Vietnam’s fast-paced biggest city is home to a bounty of places to eat, drink and take in some culture. It’s also a very affordable metropolis, perfect for anyone looking to enjoy a weekend without emptying their wallet
Day 1: Take in the local culture and national history
Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, wakes up early, so grab a banh mi (baguette) and iced coffee and head to District 1’s April 30 Park to see groups of older residents performing their morning stretches to music. The huge trees in the area make for a cool place to start your day.
Several of the city’s best-known attractions are within walking distance, starting with the Reunification Palace (135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St; entry costs US$1.50). This building, now a museum, was the seat of government for South Vietnam and visitors will find exhibits on the country’s war-era history inside.
On the other end of the park sits Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Central Post Office, both of which highlight the French influence on Saigon. Both are free to enter, though the cathedral is currently closed for renovations — guests can enjoy the exterior from the other side of a fence.
Grab a quick street food lunch and head down Dong Khoi, Saigon’s most fashionable street, to browse galleries and enjoy some window shopping.
Must-see galleries include Couleurs d’Asie, a space for portraits shot by French photographer Réhahn in rural Vietnam, and Galerie Quynh, which features contemporary works by local and international artists.
Nearby 42 Nguyen Hue, known locally as the “café apartment building”, features almost a dozen floors of converted cafés, restos and bars that overlook downtown Saigon. Explore floor-by-floor and enjoy a coffee or smoothie along the way.
At sunset, head to Nguyen Hue Walking Street; the city’s largest pedestrian-only area teems with life every evening. From dance troupes and bands, to cosplay performers and snack and drink vendors, the street has something for everyone, and provides a great taste of local life.
Day 2: Check out the world’s biggest Chinatown
For a different side of Saigon, head to the city’s Chinatown, or Cho Lon (“Big Market”) in Vietnamese. This area features far fewer skyscrapers and international chains than downtown, allowing visitors to get a better sense of the city’s character.
Have breakfast at Com Tam Nguyen Van Cu (US$6), home to one of Saigon’s best plates of broken rice with a pork chop and fried egg. Prices are higher than elsewhere, but the meaty piece of pork served on the bone is worth it.
Taxi deeper into Cho Lon to the Ba Thien Hau Temple, a testament to centuries of interaction between Chinese and Vietnamese cultures.
The Tam Son Hoi Quan Pagoda is around the block, as is the famous Quan Am Pagoda. Cho Lon Jamial Mosque, one of just a handful of mosques in Saigon, is also nearby, highlighting southern Vietnam’s religious diversity.
Photography fans will enjoy ducking into Cho Lon’s alleys, some of which hide old complexes reminiscent of decades past. One of the best examples is Hao Sy Phuong, located through an entrance at 206 Tran Hung Dao street.
Stop at Pho Le (413–415 Nguyen Trai) on your way back into town for a late lunch at what is considered by many to be one of the top pho (noodle soup) restaurants in town. One of Vietnam’s national dishes, pho is an absolute must-try when visiting the country, and the beef variety (pho bo) is most popular in the south.
In the evening, hit Bui Vien street, which is pedestrian-only on weekend nights. The street is home to dozens of bars and restaurants ranging from dives to sit-down establishments.
Day 3: There’s life outside District 1
Slow the pace down a bit by visiting Van Thanh Swimming Pool, an oasis in Binh Thanh District that features gardens and a large pool (entry costs US$4). Drinks and snacks are sold at a restaurant next to the pool. Lounging on the sun chairs is a great antidote to the frenetic pace of Saigon.
Once you’ve soaked up enough sun, taxi over to District 2’s Thao Dien neighborhood. This leafy part of town is home to many nice restaurants, bars and shops, as well as Saigon Outcast. This hang-out space offers a rock climbing wall, food and drinks and regularly hosts events like craft beer festivals and farmers’ markets. It’s easy to while away an afternoon and evening at Outcast, while escaping the crowds of District 1 and getting a taste of modern local life.
If you have the energy, numerous rooftop bars light up around town at night. These can be on the pricier side, but they offer spectacular views of the city, and many have good happy hours, especially Air360 and OMG, both of which are located near Ben Thanh Market.
What’s on the rise in the city
Saigon is a rapidly developing city, and as a result there are huge construction projects going on that may impact your stay or visit. The city’s first metro line is being built beneath District 1, and fencing has blocked off large stretches of Le Loi street, a major thoroughfare, as well as the roundabout in front of Ben Thanh Market and neighboring September 23 Park. So, take note and plan ahead!
Public transport isn’t a viable option for getting around HCMC, so you’ll have to rely on taxis and motorbikes. Uber and Grab offer both car and motorcycle options. For traditional taxis, stick with Vinasun or Mai Linh as they’re the most reliable — though keep in mind that most drivers speak minimal English.
Where to stay
HCMC has plenty of hotels that offer beautiful rooms and standup service at less than US$100 a night. Some of our favorites include:
Delightfully retro rooms right in the middle of the downtown action. 74 Le Thi Rieng, Ben Thanh, +84 28 3926 0130
This Victorian-library-themed hotel in a quiet part of town is a quick hop away from the airport. 133A Nguyen Dinh Chinh, 8, Phu Nhuan, +84 28 6256 9966
Walking distance to Calmette street, where you’ll find chocolatiers Maison Marou. 55/34 Le Thi Hong Gam, Nguyen Thai Binh, +84 83 821 8334
Vietnam’s cuisine varies greatly across different regions of the country, and Saigon is a great place to sample southern specialties. Here are three must-try dishes:
These rice pancakes come stuffed with seafood or other fillings. Try it at Banh Xeo 46A.
Bun thit nuong
This classic includes dry vermicelli noodles covered in herbs, grilled pork and fried spring rolls. Try it at Chi Tuyen.
This beef stew comes with noodles or French bread — perfect for rainy days. Try it at Pho Quynh.
This story first appeared in the December 2017 issue of Smile magazine.