Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still call it, is a rising Asian star sprawling across the Mekong delta. The mammoth river meanders past both glitzy new skyscrapers and clusters of low thatched huts, marking this diverse city’s intoxicating mix of old and new worlds. Motorbikes and scooters swarm through the streets of Saigon carrying families of five, portable street kitchens and even wide-screen TVs.
The French influence lingers in the tree-lined boulevards and colonial buildings of District 1, as well as the abundance of baguettes which are sold and scoffed on every street corner. Saigon hasn’t historically ranked up there with the big boys of Asia – Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai – but it has so much going for it; vibrant, foodie, fast, ambitious, and incredibly good value.
24 hours is not long to take in all that Saigon has to offer, so these are my recommendations on getting the most out of your visit.
Pho for breakfast
Vietnam’s beloved national dish is best sampled at breakfast time (as the locals do), once you get over any preconceptions about eating savoury noodle soup first thing in the morning. Delicious bowls of the fragrant broth are served from hole-in-the-wall style cafes on every street corner – usually the more basic the cafe, the better the pho. You can order ‘pho tai’ (rare beef) if you only have one chance to try it, but there is a choice of different toppings if that doesn’t whet your appetite. True to most Vietnamese food, pho comes with a small garden on the side for you to customise your bowl. At a local style cafe, if you pay more than 40,000 VND (2 USD) then you are paying too much. The best way to find somewhere for pho is simply to walk a few blocks, wherever you are in the city, and take a seat…likely on a plastic stool, but it will be worth it.
Saigon’s war museum tops most lists of things to do in the city, and is a must-see even for museum-averse travellers. Chronicling the ‘American War’, as the Vietnamese understandably refer to it, the museum is a harrowing overview of the atrocities of Vietnam’s recent history. Inside the museum, stories are told mostly through an extensive collection of horrifying photographs, but there are also preserved prison cells and some deeply disturbing torture paraphernalia on display, as well as original tanks, weapons, Chinook helicopters and aircraft outside the museum. The museum has admittedly been accused of portraying a rather one-sided picture of the war, but its likely you will have already seen some arguably biased American films about the Vietnam war before your visit, so I recommend just taking it all in and with a pinch of salt.
Lunch on the Mekong river
After the war museum, take some light relief by grabbing lunch on the Mekong river. A 15 minute taxi from the centre of District 1 will take you to the tranquility of The Deck in Thao Dien. If so inclined, ask your hotel to call the restaurant and organise for their boat to collect you from District 1. This way to can also squeeze in a Mekong boat trip, and arrive at the restaurant in style; disembarking your boat on a jetty at the front of the restaurant – not for those who prefer to remain inconspicuous. If you choose to take a taxi, driving through Thao Dien you will find an unashamedly expat enclave, with trendy bars, gourmet super markets and some ridiculously large villas to ogle at. True to its name, at The Deck you can escape the heat and hustle of Saigon with some upmarket lunching on a beautiful wooden deck overlooking the river. The Deck’s menu is skewed towards fish and seafood, but there are plenty of options to suit all tastes. Try the duck pancakes, the pork belly dumplings and the Phu Quoc prawn rolls. The restaurant also has a wide selection of wine, including a very decent pale rose, if that’s your poison.
Colonial sights and roof bar hopping
Make your way back to District 1 to take a leisurely tour of the beautiful buildings, interspersed with stops at the most old-school of drinking holes. All of these spots are just a few minutes walk from each other so by foot is definitely the way to go. Start at the Notre Dame Cathedral, where you can also see the very grand old post office located in the same square. The interior of the post office is interesting, with its preserved colonial telephone booths and a looming painting of Ho Chi Minh overlooking the parcels and packaging counters. From here, head towards the roof of the Rex Hotel for a drink. Everything about the Rex is very dated (including the elevators which look like the perfect spot for a 1970s James Bond villain to pounce), but the views down the central promenade make for good people-watching. Occasionally you can catch unassuming pedestrians getting soaked by the fountains which sporadically spurt water up from the pavement below. Once refreshed, head up to the City Hall and then round the corner to the old opera house, a beautiful building next to the Intercontinental Hotel, where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American during the war. Finish at the Caravelle Hotel’s Saigon Saigon roof bar for a gin & tonic. This leafy bar is where the newspaper correspondents gathered during the war to exchange information, stories and of course to drink heavily.
Food and sights on a Vespa
This may sound daunting but a vesper tour is undoubtedly the way to experience Saigon as it’s meant to be done. Jump on the back of a scooter to take in the sights and immerse yourself in the glorious chaos of the city’s streets. If you choose Vespa Adventures night-time foodie tour, an experienced driver will whizz your group around various eating and drinking locations to sample the some of the best Vietnamese food. This is a great way to try a number of renowned local dishes if you have limited time in the city. Make sure you are hungry – there is a lot to eat, even for the greediest of foodies. This tour isn’t cheap (around 90 USD) but if you take into account that you aren’t spending money on a restaurant dinner, and you’re getting a thrilling tour of the city by night, it’s worth the expense. People of all ages and sizes do different scooter tours so don’t be put off if you think you are too old or awkward to get on the back of a vespa. This unique tour will tick boxes for everyone – foodies, thrill-seekers and culture vultures.
If you want to sample some of Saigon’s night life in one night only, then start by hitting Pham Ngu Lao street for some of the cheapest beers you can find these days. This area is buzzing with backpackers and hawkers. Its not for everyone but its an experience and at the very least a cheap drink. If you have the energy, head to Apocalypse Now, Saigon’s most famous night club, where travellers and locals come together to dance and drink. It reminds me a little of a cheesy club from university days, but if you choose to embrace the vibe then you can definitely have fun dancing the night away here.
24 hours should give you a good taste of what Saigon is about, but to really get under the city’s skin you need to experience the many layers and dimensions of this wonderfully challenging city. There are many things which don’t quite function properly in Saigon but, like an old drunken friend who often gets it wrong, you forgive these misdemeanors for its endless energy and charm.