Things to Do in Southern Vietnam
Built by the Viet Cong in the 1940s as protection from French air raids during the Indochina conflict, the Cu Chi Tunnels extend underground for more than 155 miles (250 km) in the vicinity of Ho Chi Minh City alone. This network of subterranean passageways later provided vital access to and strategic control over the rural areas surrounding the city during the Vietnam War (also known as the Second Indochina War or the American War), when the tunnels housed living quarters, hospitals, booby traps, and storage facilities for the Viet Cong.
A must-visit when in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum (Bảo Tàng Chứng Tích Chiến Tranh) is a poignant reminder of the horrors of war. The grounds house American planes, tanks, helicopters, and weaponry captured during the Vietnam War. Pictorial displays cover everything from the My Lai Massacre to the traumas of Agent Orange and the work of war correspondents.
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saïgon) boasts a striking red façade and towering stone arches constructed with materials imported from France in the 1800s. But its architecture isn’t the only draw. In 2005, visitors reported seeing a tear flow from the eye of a statue of the Virgin Mary here, making it a destination for Catholics on a religious pilgrimage.
The design of Ho Chi Minh City’s Central Post Office, completed in 1891, mimics an old-world European railway station with soaring ceilings and a giant clock face. These rich details lead travelers to pause and soak up the brilliant interior of this architectural landmark, which includes hand-painted maps of the old city.
Right in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City is the Ben Thanh Market (Chợ Bến Thành). More than a place to go shopping, the market is also an architectural landmark, a center of local Vietnamese life and commerce, and a meeting point all rolled into one.
Originally developed by the French in 1868 to commemorate the establishment of the colony of Indochina, the Reunification Palace (formerly Independence Palace) as it stands today was built during the 1960s. Known in Vietnamese as Dinh Độc Lập or Dinh Thống Nhất, it was most famously the symbolic site of the liberation of Saigon by communist forces that reunited the nation on April 30, 1975.
The Saigon Opera House (Opéra de Saïgon), aka Ho Chi Minh City Theater (Nhà Hát Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh), is a landmark piece of French colonial architecture. (Saigon was the colonial name for Ho Chi Minh City.) Built in 1897, it is home to the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet and Symphony Orchestra, but is best known for evening cultural shows, such as A O and Teh Dar.
A high-speed elevator inside the Bitexco Financial Center zips travelers up 49 floors to a glass observation deck ribbed with neon lights. Visitors say views from Saigon Skydeck are some of the best in Ho Chi Minh, offering a 360-degree bird’s-eye view of Ben Thanh Market and Notre Dame Cathedral, among other city icons.
Ho Chi Minh City’s Jade Emperor Pagoda is considered to be one of the city’s finest temples. It’s dedicated to the Taoist Jade Emperor Chua Ngoc Hoang, but Buddhist elements can also be seen. Its nickname is the Tortoise Pagoda, because of the many tortoises that live in the grounds. It’s a must-see attraction in HCMC.
Thien Hau Temple (Chùa Bà Thiên Hậu), built by Cantonese immigrants in the early 19th century, pays tribute to Thien Hau (sometimes called Mazu), goddess of the sea and protector of seafarers. Situated on a busy street in Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, the active temple displays intricate porcelain dioramas from Chinese mythology both inside and out.
More Things to Do in Southern Vietnam
Cholon (Saigon Chinatown) is Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese quarter, and the largest in Vietnam. It’s full of Chinese Buddhist temples, as well as other religious buildings and markets. It contrasts with much of the rest of the city, with its narrow streets and varied architectural styles. This is a great place to come to see a different side of Ho Chi Minh City.
Dong Khoi Street (Đường Đồng Khởi), with its elite boutiques, French architecture, and trendy cafés, is the premier commercial center of the city andthe place to see and be seen. Stores range from high-quality silk sellers to high-end luxury brands. City highlights such as Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office are both within easy walking distance.
The Saigon River (Sông Sài Gòn), the fast-flowing main artery of Ho Chi Minh City, is flanked by both modern skyscrapers and rural villages that give insight into old Vietnamese traditions. Used by locals to escape the urban bustle, the riverbanks are dotted with picnic benches and greenery, making for a pleasant refuge from the metropolitan mania of Saigon.
Da Ban Stream (Suối Đá Bàn) originates from the Ham Ninh mountain range on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. Also known as Da Ban Spring, it’s a popular spot for tourists and nature-lovers, who come to picnic, barbecue, hike, and relax. Although it’s hard to avoid the growing amount of garbage that is left in the area, the natural scenery steals the show, with the stream making its way through huge flat stone slabs against a lush green background. You might spot birds, fish, frogs, and lizards, along with wild fruit, orchids, mushrooms, and other flora that grow in the area. Plan a trek, take a stroll across the suspension bridge, and have a refreshing dip in the water for a full day of natural fun.
You can combine your visit to Da Ban Stream with a trip to a fish sauce factory, a pepper farm, and a sim wine factory to learn about the island's industries. Alternately, you can take a private six-hour tour of the island instead, including a barbecue lunch at the stream and round-trip transportation.
In addition to white-sand beaches and tropical jungle, the island of Phu Quoc—off the coast of Cambodia—is home to the Coi Nguon Museum (Bảo Tàng Cội Nguồn), a natural history museum that exhibits more than 5,000 artifacts. If you find yourself in one of Phu Quoc’s unpredictable downpours, the natural history museum provides a great place to explore until the skies have cleared.
Located southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, close to where the Saigon River meets the South China Sea, the low-lying Can Gio island houses a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This is an important natural wetland with attractions like Monkey Island, Rung Sac Military Base, Vam Sat Salt-Marsh Forest Ecological Tourist Center, and a crocodile farm.
Near Tay Ninh town, in Long Hoa village, this temple is considered the greatest of all Vietnam’s Cao Dai temples. Founded in 1926, the Cao Dai Temple (Tòa Thánh Tây Ninh) complex functions as a Holy See for the Cao Dai religion (Caodaism), Vietnam’s third most popular belief system after Buddhism and Catholicism. Visitors are welcome at prayer sessions in the Great Temple.
The Dam Sen Water Park (Công Viên Nước Đầm Sen) is a fun place to spend a few hours when the weather’s hot in Ho Chi Minh City, which is most of the time! Kids in particular will love the waterslides, wave pool, and watery rides. There are landscaped gardens, lounge chairs, and food outlets to keep parents happy, too.
From the giant bearded god towering over the water park to slides that emerge through a dragon’s mouth, Suoi Tien Theme Park takes its Buddhist theme to the limit. Local families flock here for games, local eats, swimming, child-centric rides, the zoo, and the grounds. Most overseas travelers visit to enjoy the bizarre design.
At the heart of Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese district, sits Binh Tay Market (Chợ Bình Tây). Built in 1928 after the original bazaar burned down, Binh Tay is the city’s largest market teeming with vendors selling a mind-boggling array of wares, including pottery, flowers, and cheap souvenirs, as well as piping hot noodles and wholesale produce.
Fronting the Saigon River in the heart of downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Bach Dang Wharf (Bến Bạch Đằng is so much more than just a jumpoff point for river cruises and water buses. A landscaped circular garden forms the centerpiece of a waterfront promenade with street eats as well as more upscale dining.
Home to the largest Buddha statue in all of Vietnam at 160 feet long, Ta Cu Mountain is not only a popular attraction for visiting travelers but also a point of pilgrimage for local Buddhists. While it is possible to climb the 2,100-foot mountain on foot, most visitors opt instead for the cable car, which delivers passengers to the Linh Son Trong Pagoda and offers overhead views of rice fields and dragonfruit plantations during the six-minute ride. From the cable car drop off, it’s a still a short, but somewhat steep, stair climb to the Buddha itself. You can also visit the Long Doan pagoda. Both have a variety of statues and towers where you can enjoy panoramic views down the mountain.
Spanning around 25 acres (10 hectares) in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City, Tao Dan Park is a fresh green space where locals exercise, particularly tai chi in the morning, aerobics after work, and badminton on weekends. Besides the pool, tennis courts, and sculpture garden, many travelers love the bird café, where local men bring pet birds.
With dusty jars of ingredients, an altar devoted to two long-dead doctors, a disturbing selection of historical medical instruments, and more, the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (Fito Museum is one of Ho Chi Minh City’s quirkiest museums. A documentary introduces the tradition, while the souvenir shop offers unusual gifts.
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