Think you can’t do much in ‘Saigon’ with just 3 days on your hands? Think again!
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, as the locals prefer to call it, is fast shedding the vestiges of a colonial past and embracing the future with skyscrapers and modern shopping malls. Remnants of Chinese and French influences are still there if you know where to look. And the local coffee culture is still strong. Join us this month as we take you around the city in three days.
Start your day early before it gets too hot by walking along Dong Khoi, hailed as the city’s best walking street. Start from the Cathedral of Notre Dame and head towards the Opera House. Along the way, you can admire some of the French colonial-style architecture including City Hall with the famous statue of Ho Chi Minh. If you’re feeling hot, you can hop into the new Takashimaya shopping mall or break for coffee at one of the L’Usine cafe outlets.
If temples are on your itinerary, put Thien Hau on your list, located at Cholon district, also known as Chinatown. For lunch, head to Ocean Palace/ for the best dim sum in town.
Ben Thanh market, a city landmark, may sound like a tourist trap but it is still worth a visit to check out the local souvenirs, textiles and coffee. You can also grab a bowl of noodles while you’re there. Be prepared to bargain hard before you buy anything as most items are priced at a premium.
By dusk, Bui Vien street at the so-called backpacker district comes alive with throngs of foreigners looking for cheap beer and dinner, or just people-watch. While you’re there, try the bun cha (fish cake noodles), soupy heaven in a bowl. If Bui Vien is too touristy for you, go look for Ben Thanh Street Food Market near the Ben Thanh market where you can find local food under one roof with live entertainment. The place stays open until midnight.
Do breakfast like the locals at a trendy joint like Oasis Cafe. It may be 20 minutes outside the city but you will be rewarded with great food, coffee and a tranquil environment with greenery, koi ponds and water features.
After breakfast, visit the Reunification Palace, seat of the South Vietnam government until 1975. Nearby, you can hop into the War Remnants Museum where you can learn more about the war from the Vietnamese perspective. Museum of Ho Chi Minh City is another good alternative.
For lunch, get out of your comfort zone and rub shoulders with locals on a low stool under a tree at The Lunch Lady for the best noodles in town. The lady serves different noodles every day and you just eat what’s dished out. After lunch, you may have time for Jade Emperor Pagoda, a Taoist temple built in 1909.
By dusk, you can watch the sun set over the city at EON51. Located on the 50th floor of Bitexco Financial Tower, it is the highest cafe, bar and restaurant in the city.
Alternatively, you can take a 20-minute ride outside of town to the Phu Nhuan district for dinner at Tram Café, another local favourite.
Your last day in Ho Chi Minh City should be spent exploring the city outskirts, especially the Mekong Delta, known as the “rice bowl of Vietnam”. Home to lush green rice fields, tropical fruit and coconut plantations, it is best to explore the vast area by taking a boat tour where you can see how the locals work and live on the river. If you want comfort and luxury, go with Les Rives – they have a fleet of fast boats that can save you time. Most Mekong Delta tours include a visit to the villages, a local market and lunch.
For a more laidback experience, you can book a stay at Island Lodge, a resort beside the river which is just two hours’ drive southwest of the city. There you can sit back, watch the boats chugging lazily along the Mekong river, enjoy a French cuisine or go for a spa session.
If Mekong Delta is not your thing, you can dig in to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of underground tunnels that took warfare to a different level and Vietnam to victory. Cu Chi is around two hours north of the city.
When you’re back in the city, indulge in local Vietnamese cuisines at Quan An Ngon 138. The restaurant might be touristy but it’s comfortable and located downtown.
If you prefer to go hardcore and eat like the locals, visit Oc Dao. Its location in a labyrinth of back alleys poses a challenge even for local taxi drivers but if you can find the restaurant, you will be rewarded by a staggering variety of snails and seafood complemented by baguettes and local specialty beverages.
Photos © iStock by Getty Images.