Vietnam’s capital is a city on the move; featuring on the bucket lists of backpackers, families and luxury travelers alike, it’s a city with mass appeal. But beyond the pho and the cheap beers, what makes Ho Chi Minh special? Here are 10 things to do in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).
1 – PRACTICE YOUR HAGGLING SKILLS AT BEN THANH MARKET
Ben Thanh Market is one of the oldest surviving structures in the city and is where you’ll find local souvenirs, fabrics, food and knock-off clothes and accessories. The sellers here are tenacious and aggressive, so ready your bartering skills and come prepared for battle.
2 – MOOCH ABOUT IN DISTRICT 2
My favourite area of Ho Chi Minh is District 2, which is admittedly a bit of an ex-pat enclave, but a welcome refuge from the endless pollution and chaos of Saigon. Boutique shops, cafes, restaurants and bars line the streets here, it’s far more green than the rest of the city and has a lovely chilled vibe. It’s nice place to grab a coffee and escape the noise for a while and by night there are some great cocktail bars and micro breweries. To get here, rather than jumping in a cab, take a riverboat taxi from Bach Dang to see Saigon from the river – it’s a unique experience, and with Ho Chi Minh’s traffic, it may well be faster too.
3 – LEARN ABOUT VIETNAM’S HISTORY AT THE WAR REMNANTS MUSEUM
When the North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon in 1975 ending the Vietnam war, the new government turned what was the “US government information building” into an exhibition promoting the “war crimes” committed by the French and Americans. Today it houses a War Remnants Museum full of military equipment from the war, including the very thank that supposedly “ended it all”, along with exhibits detailing some of the atrocities committed during the conflict. The Agent Orange and napalm section is particularly harrowing, but essential reading in order to understand what happened in this country barely a generation ago.
4 – REALISE YOU ARE CLAUSTROPHOBIC IN THE CU CHI TUNNELS
The Cu Chi tunnels are a 121km-long complex of narrow underground passageways that art part of a much larger network used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War and were one of the strategic bases used by VC throughout the war, most notably for the Tet offensive in 1968. Today this small part of the tunnel network is a tourist attraction, and are for the most part far wider than the majority of the tunnels used in the war. Those with claustrophobia, maybe skip this one…
5 – WATCH SOME LIVE JAZZ AT SAX N’ ART
I like a bit of live music and finding good venues that don’t just play the usual Western covers in Saigon isn’t easy. Sax N’ Art is bucking the trend, with a small intimate space and excellent local and international jazz, funk and soul acts every night of the week (9pm-midnight). It’s also very central – just a few steps from the Opera House.
6 – HAVE A COCKTAIL BY THE RIVER AT THE DECK
There are a few riverside bars where you can enjoy the sunset in Ho Chi Minh but The Deck is where you’ll find one of the best. Good drinks, decent food solid music selection and a lovely view of the river. It’s also a lovely spot for brunch.
7 – GET A PANORAMIC VIEW OF THE CITY AT SKYDECK
On the top floor of the Bitexco Tower is where you’ll get the best panoramic view of the city. It’s a bit on the overpriced side of things, but a money-saving tip is to skip the Skydeck and go up to cafe, where you can get a ludicrously expensive (but still cheaper than the Skydeck entrance fee) coffee, and get just the same view of the city. It’s especially good around dusk when, if you’re lucky, you’ll be treated to a sunset over the city.
8 – TASTE ASIA’S BEST CHOCOLATE AT MAISON MAROU
Founded by a French ex-pat couple, Maison Marou serves some of the best chocolate you’re likely to encounter. They have a cute cafe with an open “kitchen” in which you can see the chocolate being made, a nice little cafe and even chocolate making classes. Must-try here is the hot or iced chocolate, which is probably the best I’ve ever had. It’s the perfect place to escape Saigon’s noise and smoke for a bit, and have a sweet treat while you’re at it.
9 – SIP ON A LOCAL CRAFT BEER
Vietnam’s craft beer scene is growing rapidly and over the last few years several breweries have opened up in the capital. Two of my favourites are quite different places – Heart of Darkness is a small bar with lots of character, serving mostly American-style IPAs in a down-to-earth setting. Meanwhile, not too far away, East West has a huge open space, serving a whole range of beers from light lagers to strong stouts, and good food too.
10 – THEN CONTINUE UNTIL DAWN ON ASIA’S CRAZIEST PARTY STREET
After a couple of local-brewed beers, maybe take a wander down to Bui Vien, where you’ll find the aptly nicknamed “backpacker-street”. By day it’s a relatively civilised strip of shops, restaurants and travel agents, but by night it becomes a street party, with restaurants filling the pavements with people eating and drinking on plastic chairs. It makes for a chaotic and frenetic atmosphere and is where the party will comfortably go until dawn (and beyond).
11 – 42 NGUYEN HUE STREET
Without a doubt one of the coolest places in Saigon, if not Asia, was a once-abandoned building on one of the city’s most popular streets which is now home to independent local fashion stores, coffee shops and boutiques. It’s an inveritable maze of modern Vietnamese culture and where you’ll find some of the most creative and forward-thinking brands in the city.
12 – NGUYEN HUE STREET
And take one step outside, and you’ll be on Ho Chi Minh’s most popular promenade; a long pedestrianised street with hotels, luxury stores, coffee shops, street performers, and even a statue of Ho Chi Minh himself peering down on all of the madness. Make time to stroll along this street in the evening; you’ll get to see and feel the energy of a young city that is growing faster than almost any other city in the world.
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