A sprawling expanse in Southern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, still affectionately known by many as Saigon, is the country’s vibrant commercial centre. A city of reinvention where colonial French buildings stand next to communist-style blocks, while skyscrapers and luxury eateries jostle for position as a new wave of wealth washes over the area. It doesn’t quite have the charm of Hanoi or Hoi An, but it’s a vibrant place and an ideal base for exploring the Mekong Delta, or a stopover before travelling onward to the Europe or Australia with Vietnam Airlines.
Ho Chi Minh spans 24 districts, extending as far as the eye can see, but the key sites are relatively central with District 1, 3, and 5 home to the most popular haunts. An easy two-hour walking tour in District 1 takes in some of the prettiest and historic sites including the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Reunification Palace and the instantly recogniseable, canary-yellow Central Post Office. Most sights are within easy reach of the key thoroughfares: Dong Khoi and Le Duan Boulevard. It’s easy enough to do by yourself, but if you want some help then seek out Saigon Free Walking Tours.
There’s no doubt that ambling through the streets can be an onslaught on the senses, a cocktail of heat, humidity, construction noise, and traffic pollution, but a solution comes in the multitude of cafes and street stalls serving excellent coffee and snacks – make a pit stop whenever you need respite or refreshment. Top tip: If you are heading to the Bitexco Tower – to get a birds eye view, instead of paying through the nose to go the observation deck, opt for the Heli EON cafe on Floor 50.
A performance at the gorgeous Saigon Opera House is a must. The venue is more than 100 years old but still hosts both local and international shows. Put it in your itinerary and make an evening of it by having cocktails at The Continental Hotel, a place still beloved by fans of Graham Green’s The Quiet American, despite a rather ungraceful makeover.
This is a city of affordable art, so make a visit to Galerie Quynh, and bag yourself something special by an up-and-coming talent. Who knows you may discover the next big thing, mamas!
The War Remnants Museum is a tough visit but is worth it if you are interested in South East Asia’s complex history. A popular day trip from the city is to the Cu Chi Tunnels, an underground network used by the Viet Cong to hide out from the Americans during the Vietnam War. The web of passageways was also used as living quarters and a way to move supplies.
Shop at the enormous Ben Thanh market, where you can find everything from coasters and handbags to statues and high street fashion. You will have to fight hard for a bargain, as these guys are hardened to the haggle. There is a food hall area, where every Vietnamese delicacy imaginable is available, though be warned… roaches are abundant.
Book a trip with Cyclo Resto for a food tour around the city with a difference. These guys take you by bike to some of the eateries and stalls beloved by locals. And if you’ve been inspired by what you’ve tasted, you can add on a cooking class.
Instead of spending your trip dodging the mopeds – why not see the city from the back of one? Vespa Adventures has routes suited for morning, afternoon and evening, so can easily fit into any schedule, plus they can adjust the tour to make it more child-friendly.Yes, please!
If you want to escape the unrelenting hum of the city, then there are various Mekong cruises – some just for the day, others stretching on for a week. Aqua Expeditions offer a first class way to see the Mekong Delta, and if you are planning to go onward to Cambodia, they have a route that goes all the way to Phnom Penh.
The Reverie Saigon is an extraordinary place to stay that feels like an homage to the Palace of Versailles. Ostentatious, eccentric, and shimmering from floor to ceiling, this is the city’s most opulent hotel. It’s perfectly located opening on to the pedestrianised Nguyen Hue Boulevard as well as Dong Khoi Street. Every detail of this place, from the heated toilet seats to the Frette bed linen and pillow menu is an ode to luxury living. The hotel offers French, Italian and Chinese dining options, all of which are excellent. The views from most of the rooms are unrivalled – in fact – if you stay here there is no need to bother with heading up to the Bitexco Tower.
But they operate a no children under 12 policy, so this, plus the huge amount of marble and glass used in decor means it is a place best suited for families with older children. The staff are very attentive and it has a nice pool for lazy days. Hotel Caravelle is a well-loved spot overlooking the buzzing Lam Son Square. Once popular with journalists covering the war, this is a good choice for those that like some history with their accommodation. There is a lively bar on the 10th floor and a decent pool. The Norfolk Mansion is a great pick for families – rooms are spacious and it’s located close to the key sites.
Hailed as unmissable by renowned chef, Anthony Bourdain, Com Niêu Sài Gòn is the place to dine if you want lush street food but in stylish surroundings. Try the Com Dap, a smashed rice dish, which is served with a theatrical flourish. The Pho is also excellent here. This spot is hugely popular with affluent locals as well as visitors so definitely book ahead.
La Villa French Restaurant in District 2 is a gorgeous spot where you can enjoy historic Gallic dishes in a colonial style villa. Art lovers will adore L’Usine, a cafe, gallery and boutique all in one. Hugely popular with the city’s hipsters, it’s a light and airy spot and great for a light lunch.
Street stall Banh Xeo 46A has built up a huge following despite essentially serving just one dish. Its eponymous sizzling pancakes are stuffed with pork, shrimp and bean sprouts and then fried. One is never enough.
Bars at or near the top of skyscrapers have become de rigueur in Asian cities. Ho Chi Minh is no different, although it has fewer skyscrapers than Bangkok or Hong Kong, so the skyline is less striking. Nonetheless, Vietnamese celebrities flock to Chill Bar, which offers views out across the city. It’s setting means the food and drinks, while good, are very pricey.
An alternative is to have cocktails at the EON Heli Bar on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, if you prefer a daytime visit with the smalls, there is also a restaurant that serves up a vast array of delicious ice cream.
To enjoy a more traditional and local style, head to the corner of Ly Tu Trong and Nguyen Trung Truc and sample the bia hoi, or local beers.
There is a great cafe culture in the city so it is hard to make a poor choice, but The Workshop, which gets its beans from Vietnam’s central highlands, is highly recommended.
Vietnam Airlines has routes that stop in Ho Chi Minh from key Asia and Middle East cities before flying on to Europe or Australia. Emirates also has flights to the city, and onward across the continent. VietJetAir provides low cost options from China, Hong Kong and South East Asia.