A cinematic backdrop of French colonial architecture standing historically amongst spectacular skyscrapers that beckons the future, Saigon's District 1 is a true dive into what makes Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam just so intoxicatingly thrilling to uncover. As Saigon's biggest district, there are a lot of gems - from Japan Town, which is like its own neighbourhood within a neighbourhood, to the best local eats. It is a city where for the locals, Saigonese as we call ourselves, boredom is a word that does not exist in our vocabulary. But for those not in the know - Saigon and District 1 can be a steamroller to the senses. To make this metropolis easier to figure out, I rounded up the must-sees of District 1 in two bite-size collections, part one with its cultural sights and now part two - places you can see walking around. Now while there is a stereotype that Ho Chi Minh City is not a walkable city, District 1 really debunks that. Sure there is motorbike parking where pedestrians are supposed to walk freely - but these spots are all easily within reach on foot. So let's discover outdoor gems in the heart of Saigon's District 1. Đi đi mau!
Take in the view of the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City
The People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City building is, in one word: majestic. After all, this was built by the French colonialist as a luxury hotel back in Saigon’s height of dominance in French Indochina. What was once Hôtel de Ville as a meeting place for the Vietnamese nobility and French high society of its time, the building has since become the city hall. It is unmissable at the intersection of Nguyen Hue Boulevard and Le Thanh Ton street, as the building catches anyone’s eye with its Renaissance-style architecture. A statue of Ho Chi Minh, the national revolutionist, sits in front of the building.
People's Committee Building, Ho Chi Minh City86 Lê Thánh Tôn, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Around the corner from Saigon Central Post Office is book street. What many may not know about Vietnam’s youth is the high literacy rate - as Vietnamese society has a long history and ties with Confucianism, reading and literacy are still highly valued today. Book street embodies this, as there are plenty of benches where you will see a lot of young residents lounging outdoors with a book, as well as little boutiques that exclusively sell books. Each boutique shack has its book theme.
If you are looking for an English bookstore here, check out the Little Cats bookstore. There is quite a wide selection of pre-loved, second-hand books ranging from art, coffee table books, fiction and non-fiction. Next to the Little Cats bookstore is an area where you will often see Saigonese students studying and hanging out in the outdoor seating under the shade.
Evenings on Nguyen Hue Walking Street
A short walking distance from the People’s Committee of Ho Chi Minh City is the long stretch of Nguyen Hue Walking Street. Up and down this wide pathway is lined with giant trees, starting from the blooming lotus in the Nguyen Hue Music Fountain and going all the way down to the Saigon River. Nguyen Hue Walking Street is one of the areas of District 1 that changes as time progresses throughout the day. During the morning, it is quiet and empty - save for a few locals jogging or doing yoga.
Then by nightfall, Nguyen Hue Walking Street is booming with throngs of locals and community activities. It is where people of all ages come together in the evening - and you will see the cool kids skateboarding and groups dancing to various music, from V-pop to older generations' slow dancing. And, of course, plenty of street food stalls where you can try Vietnamese "pizza"! Aka, a grilled rice paper dish topped with savoury eggs, sausages, and other delectable toppings.
Nguyen Hue Walking Street, Ho Chi Minh City22 Đ. Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
An urban oasis, Tao Dan Park
Escape the heat and take shade under the leafy giant palm trees of Tao Dan Park. This green sprawl is a shelter for a mid-day break and when you just want to hit pause from the overstimulation of senses that one can sometimes feel in Saigon. You will often spot locals playing badminton and exercising throughout the day here, but in the early mornings, just before the heat rises, groups of senior citizens would do tai chi together in the open lawns.
Tao Dan Park used to have a cafe that hosted a hang-out for locals who would bring their singing birds. These birds would perch in their cages, hang above the gathering circle, and chirp like they were singing. But the cafe has since moved, and the bird owners now go across the street to Cong Doan Cafe with their singing birds while sipping their Vietnamese coffee.
Tao Dan Park, Ho Chi Minh CityTao Dan Park, Trương Định, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Old Market Ton That Dam
Aside from Ben Thanh Market, District 1 does not really have many markets. Old Market Ton That Dam is one of the final relics of Saigon's old heydays, still undisturbed by the neighbourhood's modernization. This open street market, while not huge (it only stretches about 200 metres down the street), is still a beating, bustling hub in the lives of daily locals. Not many travellers even know this market exist even though it is right next to the Bitexco Financial Tower.
The market, along with selling fresh produce from southern Vietnamese farmers, has different street food vendors that sell various traditional Vietnamese food, changing their menu throughout the day. In the morning, afternoon and evening, each vendor sells different bowls of steaming classics like cà ri gà (chicken curry noodles), bún riêu (crab paste vermicelli), bún mắm (Vietnamese gumbo) and many more. Also, vegans rejoice! The market serves plenty of Vietnamese vegan dishes throughout the day - just look for stalls that say "chay", which means vegan.
Rest assured that the prices here are beyond affordable even though you are in the heart of the city! Dishes range from 40k-60k Vietnamese dollars, and be prepared to eat because each bowl is filled to the brim.
Have a moment of community gathering at Huyen Si Church
Did you know that Vietnam has about 7 million devout Catholics - the fifth-largest Catholic population in Asia? Throughout the country, you will see cathedrals, basilicas, and churches in all architectural forms. But, at a zooming intersection, time seemingly has slowed down with Huyen Si Church.
As one of the oldest churches in the whole country (going back to 1859), it was built in a Gothic style with a bell tower standing tall at 57 metres. Be sure to check out the thematic shrine to Ave Mari,e which is on the side of the Huyen Si Church, while the front open courtyard will give you a classic Vietnamese community feel. Many locals will gather in this front space to sit on red plastic stools in the evening for prayers.
Take a river ride from the Saigon Waterbus Station
Feeling for a cruise through the city, but via the waterways? Do not have your own sailboat? Here is a travel hack: take the Saigon Waterbus taxi that leaves from District 1’s Saigon Waterbus station. It is a super cheap way to see Ho Chi Minh City from a different perspective, gliding through the Saigon River on a yellow ferry. While this mode of transportation is actually used by locals to easily get from one point of the city to the other via the Saigon River, anyone can use it to view the city’s skyline.
There are various stop points along the way, so you can get off any time you like or leisurely make a round-trip cruise. The best time of the day? Definitely go for a clear sunset waterbus ride, and watch as the night ascends onto Saigon. Buildings like Landmark 81 and the Bitexco Financial Tower look even better lit up after sundown.
Have a peek at what an evening right on Saigon Waterbus taxi looks like for yourself:
A stroll down Ba Song Bridge
A giant white bridge that looks like an elegant harp sitting over the Saigon River, The Ba Song Bridge connects District 1 of the city with another neighbourhood (Thu Duc City) on the other side. The 6-lane bridge has different lanes for cars, motorbikes, buses, and pedestrians - making this a walking-friendly spot amongst Saigonese and visitors.
You will see locals jogging along this bridge but the most loved time to appreciate the Ba Song Bridge is in the evening. When the sun goes down, the pedestrian-friendly walking side is filled with couples, families and photographers - taking snaps of Saigon’s skyline from this picture-perfect spot above the river.
Ba Song Bridge, Ho Chi Minh City
Jamia Al-Musulman Masjid - Musulman Mosque
Now this will be a true hidden gem in Saigon that most people will pass by without even realizing it is right in District 1 - and in the city. The Jamia Al-Musulman Masjid, or Musulman Mosque, is a pastel-green place of prayer that welcomes anyone to visit it. Even most locals do not know that this place exists - simply because when one thinks of the religion in Vietnam, many do not know that there is a small yet still close community of Muslims in the country.
There are actually mosques all over the country and the city - but this one in District 1 is one of the biggest in the city and stunning in its design by a French architect.
A night out on Bui Vien Walking Street
Love it or hate it - we have all found ourselves one way or another on Bui Vien Walking Street. Most cities in Asia have that one street where all the tourists go for cheap drinks and blaring music - and this is the spot for Saigon. But, to be fair, nowadays, it is not just tourists but also younger Vietnamese enjoying the open terraces of coffee shops on the street.
The thing is, Bui Vien Walking Street is still a huge part of Saigon’s social fabric and identity. Moreover, it is one of the few big streets in the city that is truly pedestrian friendly (even though vehicles are only forbidden from 7 pm to 2 am) - and this is coming from a metropolis dominated by motorbikes and cars.
Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens
A place as old as time - within the city’s history, of course, is the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens since 1869. Often referred to as “the lungs of the city” by the locals, this huge swath of land is home to various species of fauna and flora, as well as a whole zoo filled with giraffes, hippos, and other animals from faraway lands.
While this historical zoo is underfunded, the staff here are passionate and truly care about the animal and their work. During COVID-19, when the zoo had to close its doors, the establishment ran into the red for operation costs since most of its business is based on ticket sales. As a result, the employees all voluntarily took a 30% cut to their salary to raise enough money for animal food and maintenance for the property. Now, the zoo’s doors are still open - along with its sense of remoteness from the hustle and bustle of District 1.
Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Ho Chi Minh City2 Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City People’s Court
This is not necessarily a building that you can go into, and unless there is a serious matter - you would not want to be in anyways - but the Ho Chi Minh City's Court is a prime beauty of French architecture that is over 130 years old. If you are lucky to go inside, you will see the grand architectural splendour at its best. But if you are just walking by this lush green part of the city, take in the beautiful yellow pillows with Romanesque busts and the building's front facade. Adding to the wonderful architecture of District 1, it is nearby other must-see sights like the Independence Palace and the People's Committee Building. It is easy to walk by and see this grand historical beauty standing proudly behind its gates amongst the tall trees.
Bach Dang Wharf
When night falls on Saigon, go where the locals go - to Bach Dang Wharf. This is where the banks of Saigon River meet District 1, and all along the waterside, you will be able to stroll up and down the well-paved pathways. People love taking pictures here since it gives you a great view of the skyline lit up and Landmark 81 in the distance. Then at Bach Dang pier, you will find many options to do river cruises. From regular boat cruises and colonial heritage, boat rides to even a boat cruise that includes a buffet dinner - this is a fun activity for those who want to enjoy the city at night.
Walk down the French-built Mống Bridge
Mống Bridge is another remanent of French colonial architecture in Saigon as the wrought iron used to make this bridge bears an uncanny resemblance to the Eiffel tower. It is a pedestrian walking bridge as well as a driving bridge that crosses over the Saigon River. Because of its French roots, this bridge is considered a romantic spot amongst couples in Saigon, especially at night when the waterways are lit up.
Believe it or not, District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City is just the tip of the iceberg to getting to know this rapidly developing metropolis. These are only the outdoor sights, not even the other heritage gems or hidden cafes and secret speakeasy bars that make up the city. It certainly is a great start to Saigon’s charms, but if you have more time or if this is not your first time in the city, getting out of the “downtown” core will uncover plenty more wonders. Whether that be the Japan Town corner of District 1, more of a heritage cradle that is Chinatown in District 5 or the ever-zestful next-door neighbourhood of District 3, Saigon has a little something for everyone.
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