All Articles Navigating Ho Chi Minh City’s temples and landmarks like a pro

Navigating Ho Chi Minh City’s temples and landmarks like a pro

Your go-to guide on the city's can't-miss pagodas, markets, museums, and more.

Meena Thiruvengadam
By Meena Thiruvengadam11 Apr 2024 5 minutes read
The roof of the Ba Thien Hau Temple
The roof of the Ba Thien Hau Temple
Image: Getty Images/Mahaux Photography

Ho Chi Minh City (previously known as Saigon), Vietnam’s current financial capital and former capital city, is a densely populated urban center that’s home to nearly 10 million people. Its narrow streets are always filled with zipping motorbikes and honking horns are the city’s soundtrack. To get a real sense of the city, you’ll want to get a taste of its many layers, visiting historic pagodas, ancient temples, and French-colonial landmarks, all spread between modern skyscrapers.

I started my first visit to Ho Chi Minh City with stops at the War Remnants Museum, Independence Palace, and a local market—each offering an eye-opening but exhausting history lesson. Here, I’ve included those and a few less exhausting sites to help you round out your itinerary.

If you want an unfiltered look at the past

War Remnants Museum

Actual US Air Force plane on display outside the War Remnants Museum
US Air Force plane on display outside War Remnants Museum
Image: Tripadvisor/AnneB

The War Remnants Museum is a chronicle of war crimes told through weapons, tanks, bombers, helicopters, and historic photographs. The exhibits reflect the consequences of war and nearly a century of French and American occupation. Give yourself two to three hours to make your way through this museum—which covers the graphic, human impact of Agent Orange, napalm, and other chemical weapons, as well as the inhumane conditions to which prisoners of war were subjected—and the military aircraft and tanks in its courtyard. It’s a uniquely Vietnamese perspective on the Vietnam War.

Tip: Visiting this museum can be an incredibly emotional experience, so give yourself some downtime to process what you’ve seen.

Exhaustion level: 9/10

Independence Palace

Original communication room with historic radios at The independence Palace.
Original communications room at The Independence Palace
Image: Tripadvisor/Ash

Also called Reunification Hall, Independence Palace was once the home and workplace of the president of the Republic of Vietnam. In April 1975, the North Vietnamese Army tanks crashed through its majestic gates, effectively ending the Vietnam War. Today, visitors can walk through an underground network of tunnels where a cutting-edge telecommunications center once stood, as well as explore several meeting rooms and the former presidential living quarters.

Tip: Pair a visit to the War Remnants Museum with a visit to Independence Palace. It’s possible to walk between the sites or take a rideshare through the Grab app.

Exhaustion level: 7/10

Travelers say: “The audio guide is really good and we ended up spending over two hours [at Independence Palace] and in the lovely surrounding park. Lots of history was made here and there is a real feeling of that which remains. The bunker area was really fascinating, as were other glimpses behind the scenes of the kitchens and private rooms of the president.”—@swissgirl_7


If you’re looking for architecture

Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon

Busy main square just outside of Notre Dame -like buiding in Ho Chi Minh  City
Busy Notre Dame Square in Ho Chi Minh City
Image: Tripadvisor/KarlFiona

You’ll immediately notice the strong resemblance between the Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon and its namesake Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. For a brief second, I thought I had closed my eyes and woken up in the 4th arrondissement. This cathedral was built by French colonists in downtown Ho Chi Minh City in the late 1800s and took on the name Notre Dame Cathedral in 1959. Construction materials, including tiles from Marseille, were imported from France. Take a look at its soaring bell towers, and you’ll see strong hints of its Paris counterpart. Entrance is free, but the cathedral is undergoing restoration and is closed outside of mass times.

Tip: An hour is plenty of time to visit this cathedral and marvel at its architectural features.

Exhaustion level: 1/10

The Central Post Office

The exterior of the Central Post Office
The exterior of the Central Post Office
Image: Tripadvisor/Leatherlion

This 19th-century building looks more like a romantic European train station than a Vietnamese post office. It mixes Gothic, Renaissance, and French architectural influences to create a piece of architecture as cosmopolitan as Ho Chi Minh City itself. The building’s exterior is adorned plaques commemorating several scientists and engineers who were crucial to the development of communication technologies like Morse code. Inside you’ll find a vibrant market selling artwork, textiles, postcards and trinkets, soaring ceilings, and a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary Vietnamese leader who died in 1969 and is the city’s namesake. Take a look at the historic maps inside the building to see how the region has changed over time.

Tip: This is still a functioning post office, so take advantage of the opportunity to send a few postcards. You can pick them up, along with stamps, here.

Exhaustion level: 1/10


If you’re looking for local culture

Ben Thanh Market

Inside Ben Thanh Market
Inside Ben Thanh Market
Image: Tripadvisor/Bunbo

The vibrant Ben Thanh Market is housed within one of Ho Chi Minh City’s oldest structures, a French Colonial building that stands out in modern Saigon. By day, it’s a bustling market selling decorative lacquer boxes, colorful scarves, caftans, and jade jewelry across 1,500 independent stalls. But at night, the market transforms into a veritable feast. Street vendors open pop-up dining areas with tables and chairs for evening happy hours and al fresco dinners. The night market isn’t quite as big as the day market, but it’s a lively scene for a dinner of skewered meats, banh mi, and spicy soups.

Tip: The first price a vendor offers will never be their best. Shoppers are expected to haggle, and being willing to walk away is often key to securing the best deal. And keep in mind that you’ll find several stalls selling similar items.

Exhaustion level: 7/10

Ba Thien Hau Temple

Ba Thien Hau Temple exterior
Lighting incense at Ba Thien Hau Temple
Ba Thien Hau Temple
Image: Tripadvisor/TMOH8 (L), Tripadvisor/19m88 (R)

Ba Thien Hau Temple is a window into Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese history. Located on a busy street in Chinatown, this small but mighty temple was built by Cantonese immigrants in the late 1700s as an homage to the Chinese goddess of the sea. An architectural gem, it was built by Chinese immigrants and in a typical Chinese architectural style with several linked houses and an interior open space. People come here to pray regularly, and it can get especially crowded around the Chinese New Year and full moons.

Tip: There’s no special dress code for visiting the temple, just keep in mind it is a religious site.

Exhaustion level: 1/10

Travelers say: “Take a taxi from District 1, which is cheap (15 minutes if roads are clear). The [Ba Thien Hau] Temple is located on a busy road in Chinatown but inside is a calm oasis and a world away from the chaotic streets. You can combine your visit with Chinatown [but] getting a taxi back is not so easy. Either get one to wait for you if you’re not going to be too long or have a taxi app on your phone so you can call one when you are finished.”@liveandsee23

Giac Lam Pagoda

Many colorful mini pagodas at Giac Lam compound.
Smaller pagodas within Giac Lam compound
Image: Tripadvisor/EredGorgoroth1

At nearly 300 years old, the bright yellow Giac Lam Pagoda is one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Ho Chi Minh City. The pagoda is set within an idyllic garden that’s home to a Bodhi tree, a gift from a Sri Lankan monk in the 1950s, and the tombs of revered monks. Worshippers frequent this temple complex and prayers are held several times a day, so it’s not uncommon to be welcomed by the smell of incense and the sound of chanting monks. Keep an eye out for more than 100 Buddha statues carved from jackfruit wood.

Tip: Climb the stairs to the top of the pagoda for a panoramic view of Ho Chi Minh City.

Exhaustion level: 3/10

Meena Thiruvengadam
Meena Thiruvengadam is a writer who covers topics including travel, culture, and personal finance. She has visited 50 countries on six continents and 47 U.S. states. Follow her on Twitter @meena_thiru, on Instagram @meenathiru, or read her work at meenamedia.com.