Vietnam’s largest city started from humble beginnings. What was once the small, rural Khmer village of Prey Nokor has gone through centuries of colonialism, war, and now a strange brand of communist capitalism to become a vibrant metropolis of towering skyscrapers, labyrinthine alleyways and scooter-clogged roads.
It can be a beguiling place. What hits you first is the heat. The thick air mixing with the fumes of 7 million motorbikes to leave you dripping in a sooty sweat, waiting for the clouds to converge and produce the nightly shower and wash away the day’s humidity. It is those motorbikes that create a cacophony of hums and horns. Street vendors add to the soundtrack of the city by shouting over the traffic noise as pots of noodles boil on the roadside, tiny red stools inviting passers-by to sit and take in yet another bowl of delicious street food. Saigon’s two passions, food and scooters, assault your senses simultaneously and at every available moment; sooty exhaust fumes and low-grade petrol merge with the steam of boiling broth and fragrant lemongrass. Soy and ginger mixed with clouds of tobacco smoke drifting from a roadside food stand.
It is a city that is always on the move. At any moment, day or night, there is something to see. It doesn’t take long to adjust yourself to the madness and discover that you are in one of South East Asia’s most exciting cities.
Where to Stay
Ho Chi Minh City is a sprawling mass of 2,096 km², 8.4 million people and 24 different districts so deciding on where to stay may seem like an impossible task. However, most travellers don’t have to look much further than District one – the very centre of the city – as this should generally fulfil all of your travel needs.
Pham Ngu Lau
This is the backpacker hub and party epicentre of Saigon, situated on Bui Vien and Pham Ngu Lao streets and the maze of alleyways that weave between them. There are innumerable budget and mid-range accommodations to choose from and it is perfectly possible to wander around by foot and find somewhere to stay without pre-booking. This is a definite ‘backpacker ghetto’ with rambunctious bars spilling out onto the street and music blaring well into the night so it is the perfect place to meet other travellers. However, if a good night sleep is what you’re after, it may be a good idea to choose a family run guest house tucked away from the main drag.
241/33 Pham Ngu Lao
Nestled away from the noise of Bui Vien in an alleyway, Sunny Guesthouse is a quiet haven away from the music and partying of Pham Ngu Lau. For the price, I was surprised to find somewhere so clean and comfortable. Leah and Binh are incredibly friendly hosts and will help you organise any tours that you wish to take in the city.
35/5 Bùi Viện
A stylish, modern hostel that is a far cry from some of the other, more old-school, flea pits that line this area of the city. It is another hostel that lies in one of the quieter lanes between the area’s noisier streets and in the case of the private rooms, you would be forgiven for thinking this is a boutique hotel rather than a hostel.
281 Phạm Ngũ Lão
If you’re looking for somewhere a little more sociable, then look no further than Hideout, a hotel focusing on parties and good times. It has two of its own bars, all day happy hours and nightly events. If that isn’t enough to convince you, the price of a dorm bed includes two free drinks.
A short distance from Pham Ngu Lao is the heart of District 1, a quieter, more upmarket part of the city where the majority of Saigon’s most popular sights can be found. Here you can find beautiful enclaves of colonial French architecture punctuated by the skyscrapers and tower blocks of the central business district. Some of the city’s more expensive and well-known hotels are located here but it is still possible to find a bargain if you look hard enough.
Della Boutique Hostel
67 Hàm Nghi
A chic, newly renovated hostel in the heart of the city. It is only a short walk from Ben Thanh Market and some of the city’s museums and comes with a rooftop bar that has spectacular views over the city.
Vy Da Backpackers Hostel
33/1 Nguyễn Trung Trực
This is another hostel where the private rooms wouldn’t be out of place in a boutique hotel, but the dorms are pretty good too, with each bunk having its own locker, curtain, light source and power supply. It’s just a short walk to both Ben Thanh market and the War Remnant Museum and even has an outdoor terrace so that you can relax away from the noise of downtown with views over the city.
Where To Eat and Drink
Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s culinary capital and the place where you are likely to find the most varied range of dishes anywhere in the country. Although there are plenty of restaurants catering for international tastes, I would highly recommend stepping out onto the streets, perching on a tiny red stool and sampling the various street food stalls dotted around the different districts rather than splashing out on cafes and bistros.
Situated on the corner of the bustling backpacker district, this place is regularly full so you may have to wait for a place to perch with your bowl of steaming noodle broth. There is a reason it is so busy though, it has some of the best Pho you will find around Pham Ngu Lao. So good, in fact, that I ate here every morning during my stay in Ho Chi Minh City.
Pasteur Street Brewing Company
While most bars are content on serving bland and gassy 333 Lager, the guys at Pasteur are doing something a little different – brewing award-winning craft beers. Head down the alleyway and up the steps into this small but sleek and modern bar where the owners brew using local ingredients such as jasmine and lemongrass to create some unique and delicious brews. I couldn’t keep away and stopped by a couple of times to make sure that I had sampled every beer at least once before leaving the city.
Once one of the most notorious neighbourhood’s in Saigon thanks to gangsters and drug gangs, the tiny area of District 4 has overcome its tumultuous past to become a haven for street food. ood vendors wheel carts through tiny alleys while the prematurely worn faces of children push through the crowds, trying to make themselves seen as they flog handfuls of lottery tickets. It is a slice of Vietnamese life and culture that you don’t see in the rat race of the city centre. The best way to sample the delights of district 4 is on a Street Food Tour – I went with Saigon on Motorbike.
What better way to see out of day of exploring the city than to sup a cold cocktail overlooking the city as the sun sets and the neons of Saigon illuminate the streets below you. Ho Chi Minh City has a wide range of rooftop bars and the majority of them come with inflated prices. However, if you’re willing to blow your budget slightly for an incredible vantage point then head to Air 360 (36-138, Lê Thị Hồng Gấm), EON Heli Bar (Bitexco Financial Tower) or Shri (Centec Tower, 23rd Floor).
Free Things to do
Notre Dame Cathedral
Công Xã Paris, Bến Nghé
Built in 1883, this neo-romanesque cathedral looks like it wouldn;t be out of place in a European square rather than the centre of one of South East Asia’s biggest cities. The interior is only open to visitors between 9 am and 11 am Monday -Saturday but even from the outside, its 40m high towers make for an arresting sight.
Central Post Office
Công Xã Paris, Bến Nghé
Just across the square from Notre Dame Cathedral, this striking building was designed by Gustave Eiffel and between 1886 and 1891. I was surprised to find the inside of the post office so busy as crowds of tourists stepped inside to marvel at the arched ceilings, green tiled floors and the huge painting of Ho Chi Minh that adorns the far wall.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
73 Mai Thi Luu St
One of the most impressive and atmospheric temples in the whole of Ho Chi Minh City, or even in Vietnam. the thick, pungent smoke of incense hangs in the air as you wander through the main building and all around you are impressive statues of menacing Taoist figures.
Ben Thanh Market
Đường Lê Lợi, Bến Thành
Ben Thanh Market has been running since 1914 and is one of Saigon’s most famous landmarks. A lot has changed since the early 20th century and it now mostly concerns itself with flogging souvenirs and trinkets to passing tourists. However, from 7 pm you will be able to find the outdoor night market here – a perfect place to stop for some street food (although it is still a touristy affair, with most locals choosing to eat in cheaper markets elsewhere).
Bin Tay Market
Situated in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinese district, Cholon (literally meaning ‘Big Market’), it is hard to miss this vast yellow building with its striking clock tower. It is mostly a wholesale market with vendors peddling everything from fish, meat and vegetables to exotic medicines. Although there may not be much that you would want to buy, it is worth stopping off here for a slice of Vietnamese life and the multitude of photo opportunities.
Other Things to do
War Remnants Museum
28 Võ Văn Tần Phường 6
Originally the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, the War Remnants Museum is a must-see for anyone with a passing interest in history or the brutal war that devastated the country for 20 years. Outside, US armoured vehicles, bombs, and weaponry are on display and inside you will find exhibitions showing the brutality of war, including photographs of some of the most infamous US atrocities. It may be propaganda heavy but it manages to convey the horror inflicted on the victims better than many other museums manage.
135 Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa
Home of South Vietnam’s president during the ‘American War’, this is the site of the South’s surrender following the fall of Saigon in 1975. Much of the building has been preserved as it was on that day and free walking tours are available (entry is 50,000 đồng)
Bitexco Financial Tower
2 Hải Triều, Bến Nghé
On the 48th floor of Carlos Zapata’s 68 story building is the Saigon Skydeck, an exterior platform that gives incredible 360-degree views of the city. However, it’s not cheap.Entry to the Skydeck will set you back 200,000 đồng.
Motorcycles are as much a part of Ho Chi Minh City’s scenery as the pagodas and skyscrapers. All day and night a cacophony of horns and revving engines reverberate through the streets as the city’s 7.4 million scooters clog the roads and pavements. With that in mind, what better way to explore Saigon than on the back of a scooter, weaving through the heaving traffic. There are a multitude of tours to choose from, focussing on everything such as sights, food, nightlife and hidden gems. Tours from Back of the Bike and Saigon On Motorbike both come highly recommended.
Chu Chi Tunnels
Used as operational headquarters by Vietcong guerillas during the Tet Offensive of 1968, this 500km long network of tunnels and bunkers can be a claustrophobic experience. The tunnels were instrumental in defeating the Americans during the war and with a guided tour, you can get a real feel for the conditions in which the soldiers fought. Prices differ between agencies but typically a half day tour will cost anywhere between 300 – 500,000 đồng.
The delta is the agricultural hub of the country; ‘The rice bowl’ of Vietnam. The river carves its way through six countries (Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and China) before dispersing as it crosses the Cambodia/Vietnam border, passing through lush jungle, riverside villages with stilted houses, rice paddies, and ancient, crumbling temples.Here you will find the famous floating markets as boats navigate the maze of waterways, stocked high with produce hoping to sell their wares to the craft that weave between. Most tours leave Ho Chi Minh City early in the morning for the 2-hour trip south but I highly recommend staying the night in one of the many towns around the Delta. That way you can wake early to catch the markets in full swing (most of them start at 5 or 6 am). For More information, Check out my guide to Can Tho, the Mekong’s largest town.
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