More than 650 feet high, 500 feet wide and three miles long the Son Doong cave is so immense it has its own climate, a river and a jungle. Although discovered by a local in the 1990s it only became open to the public in 2013. With overnight camping trips now available, it's possible to witness the fat stalagmites straining up towards the cave roof and ancient fossils for yourself. Just be ready to trek.
Crawling through a narrow underground Cu Chi tunnel gives you a visceral sense of how many Viet Cong soldiers lived and traveled during the Vietnam War (scraped knees are common, so avoid shorts). Although located an hour's drive out of the city, the tour of the immense network of tunnels which were used as hiding spots, supply routes and hospitals, show a side of the war outsiders may not have seen.
Best Day Trip
The best way to see Vietnam is from the back of a motorbike. The Vespa Tours, headquartered in the backpacking district, offer relaxing day trips around the verdant Mekong Delta and thankfully the open air driving offsets the humidity. Scoot past rice paddies and visit families making their living by creating incense, rice wine, or selling shrimp at village markets.
Off the Beaten Path
Deep in the heart of District 5, hidden down an inconspicuous alley lays the expansive and lively Cho Lon fabric market (also called the Soai Kinh Lam Market). A veritable maze of colorful fabrics, lace, threads, buttons, bows, you name it - it's stacked to the rafters. And while it is a wholesale market that rarely sees tourists, stall owners offer good prices per meter.
Most Iconic Place
The Saigon Central Post Office is often called the Eiffel Post Office, even by local guides. But alas, it was Alfred Foulhoux who designed this gorgeous period classic. Completed in 1891, it's worth a visit for the tiled floor alone and the grand concourse painted with historic maps of Southern Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City has a vibrant beer drinking culture, and Pasteur Brewing Company—an artisanal craft brewer—offers refreshing beers made from local ingredients. The trendy set usually make their way to bars like Qui or Chill Sky Bar (for the view) but a history buff might enjoy the slightly campy Caravelle roof top bar, where Graham Greene and the other news correspondents pickled themselves during the war with an aptly name cocktail called, 'Journalist's Juice' (available on request).
Political tensions between China and Vietnam may be strained but actually a thriving Chinese-Vietnamese community has existed in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5 for centuries. The gorgeous Thien Hau Temple, dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu was first erected by the Cantonese community in 1760. It's had many repairs since but still attracts a mix of visitors and worshippers who admire the golden shrines and large red incense coils of the interior courtyard.
Neighborhood to Explore
District 3 is a neighborhood within walking distance of the city center that allows for a glimpse into real life. It's home to both early 20th century colonial villas previously owned by French rubber planters and the less fussy skinny apartment blocks, their balconies brimming with potted plants, home shrines and drying laundry. District 3 has both upscale and street food vendors, boutiques and gritty markets and sidewalks for strolling around (not always a given).
Some of the best places to watch people in Saigon are on the first floor, not the ground floor. Places such as I.D. Café nestled behind the iconic Ben Thanh Market. Or the effortlessly cool, L'uisine on Dong Khoi, whose entrance isn't immediately clear (you have to walk down the Art Arcade then swing right down an alley filled with parked motorbikes). Once you find it though, the balcony offers undisturbed views of the Saigon Opera House.
When there isn't an actual opera or symphony performance planned for the Saigon Opera House—which frankly, is most nights—the A O show is on. The name, shortened from Lang Pho ("Village" and "City") to "A O", marries stunning contemporary dance and traditional music to bring to life the story of Vietnam's transformation from a rural society to a rapidly developing urban hub.