Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Having beautiful buildings, pagodas and temples, markets, amazing foods, Saigon has dozens of things to do. Your trip to Saigon will not be complete if you do not visit the top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basllica, Saigon Central Post Office, Thien Hau Temple could not be missed in this city. Here is everything you need to know about these attractions.

1. Notre Dame Cathedral – Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Location: 1 Cong Xa Paris Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. View on Google Maps.

What to do: walk around the cathedral and the garden; talk about the history, architecture, and the story about the crying Marry statue; take some nice photos.

Highlights:

  • One of the oldest churches in Saigon.
  • The most visited tourist attractions and one the most beautiful French architectural buildings in Saigon.

History

Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica was designed by architect Jules Bourard.

On 7 October 1877, the first stone was laid by Bishop Isidore Colombert in an inaugural ceremony. It took 3 years to complete the construction of the cathedral. On Easter Day, 11 April 1880, a blessing ceremony and ceremony of completion were solemnly organized. The granite plate inside the main entry gate commemorates the start and completion dates and designer. The total cost was 2,500,000 French francs  – a nominal price at that time. They called the construction State Cathedral due to the source of the funds.

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica (without bell towers and a garden) in 1880

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica (without bell towers and a garden) in 1880.

Facts: When workers dig the foundation of the cathedral in 1877, they found a thick layer of rice seed ash burned by French soldiers in March 1859. They designed the foundation which is able to bear 10 times the weight of the cathedral.

In 1895, two bell towers with 6 bronze bells were added to the cathedral and the crosses were installed on the top of the towers.

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica with 2 bell towers and a garden, without any statue in 1900.

In 1903, the French put the bronze statue of Bishop Ba Da Loc (Pigneau de Béhaine) and Canh prince (Nguyen Phuc Canh, the oldest son of Gia Long King). In 1945, Tran Trong Kim’s government destroyed the statue, only the red granite pedestal remains.

bronze statue of Bishop Ba Da Loc and Canh prince in the garden of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral

The bronze statue of Bishop Ba Da Loc and Canh prince.

In 1959, Bishop Joseph Pham Van Thien ordered a statue of Our Lady of Peace made with granite in Rome. He put it in on the empty pedestal and presented the title of “Regina Pacis”.

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica with the statue Queen of Peace

Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica with the statue Queen of Peace.

On 16 February 1959 (one day after the statue arrived), the cathedral was named Notre-Dame Cathedral.

In 1960, the cathedral was titled Saigon Chief Cathedral.

From 1962, the cathedral was called Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica.

Saigon Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica has been restored since the beginning of 2018 and the restoration has not been completed until 2023. Entering the cathedral is not allowed.

In recent, the cathedral is one of the favorite spots of locals for walking, relaxing, taking nice photos, especially wedding photos thanks to the grand and unique architecture and the spacious garden. This place is one of the iconic sights of Ho Chi Minh City so that you can see it everywhere on postcards, travel brochures, travel magazines and channels. Despite the restoration, there is a large number of people come to visit this place every day.

Overview

The cathedral does not have fences or borders around like many churches in Saigon – Gia Dinh at that time.

The total height of the cathedral to the top of the cross is 60.5 m. The cathedral is 93 m long and 35 m wide. The height of the arch is 21 m. The cathedral can hold up to 1,200 people.

Source: vntrip.vn.

Materials

All materials of the construction were imported from France. The bricks used to build the outside wall were from Toulouse. No moss grows on these bricks. They still retain the bright red color although they use no coated concrete.

Some tiles have been carved with the words Guichard Carvin, Marseille St André France in order to indicate where the tiles were produced. Some tiles are carved with the words “Wang-Tai Saigon”.

Highlights of the cathedral include 56 stained glass windows carrying pictures of characters in Bible were supplied by the Lorin firm of Chartres province in France, 25 ox-eye windows of the small beautiful images, 31 round roses.

Stained glass windows at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica. Source: vntrip.vn.

One of 25 ox-eye windows at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica. Source: vntrip.vn.

Bell towers and 6 bells

The only narrow staircase leading to the two bell towers at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.

There is the only 40-cm-wide staircase leading to the two bell towers.

Two bell towers are 57.6 m high. The six bronze bells which were produced in France and imported in Saigon in 1879 in the towers have a total weight of 28.85 metric tonnes. The crosses on the top of each tower are 3.5 m high, 2 m wide, 600 kg in weight. Bells Sol, Si, Re, Mi are hung in the right tower, bells named La, Do are hung in the left tower. The bell named Sol which is 8.785 kg weigh, 3.5 meters high (including ears) has the mouth diameter of 2.25 meters is one of the largest bells in the world.

bells named La, Do in the left tower of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

Bells named La, Do in the left tower of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica.

the biggest bell at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

The biggest bell at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica.

All the bells are controlled electrically. Three largest bells must be pedaled before turning on the electrical relay due to their heavyweights. On normal days, they ring the bell Mi at 5:00 AM and the bell Re at 4:15 PM. On Sunday and special days, bells Mi, Re, Do are rung. At Chrismas, six bells are rung together and the sound is said to be sonorous about 10 km away.

Bells at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral are controlled electrically

Bells at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral are controlled electrically.

There is a narrow wooden staircase leading to four doors and a balcony on the top of the right tower from which is one of the best places to see the incredible view of Ho Chi Minh City.

The narrow staircase leading to the top of the bell tower at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.

Clock

There is a big clock on the facade of the church. It is controlled by a huge engine clock which is mounted on a brick pedestal and under the arch, 15 meters above the ground in the center of two bell towers. It was produced in Switzerland in 1887, the brand RA and still works properly. The clock is 2.5 meters high, 3 meters long, more than a meter wide and weighs more than a ton. The clock should be wound once per week. Another small clock behind the huge engine is used to check if the big clock on the facade works correctly.

The clock and rose rounds on the facade of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral. Source: thanhnien.vn.

The clock is controlled by the engine in the bell tower through an iron round bar.

The huge clock engine at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.

The small clock is used to check if the clock works correctly at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.

Old organ

At the opposite of the main altar in the bell towers, you can see an organ shelf where one of two oldest pipe organs in Vietnam is put. The organ was hand-made by foreign experts, its sound is not too low but not too big, just enough for the whole church.

The organ is approximately 3 m high, 4 m wide, 2 m long, its aluminum tubes are about an inch in diameter. The organ has 7,374 pipes, with 900 classified as historical. It has 110 real stops, five 56-key manuals and a 32-key pedalboard.

The organ was similarly designed as the piano but is more complex. The organ also has big bars to hit the bottom of sound tubes which is somewhat similar playing k’long of Central Highlands. Because no school teaches this organ, players must learn to play this organ in a private class.

Unfortunately, this organ has completely broken down due to lack of storage. Termites ate its wooden manual key controller.

Pipe organ at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.

Pipe organ at Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.

Altars and tombs

There are 20 small and big altars, Bishop Colombert’s tomb in the cathedral.

Garden

In the spacious garden with green grass, you can see four stone crossing paths forming a cross. The round with the Marry statue standing on a stone at the center is the highlight of the garden.

Four stone crossing paths forming a cross in the garden of Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.

Statue

During October 2005, the statue of Our Lady of Peace (also called Virgin of Peace or Queen of Peace) was reported to have tears flowed down the right cheek of its face. Thousands of people came to the cathedral and stop traffic around the Cathedral. As mentioned above, the statue was ordered by Bishop Joseph Pham Van Thien. It was made with white granite by sculptor G. Ciocchetti in Rome in 1859. His name was written at the left bottom of the dress. The statue is 4.6 m high and 8 tons weigh. She holds a globe with a cross on her hands, her eyes fix meditation in the sky, pray for the peace in Vietnam and the world. Her feet are on a snakehead. On the stone platform, there is the bronze text “REGINA PACIS – ORA PRO NOBIS – XVII. II. MCMLIX” (NỮ VƯƠNG HÒA BÌNH – CẦU CHO CHÚNG TÔI – 17.02.1959 in Vietnamese, OUR LADY OF PEACE – PRAY FOR US – 17th February 1959). In a hole between the pedestal and the statue’s feet, there is a silver box containing thin gold, silver, aluminum, tin, leather or bronze plates on which written prayers for peace, sent from different regions of Vietnam.

2. Saigon Central Post Office

– Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Opening hours: 8:00 – 19:00 (weekdays); 8:00 – 17:00 (weekends).

Location: 2 Cong Xa Paris Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1. Click to view on Google Map.

What to do: talk about the history, architecture, interact with Mr. Duong Van Ngo – a public letter witter, buy souvenirs, send postcards, send letters, exchange currency, take some nice photos.

Highlights

The beautifully preserved remnant of French colonial times.

One of the grandest post offices in Southeast Asia.

History

After attacking Gia Dinh, the French gained control over Saigon, started setting communication system.

In 1860, they built the Saigon Central Post Office which was designed by the famous French architect Gustave Eiffel. He also designed Eiffel Tower in Paris, Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York, Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi, Trang Tien Bridge in Hue.

In 1864, the first letter with stork stamp – the first stamp in Vietnam was sent from this office.

In 1886, they decided to rebuild the post office because the old was too small. The new post office was designed by the architect Foulhoux. The construction was completed in 1891.

Saigon Central Post Office in 1892

Saigon Central Post Office in 1892.

In 2014, the City Council decided to change the pink color of the post office into dark yellow.

In 2015, they repainted the building with a light yellow because the dark yellow has been said to be too bright and were critized by many professionals and citizens.

Saigon Central Post Office in 1892

Saigon Central Post Office in light yellow color before 1975.

Saigon Central Post Office in pink color before December 2014.

Saigon Central Post Office in dark yellow color in December 2014.

Saigon Central Post Office in light yellow color after Tet festival 2015 - - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon Central Post Office in light yellow color after Tet festival 2015.

Architecture

The post office depicts classic elements of Gothic, Renaissance and French colonial design. It is also a mix of Asian and French architectures. It covers an area of 26,000 square meters.

Outside

Saigon Central Post Office features a bright exterior framed with white trim. Curved windows are designed with engaged piers, crowned with imaginative human-headed characters and elegantly framed with green shutters.

The facade retains the cubic structure with the arches above the entrance. The front of the building is decorated in rectangular cases with names of inventors of telegram and electric professions and pictures of men and women wearing laurel wreaths.

Saigon Central Post Office - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Rectangular cases with names of inventors of telegram and electric profession, pictures of men and women wearing laurel wreaths, green shutters of Saigon Central Post Office.

The large clock with Roman numerals is featured prominently on the arc of the main entrance as the witnesses for the existence of the whole building. The clock was checked and cleaned regularly to ensure its accuracy.

The large clock with Roman numerals of Saigon Central Post Office - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The large clock with Roman numerals of Saigon Central Post Office.

Inside

Entering Saigon Central Post Office, visitors feel that they’re in a 20th-century railway station in Europe, rather than a post office in Asia. Inside the building is a system of the dome adjacent main entrance and a long arch inside. The big dome is supported by 4 green steel pillars located at 4 corners. The arch is supported by lines of dozens of smaller green steel pillars. The system makes the building more spacious, airy and higher. The significant portrait of Ho Chi Minh President is hung on the wall at the end of the hall.

Big dome of Saigon Central Post Office - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Big dome of Saigon Central Post Office.

Saigon Central Post Office looks like a Europen railway station in the 20 century. The arch is supported by lines of pillars - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Saigon Central Post Office looks like a Europen railway station in the 20 century. The arch is supported by lines of pillars.

Lines of green steel pillars inside Saigon Central Post Office.

Two maps about the history of establishing Saigon telecommunication system were painted onto walls overhead in the post office. The map on the right describes the map of Saigon in 1892, the other shows the postal route from Southern Vietnam to Cambodia in 1936.

Map of Telegraphic lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892 at Saigon Central Post Office - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The map titled Lignes telegraphiques du Sud Vietnam et Cambodge 1892, which means Telegraphic lines of Southern Vietnam and Cambodia 1892 is on the left hand.

Map of English Saigon and its surroundings 1892 at Saigon Central Post Office - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The map titled Saigon et ses environs 1892, which means English Saigon and its surroundings 1892 is on the right hand.

 

Antique wooden phone booths at Saigon Central Post Office - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The antique wooden phone booths numbered from 1 to 7.

cement tiles at Saigon Central Post Office Saigon Central Post Office - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The colorful cement tiles at Saigon Central Post Office.

Services

The post office still functions, provides mail services, offers phones and fax machines for public use, sell stamps including some interesting collector sets. The over 100-year antique phone booths are still in use. The old fashioned glue pots are still in use for sticking stamps to letters. You can send a letter or postcard from here.

Working area and counter at Saigon Central Post Office - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Working area and counter at Saigon Central Post Office.

There is a wooden writing desk with the sign “Information and Writing Assistance”. Tourists will not forget Mr. Duong Van Ngo who sits at the end of the desk. He is over 83 years old and the last letter writer in Saigon. He has been working as a public letter-writer in Vietnamese, English and French since he was 18 years old. Although Mr. Ngo has retired from his work at the post office, he often visits this place to help customers to write their letters. He has tons of stories about his work of connecting people in the world with his fountain to tell customers and visitors.

Mr. Duong Van Ngo and tourists at Saigon Central Post Office - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Mr. Duong Van Ngo and tourists at Saigon Central Post Office.

There are four long wooden tables, some chairs and benches where customers can sit and write their letters.

Tables where customers can write their letters.

Souvenir shops

There are two wings branching out from the main office. There you can find some nice souvenirs including postcards of Ho Chi Minh City’s iconic sights, lacquerware at reasonable fixed prices.

souvenir shop in building of Saigon Central Post Office - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The souvenir shop on a side of Saigon Central Post Office.

3. Thien Hau Temple – Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Location: 710 Nguyen Trai Street, Ward 11, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. Click to view on Google Map.

Opening hours: 8:00 – 16:30

What to do: talk about the history, architecture, the story of Thien Hau lady, burn incenses.

History

Thien Hau Temple (Pagoda of Lady Thien Hau) is one of the largest, oldest, and most beautiful temples of more than 30 Chinese pagodas and temples in Saigon.

It was built in 1760 by a group of Chinese immigrants from Guangdong. They worship Thien Hau Lady who supported them when they immigrated to a new land in the 15th century. It was a place where Chinese from Guangdong gathered in the past. The temple has played an important part in the cultural life of Chinese people in the city for nearly 260 years.

In the recent, the temple is a perfect place for calming the mind and soothing your soul, praying good fortune, or just walking and relaxing. Lots of tourists visit this unique temple, learn more about culture, history, religion and local life.

Story of Thien Hau Lady

The pagoda is dedicated to Ba Thien Hau, also known as Mazu, Tien Hou, or Lady of the Sea. The story of the lady makes the temple mysterious and sacred. In fact, Thien Hau Lady is worshipped in many pagodas and temples in South Vietnam. She has been written to have existed in China by lots of historicals. According to Vuong Hong Sen – a famous Vietnamese scholar, the Lady was born on 23rd March 1044 in Matsu Island, Fujian after the pregnancy of 14 months and was named Lam Mac Nuong.

She found ancient books in a well, trained herself, gain superpowers, and reach the peak of the way. She could forecast the weather, call for rain, taught them to eat seaweeds survive the famine, use mattresses as canvases of boats. She also won over two fierce Gods.

Her father and two brothers were swept out to sea on the way to Giang Tay for selling salt. Although Lam Mac Nuong was weaving and sitting next to her mother at home, her soul escaped used her teeth to keep her father’s clothes and two hands to hold the brothers’ hands. Unfortunately, her mother called and she must answer her mother. So that she could only save her two brothers but her father. Since then, people have called for her help when they get in troubles or accidents at sea.

Garden and gate

Located right on the street, Thien Hau Temple is surrounded by an over 2m high green steel fence. The gate opens into a spacious stone yard. A few vendors sell incenses and selling birds for ceremonial release next to the fence.

front yard Thien Hau Temple - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The spacious front yard tiled with stones. In the yard put 2 green trees in pots, 2 statues of mascots and a small shrine. The walls surrounding the yard are decorated with lots of relief sculptures.

relief sculptures and lion statue in front of Thien Hau Temple - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The wall on the left of the front yard with relief sculptures showing beautiful landscapes and illustrating Chinese stories.

Structure and materials

The temple was built in Chinese characteristic style. It consists of four houses which are linked to each other and form a square. In the middle of the temple is a large square yard functioning as a skylight which allows the air, wind and light to pass through the houses.

It has been said that all the materials including bricks, tiles, porcelains were made in China and transferred to Saigon by ship.

Front house (or Tien dien, Front hall)

The front house has a beautiful roof tiled and decorated with small delicately fashioned porcelain figurines expressing themes from Chinese legends and religion. Looking to the roof from the front yard or the skylight, visitors can see the illustrations of fighting, passing exams and returning home, choosing a husband, and other daily activities of Chinese people.

There are totally 3 entrances including 2 narrower ones on two sides and the main one. Each of the two side entrances leads into a small alley that brings coolness to the entire temple, leads to the main hall, creates more space and ways to go in and out.

You can see a green steel fence and the main entrance with two red pillars and arch on which written Chinese characters. The shutter of this entrance is also made from green steel. Behind the fence are two big round lanterns and two small polygonal lanterns.

Front of Thien Hau Temple - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The front house with 3 entrances, the roof is decorated with many porcelain sculptures of animals, famous people, characters and reliefs of dragons, birds, stories, etc.

In the front hall, Phuc Duc Chanh Than is worshipped on the right and Mon Quan Vuong Ta is worshipped on the left.

Phuc Duc Chanh Than Thien Hau Temple - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Phuc Duc Chanh Than altar

Mon Quan Vuong Ta Thien Hau Temple - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Mon Quan Vuong Ta altar

There is the stone stele on which written the legend of Thien Hau Thanh Mau, and big pictures describing her journey on wave and water.

From the front door of the front house, visitors can see another large gate in the middle of a high doorstep. It has been said that they built the doorstep to make visitors look down to avoid tripping. The action of looking down resembles the act of respect like bowing head. Right in the front of the gate is the skylight, also called heaven well.

Carved wooden door on the back of the front hall - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Carved wooden door on the back of the front hall.

Decorations Thien Hau Temple - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Porcelain sculptures on the roof of the front hall looking from the skylight. The porcelain products were produced by Buu Nguyen and Dong Hoa in China in 1908.

Skylight (or heaven well)

A big metal furnace with a smoke chimney, a big porcelain incense burners and 5 smaller porcelain incense burners on a long table are put in the skylight.

furnace Thien Hau Temple - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

The big metal furnace with a smoke chimney.

Incense burner Thien Hau Temple

The big incense burner in the skylight.

Two central houses (Central hall)

The central houses have spots for honoring people who have donated to the temple. Pink strips of papers you see were written names of donors and the amount of money they donated.

doners' name on pink strips Thien Hau Temple - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Pink papers on which written donors’ names and donation money.

Back house ( or Main hall, Back hall)

The main hall has Thien Hau statue in the center, Kim Thoa Nuong Nuong statue and Long Mau Nuong Nuong statue in both sides. Thien Hau statue was made of a 1m high wooden chump. It had been worshipped in Bien Hoa before being transferred to Thien Hau Temple in Saigon in 1836. The other statues were made from paper and painted colorfully. All statues are dressed splendidly. Guan Yu, Ksitigarbha, Caishen (or God of Wealth) are worshipped on other altars in the main hall.

Thien Hau Lady statue in the beautiful dress and crown.

There is an area full of incense smoke and smell, and dozens of coils hung on the ceiling. You can buy a coil that cost about 20,000 VND (~ 1 USD, burn it, express your respect to the Gods, make a wish, then hang the coil onto the ceiling. You can also burn a few incense sticks and insert the unlit end of the stick into the burners after praying.

Smell and smoke of coils and incense sticks overwhelm thien hau temple - Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

Smell and smoke of coils and incense sticks overwhelm the temple.

burn a coil at Thien Hau Temple

A tour guide helped foreign tourists to burn a coil.

Antiques

Thien Hau Temple houses about 400 antiques that appeared from the 18th to 20th century.  Impressive antiques include the massive bell since 1796, the other massive bell since 1830 in the main hall, the incense burner set since 1886. The big glass wardrobe contains statues of 8 immortals, command of D’Ariès forbid French and Spanish to devastate. Behind the burners are a lacquered red and gold sedan chair and a wood-carved dragon boat used to carry Thien Hau Lady on the Thien Hau Festival organized every year.

The other antiques include 7 God statues, 6 stone statues, 9 stone steles, 2 small bells, 4 bronze incense burners, 1 stone incense burner, 10 horizontal lacquered boards, 23 parallel sentences, relief carved paintings, etc.

Antiques in the main hall of Thien Hau Temple

Antiques in the main hall.

Fire fighting water pump at Thien Hau Temple

Fire fighting water pump.

Ba Thien Hau Festival

The temple welcomes hundreds of visitors at Chinese festivals such as Lunar New Year, Lantern Festival and 15th of each month in the lunar calendar. The biggest festival at the temple is the Thien Hau Soul Day which is celebrated annually. On the day, they get carry Thien Hau statue around the pagoda.

If you are planing your trip to Saigon, do not miss arrange to visit the Top must-see attractions in Ho Chi Minh City. Most Saigon Sightseeing Tours take you to these places so that you just simply book a city tour by car, cyclo or motorbike. Other tourist attractions Independence Palace, War Remnants Museum, Turtle Lake, Binh Tay Market, Cha Tam Church.

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