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Few cities evoke the same mystery and glamor as Vietnam’s Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, where its historic past mingles with an effortless edginess to form a modern city on its way to being a top destination on any Asia cruise. You might know more about Ho Chi Minh City than you think, whether you’re intrigued by the area’s elaborate underground tunnel system used throughout the 20th century or know of the famous Reunification Palace from history books and photographs.
Ho Chi Minh City, however, isn’t limited by the past. It is decidedly looking forward and being elevated to a new status as a foodie haven, home to the world’s best banh mi sandwiches, and energetic local markets that rival the chaos and excitement of Beijing, Mumbai, and other metropolises. When you’re in Ho Chi Minh City on a Saigon cruise, you’re sure to be surprised by the city’s scope.
A lasting testament to the French colonial occupation of Saigon is obvious when you look at the Notre Dame Church in Ho Chi Minh City. Hundreds of visitors pray at the foot of the Virgin Mary statue each day. You can leisurely tour the church and admire its red brick and stained glass windows, or go inside during a mass service to experience the cathedral in action.
This is arguably one of the most important attractions in all of Vietnam. Once a military base of a powerful general, it is most famous for being the site where the Vietnam War was effectively ended when a tank drove through the iron gates of the palace. Don’t miss a guided tour of the palace to see the underground tunnels, tour the war room, and peer in at preserved artifacts from the Vietnam War on display.
Explore Cho Lon, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown, while you’re on a cruise to Ho Chi Minh City. In fact, Cho Lon was once one of the biggest Chinatown districts in the entire world. Walk around Piu Dinh and stop for an iced tea or photograph the colorful facade of the city as you stroll by. Food stalls offer more traditional Vietnamese dishes than you’ll find at the touristy markets.
A tour of this massive interconnected network of tunnels is a must-do for history buffs, where you can descend underground and walk in the footsteps of the Vietnamese who used the tunnels extensively to escape harm whenever Cu Chi was under attack. Today, it’s one of the top attractions in Ho Chi Minh City because it’s both educational and active.
Caodaism is a religion that honors all religions and promotes peace throughout the world, and at Cao Dai Temple just outside of Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll find the temple is dedicated to figures of all major world religions, including Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, and more. Head to the temple for a tour, where you can watch practitioners deep in prayer or stay for a worship service yourself.
If you like the energy of crowds, the fun of haggling, and the joy of finding the perfect souvenir, Binh Tay Market is a must-do while you’re on a Saigon cruise. It’s one of the city’s biggest markets that attracts large crowds going grocery shopping or just perusing the local goods each day. Shop and bargain with vendors or simply walk around for an exciting sensory overload.
Need an hour or two to unplug while you’re in Ho Chi Minh City? You’re in luck when you head to the Taoist Jade Emperor Pagoda, which is a bit of a haven smack dab in the area of Ho Chi Minh City called Da Kao. Walk these ornate grounds and surround yourself with the figure of the Jade Emperor and a variety of other sacred Taoist sculptures.
Hum Lounge & Restaurant
Take a seat in the lush, plant-filled back patio of Hum Lounge & Restaurant, and you’ll be transported to a world where worries don’t exist. The theme of the place is vegetarian, which gives carnivores a break from meat dishes and encourages them to try something new. Fresh, lightweight salads and braised tofu are a few highlights. Don’t forget to try the mango sticky rice.
Maison Saigon Marou
If you’re stumped on what priceless souvenir to bring back home from your Saigon cruise, why not give the gift of delicious chocolate from Maison Saigon Marou? They produce some of the best chocolates in Ho Chi Minh city, plus an iced chocolate drink you have to try. Of course, there are the classics like cheesecakes, eclairs, and espresso and coffee drinks available.
Banh Mi 362
You can’t come to Vietnam without trying an authentic banh mi, one of the country’s most famous dishes, and Banh Mi 362 is just one of the many spots travelers can choose from during their time in Ho Chi Minh City. Whether you want pork or veggies, they’ll build your banh mi however you’d like.
The first word that comes to mind when you step inside Propaganda Bistro is “stylish,” because this trendy spot has a colorfully painted mural with popular expressions written on the walls. Beyond that, Propaganda calls itself “twisted Vietnamese cuisine,” meaning they put a new spin on traditional Vietnamese dishes, like breakfast banh mi complete with a cup of coffee, or duck curry with rice noodles.
Ho Chi Minh City is one of Vietnam’s richest cities with a storied past. Once known as Saigon, today it’s abbreviated to “HCMC,” and has only grown in trendiness. Trade and commerce brought HCMC to the international stage, and Saigon acted as the capital city of the Republic of Vietnam from 1955 until 1975. Before that, the French ruled the area during most of the 19th century, which impacted the architecture and visual aesthetic of the city. Many of the area’s biggest attractions honor and pay respect to the impact of the Vietnam War on both Ho Chi Minh City and the entire country of Vietnam. Today, Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and over 13 million people call it home.
Phu My is about an hour and a half away from Ho Chi Minh City proper, so your best bet to get into the city is via an excursion with Celebrity or a private tour. The amenities at the Ho Chi Minh cruise port are minimal, but there is a small market at the pier for souvenirs before you reboard the cruise ship. There’s not a lot at the commercial port except for a shuttle to take interested passengers to a small town in the area called Ba Ria.
Transportation options are limited in Ho Chi Minh City, and the port of Phu My is primarily commercial and used for cargo and trade. As a result, very few taxis travel to the Phu My port area. The best, easiest option for cruisers is to book a shore excursion or private transportation in advance to take you to the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.
The markets in Ho Chi Minh City are diverse and a great way to meet and mingle with locals. At the Ben Thanh Market, souvenirs and handmade goods are sold from merchants along with some of the best street food in the city. Before you board the Saigon cruise ship again, check out the intimate, small market near the pier for last-minute finds. Bargaining and haggling is a must in Ho Chi Minh City. For food goods, there’s the supermarket Ba Ria, which you can take a shuttle to get to. It’s a great way to get a feel for what kinds of fresh produce and vegetables are unique to Vietnam.
Use the official currency of Vietnam, the dong (VND), while you’re traveling in Vietnam. You’ll want to exchange your currency into VND and carry enough cash for your day-long stop while on a cruise to Ho Chi Minh City. Credit cards aren’t widely accepted in the area except at some higher-end restaurants. Crisp U.S. dollars are sometimes accepted, too. Credit cards that have better luck of being accepted here are American Express, Visa, and MasterCard. Cash to cover a meal, a taxi, or to purchase a souvenir is a must-have. When you’re at a restaurant, a service charge is usually included already, so you don’t have to tip additionally. When you take a taxi, it’s polite to round up to the nearest VND.