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Vietnam has become an increasingly popular tourist destination, and as I meet people who have visited, it is rare I meet someone who doesn’t absolutely love the country, and rightfully so. But, what I also find, which is rather frustrating, is that those same people don’t have that same love for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). And that’s rather crushing. I spent just over a year calling the city home so I know there are countless things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately, people get trapped in the Bui Vien area, which in recent years has become an unimaginable cesspool of large, characterless clubs, excessive drugs, binge drinking, and prime grounds for bag snatchings. But, don’t lose hope, that’s far from all there is to the city.
You too can love Saigon.
Here are my tips for things to do in Saigon to have the best experience – from an ex-expat:
Get the hell away from Bui Vien
Once upon a time, Bui Vien was a pretty cool place to hang out. When I moved to the city in 2013 it was our go-to spot for drinks. The street was busy, and by night it was full of drunk people, but it was so different to the debauchery which it sees now. It was debaucherous, yes, but it was local, and it was fun. All of these little storefronts – essentially the downstairs of people’s homes or ludicrously cheap guesthouses – opened up onto the streets. The downstairs, the sidewalks in front of them, and eventually, as the night went on, the street, filled with plastic chairs and tables along with buckets of emptied Saigon beers. The beer was cheap and bountiful, the staff who were generally the residents were, of course, local, and began to recognize and smile at us. I’d meet everyone I knew down there, often without planning it. I’d eat at lots of the little restaurants, they were marginally more expensive than other places in the city, but they were still good spots for a sit-down meal, and they were perfect for people watching.
Then, after Tet 2014 came around and the shops closed up for the holidays, things never quite went back to normal. And when I went back to the city in 2019, it was a different world altogether. They’ve put up a big sign at the end of the street that reads ‘Bui Vien walking street’ (it’s not, by the way – there’s plenty of traffic and motorbikes will fly down the street to grab whatever purses they can – it’s basically the only place in the city this will happen). The small storefronts have been replaced by vast, multi-floor clubs which take up the space that used to belong to five, six, maybe even seven of the little hole in the wall mom and pop establishments. These clubs have no character, they have no plastic chairs, the beer and the food are beyond overpriced.
Presumably, a combination of corruption and mafia turned Bui Vien into what it is today. It is a well-known fact that both of those exist in the city, and when there’s money to be had, they rear their ugly heads. I have absolutely no idea what happened to the people who owned the spaces which were cleared out, but I can only imagine they did not receive anywhere near fair compensation.
So, not only are you getting ripped off and doing something you could be doing literally anywhere else in the world by patronizing these new, bleak businesses, but you are supporting a group of people who I can only say should not be supported.
So, now that I’ve told you where not to stay in Ho Chi Minh, where should you stay?
Well, District 1 is still your best option for being central. If you can swing it, you’re not going to find many more affordable and extraordinary 5-star hotels than The Caravelle. If that’s a bit out of price range, check out OYO 143 The K9 Central Hotel. Or, if you’re looking for the best hostel in Ho Chi Minh, Ben Thanh Station Dorm is a good option, all of these are central to basic tourist attractions in Ho Chi Minh City, which I won’t list here because they’ve already been listed by seven million other bloggers.
Bonus: If you’re interested in seeing what life as a local is like on this street, I highly recommend this video, made by long term expats.
Eat all the food
I mean all the food. Vietnamese food is my number one favorite food in the entire world and it will be yours too, guaranteed. Ho Chi Minh is like any major city in the world, it has a collection of food from all over the country and the world. So, while you should save northern Vietnamese specialties for when you’re up north, you can get them in Saigon, and while you should save Mexican for when you’re in Mexico, some of the best I’ve ever had was in Saigon.
But even though you can get food from anywhere, you’ll easily be able to fill your meals with local dishes, there are so many from the area that you’ll honestly never want to stop eating. This is, when people ask me what are the things to do in Saigon, what I tell them. Eat. Eat. Eat. And then, when you’re finished, eat some more.
You may not be familiar with all of the dishes available in Vietnam, so I wrote up a list of the best Vietnamese food and where you can find it in Ho Chi Minh.
Rent a motorbike
I totally understand that this is a terrifying thing to consider. I’ve seen the traffic – and I’ve seen it get worse as cars have made their way onto the streets certainly not meant for them. But, a motorbike opens up the city to you in a way which walking, grabbing, and taxis, simply don’t.
I rode a motorbike all of 2.5 times on beautifully paved, quiet Floridian roads before jumping on one in District 1, teetering down an alleyway and plowing out into the complete chaos of a main street. I am now quite at home weaving through that chaos, and If I can do it, so can you. And, in all honesty, I don’t think driving through the streets of Ho Chi Minh is actually that dangerous. Truth be told, the traffic is so terrible that you’re never going to be going very fast. Likely the worst thing that will happen to you is a slow-motion tilt to the side. That is, if you don’t drink and drive. Don’t drink and drive, my god that’s stupid, here, there, everywhere. But especially here, plus the taxis are just pennies!
Vinasun (white) and Mai Linh (green) are the two safe taxi companies to use. You shouldn’t have to ask but do make sure they turn on their meters.
I highly recommend renting your bike from Chi’s café near Bui Vien. The café has been running for years, offers affordable prices on rentals, and will help you if you have issues. The café is also a café (great for a western breakfast), guest house, and can do visa extensions. One stop shopping.
P.S. Here are some of my general driving tips to give you a little confidence boost on the road!
Best done with your motorbike. Just start driving down one, anywhere in the city, but the farther from district 1 the better. The alleyways are where life happens. Real life. You’ll find big, grand, stately homes, tiny homes, cafes, restaurants, those plastic stools that disappeared from Bui Vien, and very real people. These are people who will not grab your purses. These are people who will smile and wave at you, maybe invite you for a coffee on a plastic stool with them. The alleyways are alive at most hours of the day, starting very, very early in the morning. Personally, I like exploring during golden hour when the sunlight comes across and hits the homes and the people arriving back to them, their laundry hanging from cords inches from the walls, their life, framed just right in that photographers dream glow. Don’t be afraid to park your motorbike somewhere, it’ll be safe (probably), and walk around, smile, you’ll get smiles back. This is the real Saigon.
Check out the alleyways along these roads to start with:
Drink craft beer
When I lived in Saigon back in 2013 the beer I drank was like lightly flavored water. It was there to get the job done. That time was also the beginning of one of Saigon’s first craft breweries, Pasteur Street Brewing, which has since grown and flourished. Actually, a friend of mine who started teaching in Vietnam just around the same time as I did, now works full time for them and loves the job – he says it’s the best in the world. Pasteur Street’s main location is in District 1, but their beers can also be found on menus throughout the city.
These days, Pasteur is not the only craft brewery in town, and while there are quite a few others, the only other whose space, beer, and people I am familiar with is Heart of Darkness. While their beer is served all across the city as well, you should definitely stop in to their District 1 location where you can try sample flights and pints, as well as some pretty delicious western style food.
I should mention that both of these breweries have been extremely supportive of H2H, a cycling charity ride which I was part of back in 2014 and which raises tens of thousands of dollars for Vietnamese children’s charities. Good beer plus a charitable spirit? Sounds good to me.
Go to an outdoor pool
You’re probably going to be including at least some piece of Vietnam’s coastline in your trip and as such will have ample swimming opportunities, but the outdoor pools of Ho Chi Minh are somewhat of an institution and I recommend spending at least part of a day at one.
My go to pool has always been Van Thanh – it’s inside this kitschy little park with way overpriced food. The price of entry into the pool has steadily increased over the years but is still very affordable by any foreign standards. I do recommend avoiding weekends as it can get a bit kid crazy here, but during the day on a school day it’s a beautiful place to chill and get some rays.
Besides Van Thanh you have plenty of other options too. There are hotel pools, which are usually accessible to non-guests at a fairly steep price tag but worth it for the peace and quiet. And then there are others like Van Thanh, more public so with a lower cost associated.
- New World Saigon (poolside bar included)
- Hotel Rex
- Victory Hotel
- InterContinental Saigon (pool bar and restaurant)
- Lotte Legen Hotel Saigon
- Lan Anh Club Pool
- Anna Sanctuary Pool
- Saigon Social Space
- Lam Son Pool
- The White House (free entry – food and drinks for purchase)
Take a day trip
I love, love, love Ho Chi Minh and I think that if you’re there just on a short holiday you’ll find more than enough to do, and should embrace the chaos and get lost in the alleyways. But, I also understand that the chaos can get overwhelming rather quickly and an escape can be in order. Fortunately, there is plenty to see and do in the areas surrounding the city. Some of the more obvious attractions like the Mekong River Delta or the propaganda-ridden Cu Chi Tunnels are easy day trips, but there are others which you may not have heard of, like a locals day out at the lake or the waterfalls, plus a not-quite-up-to-western-safety-standards-and-all-the-more-fun-for-it-water park. I’ve listed them and how to get to each, here.
Get clothes made
I can’t think of a better way to spoil yourself on holiday than getting completely custom-made clothing fit to your body and your liking.
Lots of people get this done in Hoi An which is rather famous for its tailoring, and that’s certainly an option, but Ho Chi Minh, being a major city, provides a lot more options both in terms of fabrics and tailoring shops.
I’ll be publishing a post soon on the process I go through to get my clothes exactly how I like them. But just to point you in the right direction in the meantime, I use Nam Silk which is here.
Hang out with expats
Expats are like locals on speed. Hanging with expats is something I recommend doing not only in Ho Chi Minh but in every single place you visit, ever.
The life of an expat is not like anything you’ll ever have experienced before. Often times expats are on set time lines with their life wherever they are, one or two years can be normal, before heading off to their next locale, or home again. This means life gets crammed in. And that life is a perfect balance of being a tourist and a local.
Plus, expats know how to party.
And expats in Ho Chi Minh party like nothing I have ever seen before. Think Berlin, Amsterdam, and Bushwick, before I knew what it was, all getting together and having a baby who was raised in Hong Kong but picked up most of its bad habits going to too many Phi Phi full moon parties.
But beyond the parties which mere mortals can only dream of keeping pace with, expats do things like gather groups to cycle off into the unknown countryside around the city (The Bike Shop organizes these rides), or they throw pool parties at mansions to raise money for charity, there’s always something and it’s always a good laugh and a great way to spend some time.
Bonus: Expats in Saigon intermingle with locals more than many similar communities in other parts of the world.
To find the expats, get on Facebook. Here are some resources:
- Saigon Outcast, a popular venue with expats and the locals who party with them, check their page for events.
- Rogue Saigon, a bar/pub with scheduled weekly events including free food Tuesday’s
- Saigon Soul, puts on weekly pool parties – currently on hold but check back if they’ve found a new venue yet.
- Saigoneer, has an events page with city going’s-on’s
- Lush Saigon, every Tuesday is a completely chaotic ladies night
Listen to music
Going hand in hand with the craft beer and expat scene, Ho Chi Minh’s music scene is lively and diverse.
Looking for Jazz? Reggae? Salsa? House? It’s all here.
Here are some resources and places to keep an eye on:
- Afro Tuesday’s at Broma
- Saigon Outcast where most bigger shows will take place
- Acoustic Thursday’s at La Fenêtre Soleil
- Classical music in an intimate atmosphere at Vừng Ói Mở Ra Cafe
Ho Chi Minh is so much more than Aussie bros with their nipples peaking out the side of those too big vest tops. It is culture, and art, and people, and music, and colors, and life. I encourage you to find the corner of the city you love, and don’t leave until you do. Because once you do, you might never leave.
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