In a city of 24 districts and as many as 10 million people, Ho Chi Minh City has got enough going on to keep visitors for weeks, never mind days.
The city formerly known as Saigon, that’s until the end of the Vietnam-American War in 1975, is the country’s biggest, most crowded, and most modern city. This has helped give birth to a world class bar and restaurant scene to match the already sumptuous ‘street’ fare, and there’s a tangible energy on the streets created by the ever growing population. Thankfully, around every corner there remain reminders of old, quaint Saigon too.
But in a city of such mega proportions and disorienting chaos, is it possible for us to get a good taste of the place in just a few days? With the right guidance, you bet it is.
Here’s how we (Vivutravel), local travel experts in Vietnam, would spend just 48 hours in Saigon.
6am: Rise with the city and hit the streets
Vietnam wakes up early, and if there’s just one piece of insider knowledge we’d give tourists, it’s to get up with the sun at least once in your time here. Luckily, the sunrise runs pretty much like clockwork here -- we’re close to the equator so it rises around 6am and sets around 6pm year round.
Those golden hours just after sunrise and just before sunset are the most magical times of the day in Vietnam. People are up and about, but no one is in a hurry just yet. Elderly folk exercise in public parks, young children pack in a power nap on their parents’ motorbikes, and groups of people gather at cafes to sip on iced coffee and ease themselves into the day.
If you’re still groggy from the early rise, take a stool and join them -- don’t worry about the language barrier though, cà phê is the local word for coffee! Though do beware, it comes with ice and a thick dollop of condensed milk, so just one will be enough!
It’s a great time to just find your bearings in the city, and enjoy the hour of peace before the roads become packed, noisy and manic before the 7.30am rush hour. Take a walk through the alleyways and city centre streets, or even head to a morning wet market, where the crowds have long found their verve and their voices!
8am: Breakfast on the streets
Caffeine high wearing off and belly beginning to rumble? It’s time to eat!
Saigon, like any city in Vietnam, is a smorgasbord of culinary delights. Street food merchants aren’t hard to find, especially in the morning. Try out a steaming bowl of aromatic Phở noodle soup with chicken or beef, or a bánh mì, a Vietnamese baguette sandwich stuffed with anything from grilled pork, deli meats, fried egg, or even tofu.
If you’re more the bacon and eggs type back home, fear not, for south Vietnam is home to a popular staple breakfast that’s remarkably similar: Cơm tấm sườn ốp la. Yes, it’s a mouthful to say, so people just use cơm tấm (broken rice) as a blanket term. Broken rice, soft and light, and not dissimilar to couscous in texture, makes the base for a super flavoursome pork chop (sườn) that’s been marinated in chilli, sweetened fish sauce, garlic, soy, and lemongrass, to name just a few of the ingredients. It’s topped off with a fried egg (ốp la) for extra decadence and deliciousness.
9am: Sightseeing -- History and Culture in Ho Chi Minh City
The War Remnants Museum, The Independence Palace (also known as Reunification Palace), Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office, and The Opera House are must see landmarks in Ho Chi Minh City. Luckily, the latter four are just a stone’s throw away from each other on the edge of the city’s downtown area , while the War Remnants Museum is a 15 minute walk away in District 3.
Feeling pooped from your morning walk? Then book a cyclo tour to take you around from place to place. It’s best to book in advance through your tour agent or even at your hotel, since the handling the negotiation process can be a stressful affair for newcomers. It’s a good idea to tip a small amount though, just a few dollars when the tour is done, to show your appreciation for your driver’s hard work in the baking sun.
Also located downtown is the famous Ben Thanh Market. It’s a cacophonous, sensory overload of a Vietnamese shopping experience. The market is a hub for tourism in Ho Chi Minh City, and a great place to grab footwear, sunglasses, clothing, bags, and even coffee and a bite to eat at knockdown prices. Haggling for prices at Ben Thanh is a mad affair -- but consider it a good deal if you can get the merchants down to a third or half of their original price. Anything more and you’re being duped; anything less and they’re barely making a living!
Midday: A well earned lunch
If you’re in the mood for some more street food, try out a bowl of bún thịt nướng, another southern specialty: Vermicelli rice noodles decorated with a bunch of fresh herbs, chilli-laced fish sauce, and topped off with yet more grilled pork and crushed peanuts. The noodles and veg are served cold and render this a surprisingly light and refreshing dish.
Another option, if you’re feeling more open to adventure, is to follow the workers. Around midday, the city’s white collar workers mostly head out into the streets to dine underneath umbrellas by the roadside. It’s a decent rule of thumb that wherever there’s a bit of a crowd gathered, there’ll be some delicious and very affordable food on offer.
But if you’re in the mood for something a little more familiar, Ho Chi Minh City is home to a tremendous range of western restaurants. Check out any of L’Usine, Vintage Emporium, Bunker Bed & Breakfast, The Workshop, or The Old Compass Cafe -- all a quick jaunt from the city centre.
4pm: A Journey Back in Time to Chinatown
With the second golden hour approaching, it’s a great time to head west of District One to District 5 and old Cho Lon, the city’s Chinatown. Development here hasn’t caught up with the rest of the city yet, so the area a time capsuled feeling. In fact, movies and TV shows set from the 60s to the 80s are often filmed here for an authentic period feel.
Just wandering the streets is a lovely experience, but if you need a target, head to the newly reopened Binh Tay Market, one of the city’s oldest and grandest markets. Not far from the market is the must-see Thien Hau Temple, an atmospheric place of worship, where incense wisps in the air and locals come to pray.
6pm: Sundown Drinks, City Centre Energy and Top Drawer Cuisine
Sunset in Saigon is a thing to behold, and luckily there are plenty of amazing rooftop bars offering sensational views, to be enjoyed with a drink in hand.
The storied hotels Caravelle and Majestic each have rooftop bars, while there are plenty more sky bars in town -- the likes of OMG, Chill Skybar, Glow, MGallery, Bitexco Tower, Blank Lounge, and Air 360 offer up world class cocktails with stunning views.
Once it’s time to eat, some of the best Vietnamese restaurants in town are Secret House, Rice Fields, Vietnam House, Quan Bui, and Mountain Retreat.
For international food, the list goes on and on, but the Japanese owned Pizza 4 Ps serves up some of the nation’s best pizza and pasta, Quince is a world class fine dining experience, Sushi Rei is the most talked about sushi bar, and El Gaucho is all about incredible, mouth-watering steak.
Somewhere in between all your eating and drinking, take the time to stroll down Nguyen Hue Walking Street, the city center’s most iconic thoroughfare, and its best spot for people watching.
It underwent a re-build in 2015, and now the street is pedestrian friendly, with a wide walking-only boulevard that runs from the Saigon River right up to City Hall and the landmark statue of Ho Chi Minh. Every evening, swathes of people mill around the area, snacking, drinking and just hanging out in the breeze from the river. There’s plenty to eat and drink nearby, and the old apartment building at 42 Nguyen Hue is a great spot for cafes and boutique shops.
7am: Morning Trip to The Tunnels of Cu Chi
A 90 minute drive outside of central Ho Chi Minh City brings you to the rural district of Cu Chi, where the concrete jungle of the metropolis is supplanted by actual jungle.
The area is famed for its war-era history. Cu Chi was a hotbed for Việt Cộng rebels who opposed the South Vietnamese government during the war.
In order to keep their activities secret and stay protected from bombing raids, the rebels dug a sprawling network of underground tunnels right beneath the jungle floor. The tunnels served not only as a hiding place, but as supply routes, field hospitals, munitions caches and food stores, as well as living quarters.
The Cu Chi Tunnels now serve as a kind of museum, where visitors can see the weapons, tanks and human traps used, as well as the shells that were dropped in the area, all the while being being educated on the ingenious tactics the VC used to cover their tracks. You can crawl through sections of the tunnels, which have thankfully been widened considerably since the war, and even conceal yourself in a VC “fox hole”.
The end of the tour lands you at the gun range where for a small fee (approx 1 dollar per round), you can fire from the likes of M-16s and AK-47s, as used during the battles that raged throughout the country. If arms aren’t your thing, there’s a cafe right at hand where you can cool down with a drink.
3pm: Unwind and Get Pampered at the Spa
All that jungle exploration is a hot and humid affair, and you’ll be in need of some TLC come the end. Ho Chi Minh City is home to scores of fantastic spas where you can take some time away from the extreme elements while getting a rejuvenating spa treatment.
Massages come as cheap as 10 USD, and as expensive as 50, but we’ve always found that the mid range spas provide amazing service, and the masseurs are experts at what they do. Some of our favourite spas in Ho Chi Minh City are Cat Moc Spa, Temple Leaf, and Golden Lotus. 60 minute full body massages fall in the 15-20USD range. If you’re visiting on the weekend, it’s a good idea to phone ahead to book, or just pop in.
5pm: Laze on the lawn at Vinhomes Central Park
Unfortunately in Ho Chi Minh City, many public parks have been sacrificed for office blocks in the past two decades.
Step forward, Vinhomes Central Park, an incredibly expansive commercial and residential development just outside of District One. You can’t miss the place, just look out for the highest tower on the skyline, Landmark 81.
Fortunately, the developers who finished the project in 2018 didn’t just opt for glass and steel this time -- the surrounding gardens of Central Park make for the city’s best public park. Bring your own snacks, or buy at any of the nearby convenience stores, and just take a spot on the grass that runs all the way to the banks of the river, where you can laze around and gaze in awe at Vietnam’s tallest building.
7pm: Check out the craft beer and food scene.
Yes, you read that right. Since 2014, craft beer has been on an incredible rise in Vietnam. And since drinking culture in Vietnam demands that food is eaten along with booze, craft breweries are going out of their way to sling mouth-watering food alongside their inventive drinks.
Some of the best craft beer spots in the city are Pasteur Street Brewing Co., Bia Craft, Malt Bar, and East West Brewing Co., but the list is ever growing.
If craft beer isn’t your thing, and you’re feeling indecisive, head down to the Ben Thanh Street Food Market, located right behind the famous market. It’s a modernised food hall, housed by twenty or thirty different food stalls. Here you can find Vietnamese, Chinese, Cantonese, Japanese and even American Barbecue and Mexican food, all at very reasonable prices.