s totally worth it! The Saigon Central Post Office is a 19th century colonial building constructed by none other than Gustave Eiffel. (If you have to ask what other famous work of architecture Eiffel is known for, I’m sorry, but you might have to turn in your passport.) The old maps on the wall and the grand arcing ceiling are beautiful, but as a working post office, the building also has a bustling energy to it still. If you plan on trying to send a postcard from this famous post office, you should be prepared for a long wait and be assertive in getting to a clerk. If you just want a few pictures, this can be a quick stop.
Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour
Notre Dame Basilica
Right next door to the Central Post Office is another popular architectural attraction, Notre Dame Basilica. Surprised to find a Notre Dame in Vietnam? You probably shouldn’t be. The country was a French colony for many years, along with Laos and Cambodia, and you can see those influences everywhere from this church in the center of HCMC to the baguette snugly holding your banh mi together. The cathedral was built around the same time as the post office and is one of the only Catholic places of worship in Vietnam. Like the post office, this is an easy place to pop in for a quick gander before moving on with your day.
Time: 15 to 30 minutes
Lunch at Loft Cafe
One of the best (and most work-friendly) cafes in Saigon is just around the corner from the post office and cathedral. Loft Cafe is a little tucked away – you’ll see a sign on the street pointing you into a central courtyard of a larger building. Head all the way across the courtyard to turn right at the farthest end and go up to the second floor. The effort of getting to the door is worth it. The space is beautifully designed, echoing those same French influences you saw in Saigon’s architecture this morning. Loft has great smoothies, but if this is your first stop in Vietnam, order a ca phe sua da, or iced coffee, to start. Vietnamese iced coffee is completely one of a kind – it’s very strong and very rich, prepared with sweetened condensed milk. Loft will serve it to you in a proper drip filter to let it brew directly over the milk and then pour into a separate glass with ice yourself. The food menu at Loft is a mix of Asian and Western influences serving stir fries and spring rolls alongside pizzas.
Time: 1 hour
Cost: 100,000 VND ($5 USD) for a drink and an entree
About a 10-minute walk from the cafe is Independence Palace, the former home of South Vietnam’s president and a critical site in the Vietnam War. From the skeletal architecture of the building’s facade to the painstaking preservation of its mid-century decor, the building is rather hauntingly trapped in 1975 when Saigon fell at the end of the war. Many museums in Southeast Asia can be a little lackluster, but the Independence Palace – or Reunification Palace, as it was renamed after the Vietnam War – is surprisingly extensive with detailed explanations of each room, making the self-guided tour easy to follow. On my trip, I wandered in on a whim at the end of the day and found an hour wasn’t enough to get all the way through the museum.
Time: 1 to 2 hours
Cost: 30,000 VND (less than $2 USD)
War Remnants Museum
Perhaps Vietnam’s most famous museum, the War Remnants Museum is a must-do if you have only one day in Ho Chi Minh City. While it is less than a 10-minute walk from Independence Palace, you may have a slightly longer wait for your ticket. But, like, Independence Palace, the War Remnants Museum is well organized and presented with exhibits on armored vehicles, the antiwar movement, the My Lai massacre, and Agent Orange. Be forewarned – this is not an attraction for the faint of heart. (For me personally, as the granddaughter of a Vietnam veteran, it was very humbling.) While some areas might be colored by bias, a photo speaks a thousand words and the atrocities committed during the Vietnam War are undeniable.
Time: 1 to 2 hours
Cost: 15,000 VND (less than $1 USD)
Dinner at Ben Thanh Market
Depending on your patience for museums, you might be ready to move on to Saigon’s biggest marketplace as early as 3pm or as late as 5pm when the museums close. Whatever amount of time you have to kill between your museum visits and dinner, take the opportunity to relax. You’ve likely been on your feet all day and might be feeling your energy dip a bit. Find a spot nearby to sit with a cup of coffee. When you’re ready, Ben Thanh Market is a 20 minute walk from the War Remnants Museum, so you might choose to grab a taxi if you’re tired of walking. The indoor market is open until 6pm, but an outdoor market keeps going after hours. Pick up some coffee or tea to take back home as a souvenir, or perhaps something in the way of silks or ceramics. Once your stomach is growling, Ben Thanh is also home to a street food market. Read this post on Vietnamese food for ideas on what treats to look out for.
Time: as long as you like
Nightcap at skybar
One final quintessential Saigon experience: drinks at a skybar. Rooftop bars are all the rage in HCMC and you have several to choose from. Chances are you’ll be able to find one near your accommodations so your trip back to your home base at the end of the night isn’t too long. On my trip, Air 360 was right up the street from my dorm at Saigon Central Hostel. Wherever you decide to end your night, you’ll likely have no trouble getting a cocktail in hand and a view over the glittering Saigon skyline. I’ll admit – I prefer Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, but the skybars are a big point in HCMC’s favor.
Time: 1 hour
Cost: 100,000 to 150,000 VND ($5-7 USD) for a drink and snack
I’m a big advocate of slow travel, but if you have just one day in Ho Chi Minh City, you can still manage to see the city’s major attractions. Whether you’re beginning an overland journey heading north, or wrapping up a few weeks of southbound travel as I was, no trip to Vietnam is complete without this historic and cultural icon of the country.
What cities have you seen in one day? Tell me in the comments!