Affectionately known as “The Pearl of the Orient”, Ho Chi Minh City is a bustling centre of commerce that is one of the coolest cities to visit in the world! Travellers rarely visit Washington DC to conduct business. Instead they visit New York City. The same is true about Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City. Like New York, the world travels to Ho Chi Minh City for commerce, not the capital.
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest in Vietnam. It is also one of the oldest in the country. First settled in the 4th Century AD because of its strategic position on the Saigon River, a tributary of the great Mekong, the city has always been an important seat of commerce. This commerce made Ho Chi Minh City a cosmopolitan boomtown throughout much of its history. When the city was ceded to the French in 1862, it underwent a transformation from Asia marketplace to a trade centre for the entire world.
Visit here and you’re sure Pagoda Heaven!
Here’s a Pro-tip: This bustling city has a tropical climate with quite warm temperatures year-round. Unless you love torrential rain, you’d best avoid the monsoon season. The best time to visit is from December to April when the days are warm and mostly dry.
When you visit Ho Chi Ming City, you’ll probably fly into Tan Son Nhat which is Vietnam’s busiest international airport. It is serviced by countless international and domestic flights. Travelling from the airport can take quite some time due to heavy traffic. The most comfortable and quickest way to transfer into town is via taxi. For backpackers, the least expensive way into the city is via bus No.152 which runs every 15 minutes until 6 pm and will drop you on Pham Ngu Lao Street.
Here’s another Pro-tip: The best known taxis are from a company called Mai Linh. These taxis can be found outside the international terminal. A taxi ride into town should cost you around 120,000 Dong (£3.78) so the transport is quite inexpensive.
In such a big city, it can be overwhelming to think about where to start your adventure. Here are my favourite sites to visit:
- Nguyen Hue Walking Street – This street is a great place to start. Local residents love to mingle in this social area. Surrounded by impressive architecture, the colonial city hall, gardens, statues and the modern Bitexco Tower, this neighbourhood is great for having a coffee and relaxing.
- Bitexco Tower – Enjoy a panoramic view of the city from the 48th Standing at 262 metres, this tower was designed to look like a lotus bulb. I love watching the sunset from this wonderful vantage point.
- Ben Than market – If you love a bargain, this is the place for you! Apart from delicious local snacks, you can find lots of trinkets, textiles and ceramics at great prices. Always haggle the price; it is fun for you and the shop owner.
A Post-er child for French colonial rule!
- Central Office – this is not just any post office. Constructed in the late 1800s, it has Gothic architectural influences and is one of the most impressive pieces of French architecture in the city. It was also designed by Gustave Eiffel who designed the eponymous tower in Paris. Don’t forget to go inside and see the beautiful arches. Since it is still a working post office, you can even send a postcard back home.
- Notre Dame Cathedral – This European looking cathedral was built between 1877 and 1883. It was designed in the neo-Romanesque style and is impressive both outside and in.
- Cu Chi Tunnels – The Cu Chi Tunnels are 75 miles of interconnecting tunnels that were used by the Viet Cong during the War. The tunnels were used as hiding spots, transfer routes and living quarters. While often tiny and requiring you to crawl, the tunnels suddenly open up with full sized rooms where hospitals, barracks and even schools were held.
Enjoy tunnel vision!
- Mekong Delta boat trip– The Mekong Delta is around four hours away from Ho Chi Minh City. The best way to visit is through an organised tour. Visit the villages in the countryside and witness a different way of life. A Mekong boat trip will give you a different perspective on this beautiful country!
- Take a cooking class– Vietnam is famous for delicious food and you’ll love to re-create these dishes at home. Learn about ingredients, recipes and the subtle use of spices.
Vietnam is known for its famous markets and street food culture, many of which have been featured in television shows and documentaries. Here’s my list of the best eating streets, dishes and restaurants in the city:
- Vinh Kahnh Street– If you’re looking for fresh seafood prepared by amazingly talented chefs then this is the street for you. It is lined with restaurants offering different local dishes including sea snails, which are surprisingly tasty.
- Ben Than Market– Worth mentioning twice? Absolutely! Try iconic Phở; a combination of rice noodles, vegetables, and meat in a delicious broth. It is the most famous Vietnamese dish.
You’ll love the food Pho-ever!
- Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa– This is easily the most popular place to eat banh mi pate in the city. This delight is a baguette sandwich stuffed with all sorts of pickled vegetables, meats, sauces and chillies.
Here’s another pro-tip – Saigon also has an impressive coffee culture. Ca phe sua da is an iced coffee made from a dark roast which is mixed with condensed milk and served over ice. It is perfect to cool off and energize you for more exploring. If you are more adventurous, you can order Civet Coffee, a brew made from Civet felines who eat the berries and then poop the coffee beans out! Trust me, it tastes much better than it sounds. It is one of the smoothest cups you’ll ever enjoy if you have the courage to try it.
I love Saigon because it has so much to offer all day long but it is totally vibrant at night. Here are my favourite evening spots:
- Bui Vien Street– If you are up to partying until the early hours of the morning then this is the street for you. Full of international backpackers, this street is lined with bars and clubs playing dance music and offering cheap drinks. It is a great spot to meet other travellers.
- Broma Not a Bar– This venue is very popular due to its relaxed rooftop vibes. Lounge in their lovely garden and sip on delicious cocktails. Drinks here are slightly pricier than average, but the atmosphere makes it well worth the small additional expense.
- Carmen– Located in a Spanish villa, the setting could not be more perfect for this Latino dance club. Live music entertains the crowds seven days a week. It is great for dancing the night away in wonderful surroundings.
You’ll need somewhere comfortable to rest after all of that partying! Here are my favourite locally owned properties:
Enjoy boating on King Mekong!
- La Casita Saigon– This lovely little hotel feels just like a holiday villa. It offers a relaxing stay with a stunning pool and garden to escape the heat of the day. Feel completely at ease in this oasis on a quiet street.
- Mia Saigon– This luxury boutique hotel is a sanctuary on the banks of the Saigon River. The lavish rooms are stylish, offering super-relaxing comfort. I especially enjoy sipping a wonderful coffee from my private balcony overlooking the meandering river.
- Prostyle Hotel Ho Chi Minh– This colourful and stylish hotel looks like it came straight out of a design magazine. Located in a renovated, colonial-era estate, you can enjoy complimentary afternoon tea in the lobby. The rooftop pool and sauna are great!.
Ho Chi Minh City enchants with wonderful food, colourful sites and friendly residents. I love visiting because it reminds me that fast-growing metropolises can still have a soul!