Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon is a great city to visit if you have a few days spare. For people living in Asia, its definitely a great weekend getaway, though i’d recommend extending it to 3-4 days for a more relaxed experience. These are some of the things I would recommend doing in HCMC.
Go on a Food Tour and Eat
Food tours are always fun. Its easier to pay a little extra and have someone take you around to eat as the locals do. We picked XO Tours because it seemed like a fun idea to ride on a moped in a city like Saigon, with all the chaos on the roads. Also, XO Tours differentiates itself from other companies by taking you around districts in Saigon that tourists normally don’t venture out of, as well as eating foods that you would not commonly be on the look out for (Theres no pho, banh mi, goi cuon / cha gio (spring rolls) on this tour, and they proudly advertise that).
Walk around the City
Most people would say that Ho Chi Minh City is not a great walking city like Singapore or Japan. Though I would disagree. Once you work out how to cross roads, there’s a charm to wandering around the city, at least in D1 anyway (Note – You cant just walk straight across the road as if you had a blindfold over your eyes. Walk slowly, but be smart and don’t try to walk in front of a bus or truck…).
On the safety front I did not find it unsafe to walk around during the day. Of course its not Singapore/Japan level safe, but I don’t think you will be mugged in the street unless you really make an effort to stick out like a sore thumb. Just be smart and don’t wave your phone or valuables around and you will be fine.
I would actually recommend doing a free walking tour of Saigon. We used a service from a small company created by university students that offers to take you to the main historical attractions in D1. Not only will it be a good way for you to get familiar with the area (especially crossing the roads), but it helps the students improve their English while you get to learn about their culture too.
This tour took about 4 hours and included visits to multiple sites you can quickly knock off your list. Overall you get to visit:
a) Ben Thanh Market
b) Peoples Committee Building
c) Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
d) Saigon Central Post Office
e) Reunification Palace OR War Remnants Museum
https://saigonfreewalkingtours.com/ for more information. Our tour guide Henry was a very nice and helpful engineering student that was doing this to work on his English and social skills. He was really sweet to even wait for us for over an hour while we visited the Museum. This is because Saigon Free Walking Tours is not a true licenced tour company and therefore not authorised to take people on a guided tour.
My only feedback for the company would be to offer some pit stops where the tour guide and guests could have a coffee or snack break. It did feel like we had walked for 4 hours non-stop! I’d be more than happy to pay for my tour guides coffee and snacks if we could take a break 🙂
Visit the War Remnants Museum
Not for the faint hearted. This building contains four floors worth of exhibits showing the story of the Vietnam war, and the aftermath of it. You can read reviews of this on TripAdvisor, and the warning is that the place is incredibly biased towards the North (what did you expect, the winners write the history right?). I don’t think this point is important. Rather the moral of the story is that war is bad and should be avoided at all costs.
Because I am a child of refugees from Saigon, this place hit home a little more. At times i sometimes wonder what it would have been like if we had stayed, and i grew up in Vietnam. Kinda interesting to think about…
Send a Postcard @ the Saigon Post Office
The tourist thing to do here is to write a postcard and send it to your home country. We skipped this because hey, we live in the world of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, but you can do this if you want. The Post Office also functions as a tourist shop (actually all of the main tourist attractions no matter what, will have atleast one small shop selling tourist crap). The architecture was interesting to look at and to take some snaps, but what was more interesting was the street on the left of the post office.
Have a Coffee and Browse Book Street
As titled, this street sells books. It was a government initiative to encourage kids to read more, so they setup a street dedicated to just that, reading. Some of the shops also stock English titles, though not many. I found it more of an interesting street to take photos of, and to have a coffee nearby.
Fun fact from our tour, McDonalds is a relatively new phenomenon in Vietnam, being only a few years old. The restaurants all look really new and nice, and are relatively unbusy. The cool thing is that they localise the menu for the Vietnamese, so you can also order a local Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk as well.
View the city from the Bitexco Financial Tower
I hear HCMC has plenty of rooftop bars, but we just didn’t have the time to visit one. Instead we went to the Bitexco Financial Tower to have a drink instead. Achieves the same purpose but at a much higher cost! Though the beer here is STILL cheaper than in Singapore 🙂
To get to the bar, head into the Bitexco Financial tower shopping mall on Level 1. A person will be standing there near a gate, and they will direct you to a nearby lift. You have the option of either going to the café (tea / coffee) or the bar (booze). I think there is also a club inside as well.
Head over around 5PM so you can catch a glimpse of Saigon by day, and watch the sunset relatively quickly. The drinks will set you back around 120,000VND for a beer.
Go Cafe Hopping
Leverage the strong value of your dollar / euro (other currency) and go to the hipster cafes in HCMC. We went to L’usine in Le Loi Street, a cafe sitting above a shop selling usual hipster wares (i.e. things you don’t need) for breakfast one day. What i found better was a building in Nguyen Hue D1 where the entire front of the building has been converted from residential apartments to cafes, bars and restaurants. You can’t miss it and its unique facade.
We went to Lets Partea on Level 4 to have Vietnamese coffee and English tea.
Get Hassled at Ben Thanh Market
Tourist trap, but come here for the experience. Theres nothing like walking through a small lane within the market, and having 10 vietnamese faces look at you, and immediately start hassling you to buy something. If you look caucasian, you will be hassled even more than an asian person would.
The market sells fruit, vegetables and meat in the wet market section. Inside though you can find all the tourist crap like magnets, keyrings, shirts that say “iPho” or “i Love Pho”, as well as fake branded merchandise (See below for Saigon Square).
There’s plenty of local food and juices here as well. I didn’t come across a bad meal in Vietnam so i’m sure it would be tasty.
I picked up a fake NBA jersey here for about $20 SGD. Not bad quality, and I’ve been eyeing it out since i decided to go against buying one in Thailand.
Shop at Local Shopping Malls, Saigon Square and Taka Plaza
Come here to shop for all the fake goodies. The thing about Vietnam is that they are one of the main producers of brands like Adidas, Nike and Superdry, though becoming less so as the work goes to other asian countries. Therefore, the fakes are actually quite decent compared to the crap you will see in other countries.
Saigon Square is just opposite the glitzy Saigon Centre, and is a good place to burn some cash. Nike and adidas sports wear ranges from 100,000 – 150,000 VND, and i find there is little negotiation in this place unless you buy in bulk. In any case, $4-5 USD for a decent quality Nike tee is pretty good value. The fake Nike sneakers, mostly the Nike Free and Air Max ranges are really good quality as well. I was even tempted to pickup some quality Superdry tees and backpacks
Taka Plaza is about a 5 minute walk away from here, and is another place full of textiles, particularly fake goods. Again, decent pricing. I
The main advantage of these two local malls, is that you don’t get hassled like at Ben Thanh. Its also a little less cramped and has air conditioning 🙂
Relax in Air Conditioned Upmarket Shopping Malls (Saigon Centre, Diamond Plaza, Vincom Centre)
Malls are nothing like in Malaysia, Singapore, or Thailand. If you have nothing to do, or want to escape the heat with some air conditioning, then sure come right in. Though you will find that it costs more to shop here than in other south east asian countries (or even in Australia). Come here for the variety of food, particularly non-Vietnamese food.
Saigon Centre is the main one i visited, but there is also super upmarket shopping in Diamond Plaza, and mid tier shopping in Vincom Center.