More commonly known to its locals as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam’s largest and most populous city; a frenetic metropolis bursting at the seams with energy that continues day and night. Though the chaotic criss-cross of mopeds is a common sight in many Southeast Asian cities, it is possibly at its most frenzied here – where eight million motorbikes and mopeds take to the streets every day (that’s not far off one for every citizen!). In the middle of this organised chaos, you’ll find an incredible synthesis of French Colonial architecture, traditional Buddhist and Taoist pagodas and high-rise skyscrapers alongside dangling power lines, washing-covered train tracks and food stalls littering the streets.
What to see
French colonial architecture
The French colonisation of Saigon in the mid-1800s left behind some beautiful buildings that have become some of the main tourist hotspots in modern-day Ho Chi Minh City. The Central Post Office is one such building, which not only boasts Gothic features and ornate façades alongside a lovely yellow paint job but is also a fully functioning post office. The Notre Dame Cathedral, less than a minute’s walk from the post office, is probably the most famous of the city’s colonial-era buildings and is made even more impressive by the fact that it was built entirely of materials imported from France in 1880. To see both of these buildings in their prime, wander around before the tourists descend, early in the morning. If you fancy hunting out some more architecture, the best place to do so is in District 3 – be sure to find the Phuong Nam Mansion, which looks more like it belongs in New Orleans’ French quarter than down a side street in Vietnam.
The War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels
A large part of Ho Chi Minh City’s recent history is characterised by the Vietnam War, and there are some great resources in the War Remnants Museum to help you learn about what happened if the history interests you. Fair warning though, some of the sections of this museum aren’t for the faint of heart – but if you want to see the impact the war had on Vietnam’s citizens, this is the place to do it. The Cu Chi tunnels give a more hands-on approach to learning about the Vietnam War, even allowing you to crawl through the tunnels used by the Viet Cong (which have been significantly widened for tourists’ benefit – believe it or not). Wander through the forest and keep an eye out for the air holes – where kitchen smoke was let out slowly so as not to draw attention – and even have a go at shooting an AK-47, if that’s your style.
Temples and pagodas
There are many temples tucked away throughout Ho Chi Minh City, belonging to a variety of religious denominations including Buddhists, Taoists, Confucianists and Hindus. However, the pagodas are strictly for Buddhist practice and are some of the most fascinating buildings in the city, built in a traditional Chinese style. The Jade Emperor Pagoda is 100 years old and features ornately decorated walls, carved figures and masses of thick, sweet-smelling smoke billowing from incense sticks larger than you’ve ever seen. If you arrive early in the morning you might be lucky enough to see the monks at their morning prayer; a truly special experience. For something a little more low-key, head to the Ba Thien Hau Temple in District 5. This beautiful pagoda was built in 1706 to honour the goddess of the sea and features huge stone incense burners and dioramas decorating the roof.
The outer districts – where you’ll be surprised by what you find
Some of the most interesting parts of Ho Chi Minh City are not the city centre, which sans-motorbikes might look fairly like any other metropolis, but the outer areas of the city. Each of the districts is famous for something – District 5 is the city’s Chinatown (commonly known as ‘Cho Lon’), while District 4 is full of street food and District 2 is known as one of the most exclusive places in the city. The wards of Phu Nhuan and Tan Binh shouldn’t be overlooked either: these are where you’ll get to see the real Saigon, but just be sure to be respectful to the locals; even when you spot the strangest and most surprising street food offerings at every corner.
What to eat
Pho is probably Vietnam’s most famous dish, and for good reason. Real soul goes into cooking a good pho, which takes anywhere between three and eight hours to cook – depending on who you ask. The broth is made by simmering beef bones for a number of hours, then adding noodles, beansprouts and raw beef, which will cook in the bubbling broth. Though there can probably never be a definitive guide to the best place to eat pho in Saigon, you’ll be guaranteed delicious noodly goodness at Pho Hoa, Pho 2000, Pho 24 (a little more high-street than the others) or Pho Dua (ignore the shabby exterior and get slurping).
There is some great Vietnamese street food out there, and all of it is best eaten perched on a tiny, child-size stool on the pavement edge, with mopeds whizzing past you. Although it might not sound like the best place to enjoy your dinner, this is where you’ll find the most delicious street food.
Banh trang nuong, otherwise known as Vietnamese pizza – is one of those dishes that needs to be eaten on the side of the road. Unlike the usual dough, the pizza base is made of rice paper, with an egg beaten on top to stop it burning. Add toppings like shrimp paste, dried pork, cheese and spring onions and you’re good to go. Banh xeo is better known as a Vietnamese crepe – an omelette-type creation of rice flour fried in a pan with fillings. Xeo loosely translates to ‘sizzling cake’, which references the sound that it makes when you cook the batter. Usual additions are shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and green onion – with turmeric to give them that delicious yellow colour! Lastly, Banh mi is essentially just a baguette, the origin of which dates back to French colonisation. White bread is stuffed with meats and veggies, including pickled cucumber and carrots, coriander and pork sausage. These quick eats are typically enjoyed for breakfast and can be found pretty much anywhere across the city from stands on the side of the road.
Pizza (yes, pizza) and more
Though it might seem like a bit of a rogue choice, it would be wrong not to mention what may well be one of the most delicious pizzas (real, not Vietnamese) in the world. Several Pizza 4Ps can be found in the city centre, and though they are significantly more expensive than Viet Pizza, they’re worth it. These delicious pies have an entire ball of burrata on top, which is lovingly cut open and spread across the surface by your waiter. If you’re a seafood fan, be sure to stop by Five Oysters – a rooftop spot perfect for people watching and sloshing down oysters, which are an absolutely ridiculous 30p each on Fridays!
What to drink
Coffee-drinking is engrained into the culture in Vietnam. The same way the Italians love their espressos, the Vietnamese love Ca phe. It’s a daily ritual; drive around early in the mornings and you’ll see men sitting on the side of the road with their Phins – special French drip filters – to fuel up before heading off for the day. Cheo Leo Cafe in District 3 is the oldest coffee shop in Vietnam at 80 years old and is the perfect place to sample a ca phe da, a Vietnamese iced coffee served with condensed milk.
Though the Vietnamese most definitely don’t drink like the British, there are still some fabulous places to grab a cocktail in Saigon. The Alley Bar is one such place, hidden down an unassuming street, which adds to its vintage speakeasy vibe. On Fridays you’ll find live Jazz music, and be sure to sample their speciality; the Singapore Sling – or maybe go for something a bit more topical, like a ‘Mekong Delta’. For a true Southeast Asian speciality, head to Chill Skybar, a super-funky spot speckled with brightly coloured neon lights that match the city below. Drop by early evening for a drink (and to drink in the sunset views), or spend the entire night here – they have a club after all.
When in Saigon, it’d be rude to leave before doing what the Saigonese do best: karaoke. One of the best and most opulent places to engage in this classic pastime is King Karaoke, which looks more like it belongs in 12th-century Versailles than it does 21st-century Vietnam. You’ll find an extensive selection of songs, luxe private booths and delicious cocktails to give you a little liquid courage before you get behind the mic.
Where to shop
Ben Thanh Market
This is the most famous market in Ho Chi Minh City, open since 1914. Go for a wander in the morning before it gets too hot to pick up some local fruits, nuts, spices, lacquerware and bamboo crafts. In the evenings, the main shops close and food stalls will begin to appear at sunset around the outside of the main market. You can treat yourself to a cheap and delicious meal or browse some of the clothing stalls. Just remember: though this is a fabulous market to visit, it is mostly frequented by tourists, so prices tend to be higher than they would be elsewhere.
An Dong Market
This shopping spot is slightly out of the way in District 10, and is pretty much the best market to go to if you want to buy some authentic handicrafts at a reasonable price. The bottom floor is a fashion wholesaler – a great place for picking up some local-style clothing, cheap and not-100%-authentic designer labels and even bridesmaids dresses. On the top floor, you’ll find crafts on crafts, from lacquer and woodwork to lanterns and everything in between.
Nguyen Trai Street
This should be your first stop if you’re looking for something a little more upmarket. This long street passes through Districts 1 and 5 and has a huge array of shops for browsing. At one end you’ll find fashionable local boutiques holding some stylish clothes that won’t cost a pretty penny while at the other end, it’s the premium brands – think Calvin Klein, Levi’s, Adidas and the like, but at a serious price cut.
Never been to Vietnam? Here are some tips to help you on your way:
The Vietnamese are, in general, massively friendly people who will go out of their way to help you and make your experience in their country a great one. However, there are some things you should know and rules you should abide by in order to remain respectful to the local culture and make your stay more enjoyable.
1. Learn some basic Vietnamese: Vietnamese is not an easy language to learn. Being tonal, you’ll find that pronunciation can be extremely difficult – when trying to say the number 10 (mười), you might end up saying the word mosquito (muỗi), instead. Every little helps though, and even if you can say hello (xin chào), goodbye (tạm biệt) and thank you (cảm ơn), it’ll go a long way.
2. Learn to cross the road: One daily occurrence which is fairly uneventful in the UK becomes nigh-on impossible in Vietnam. The roads are nothing short of manic, and traffic stops for no one (not even red lights, most of the time). If you need to cross, the only thing you can do is walk. You might not believe it, but you will survive; provided you cross the way the Vietnamese do. Watch for a slight gap and then start walking, slowly, hand raised in the air. When you step out, mopeds and bikes will weave around you like some kind of strangely coordinated dance – it’s really kind of magical. Top tip: try not to step out in front of cars – they’ll have a harder time weaving around you than bikes.
3. Respect Buddha: If you plan to visit a lot of temples or pagodas, there are definitely a couple of rules you should know about. It is considered extremely disrespectful to point your finger at Buddha or to turn your back on him. Never sit with your feet facing him; you must kneel with your feet facing away backwards, and when you walk away, make sure to take a few steps back before turning around.
4. Haggle: When shopping in the markets of Vietnam, haggling on the price is all part of the fun, for shoppers and merchants alike. Not only will it help you understand the currency (and the exchange rate, as you quickly convert and figure out you’re haggling over a whopping 50p), but it’ll also help you learn some of the language – haggling will almost always go better if you throw in some Vietnamese.
5. Take public transport: When you’re in a foreign country, especially one where crossing the road can be such stress, it’s tempting to just jump in a taxi and be on your way. However, there are a couple of much better options for getting around Ho Chi Minh City, depending on how brave you are. Public transport in the city is actually fantastic and can be used to get everywhere from around District 1 all the way out to Districts 9 and 12. Plus, all buses are air-conditioned and significantly cleaner (and cheaper) than any bus ever run by TfL.
6. Try a Grab bike: The most thrilling way to get around the city, though, is by Grab bike. Grab is like Uber, except it has scooters added to its fleet of city-traversing vehicles. They cost about a third of the price of a car (and about an eighth of the cost of an Uber in London), always offer a helmet, and give you a mega-cool way of seeing the city from a local’s point of view. Whizz through the streets, breeze blowing through your hair, and live as the locals do – without having to tackle the fear of driving in Saigon traffic yourself.