The museums and attractions of Ho Chi Minh City are mostly in the downtown areas of districts 1 and 3. And although the museums are interesting, the bustling city itself is the major attraction here.
Typical 1-Day Itinerary
In the morning, start off at tranquil Giac Lam Pagoda and tour the city's nearby Chinatown and busy Binh Te Market in the historic Cholon area of District 5; there are a number of hidden temples among Chinese shop houses, and this is a great district to have a guide to take you around. From there, hit the large, central Ben Thanh Market (a good place for lunch -- or you might try nearby Don Khoi).
In the afternoon, take a walk through the Reunification Hall, where the jig was up for the Saigon government in 1975; then walk through the square flanked by the towering Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon's historic Post Office. From there, head toward the War Museum, which tells the tale of Vietnam at war with the French and Americans. The museum is a bit much for some visitors, and certain groups opt instead for a visit to the Emperor Jade Pagoda, a large Chinese compound in the northeast of the city -- also a good stop if you have time after visiting the War Museum. Afterward, enjoy a casual stroll down central Don Khoi -- likely near your hotel -- and take a rest (you'll be whipped), or enjoy a coffee or snack at one of the many restaurants or cafes along this busy strip.
Note: This is a lot to do in 1 day, especially if you take motorbike taxis and try to find your own way. With an additional day, try to catch some of the more out-of-the-way sights, such as the Hoa Binh (Peace) Noodle Shop and nearby Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, or the sprawling Vietnamese History Museum or raggedy old Ho Chi Minh City Museum.
More than 2 full days in Saigon certainly calls for a day trip out to the Cau Dai Temple and/or the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Cholon ("Chinatown" of Ho Chi Minh City)
Cholon is a sizable district bordered by Hung Vuong to the north, Nguyen Van Cu to the east, the Ben Nghe Chanel to the south, and Nguyen Thi Nho to the west. Cholon is the predominately Chinese district of Saigon and probably the largest Chinatown in the world. Cholon exists in many ways as a city quite apart from Saigon. The Chinese began to settle the area in the early 1900s and never quite assimilated with the rest of Saigon, which causes a bit of resentment among the greater Vietnamese community. You'll sense the different environment immediately, and not only because of the Chinese-language signs. Cholon is where you might have found dark, exotic opium dens and brothels in the French colonial time, the same opium dens and brothels that greeted American troops. Story has it that a huge number of U.S. troops went AWOL in Cholon during the war -- when the fall of Saigon was imminent, U.S. expeditionary forces advertised a period of amnesty for U.S. citizens on the lamb in the district -- only one dazed and confused soldier came stumbling out.
A bustling commercial center, Cholon is a fascinating maze of temples, restaurants, jade ornaments, and medicine shops. Gone, however, are the brothels and opium dens of earlier days. You can lose yourself walking the narrow streets, but it makes sense to take a cyclo by the hour to see the sights. Many of the city tours start at Giac Lam Pagoda and make a few stops in the district, including the large market.
If on your own, start with a motorbike or taxi ride to the Binh Tay Market, on Phan Van Khoe Street, which is even more crowded than Ben Thanh and has much the same goods, but with a Chinese flavor. There's much more produce, along with medicines, spices, and cooking utensils, and you'll find plenty of hapless ducks and chickens tied in heaps. From Binh Tay, head up to Nguyen Trai, the district's main artery, to see some of the major temples on or around it. Be sure to see Quan Am, on Lao Tu Street off Luong Nhu Hoc, for its ornate exterior. Back on Nguyen Trai, Thien Hau pagoda is dedicated to the goddess of the sea and was popular with seafarers making thanks for their safe trip from China to Vietnam. Finally, as you follow Nguyen Trai Street past Ly Thuong Kiet, you'll see the Cholon Mosque, the one indication of Cholon's small Muslim community. Other sights in Cholon include the following:
Chua Quan Am Temple (12 Laoth St.) is a classic Chinese temple wafting with incense, blaring with music meant to soothe and speak of mountains -- but crackling speakers at high decibels mean different things to different people. Nearly 20 resident monks and a cherubic abbot are on hand and welcome foreign visitors. In fact, they'll even take the time to show you around and allow you to take photos, but the expectation is a small donation in the alms box at the altar. Buy one of the oversize incense -- the size of a large flashlight -- and make a wish for your journey (in Vietnam or in life). The temple is heavily gilded in snazzy gold and red paint, and don't miss the cool mechanized rotating offering stands. This is a "working temple," and that means the place is busy day and night with visiting supplicants. Just outside the entrance, don't miss the busy cabinetmakers at work in a large collective at streetside.
Cha Tam is Cholon's small Catholic cathedral, with high vaulted ceilings and surrounded by the Stations of the Cross. A statue of Mary stands in a small grotto out front and looks like a Buddhist Bodhisattva with all of the offerings, placards, and prayer entreaties at her feet. This little cathedral is a cool place to take a break and visit an imposing white statue of Jesus or a standing statue of St. Francis of Assisi. Don't miss the large relief of the Last Supper.
Thien Hau -- The Lady Temple was originally built by a Cantonese congregation in the early 19th century. The temple pays homage to a special psychic lady, Thien Hau, born A.D. 940, who was said to be able to predict the weather and protect sailors. The classic Chinese temple has a wooden entry; small central ponds flanked by heavy, bright red pillars; and elaborate carvings of gods and monsters. The place is busy all day and echoes with sounds from the adjacent schoolhouse. The huge coils of incense hanging over the central courtyard space make for great photos.