I have come to the conclusion that the hatred tourists have for Ho Chi Minh boils down a misunderstanding of the city. To many, Saigon comes off as very lackluster: the attractions are few, the heat is oppressive, the tours are pricey, and the scams are rampant. A friend of mine remarked, “…Never need to go back to Saigon. Ever.” But after an absurdly wonderful number of guests in my first month of being in Ho Chi Minh (final count: 8) , I have had the opportunity to really get to know the city. With the good amount of urban exploring I’ve done, I’m surprised at how much the city has to offer! Saigon is always buzzing with activity yet maintains a serenity most big cities lack. Life here is dynamic: crossing the street has never been a recreational sport for me until now. There is no greater thrill than jumping on the back of a motorbike to get from point A to point B. The gastronomical spread is mind-blowing and won’t blow a hole in your wallet. And there are a number of social events such as rooftop pool parties and underground dance battles to keep things interesting. Want more? Continue reading!
1. Mail a letter at General Post Office
While the Saigon Central Post Office’s fame is due to its accredited architect, Gustave Eiffel, I recently discovered that this is an erroneous merit. The design was simply based on work by the architect of the beloved Eiffel Tower. Nonetheless, the interior of the cheerfulpost office feels as if its been transplanted from an early 20th century railway station in Europe. At the entrance to your right, above the row of outdated phone booths, is a painted map of Saigon circa the 1800s. On the back wall of the post office, a warm-looking portrait of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh presides over the hall, beaming at all the post office goers drafting their letters. Look for Mr. Duong Van Ngo, an endearing, elderly man who has been translating Vietnamese letters into English and French since the Vietnamese war.
2. Hang with locals at Turtle Lake
Thanks to the king of authentic eating, Mr. Andrew Zimmerman, I now have a favorite food spot in Saigon! Turtle Lake, the nickname for a roundabout in District 3, is a local haunt to munch on the city’s best street food. After sundown, Saigon’s residents, both old and young, family and friends, flock to this artificial pond to eat bánh tráng nướng (grilled rice paper taco) and bánh tráng trộn (rice paper salad). Most Vietnamese living abroad wouldn’t recognize these dishes as they are staples of new-age Vietnamese cuisine. They incorporate protein like pork floss, dried baby shrimp, and tiny quail eggs and also feature the use of butter, a rarity in traditional Vietnamese cooking. The ambience at this location is the best in the city!
3. Get a history lesson on The Vietnam War
I apologize in advance for the use of an extremely happy photo of me as I visited one of the world’s most devastated regions. Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding rural areas were the epicenter for military activity during the time of the Vietnam War and to this day, the South bears a painful legacy of wartime. In District 3, a visit to the War Remnants Museum is an absolute must.!It will give you a holistic overview of “the American War” according to the Vietnamese, showcasing grotesque pictures of war crimes including Nick Ut’s award-winning photo, Napalm Girl. The mood is mournful and somber, so mentally ready yourself. One hour outside of HCMC are the legendary Cu Chi tunnels, dug by Viet Cong living in the area who strategically used these tunnels to evade military efforts by the Americans to neutralize them. Even though the tunnels were enlarged for tourist-use, they are still very small and can be claustrophobic.
4. See the city’s remaining French influence
The French presence in Vietnam lasted for more than half a century before communism ousted the colonials in 1945. To this day, you will find vestiges of the colonial occupation in Vietnamese culture.The nationwide love of coffee is a French legacy. 11% of the Vietnamese population identify as Catholic. Within the cuisine itself, perfectly-baked baguettes are the base of the ever-popular banh mi sandwich, as well as a needed accompaniment bò né, Vietnamese steak and eggs. The Post Office, Opera House, City Hall, Hotel Majestic, and Basilica of Saigon were all crafted by French minds.
5. Check out the lively food and cafe scene
Nothing has impressed me more about Saigon than the food scene! Every day, I discover something and/or somewhere new to eat! This city is a goldmine for any foodie like myself! At every turn, a street food vendor is assembling a bowl of noodles or frying up some bot chien (fried rice cakes). I am a die-hard fan of street food and I have not gotten sick once from sampling street food in the two months I’ve been here. If street food creeps you out, you can dine at hidden rooftops or underneath fairy lights hanging from a tree. These upscale Vietnamese restaurants are only “upped” in aesthetics and sanitation. The prices, however, are very fair in comparison to what foreigners are used to when eating high-end. Tired of Vietnamese food? The selection for international eats ranges from American-style smoked barbecue to Baja-fresh corn flour tacos to Japanese fusion pizza. And you won’t be left thirsty either! The profuse number of cafes offering decadent drip coffee with condensed milk is absurd. I have now come to appreciate coffee in a way I never have before. Honestly, I prefer cafe hopping to bar hopping here in HCMC. There are also fruit juice stands that pump out freshly-pressed juices using the local produce — think: passionfruit, dragonfruit, mangosteen — to quench your thirst in the hot Saigon weather. Everything is sweetened here though so if you aren’t into syrupy drinks, you can ask the vendor to ease up on the sugar.
- Take a trip to The Mekong Delta, known as the ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam. Canoe down murky waterways teeming with vegetation and life that feed most of the southern half of Vietnam. Day tours provide a stopover at Vinh Trang Pagoda in My Tho and an overnight trip allows you to catch the bustle of a traditional Vietnamese floating market in the early morning.
- Propaganda Vietnamese Bistro was one of the first “surprises,” I came across in Saigon, for both the price and the menu, and cannot be missed. All the ingredients are locally sourced and the walls are illustrated with propaganda-esque murals that inspired the name for this cozy bistro.
- Looking for some exotic delicacies and a date with the locals? Schedule your dinner at Snail Street for a sample of freshwater snails from the Mekong as well as other fantastic shellfish like crabs and scallops.
- For all your budget needs, try Bui Vien Street (and the general Pham Ngu Lao area). This area is known as the backpacking hub of Saigon. In exchange for cheap digs, you’ll sacrifice a good night’s worth of rest. But, there are some pretty good food spots such as Baba’s Kitchen, the best Indian food in the city hands down, and Saigon Vegan, specializing in vegan eats without compromising taste.
- Want to be adventurous with street food but feeling nervous? Opt for The Street Food Market, a newly erected outdoor/indoor food spot located on the street behind Ben Thanh Market to eat some good street food without the fear of stomach woes.
- Saigon has some stylish buys and the best way to procure these artisanal goods, especially custom-tailored clothing, is to walk down Dong Khoi Street. Le Loi Street also has beautiful boutique stores that specialize in home decor like Duy Tan and L’Usine.
Things to avoid
- Ben Thanh Market has become over-commercialized and everything is double the price. The Night Market in Ben Thanh is where I’ve encountered the rudest Vietnamese people (note: everyday Vietnamese people are the NICEST in the world).
- Don’t pick up cabs in front of the War Remnants Museum. They will rip you off 5 times… even 10times the actual price of a cab!
- Be careful of your purse and phone. HCMC is notorious for bag and phone snatchers. Passing motorcyclists will rob you blind if you aren’t careful. Be weary of taking your phone out on the street for pictures.
- Personally, The Reunification Palace is a bore (and this is coming from a museum enthusiast)! If you are short on time, it’s something to bypass.
On the accommodation front – Go the Airbnb route in HCMC. Stay in District 1 or District 3 to be close to all the attractions. Places may be a bit pricier in those areas but what you save on transportation costs is well-worth it. Private rooms start at $11 and entire homes go for around $30 per night. Bonus: most Vietnamese homes are tastefully-decorated, serviced apartments which means you’ll have maid service, fantastic wifi, and some come with pools!
I hope you enjoy my latest whereabouts as much as I am! This is home for the next year so if there’s anything I should do, let me know and please comment below!