Destination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Text | Anjeeta Nayer  Photography | Fiona M. KingDestination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
About Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), the largest city in Vietnam is a pulsating metropolis located on the Saigon River on the edge of the Mekong Delta. This city, which is currently home to more than nine million people, has featured prominently in Vietnam’s history.

Known as Saigon under the French, Ho Chi Minh City served as the capital of the French colony of Indo-China. After the Vietnamese achieved their independence from the French in 1945, Saigon went on to function as the capital of South Vietnam, which declared itself as a separate state, the Republic of Vietnam in 1955.

This state, which was supported by the USA, was anti-communist and it soon got embroiled in a conflict with the communist North. This flared up into a full-fledged war which saw much American involvement; in fact the Americans used Saigon as their headquarters during the war. The war finally ended in 1975 when the communist North took over the South and established the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a communist state.

On 2 July 1976, Saigon was merged with the surrounding Gia Định Province and the city was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City after Ho Chi Minh, the father of the Vietnamese nation, who fought hard for the nation’s independence from the French.

Modern-day Ho Chi Minh is the business capital of Vietnam, and the city displays much of its French heritage in the form of wide boulevards, grand colonial buildings and sidewalk cafes.  Ho Chi Minh City, like the rest of Vietnam, has become increasingly capitalist over the years and today the city is a busy, bustling urban center, which is renowned for its vibrancy, energetic pace and unfortunately its horrendous traffic.

Most tourists today use Ho Chi Minh City as a base for expeditions in the magical Mekong Delta, however if you would like to have an understanding of Vietnam’s turbulent history, then a visit to bustling Ho Chi Minh City should be included in any visit to Vietnam itinerary.

Destination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamDestination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamBest time to visit Ho Chi Minh City

Due to its location in the tropics, Ho Chi Minh City is blessed with a climate which is warm and humid all year round. The city also experiences distinct dry and wet seasons. The rains usually arrive in Ho Chi Minh City in May and last until November. This rainy season is characterized by short, heavy downpours and occasional typhoons. Temperatures in Ho Chi Minh City generally dip slightly between December and April, the dry season, which is thought to be the best time to visit the city.


Citizens of many nations require a visa to enter Vietnam. Visa exemptions are available for citizens of the following countries:-

1. Citizens of Brunei can enter Vietnam without a visa for visits of 14 days at the maximum.

2. Citizens of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Cambodia and Laos are allowed entry to Vietnam for visits of a maximum of 30 days.

3. Citizens of Philippines are granted entry to Vietnam for visits of 21 days at the maximum.

4. Citizens of Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Russia and Finland gain visa free entrance to Vietnam for 15 days at the maximum.

5. Citizens of France and Chile, who hold valid diplomatic or official passports, gain visa free access to Vietnam for visits of 90 days at the maximum or for several visits of 6 months at the maximum.

6. APEC Business Travel Card (ABTC) Holders:  Holders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) card are allowed visa-free visits for 60 days at the maximum.

Citizens of other countries can apply for a Vietnam visa at their local Vietnamese consulate or then online at sites like Myvietnamvisa (, which are officially recognized by the Vietnamese immigration authorities. The visas procured online are issued on arrival at Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh airports. These online Vietnam visas usually take two business days to process, though they can also be issued on an urgent basis, within 24 hours, for a higher price.

Destination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamDestination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamGetting to Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is usually accessed by its Tat Son Nhat International Airport, which is situated 6 km (4 miles) from the city center. This fairly modern airport consists of two terminals, a domestic and an international terminal. The Ho Chi Minh City Airport welcomes approximately 17 million passengers annually.

The Ho Chi Minh City airport is served by various modes of public transport like minibuses and metered taxis. Most hotels in Ho Chi Minh City also offer airport pickups for their guests for a fee. Traveling within the city is another matter altogether for Ho Chi Minh City is known to have one of the most chaotic traffic scenarios in the world. Bicycles and motorcycles seem to buzz about with no regard for pedestrians and visitors are advised to be extremely cautious when crossing the city’s wide roads.

The best way for tourists to get around in Ho Chi Minh City is to use the city’s fleet of abundant metered taxis or even hire a private car with a driver for the duration of their stay in the city. Most hotels and tour operators in Ho Chi Minh City will be able to organize this form of transportation for you.

Family-friendly hotels in Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam in recent years has become a popular destination on the tourist trail. Recent estimates indicate that the country received more than 6 million visitors in 2011. As a result, cities like Ho Chi Minh City are now equipped with a wide variety of hotels that cater to all price points and preferences. The city is also equipped with some hotels which are especially family-friendly. Some of these family-friendly hotel properties include:-


The Palace Hotel Saigon

The Palace Hotel Saigon is located in the heart of the city next to prominent attractions like the Opera House, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum and the Ben Thanh Market. The hotel offers 144 air-conditioned rooms which are equipped with everyday essentials like washer/dryers, in-room safes, phones, refrigerators and coffee/tea makers. Additional amenities include complimentary wireless and wired high speed Internet access, televisions equipped with cable channels and signature bedding. The hotel is outfitted with facilities like a full-service spa, a fitness facility, an outdoor pool, three restaurants and offers complimentary wireless Internet access in all public areas

Destination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamDestination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamMid-Range

The Renaissance Saigon Riverside

This centrally located hotel overlooks the Saigon River and is equipped with facilities like a rooftop pool, a café and a Chinese restaurant, a fitness center, a day spa and a well-appointed business center. The hotel also offers 24-hr room service and has a concierge desk which can assist with booking tours. The hotel also offers airport pickups for an additional fee.

The Renaissance Saigon Riverside is a smoke-free property which offers spacious rooms outfitted with signature bedding, LCD TVs that offer premium and cable channels, in-room safes, coffee/tea makers, minibars and more. The guest rooms also offer high-speed Internet access which is free for club rooms but chargeable in others.


The Saigon Domaine Luxury Residences

The Saigon Domaine Luxury Residences is an exclusive Ho Chi Min City resort hotel property located on Thanh Da Island on the Saigon River. The hotel is accessed via shuttle bus or speedboat from the city center and offers well-appointed air-conditioned boutique residences and suites. The luxurious residences at the Saigon Domaine are equipped with amenities like balconies/decks, high-speed Internet access, TVs with cable channels, coffee-tea makers, kitchens equipped with Siemen’s high-end appliances, and much more. The hotel offers complimentary breakfast for its guests and has facilities like an outdoor pool, fitness room, and sauna, children’s play area, a piano room, library, and food store. The Saigon Domaine also offers various recreational activities for its guests like mountain biking, water skiing, and fishing, martial arts, dancing, cooking, and painting.

Family-friendly attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The French Colonial period, the devastating Vietnam War of the mid-1960s, the communist era, and Ho Chi Minh City’s many interesting attractions provide visitors with a valuable insight into the turbulent historical background of Vietnam.

The War Remnants Museum

The Vietnam War represents a truly difficult time in Vietnam’s history. This war, which started off in the early 1960’s, lasted nearly a decade and it continued well into the mid- 1970’s. The Vietnam War featured the involvement of nearly 540,000 American troops who were sent to aid South Vietnam as it battled the communist forces in North Vietnam.

The war finally ended in 1975, when the American troops withdrew and the communist forces in North Vietnam captured the South and unified the country as a communist state, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

The War Remnants Museum showcases the horrors of modern day warfare and has displays that illustrate the tremendous suffering inflicted on the Vietnamese people. The museum hosts exhibits of weapons, artifacts and several graphic photographs. Also on display in the museum courtyard are tanks, helicopters, planes and bombs, which were used in the war. The museum is best suited for viewing by older children.

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum is housed in a colonial building which was built by the French in 1860. The museum offers an extensive permanent collection that catalogs the history of Ho Chi Minh City from the 1600’s onwards.  This collection includes various archeological finds, artifacts and weaponry and other memorabilia.

Gallery: The Notre Dame Cathedral; Ben Thanh Market, HCMCThe Notre Dame Cathedral

The Notre Dame Cathedral which is located in the downtown area of Ho Chi Minh was built by the French in the late 19th century by procuring building materials from France like bricks from Marseilles and stained-glass windows from Chartres. The cathedral is an exponent of the Neo-Romanesque school of architecture and features towers over 60 meters high and a stunning statue of the Virgin Mary which is said to have been the site of a miracle in 2005 (it is believed that the statue shed tears in 2005).

READ: Gallery: The Notre Dame Cathedral; Ben Thanh Market, HCMC

Destination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamDestination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamThe Emperor Jade Pagoda

The Emperor Jade Pagoda is located in the Chinatown area of Ho Chi Minh City. Locally known as Chua Ngoc Hong or the Phuoc Hai Tu, the pagoda which is also referred to as the Tortoise Pagoda was built by Ho Chi Minh’s ethnic Chinese community in 1909. The pagoda features elaborate carvings on its roof. The main hall of the pagoda however houses its star attraction, the somewhat fearsome statue of the Jade Emperor who is believed to be the ‘god of the heavens’ for it was the emperor’s decision who should be allowed into heaven. Other statues housed in the pagoda include an idol of Kim Hua, a goddess of fertility and statues of the King of Hell and his cronies.

Reunification Palace

The Reunification Palace is yet another building of historical importance in Ho Chi Minh City. This building which once served as the residence of Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem featured prominently in the fall of Saigon in April 1975. It was here that the North Vietnamese tanks arrived as the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front took control of South Vietnam and then went about uniting the country.

The tanks which rolled into the driveway of the palace on that fateful day (April 30th 1975) have been enshrined here and present an interesting sight. Visitors can tour the interior of the palace and view chambers like the President’s office, the command room, the dining rooms, the private quarters and more, all of which appear to be in the same state that they were on the day that Saigon fell into the hands of the North Vietnamese.

READ: Gallery: Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City 

Family-friendly activities in Ho Chi Minh

A visit to Ho Chi Minh need not be all about sightseeing, for the city also offers several avenues of entertainment suitable for all ages.

Pay a visit the Dam Sen Water Park

The Dam Sen Water Park is part of a larger amusement park that is located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. The park features thrilling water rides and slides like the Wild River, the Wandering River, the Boomerang, the Twister Space Bowl, the Massage Pool and more. The park attracts huge crowds on weekends and public holidays and for tourists the best time to visit the park is on a weekday when it is relatively quiet.

Destination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamDestination Guide: Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamExplore Cholon

Cholon is the name given to Ho Chi Minh’s Chinatown. This Chinese district of the city was settled by Chinese Hoa merchants in the late 18th century. Today, bustling Cholon, whose name translates as ‘big market’ is home to the city’s large, ethnic Chinese community. Like Chinatowns throughout the world, Cholon also features a maze of streets populated by temples, markets, restaurants, grocery stores and Chinese medicine stores. Prominent sights located here include the animated Binh Tay Market, the vibrant Emperor Jade Padoga, the Phuoc An Hoi Quan Temple, the Thien Hau Pagoda, which celebrates the goddess of the sea, and the exquisite Quan Am Pagoda. Yet another interesting building located here is the Cholon Mosque, which was built by Saigon’s Southern Indian Muslim community in 1932.

Go souvenir-shopping at Ben Thanh market 

Ho Chi Minh’s ancient Ben Thanh market is believed to be the place to shop for souvenirs in the city. This market was built by the French colonists in 1870 and it was moved to its present building in 1912.  The market is open daily from 8am to 6pm and features a wide array of vendors who sell products like Vietnamese silks, art, apparel, pottery, handicrafts and local foods and beverages, like Vietnamese coffee and cobra and scorpion whisky. The area around the market features several restaurants and hosts a night market as well.

Emergency Contacts for Ho Chi Minh City

13 (Police), 15 (Ambulance)

Tourist Information Center

Ho Chi Minh Branch

92-96 Nguyen Hue, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Tel: ( 84-8) 3822 6033

Fax: (84-8) 3822 6028


Foreign Embassies in Vietnam

United States Embassy, Hanoi: +84 (0)4 3850 5000.

British Embassy, Hanoi: +84 (0)4 936 0500.

Canadian Embassy, Hanoi: +84 (0)4 734 5000.

Australian Embassy, Hanoi: +84 (0)4 831 7755.

South African Embassy, Hanoi: +84 (0)4 936 2000.

Irish Embassy, Hanoi: +84 (0)4 974 3291.

New Zealand Embassy, Hanoi: +84 (0)4 824 1481.