Go shopping in the lively Ben Thanh Market, where you can buy some lovely handmade silk goods and other Vietnamese handicrafts.
Cha Tam is Cholon’s small Catholic cathedral, with high vaulted ceilings surrounded by the stations of the cross. This little cathedral houses an enormous white statue of Jesus, a standing statue of St. Francis of Assisi and a large relief of the Last Supper.
Visit the huge Chinese neighborhood called Cholon. Here, you can have lunch at any one of a number of delicious Chinese eateries; we recommend My Huong, a bustling restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating that serves superb, authentic fare, including a noodle soup with duck. Explore the district’s many religious sites, which include places to worship Chinese, Christian, Islamic and Buddhist deities.
The clean lines and lack of ornamentation of the Cholon Mosque provide a stark counterpoint to its gilded Buddhist neighbors. In the courtyard is a pool for ritual ablutions; note the tiled niche in the wall (mihrab) indicating the direction of Mecca. Built by Tamil Muslims in 1932, the mosque has served the Malaysian and Indonesian Muslim communities of Saigon since 1975.
Chua Quan Am Temple is a classic Chinese temple wafting with incense. Nearly 20 resident monks and a cherubic abbot are on hand to welcome foreign visitors. In fact, they’ll even take the time to show you around and allow you to take photos, but the expectation is a small donation in the alms box at the altar. Just outside the entrance, observe the busy cabinet makers at work in a large street-side workshop.
Explore the streets of Saigon and see some of the gorgeous old colonial architecture, such as the stunning Opera House, the former Hôtel de Ville town hall (now the People’s Committee Building), Notre Dame Cathedral and the lovely Continental Hotel, made famous by Graham Greene’s novel, "The Quiet American."
Discover the famed Cu Chi tunnels, an interconnecting network of subterranean passageways under Saigon used during the Vietnam War to evade the American military and stage campaigns such as the infamous Tet Offensive. Crawl through the enlarged tunnels; during the war, Viet Cong guerillas would live in the tunnels for days, emerging only to re-supply or to launch attacks. As a result, the tunnels became a miniature city, complete with barracks, supply larders, weapons stockpiles, medical wards, and the like.
The oldest pagoda in Saigon, Giac Lam was originally built in 1744, and sits in the heart of the Cholon neighborhood. The Pagoda houses tombs of long-deceased monks, stewards of the temple, and a rare Bodhi tree – descended from the very same tree under which Buddha was enlightened. To the right of the entrance is a large out-building filled with aisles of shelves with colorful urns of ashes, Chinese pots with red lights, and candles and offerings.
Constructed under the auspices of the French colonial government in 1929, the History Museum features a unique fusion of Asian and French architectural styles. The grounds of the museum are home to a series of pleasant gardens that provide a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life in Saigon. Within the museum are all the manner of architectural relics, from Khmer stone carvings dating to the 10th-13th centuries, remnants of the ancient Oc Eo culture of the 1st-6th centuries, and displays on Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups.
Originally commissioned in 1962 by South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, this 100-room residence was designed by a French-trained architect. While Diem himself never lived in the palace, the exorbitant project, which took four years to complete, became a symbol of corruption and waste. Today, the Palace is a museum – and its costly furnishings and finishes have been left intact.
Originally built in A.D. 940, Thien Hau Temple has been rebuilt many times over the intervening centuries – most recently in 1900. The temple pays homage to Thien Hau, the goddess of the sea, a deity worshipped across Asia – particularly by sailors, who looked to her for good weather and protection from the elements.
A sobering collection with graphic, often brutal displays of the American War (as it is known in Vietnam), the War Remnants Museum was first opened in 1975, soon after the fall of South Vietnam. While the exhibits are admittedly one-sided, they do provide the Vietnamese perspective on this decade-long conflict, as well as a close, uncomfortable look at the effects of war on soldiers and civilians alike.