1 Day in Ho Chi Minh City: The Best Short Itinerary (2024)

If you’ve never been to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), it may come as a surprise that 1 day is enough. After all, it’s the second-largest city in Southeast Asia only behind Jakarta in Indonesia.

Indeed, Saigon, as the city was called until 1973, is massive but most attractions are concentrated inside District 1 – the core. The city also suffered great destruction in the Vietnam War deleting much of its heritage.

You can of course spend more days in HCMC. Backpackers usually stay 3-4 days with 1 day dedicated to the Cu Chi Tunnels and 1 or 2 days for a trip to the Mekong Delta.

Anyhow, 1 day in Ho Chi Minh City is enough to see the highlights.

I’ve been to HCMC 3 times and I look with excitement to the prospect of visiting again. Here’s how I think you should spend one full day in Saigon.

The City Hall in Saigon from outside
Ho Chi Minh City

1 Day in Ho Chi Minh City at a Glance

What is HCMC all about? War History, (some) French architecture, amazing food, and the buzz of a megapolis. My 1-day itinerary gives you a little bit of each.

Some of the places included are:

  • A traditional breakfast of Hủ tiếu at a street food stall;
  • History, propaganda, and war crimes at the War Remnants Museum;
  • What’s left from the French at the Post Office, the Notre Dame Basilica, the Opera House. and the City Hall;
  • Bún riêu Nam Bộ for lunch in a popular local eatery;
  • The touristy market Ben Thanh and the cheaper, more authentic alternatives;
  • A walk down the trendy Nguyen Hue Street;
  • Party at Bui Vien or in style at a rooftop bar.

Morning in Ho Chi Minh City

The Vietnamese people are most active in the morning.

I don’t know if it’s the socialist upbringing (wake up early, start work early, that kind of thing) or because the temperature is more forgiving before 11 AM, but Saigon feels so alive in the morning.

I recommend you start your day before 8 to see the morning energy in the small alleys of Ho Chi Minh City.

Breakfast

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When in Saigon, start with an awesome breakfast.

Hủ tiếu with shrimp in Saigon
Best breakfast ever!

The place I will share with you is not marked on Google Maps. It’s a street food stall only open for breakfast exclusively serving a variation of Hủ tiếu: a pork bone broth with noodles, various meats, 3 shrimp, and whatever greens you add as toppings. An unusual but delicious combination.

This is its precise location. Arrive before 10:30 AM or you’ll miss out on the best meal ever!

  • Price for a small/large portion: 40.000/55.000 VND (1.7/2.3$)

War Remnants Museum

A picture of a kid in a burnt forest during the Vietnam War
“I don’t love the smell of napalm in the morning”

To get a quick idea of the type of exhibits you will find inside, consider its former name: The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes.

The name was changed in the 90s after relations with the USA warmed up, but the exposition was barely touched: armaments and how they were used against civilians, Agent Orange and its effects, mutilations, mass murders, all the horrible stuff that war brings.

While both sides did it, the War Remnants Museum is not impartial. Everything displayed has 2 goals: propaganda first and a one-sided recollection of historical events second.

I recommend a visit to anyone, not just history buffs – it’s a mandatory introduction to what’s defined the Vietnamese nation since 1975.

  • Opening times: 7:30 AM–5:30 PM
  • Price: 40.000 VND (1.7$)

Independence Palace

Independence Palace in Saigon. Source [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

This impressive palace was used as the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam until 30 April 1975 when Tank 843 of the North Vietnamese army bulldozed through the gates ending the 20-year war.

Inside, the Palace has been kept exactly how it was found. If you visit today, you will see the cabinet rooms, conference halls, and banquet chambers as they were used back in the 1970s.

  • Opening times: 08:00 AM to 3:30 PM
  • Price: 40.000 VND (1.7$)

This guided tour of the War Remnants Museum and the Independence Palace is for those who enjoy extra information from a local guide.

Afternoon in Ho Chi Minh City

After getting your dose of recent history for the day, it’s time for some delicious Vietnamese lunch followed by some more popular landmarks in Saigon.

Lunch

A portion of Bún Riêu
Bún Riêu

For lunch, I have two choices for you:

Saigon Post Office

Saigon Post Office from the outside
Saigon Post Office

Some call Saigon Post Office marvelous. I’m not so sure, but then again my architectural knowledge is quite limited. It’s imposing and beautiful for sure.

Finished in 1891, it’s one of the few remaining French buildings in the rapidly modernizing Ho Chi Minh City.

Today, the post office continues to work as such, albeit more for tourists than locals. Inside you will find various shops for postcards, magnets, paper art, jewelry, clothes, etc. You can even send a postcard back home!

Opening times: 08:00 AM to 6:00 PM (closes at 5:00 PM on Sundays)

Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

Notre Dame Basilica, Saigon, before the restoration works started. Source. [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

Right outside the Post Office is the always-under-renovation Notre Dame Cathedral.

It had scaffolding on the side in 2018. It was under scaffolding from all sides in 2023 and remains under scaffolding in 2024. If you see it without wrapping, let me know in the comments, please.

The Basilica is quite large and if religious buildings are your thing, it is a gem to look at from the outside and hopefully soon on the inside too.

Cool Story: The Virgin Mary in front (reportedly) shed a real tear in 2005. Pious Vietnamese came on a pilgrimage from all around the country and it gathered so much attention that the police had to intervene to control the crowd.

Book Street

A bronze statue of 2 kids reading on Book Street in Ho Chi Minh City
Book Street. Source [CC BY 2.0]

Right next to the post office and perpendicular to the Cathedral, is one of the coolest streets in Saigon – Đường Nguyễn Văn Bình better known as Book Street.

Especially in the afternoon, Book Street is an absolute joy to stroll on. With huge trees providing a thick shade and no motorbikes allowed, it’s a walking street as they should be.

Bookstores sell all sorts of memorabilia, trinkets and postcards and of course the reason for the name of the street – books in both Vietnamese and English.

Opening times: 08:00 AM to 9:00 PM

Coffee at a street food stall

Two plastic cups of coffee, one of cafe muoi, one of cafe sua from a street coffee stall
Cafe Muoi and Cafe Sua

One thing I love about Vietnam is the abundance of coffee. The country is the second-largest producer of the “black gold” in the world (with only Brazil caffeinating more people) and coffee is part of Vietnamese culture.

In Vietnam, coffee is not only a morning drink. Cafes are full of locals socializing in the afternoon too. Coffee carts are around every corner.

These are my go-to for a quick caffeine fix – some of the best coffee I’ve had is from a guy on the street with a passion for grinding beans, passing water through the powder, and adding condensed milk.

Get the buzz at Ben Thanh Market (but shop elsewhere)

Even if you only spend 1 day in Ho Chi Minh City, don't forget to visit a market!
Inside one of Ho Chi Minh City’s markets

Chợ Bến Thành or Ben Thanh (Tourist) Market is a leisurely 15-minute walk from the Post Office and totally lives up to its name – it’s made for tourists. Both to awe and to trap.

Vendors inside and around the outside edge sell pretty much anything and everything. It’s always busy, although foreigners outnumber locals 4:1.

Price tags usually indicate a set price and no bargaining. Not in Ben Thanh. Everything is more expensive and subject to haggling. The thing is – no matter how good you are at this ancient art, you will never get a fair price here.

If you want to buy cheap clothes, accessories, dried fruit, electronics, etc., you’re better off going to one of the other markets in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • An Dong Market
  • Tan Binh Market
  • Thi Nghe Market

Evening in Ho Chi Minh City

As the sun starts to set and the temperatures become bearable again, it’s time to go on a walk to the trendiest places in Saigon!

Take a pic with Uncle Ho in front of the People’s Committee Building

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in front of the City Hall in Saigon
Hello to you too, Uncle Ho!

The City Hall as it’s also called, is only an 8-minute walk from Ben Thanh. This French Colonial-style building is picture-worthy in its own right, but most people opt to stand next to the big statue of Vietnam’s foremost hero – Ho Chi Minh, or he’s affectionately called: Uncle Ho.

Saigon Opera House

Saigon Opera House from outside
Saigon Opera House. Source. [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Just around the corner is another French architectural remnant: the Opera House. Depending on your interest in entertainment, this can only be a short stop for pictures from the outside, or you can book a ticket for one of the many shows performed inside.

It’s not all about Opera either! The most famous show is the Bamboo Circus A O Show which combines Vietnamese folk music with acrobatics and dance.

Stroll down the fancy Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard

Champs-Élysées? Nah, Nguyễn Huệ!

Okay, okay, it’s not as famous and a fair bit smaller at only 900 meters in length. But it’s in the heart of District 1 and houses some of Saigon’s trendiest establishments.

If you’re spending only 1 day in Ho Chi Minh City, a walk down Nguyen Hue from the City Hall to the Saigon River is mandatory!

The boulevard is a pedestrian and becomes lively in the late afternoon. Avoid it earlier than 4 PM as there aren’t many trees to control the temperature.

The Cafe Apartments

The Cafe Apartments. Source [CC BY 2.0]

Don’t miss the Cafe Apartments – a 4-story building full of quirky stores with different decor. It’s not just cafes inside. Beware: prices are NOT budget-friendly but exploring is free.

Most just photograph the building from the outside, which is fine too.

Bitexco Financial Tower

It’s not exactly on Nguyen Hue Street, but it’s so close that you may as well consider it to be.

For a year in 2010/11 it was the tallest building in Vietnam. Today it’s the second-tallest in Ho Chi Minh City and 4th in Vietnam.

You can go up to the viewing deck, which will set you back 200.000 VND (8$). Alternatively, you can buy an overpriced drink at the bar (120k for a beer/cocktails from 200k) and enjoy similar views.

Get your Fast Track Ticket to Saigon Sky Deck now!

Dinner

A bowl consisting of a fried spring roll, carrots, noodles, meatball, peanuts, pork meat and herbs.
A bowl of Bun Thit Nuong

You can absolutely pick a place to eat on Nguyen Hue and have an awesome dinner. After all, who am I to tell you what to eat?

But I have to make a recommendation and if you’re going back to the backpacker area, I found this Bun Thit Nuong place that serves bowls with a little bit of everything: spring rolls, barbequed pork, noodles, vegetables, peanuts, and more. The prices are super affordable: only 30.000 to 40.000 VND (1.3 to 1.7$) per portion!

  • Closing time: 9 PM

Alternatively, get one of the many food tours organized by local students either on foot or by motorcycle. They are eager, they are hungry, and they will take you to all their favorite food places.

Night in Saigon

It’s been a long day. If you’ve visited every place in this 1 day in Saigon guide, you’d be excused if you want to have an early retreat to bed.

Muster up some energy and go for a little party! Ho Chi Minh City never sleeps and bars with the cheapest drinks in Southeast Asia are everywhere. It’s also the place with the most affordable rooftop bars in the region: you’d be spending less than 20% of what you would in Singapore!

Option 1: Bui Vien

Have you heard of the infamous Khao San Road in Bangkok? Well, Bui Vien is the Saigon alternative.

It’s flashy, loud, busy, and a little tacky even. Dancers on pedestals in front of all bars, hostesses trying to lure you inside with the promise of cheap drinks and loud music. It’s an attraction even if you’re not looking to party.

The street really comes alive sometime around 9:00 PM and dies down around 1 AM.

Option 2: A rooftop bar

View from Chill Bar. Source [CC BY 2.0]

If you find Bui Vien a little over the top (I do too) you might want to feel the classier side of Saigon.

It’s a rapidly modernizing city with an ever-increasing skyline. And with a skyline come rooftop bars.

Now, I ain’t an expert in rooftop bars, so I will refer you to this amazing guide about the best ones in Ho Chi Minh. Most open around 6:00 PM and close around 2 AM.

My favourite: Chill Skybar.

Places that didn’t make the cut

You can only visit so much of Saigon in 1 day. The itinerary includes the main sights only. Here are some more places to visit if you have more time in Ho Chi Minh City:

  • Jade Emperor Pagoda: an impressive Buddhist temple;
  • Giac Lam Buddhist Temple: the high pagoda is picture-worthy for sure;
  • Tân Định Pink Church: It’s pink and it’s Catholic, in case you couldn’t guess;
  • Thien Hau Temple: I mean, I’ve already started with the temples, I might as well…;
  • The Museum of Fine Arts: I bet you’re surprised it’s not a temple;
  • Saigon Zoo and Botanical Garden
  • Vinh Nghiem Buddhist Temple: I had to end with a temple, no other way!
Giac Lam Pagoda
Giac Lam Pagoda

What transport do you need?

This 1 day in Ho Chi Minh City is entirely achievable on foot. Assuming your accommodation is in District 1 too, you won’t have to walk more than 7 km in total.

If you want to reach the different markets listed in the guide or any place that’s a bit further out, I suggest you use Saigon’s public buses.

They are loaded inside Google Maps, so just go to the nearest bus stop and wait. You should stop the bus by waving your hand. Payment is in cash on the bus. It’s either 6.000, 7.000, or 8.000 VND, but I was never able to tell why.

There are of course Grab and GoJek – ride-hailing apps equivalent to Uber in the West (which they beat out of the SEA market). I assume these are self-explanatory.

Traffic in Saigon
Your 3 options in 1 picture: Grab, public bus, or rent a scooter

What’s next after Saigon?

For many, Saigon is either the first stop in Vietnam or the last one. That’s what having a big airport does to a city.

If you decide to spend more days in Ho Chi Minh City, consider doing a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels or a tour of the Mekong Delta. You can visit what little is left of the Cai Rang Floating Market too.

And if you’re going north, popular next stops are either the seaside resort Mui Ne or the quirky mountainous town of Da Lat. Or, you know, just fly to Da Nang.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *