Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam at its most cosmopolitan and intense. It’s younger, bigger and worldlier than its northern cousin Hanoi, an endless sprawl of neon-lit skyscrapers, whizzing motorbikes and glitzy commercial areas interlaced with humble market streets and ancient temples. Most locals still call it by its old name, Saigon, and that fiercely independent regional spirit is part of what gives this town of almost 9 million its vibrance and vitality.
Yet many families use Ho Chi Minh City only as a point of entry or a transport hub for the Mekong Delta and southern islands — and they’re missing out on one of Southeast Asia’s underrated gems. Build at least two full days into your itinerary to experience Ho Chi Minh City proper; add a third day if you want to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels (see below). While the list of blockbuster attractions here is limited, the major sights are rich and evocative enough to make up for it.
Note: The War Remnants Museum is usually cited as a Ho Chi Minh City must-see, but it’s gruesome and not at all appropriate for children. Water puppet shows are another popular pastime; if you’ll be heading to northern Vietnam, save the water puppets until you get there, as the art originated in this region and the best shows are found in Hanoi and surrounds.
Built in the 1960s as a home for South Vietnam’s then-president, Nguyen Van Thieu, the Reunification Palace has since come to symbolize Saigon’s fall from power. It was an architectural tour de force for its time, its unimposing facade laden with symbols of Eastern culture and its interior a marvel of light and space. A North Vietnamese tank (still parked on the grounds) came barreling through the palace’s gates in the spring of 1975; moments later, Viet Cong soldiers dashed in to hang their flag from the balcony — a symbolic takeover that became official months later.
You’ll need a guide to tour the official state rooms, which takes about an hour and a half, but you can explore the rest of the complex at your leisure. Modernist design fans, you’ll be in heaven: The rooms are a time capsule of 1970s style broken up by touches of traditional Asian artistry here and there. Red-carpeted stairways at the heart of the vast structure lead to meeting rooms, reception rooms, banquet halls, the president’s private quarters and more, including a mod movie theater and a game room with a deliciously retro vibe. For kids, the most intriguing section will likely be the war command center in the basement, its bulky telecom equipment and military maps still intact.
TIP: A video of the palace’s history plays on a loop in the war rooms, concluding with the Vietnamese national anthem. Those who watch it are expected to stand up during the anthem to signal respect.
If the Reunification Palace symbolizes Vietnam’s march toward the future, Thien Hau Pagoda is a lovely window into the past. It was constructed in the 18th century by Vietnam’s Chinese community to honor a goddess of the sea, largely using materials imported from China, and it is stunning outside and in, from the elaborate porcelain figurines on the facade to the interior courtyard dotted with incense burners. Large coils of incense hang from the ceilings; visitors can purchase one, write their name on a slip of paper to attach to the coil, and set it aflame in hopes that the smoke drifting upward will carry that person’s prayers to the deity.
Thien Hau is an active place of worship, so be considerate of locals who have come to pray and make offerings. It is rarely crowded, but early morning is an especially tranquil time to visit.
A post office on a list of can’t-miss sights? Yes! This isn’t just a place to send a package or pick up stamps. The canary-yellow 1880s building, right in the center of town, is among Ho Chi Minh City’s premier landmarks. Its colonial-style design is beautiful, with a barrel ceiling crisscrossed by green metal arches and walls bearing original oil paintings and period maps. Kids who have never known life without smartphones will love stepping inside the old-fashioned wooden telephone booths and checking out the vintage clocks that show local time in zones all over the world.
The Central Post Office is very much a working facility, so it’s the perfect place to dash off a few postcards or ship home a batch of souvenirs you don’t want to tote around. It’s also one of the best spots in town to stock up on inexpensive trinkets like fans and paper goods.
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The food of southern Vietnam is wonderfully spicy-sweet and bursting with fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs, thanks to the area’s fertile farmland. While exploring Ho Chi Minh City’s restaurant scene is a must, it’s even more fun to take a kid-friendly class from a local cook. Shopping for ingredients, then preparing and enjoying a meal together in a private home connects kids to Vietnam’s customs and culture like few other experiences can.
It’s common for Vietnamese to make daily trips to a neighborhood food market to gather what they need for the day’s fare. The markets are loud, chaotic and absolutely fascinating — a tightly packed maze of sellers and makeshift restaurant stalls with bins of fish and poultry, tropical produce, multicolored rices, sauces, noodles and much more. Children will be entranced, if possibly a bit squeamish about the live seafood and exotic meats. Most cooks will agree upon the menu with you in advance so that you’re comfortable with what you will be making and tasting, i.e. you can choose one or more dishes to accommodate pickier travelers and the rest for adventurous eaters.
TIP: Culinary classes are a dime a dozen, but finding one that’s truly geared toward families takes a little effort. Our Family Travel Advisor team maintains a short list of vetted partners who fit the bill, offered as part of our vacation planning service.
The famous Cu Chi Tunnels, about an hour and a half by car from central Ho Chi Minh City, are a feat of wartime ingenuity. During the American War (as it’s known here), Viet Cong guerrillas dug this 75-mile network of subterranean passages as a bomb shelter, a way to transport supplies in secret, a place to store guns and ammunition, and planning headquarters for major operations like the Tet Offensive. So comprehensive was the tunnel system that it included schools, hospitals and living quarters complete with kitchens.
There’s lots to explore onsite, including military vehicles, displays of Viet Cong uniforms and weaponry, and samples of the foods on which the guerrillas lived, but the tunnels themselves are the highlight. Small, removable panels carefully covered with leaves mask entrance and exit holes (guides will demonstrate), and you can examine the types of crude booby traps used to fend off enemy soldiers. There are also a couple of tunnel sections that visitors can enter and crawl through; skip this part if you’re claustrophobic.
The Cu Chi Tunnels are not frightening for most kids, but they are sobering. Be aware that there is also a gun range where visitors 16 and up can pay a surcharge to fire assault rifles, unfortunately positioned next to a rest area and snack bar — the noise is quite loud and unsettling.
TIP: Bring plenty of drinkable water, sunscreen and bug repellent, as you’ll be in the woods with patchy shade. Handheld fans are nice to have too.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Lisa Frederick except where noted.
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