Often, visitors have asked me what it is they should check out when spending a few days in Saigon. So, here it is! My comprehensive list of where to eat, what to do, where to chill, what to see in Ho Chi Minh City; and how to find it.
1. Get Lost in Cho Lon AKA "Chinatown." Wander around with your camera (held tight to your body!), peek around in the mysterious alleyways, window-shop along street stalls selling all sorts of strange stuff, meander through temples cloudy with incense, eat at popular street venders. District 5: see here.
2. Eat grilled seafood and traditional side dishes at a Vietnamese Beer & BBQ joint:Try your luck ordering on a Vietnamese-only menu with non-English speaking staff! Such an adventure!Bring a local friend if you can. There’s one on nearly every street. I like San Ho, in my old neighborhood on Ham Nghi. For amazing seafood (and an English-speaking owner!), I LOVE this one …For cheap and delicious “choose your meat BBQ” try any one of the places onTran Nao–look for the skewers of raw meat on display. For chili crab and plenty of shellfish, choose from one of the many streetside seafood BBQ places on Vinh Khanh. The more Vietnamese people crowded on miniature plastic furniture, the better.
3. Indulge in sunset Happy Hour + fancy meal in District 2. When you begin feeling overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of district 1, head over the river to a more peaceful place. Sip amazing buy-one-get-one cocktails and enjoy a more tranquil view; try the Deck (5-7 pm), The Boathouse (weekdays 4:30-6:30) or Thao Dien Village . All of these places are on a relatively undeveloped strip of the river. Here you can hear the crickets, feel a fresh breeze and SOMETIMES even see a star or two. A taxi from District 1 to District 2 should cost 150k-200k dong.
4. Enjoy an early morning breakfast at Tao Dan Park Arrive early and see local men bring their birds for socializing and singing in the park. Drink sickly-sweet iced coffee, fresh coconuts and enjoy Banh mi op la (bread and eggs) at the outdoor cafe on the Cach Mang Thang Tam side of the park (near the motorbike parking lot). District 1: see here.
5. Take an evening stroll through Crescent Plaza in District 7 Another nice spot to escape the hectic city center. Crescent Plaza is a large modern complex of mostly Western style or chain restaurants, cafes and shops surrounding a lovely manmade lake. Stroll over the walking bridge and through a green park. Not a bad place for a jog. There’s plenty of parking in front of the mall. District 7: see here.
6. Sample traditional foods at a Mekong Style Buffet in Bin QuoiA 30-45 minute drive from the center, on Bin Quoi “island,” in a strange Vietnamese style “tourist park.” The buffet serves primarily Mekong specialties (which are awesome!) and many of the stations feature foods made fresh to order; like a fancy version of street food. All in a lovely setting meant to capture the essence and nostalgia of the Mekong Delta. Buffet Lunch is weekends: 11:00 AM – 02:00 PM. Buffet Dinner is weekends: 5:00 PM – 10:00 PM, with times during weekdays as well. Binh Thanh District: see here.
7. Get ridiculously cheap mani/pedis … …while enjoying prime people watching! Take your pick of one of the numerous street nail salons on “Nail Alley” off Le Thanh Ton kitty corner from Phan Boi Chau street (coming off Ben Thanh Market). I’d opt out of any heavy cuticle trimming or skin shaving as it’s not the most sanitary place; but you can get some legit nail painting and nail art for $2 and the ladies will be so happy for your business. For an idea of where the alley is (it’s not actually on the map) in district one: see here.
8. Savor a flight of craft beers at Pasteur Street Brewery One of those special places that opened up a little too late into my stay in Saigon. Specializing in flavorful, artisan, craft beers made from locally sourced ingredients, Pasteur Street is little Oasis from the watered down lagers so typical to these parts of the world. Depending on what’s freshly brewed, you can try such exotic brews as “Jackfruit Wheat Ale,” “Jasmine IPA,” or a Vietnamese coffee stout or vanilla porter. In a city where it’s easy to find 50 cent beers, a $5 pint here is worth the “high price.” District One:See here.
9. Veg away the afternoon at Van Thanh Pool Van Thanh is a public swimming pool (+ tennis courts, restaurant and banquet gazebos) nestled in a large, shady, well-tended park. Though weekends can be crowded with local families and working professional–weekdays are pretty empty save for the expat English teachers snoozing on the cushy lounge chairs, tanning, splashing in the warm water and hiding from Saigon’s stifling humidity. The 50K entrance fee is a steal. Binh Thanh District: See here.
10. Take a breezy walk through the Saigon Zoo & Botanical Gardens As someone who needs to see green and smell fresh air, I had to find my fix while living in the city. The Saigon Zoo become one of my favorite escapes. Not to see the animals, though (as you might imagine the conditions aren’t great), but to spend time in a shady, tropical environment away from the air and noise pollution so nearby.This is one of the few spots where you can walk without fear of getting run over by motorbikes or speeding taxis; and breathe in relatively fresh, exhaust-free air. I’d bring my iPod and spend a few hours walking laps around the premises, catching up on my favorite podcasts.
The area surrounding the zoo is actually considered a botanical garden. I love the humongous, ancient trees, tropical flowers and the strange animal-shaped topiaries lining the sidewalks There’s a little coffee shop overlooking a manmade lake and bird island that serves as a good spot to chill and have a cup. There’s even a place in the zoo for $1 fish pedicures!If you’re into that sort of thing. Entrance is 20k. Located along the river in District 1: see here
11. Watch live music or an outdoor movie at Saigon OutcastSaigon Outcast is one of the best hangout spots in the city.Built from converted shipping containers, decorated with plenty of colorful graffiti, all set in a tropical yet urban location, the place screams hipster in the best sort of way. Having spent the last few months of my time living in District two, Jim and I visited at least once a week. Lately, for their new cheap and delicious lunch specials, washed down with a decent home brew IPA.
12. Have a street food breakfast at one of Saigon's many markets Check out Thai Binh Market located at the corner of Pham Ngu Lao and Cong Quynh, early to mid morning for a tasty, cheap breakfast. Try the juice man on the end closest to the roundabout. In the middle of the food court area you'll find a banh xeo/banh khot (Vietnamese savory pancakes) vender and on the outsides com tam (grilled pork and broken rice) and my personal favorite bun thit nuong (grilled pork noodles with vegetables and fish sauce. District 1: see here.
Or for an even more authentic and off-the-beaten path market experience; try Chợ Xóm Chiếu Market. You're sure to be the only foreigner in sight. There are at least 10 food vendors to choose from, set up near the entrance. District 4 See here.
13. Take in incredible views in a hip location at Chill Bar For quite possibly the best view of the city while sipping proper cocktails, Chill Bar, located on the 26th floor of the AB Towers, is a must visit. Visit during the weekday happy hour (6-8:30pm) for sunset views and half priced drinks. No elephant pants, flip flops or backpacker clothes here. District 1: See here.
14. Pamper yourself with a 90-min massage at one of the parlors on Ham Nghi So maybe it won’t be the best massages of your life, but you won’t complain about 90 minutes of random techniques from all over Asia, from hot stones to Thai to reflexology, with lots of foot action. It will set you back around 350k ($16). Ladies even get male masseuses. District 1: See here.
15. Dine in the dark Trying eating your dinner without your eyes! Currently two venues, Noir and Blackout, in Saigon offer dine in the dark experiences, both employ blind waiters. An incredible experience–well worth the high price.
16. Explore the waterways of Ho Chi Minh. Take the hydrofoil to visit the beaches of Vung Tau. OR hire a boat from the Thon Duc Thang waterfront and have him take you wherever! Rake out a bit more cash and book a boat-focused tour. However you decided to do it, you will see a completely different part of city life in Saigon.
17. Solve mysteries and play detective at The Escape Hut Experience. You and your friends will be locked in a room with 60 minutes; you must find the clues, solve the mystery and escape. You'll be given Sherlock Holmes inspired props. You'll love it–it's exciting and challenging and lots of fun. If you've never done an escape experience, you can try it inSaigon! District 1: See here.
18. Seek out some of Saigon's nightlife. *Party with the sexy people at one of Saigon Soul's Pool Parties. *Drink cheap homemade rum in the streets with locals on Phan Van Dat (after dark, near The Black Cat). *Enjoy live music, decent DJs, and maybe even dancing at The Observatory or Decibel or Cargo Bar. *Watch for cool events at Saigon Outcast (for more info, see #11). *Get silly on Bui Vien (the Khao San road of Saigon); drink bucket style cocktails made with cheap imitation liquor or Saigon Reds, with hookers, sexpats and the wild backpacker crowd. *Experience the infamous ladies night at Lush (yes, ladies drink for free on Tuesday nights). *Salsa dancing and live Latin music at La Habana
19. Fish for your dinner It doesn't get much fresher than this–catch your meal and for a fee these restaurants will cook your fish up. There are a number of these types of restaurants on Bin Quoi. I suggest taking your pick from one of the more sanitary looking places.
20. Take a drive in Saigon Traffic An experience like no other. For those not brave (or crazy) enough to rent their own bike, use the services of a Xe Om driver. These are Vietnamese men, often standing on corners offering rides on the back of their bikes. Make sure to choose one who offers you a helmet. Always negotiate a price up front–shouldn't be more than a dollar (20k) for short distances. Or if you really want to get touristy hire a cyclo, easily found in the streets near Ben Thanh market, Le Loi and Dong Khoi. Bikes can be hired near Bui Vien, among other places. Wear a helmet and read my post; The Unwritten Rules of Saigon Traffic...
21. Spend an afternoon working and getting a caffeine fix at one of the countless amazing coffee shops or cafes. For a charming oasis above the city try this one; for pricy by Vietnam standards, though excellent coffee, try this one, to drink coffee with the locals in a tranquil setting, try this one, and for an example of a wild though not uncommon type of coffee shop, try this one, which is in a massive garden setting with several treehouse dining areas.
22. Get your fill of Vietnamese food: Banh Xeo, Bun Thit Nuong, Bo Kho, Pho & various other noodle-based dishes, green mango/papaya salad, spring rolls, shell fish, and much much more...In Ho Chi Minh, you can try food from all of Vietnam's regions. See this blog post for all my favorites: Forget the Pho; 10 Other Dishes to Try
23. Take a walk! For a real adventure throw on some good walking shoes and loose cool clothing and take a stroll down the hectic streets. Late afternoon is best. Sure, you'll have to dodge street vendors, oblivious locals, and poorly parked motorbikes on almost non existent sidewalks, but you'll really get a feel for the city. For a truly authentic experience, wander down the alleyways that make up the heart of the city's residential districts.
The Vietnam Coracle has an amazing guide to the alleyways of Saigon and some ideas for alleywalks; see here. If you get lost, do what I always did and look for the Bitexco tower looming in the distance.
24. Book an official tour and see a different side of the city. Because sometimes you want someone else to do all the work. Check out Trip Advisor for the latest highly rated tour agencies–because believe me, there are plenty of rubbish tour companies, who, even with the lowest priced tours, will make you feel like you're wasting your money. I recommend Vietnam Vespa Adventures–particularly their street food evening tour.
For Western style BBQ: Try Quan Ut Ut
For Mexican: Try the fresh Vietnamese-Mexican fusion Khoi Thom
For Sushi: Try Ichiban, or The Sushi Bar
For greasy, delicious burgers: try Mogambo
For the best cheap kebabs in the city: Try Kebab Saigon
What do you think? Am I missing anywhere special?