Recently I polled Bureau followers living in Ho Chi Minh City to find out where they would recommend international tourists to visit once travel gets into full swing again.
Seeing the vast majority of Bureau followers live and work in Ho Chi Minh City and are a mix of locals and foreigners, I thought that it was a good idea to believe them, after all, they’ve had boots on the ground here since before the pandemic began.
So here goes.
Eat your way through the city’s hidden gems
It sounds cliched, right?
You tell your friends and family you’ve booked a 14-day holiday to Vietnam by yourself on a whim after an epiphanic dinner at Van Anh’s, your local Vietnamese restaurant down the street.
After the initial shock, their reaction is “the food!”
Ho Chi Minh City perhaps doesn’t have the reputation Hanoi enjoys as the country’s food capital, but it deserves to lay a decent claim to it, and you should make an effort to seek it out when you’re here.
After all, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of streets and alleyways in Vietnam’s biggest city to go foraging for street food.
Ho Chi Minh City has all the food they have up north, except that we do it our way and we think it’s done better.
Here are some gems to check out that are a little off the beaten path. Just don’t share them with anyone.
- Nguyen Canh Chan Street, District 1
- Xom Chieu Street, District 4
- Ho Thi Ky Street, District 10
Do dinner and a show at the Opera House
In the good old days when things seemed much simpler without social media, we went for a night out to, well, actually socialise and sometimes we’d take in a dinner and a show while we were at it.
Not all is lost, disliked and deleted, thankfully.
While Ho Chi Minh City has copped its fair share of flack over the past couple of decades for swinging the wrecking ball just a little too hard, too often, demolishing many of its much-loved and romanticised French colonial-era buildings that could’ve been saved, the city is still capable of offering up a romantic evening for two from time-to-time.
Book yourself a table at the recently inducted Asia’s 50 Best restaurant Anan Saigon located in the oldest wet market in town.
Hit the rooftop for a happy hour Phojito concocted with gin, herbs, sugar and lime or a Da Lat Negroni made with some central highlands gin before moving downstairs for some of the finest modern takes on traditional Vietnamese cuisine you’ll find in the world, including banh xeo tacos and banh mi stuffed with duck and foie gras.
Afterwards take a stroll to the historic Opera House nearby to see the mesmerising AO Show featuring performances that contrast Vietnam’s peaceful and idyllic country life with the rat race of its cities.
Expect to experience a combination of story-telling circus, live music, and performance art with a touch of humour.
Get tunnel vision at Cu Chi
I dig most things underground, but places like Cu Chi is where I draw the line. It’s here that I’m more than happy to have a surface level appreciation for things if you know what I mean.
But the Cu Chi tunnels remain high on the heap of things recommended for our intrepid traveller friends of The Bureau.
Our followers like it so much, a trip to the tunnels came in at number three in our recent poll for things to do and see in Ho Chi Minh City.
Cu Chi is a district located some 33km from the city centre of Ho Chi Minh City, making it a destination that probably shouldn’t be in this list, but given how often it’s recommended, I had to add it.
Oh, and it may get the algorithm’s attention.
The tunnels are part of what was once an immense network of tunnels across the country and was the location of multiple military campaigns during the Vietnam War.
They were also the base of operations for the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
These days the tunnels have been enlarged to cater for the more rotund tunnel rats among us, which is good news, however, if you head on down, expect it to trigger at least one of many levels of claustrophobia.
For more information, lose yourself down the rabbit hole at www.deluxegrouptours.com
Snoop through French colonial era buildings
No, nothing to do with Snoop Dogg, however, I suggest you take a poke around the shizzle of the French colonial era apartment buildings dotted about Ho Chi Minh City.
Despite the city’s apparent penchant for bulldozing them, there are still many of these gems remaining and waiting for you to explore.
Let’s face it, many are dilapidated and would’ve been condemned elsewhere long ago, but they’re still here and afford us a fascinating insight into the influence the French had on the city for almost a century until 1954.
One building that springs to mind, that’s relatively easy to find and not far from Nguyen Hue Street, is Chung Cu Ton That Dam or Ton That Dam Apartments.
Here, mostly young Vietnamese have converted what were once apartments into coffee shops, boutique clothing stores and hangouts. One of the city’s longest-running speakeasies can be found here as well.
Check in for a ca phe sua da or a bia at Tiem Ca Phe Lau Ba, Floor 3, 14 Ton That Dam Street.
Hang out on Nguyen Hue Street
If you’re on a family holiday, then this may well turn out to be the hit of the trip. And the cheapest.
Nguyen Hue Street comes alive from the early evening as the locals come out to enjoy the cool breeze coming off the Saigon River and to partake in what’s arguably Saigoners’ favourite pastime – people watching.
Nguyen Hue Street has a pedestrian strip approximately 60 metres wide and 900 metres long that’s closed off to cars, trucks and motorbikes.
At the bottom end is the Saigon River while at the top end is the majestic French-era People’s Committee Building that offers up some damn fine Instaworthy snaps at night.
But hold onto your non la for a moment, not all vehicles are banned. Expect to get sideswiped by “young buffalos” on skateboards, rollerblades and hoverboards.
That’s a good enough reason to leave the kids to make new friends on the plaza while you duck up to the Rex Hotel rooftop with one of the oldest bars in town to reacquaint your good self with your own old friends of the sickly-sweet blue-coloured cocktail kind, including ancient classics such as the Blue Lagoon.
But there’s also signature ones here with profound names like Saigon By Night, I Love Saigon and I Love Vietnam to wet your whistle on a sultry Saigon evening after a blisteringly hot sweaty day.
Don’t worry, the breezy view and break from the kids will numb the pain of the bill you’re bound to rack up on drinks from a bygone era that are rarely known, let alone sold, these days.
Oh the folly!
The Rex Hotel is at 141 Nguyen Hue Street.
Get high on the Landmark 81 and Bitexco Tower Skydecks
There was a time in Ho Chi Minh City when Bui Vien Street was the place in town to get high in public.
That was until the Bitexco Tower was completed in 2010, followed by Landmark 81, the second tallest building in Southeast Asia which topped out at a whopping 461 metres in 2018, some 200 metres higher than Bitexco.
Of course, this is getting high of a different kind.
Both buildings have observation decks.
Bitexco’s Saigon Skydeck is on the 49th floor, while Landmark 81’s Skydeck Observatory is across floors 79-81.
Do one, do both, but perhaps for the sake of convenience, the Saigon Skydeck at Bitexco Tower might be the better option.
Either way, you’re bound to take in some amazing views and get a better idea of the method in the madness of the city’s layout.
Eat, pray, love in Chinatown
The image the word Chinatown conjures up for most of us is a street or mall with towering red and black gates at either end, even perhaps with golden dragons adorning them from above.
Along that street are shops and restaurants awash with “Chinese” language listing menu items, prices and opening hours. It’s somewhat of a novelty.
Well, scrap that image.
Because Ho Chi Minh City’s so-called Chinatown is thought to be the largest in the world by area.
It’s been home to the community here since at least the late 1770s and was, in fact, an outright city of its own separated from Saigon until the early 1930s.
Known as Cho Lon (big market), Chinatown consists of most of District 5 and several adjoining neighbourhoods of Districts 6 and 11.
There are places to eat all over Chinatown from morning till late at night and it’s best to take someone who knows the area with you.
But if that’s not an option, try Phung Hung Street where its ramshackle market occupies the street and street food sellers line up along it under large umbrellas.
For dim sum in the morning, roll up early to Tien Phat (18 Ky Hoa St., D5) for some Hong Kong style dumplings.
And for one of the tastiest and best value foodie experiences in the area, go to Ha Ton Quyen Street in District 11 for the plumpest and most authentic sui cao (dumplings) you’ll find in Ho Chi Minh City.
For the spiritually minded, District 5 has plenty of places of worship to keep you fascinated, for example, Tien Hau and Quan Am pagodas which have been around since the 18th century.
Not far away is Saint Francis Xavier Church which is where in 1963, the President of South Vietnam at the time, Ngo Dinh Diem, was found sheltering during the military coup before being assassinated.
Ride the very hip hop-on hop-off bus
This is one of the sweetest rides you’ll ever get in Ho Chi Minh City.
For VND200,000 (approx. US$8.80) per adult and VND150,000 (approx. US$6.60) for kids (which includes free entrance to Reunification Palace) the double-decker roofless bus will take you around the city centre past many of the must-see sights, including Notre Dame Palace, the Central Post Office and the Reunification Palace, for approximately an hour.
The route also takes you through some neighbourhoods you might not usually see if you’re here for a short time and spend most of it on-foot.
There’s nothing else like it in Ho Chi Minh City, so it’s a must do.
But be warned. During the hot wetter months which are usually between April and November, you might be in for a steamy ride. Other times of the year are idyllic.
The buses depart each day from 9am and every 30 minutes after that and continue quite late into the evening.
The best time to hitch a ride is around 4.30pm as things cool off, the light is great for those selfies and the tour runs into the early evening so you get to see the city turn its lights on.
Visit the hopon-hopoff.vn but if you’re already in Ho Chi Minh City, there’s a ticket box by the Opera House on Dong Khoi Street opposite the Continental Hotel.
You’ll also find helpful staff at 92-96 Nguyen Hue Street where the buses arrive and depart at the park diagonally across from the Rex Hotel.
Do a brews cruise for craft beer
In recent times, Ho Chi Minh City has established itself as a great destination for craft beer enthusiasts.
There are a number of excellent craft beer taprooms in District 1 and many of the bars and restaurants around town stock the locally-made stuff.
Some of the more established places to quench a hard-earned travellers’ thirst are Heart of Darkness, Pasteur Street Brewing Co., 7 Bridges Brewing Co., East West Brewing Co., BiaCraft, Winking Seal, De Me Brewing, Malt and Rogue Saigon.
Words by Matthew Cowan
Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Join The Bureau Asia Facebook Group
Follow The Bureau Asia Facebook Page
Follow The Bureau Asia on Instagram