Lots of visitors to Saigon, especially those with little time to spare, take a quick look at the extensive list of attractions in the city, then decide to book a city tour and give someone else the responsibility of planning their itinerary. There’s nothing wrong with is approach as long as you don’t mind hanging around with groups and following the tour leader’s schedule.
In fact, given the city’s convoluted streets and terrible traffic, it makes perfect sense to give somebody else the arduous job for getting you from one sight to another and back to your hotel at the end of the day.
Highlights of Saigon
Tour operators in Saigon are extremely lucky that so many of the city’s main attractions are clustered near the town centre, so vehicles moving between them are not subject to hold-ups caused by heavy traffic. However, most tours also include a quick exploration of Cho Lon (Saigon’s Chinatown) with its distinctive atmosphere.
Most tours include the Reunification Palace in their itinerary, because of its historical significance, though what strikes most visitors is its kitsch 1960s décor. Notre Dame Cathedral is also high on their list, as this is one of the few buildings that many visitors will recognize from photographs of the city.
Right beside the cathedral, The General Post Office occupies a stately colonial building that is another colonial gem, while the former Hotel de Ville, now the People’s Committee Building, at the northern end of Nguyen Hue, is probably the most ornate of all the city’s colonial structures.
Most tours will spend some time at the famed War Remnants Museum, where visitors get a glimpse of the horrors the country suffered during the 20th century, and some find time to drop by the Ho Chi Minh City Museum where the patriotic tone continues.
In Cho Lon, the most popular stops are the Binh Tay market and the temples of Thien Hau and Quan Am, which both attract a steady stream of devotees lighting incense at the altars.
Self-guided tours of Saigon
If you’re the type of traveller who prefers to go it alone rather than have your itinerary planned for you, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take a walking tour of the attractions in the city centre, pausing for refreshment breaks as and when it suits you and not the tour leader.
This means of course that you’ll need a reasonable sense of direction to get from one sight to the next, and the confidence to cross Saigon’s busiest streets unaided, neither of which is impossible for independently-minded people.
For some sights, however, you’ll need to flag down a taxi or motorbike taxi to take you across town. Such an arrangement is best done through your hotel or guest house to avoid the chance of any misunderstanding. Let the receptionist know if you want the driver to wait for you, and if so, for about how long, in order to calculate the fare.
While cyclos are very Vietnamese, they are considered a hindrance by many and are banned from several streets in the city centre, so they may have to take a roundabout route. It’s important therefore not to think the driver is ‘taking you for a ride’ by choosing an surprising direction.