When you think of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) do you picture shady tree-lined avenues, elegant French villas, ladies dressed in traditional áo dài strolling arm-in-arm beneath paper umbrellas whilst cyclo drivers gently peddle past, their conical hats protecting them from the sun? This was indeed the Saigon of yesteryear, but the city is changing so fast, developing at such a rapid rate that you could say it’s changing before your very eyes.
Today you’re more likely to see youngsters dressed in the best American brand names, chatting away on their smartphones, sipping a Starbucks soy chai latte. Ho Chi Minh City is still referred to as Saigon by the locals, and whilst it may be the business and industrial heart of Vietnam, and may lack the old world charm (and temperate climate) of Hanoi, the city has much to offer: historical sites, excellent cuisine, and it is the gateway to the fascinating Mekong Delta.
Best Time to Visit Ho Chi Minh
No matter when you visit Ho Chi Minh, be prepared to get wet: go in the dry season and you’ll experience sweat-inducing temperatures up to 102F (39C) plus 100% humidity that will have you wringing out your clothes; go in the monsoon season and you’ll experience torrential rain at least once a day.
Best advice is to go in the dry season between December and April. Vietnamese New Year, known as Tet happens towards the end of January, or beginning of February depending on the lunar calendar, and is a wonderful time to visit Saigon. Festivities last a week and are a riot of colour, music, and delicious food. Be sure to say Chúc Mừng Năm Mới (happy new year) to the locals!
Top Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh
Most attractions can be found in District One. Ho Chi Mihn has a population of just over 8 million people, which sounds huge, but in reality, the city center is small and easily walkable.
The War Remnants Museum is consistently the top tourist attraction in Saigon. It’s a sobering and haunting reminder of the horrific atrocities committed during the Vietnam War. Visit the Reunification Palace (also known as the Independence Palace) and stand on the spot where history unfolded in 1975 as the first communist tanks smashed through the gates signaling the end of the Vietnam War. Other must do’s include the Notre Dame Cathedral and Cu Chi Tunnels. And spare an afternoon to brave the convoluted passageways of Ben Thanh market where you can find all manner of products and some very insistent vendors.
The Mekong Delta can be reached via Ho Chi Minh, and a day trip is a great way to discover this fascinating river and the life it sustains. Vietnam-guide.com has a good list of the best things to do in Saigon, as do Lonely Planet‘s Top Things to do in Ho Chi Minh and Traveller’s Twenty Reasons to Visit Ho Chi Minh City will guide you in the right direction as you plan. Also, bear in mind that Saigon is perfect for people watching as life is played out on the streets: find a plastic chair at a roadside café and enjoy a Biere Larue for a front row seat.
Where to Stay in Ho Chi Minh
Accommodation options are endless in Ho Chi Minh. From humble hostels and friendly B&B’s to swanky modern or colonial hotels, there is something to suit all budgets. Staying in District One will mean you are close to the main attractions, but taxis are plentiful and cheap so don’t be worried about staying a bit further out.
The CN Traveller Guide To Ho Chi Minh suggests The Park Hyatt Saigon, situated smack-bang in the middle of District One and within walking distance to many tourist attractions and dining options. Also mentioned is the Caravelle Hotel, which is a bit of an institution in Saigon, and was where Walter Cronkite and other journalists stayed whilst reporting on the Vietnam War. If it’s history you’re after, stay at the Rex Hotel where in 1961 American soldiers were billeted. Even better is The Majestic Hotel, built in 1925 and retaining it’s old world colonial charm. It has a lovely courtyard and a terrace with panoramic views of the Saigon River.
The Guardian has a comprehensive list of accommodation to suit most budgets, including The Alcove, which is a bit of a sensation with its French colonial décor and floor to ceiling bookshelves. It’s quite a way out of town though, close to the airport, which is good for peace and quiet but means a fairly long taxi ride into District One where most of the attractions are. See The Guardian’s list of The Top 10 Hotels in Ho Chi Minh City for more.
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Pham Ngu Lao is Saigon’s equivalent of Bangkok’s Khao San Road. It’s the place to head to if you’re on a backpacker’s budget or want to party into the early hours. The accommodation is cheap, bars and nightclubs abound, the vibe is electric, and there is a really good second-hand bookshop on the main road. Hostel World has a thorough list of accommodation options in Pham Ngu Lao. The Hideout is the most popular, probably because you get free breakfast and a free beer every day. Prices start at about $8 a night.
Another great alternative for accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City is Airbnb, where private rooms start at $13 and offer a unique way to experience the city from a more local perspective.
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Where to Eat in Ho Chi Minh
In the last few years the restaurant scene in Saigon has exploded. You are now spoiled for choice by chic fusion cuisine, laid back lounges, basically everything from American, to Middle Eastern, French and Italian cuisines can be found. But the best, of course is the beautifully fragrant Vietnamese food. You can eat incredibly cheaply in Saigon, especially if you stick to street food. Just always be sure to pick a stall that is popular and that the food is made in front of you and cooked thoroughly.
The Temple Club is always a favorite and has been for decades. It’s in a stunning colonial building and has the décor to back it up. It doesn’t get much more atmospheric than this. Also check out Red Door Food Intersection and Lounge, which serves what they term ‘evolved Vietnamese cuisine’.
The Culture Trip‘s Creative Cuisines: Ho Chi Minh City’s 10 Best Restaurants includes Ngan Dinh Restaurant in Chinatown, which offers excellent Chinese cuisine at affordable prices.
The great thing about Saigon is that you can you can combine international and local. Start out at a glitzy rooftop bar for cocktails (DestinAsian has a great list of the best), then descend into the chaos and enjoy a bowl of pho (soup) at a street-side restaurant. You’ll perch on plastic chairs, swig cheap beer and experience the real Saigon up close and personal. Try Pho 24 if you need a gentle introduction to Vietnamese pho. Eating Saigon a helpful resource on Where to Find the Best Saigon Street Food. If you’re not sure where to start Migrationology has a great guide titled Vietnamese Food: 25 Must-Eat Dishes in Saigon (and Where To Try Them), which packed full of advice on what to eat and where. You’ll know your Bánh Mì from your Hủ Tiếu Nam Vang in no time!
How Much Time Do You Need in Ho Chi Minh?
This really depends on what your overall itinerary is and where you plan to go next. The Guardian packs in most of the must-sees in their itinerary, Ho Chi Minh City in Three Days, and includes a very touristy visit to the Mekong Delta. Ho Chi Minh City Highlights also has suggested itineraries for 1, 2 and 3 days.
You can probably cover most sites in three days, but I’d say slow down a little and take more time. Saigon is a city of nooks and crannies and there are some real surprises to be found if you just take the time to look. Tag on an extra day or two so you can explore the temples and spice markets in Chinatown, relax alongside the Saigon River, or go for a massage or facial. Barbers set up shop on the street, with a reclining chair and a small mirror tied to the fence of a villa or building. If you opt for a shave or a haircut, expect a relaxing head massage thrown in as part of the experience. Don’t be surprised if the barber starts digging around in your nose, all hair must go!
About the author : Lucille is a writer and lifelong expat who has lived in the UK, Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey, South Africa and currently calls The Netherlands home. Her writing has been featured in The Huffington Post and she is a contributor to the expat anthology A Cup of Culture and a Pinch of Crisis. She writes stories about travel, expat life and raising global, bilingual third culture kids on her blog Expitterpattica. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.