Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is still known to many, is Vietnam’s center of commerce and biggest city. Perched on the banks of the Saigon River, it has transformed itself from a war-torn city to a thriving metropolis full of fine restaurants, luxury hotels, bars and nightclubs. However, amongst the remains of the modern-high rise buildings, French colonial architecture and ancient pagodas, you can still find reminders of a world less developed.
Best time to visit…
The best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City is during the dry season from December until April. Humidity is moderate in December then begins to decrease from January to April. Ho Chi Minh City experiences frequent tropical storms during May to November, the wet season, with the hottest months being March, April and May.
You will need to arrange for a Vietnamese tourist visa from your nearest Embassy or Consulate prior to departure from the United States. Many online services will offer you a visa upon arrival. This is not recommended unless you want to wait in potentially long and chaotic immigration lines at the airport. The visa process is quite painless. Contact your local embassy and you’ll be able to mail them an application form, copy of your passport, passport photos and check for the visa fee ($100/person when I applied) and they will mail your visa back to you. Your passports need to be valid for 6 months after your departure date.
Upon your arrival at Ho Chi Minh City airport, your best option is to hire a taxi into the center of town (set price of $9 USD or 180.000 VND each way). At the airport as well as in town, make sure you only take the Vinasun taxis (red and white color) because they actually have a meter and are the most reputable.
Where to stay…
Ho Chi Minh City is divided into 24 districts. You’ll want to stay in either District One or Three where all of the the bars, restaurants, museums and sights are. Districtu One is traditionally the French Quarter of the city and is still widely known as Saigon.
The best hotel by far is the sparkling Liberty Central Saigon Riverside hotel in District One. This clean and modern 4-star hotel is located right on the river at the end of the lively Dong Hui street with fantastic river views from the rooms and fitness center, an infinity swimming pool overlooking the city and a connected posh outdoor skybar. The hotel also offers the most magnificent complimentary breakfast buffet I have ever experienced complete with congee bar, omelet station, pho noodle bar, western and Vietnamese hot breakfast dishes, pastries, cheese board, yogurt and fresh fruit. Did I mention that this is included your hotel rate?! Mine was approximately $80/night!
Liberty Central Saigon Riverside Hotel (4-Star, District One)
17 Ton Duc Thang Street, District One, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
+(84) 8 38 27 17 17
A weekend in…Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Settle in and make your way to the Ben Thanh Market and marvel local handicrafts, explore traditional food stalls or simply people watch at this thriving market. Both locals and tourists alike gather here to shop and eat. The day market is replaced by a bustling night market with numerous food vendors around 19:00 and lasts until 01:00 or 02:00. I prefer the night market in the evening when the vendors and crowds are less aggressive than at the day market. I had to try the fried noodles with chicken (with an amazing garlic and cilantro sauce) and my favorite sticky rice…or I should say a sample of 6 varieties of sticky rice with toppings!
If you still have room in your stomach after sampling the delicious food stalls, go to Dong Pho Restaurant for the #1 Pho in Saigon. Its lovely French villa setting in District 3 adds to its appeal and its unique Hue style dishes are amazing!
Dong Pho Restaurant (District 3, Saigon)
57 Ho Xuan Huong, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
+84 8 930 7665
Put on your heels and head to Lam Son Square, one of the city’s most prestigious addresses. Have a drink at the Hotel Continental in the heart of the square (you can’t mis its high-maintenance glossy finish marks) where you can sip cocktails on the hotel terrace just like the French high society once did. If you’re interested in the theater, check out the nearby Municipal Theatre, a lavish 100-year old building that regularly hosts local and touring dance, opera and theatre companies, or see a show at the beautiful Saigon Opera House!
Visit the Reunification Palace, once known as the Presidential Palace, set in a beautiful sprawling park. It was towards this building that the first Communist tanks rolled into Saigon on the morning of April 30, 1975. After crashing through this gate, a soldier ran into the building and unfurled a VC flag from the fourth-floor balcony. The rest, as they say, is history.
Walk a few blocks to the War Remnants Museum which offers a different (and controversial) perspective on the Vietnam War aka “American War.” Military equipment including tanks and a plane as well as evidence supporting allegations of war atrocities committed by the enemies of Communism in the 1960’s and 1970’s are on display. I found the photography of the war journalists and the stories behind them to be absolutely fascinating. The entrance fee is $1.50.
Visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda built in the 1900s by Taoists and Buddhists. It is simultaneously spiritual and awe-inspiring in scale and ambition with its ornate carved panels and intricate interior details. You can head out on the roof terrace where you’ll find a statue of Quan Am (the goddess of mercy) which overlooks a sacred Bodhi tree in the courtyard.
Hire a Cyclo (similar to a tuk-tuk vehicle) to take you to Dong Khoi Street, a lively street filled with restaurants and bars that stretches from Notre Dame Cathedral to the Saigon River. The price for short Cyclo ride runs 20,000d (less than a few US dollars) and it puts you in the middle of the energy created by the 7 million motorcycles in Saigon, an experience that shouldn’t be missed!
When the sun sets, book a Motorcycle Street Food Tour for a culinary tour of the city! Vietnam lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s tastiest street food nations. The 4-hour Back of the Bike tour is approximately $65/person and takes you to 6 different locations across town. They’ll even let you cook some of the food that you try (thanks for the tip Margaux Vega)!
Hire a driver or a tour group and venture out of town to visit the extraordinary Cu Chi Tunnels. During the war for independence, “Viet Cong” guerrillas built this labyrinth of narrow tunnels virtually underneath U.S. military bases, using them to hide during bombing raids and to stage surprise attacks. Crawl through the tunnels and see how the Viet Cong hid out during the war. Imagine life as a VC soldier or a tunnel rat, absolutely unthinkable! There is a shooting range where you can purchase bullets to fire a variety of automatic weapons…I fired an AK-47 (or the AK-47 fired me, tip: don’t try bringing the empty shells back to the states). If you book a tour, a van will pick you up at your hotel and drive you the 1.75 hours to the tunnels then bring you back after the 1 hour tour.
Have lunch and get the pizza you will ever have at Pizza 4P’s. That’s right, you had to come to Vietnam to get the best pizza in the world. If you make a reservation, you can sit in front of the pizza oven, a true pizza oven with a wood burning fire. Each pizza is shaped and molded to perfection by the chef. Try the signature Burrata Prosciutto Pizza that is baked with olive oil, parmesan and garlic then topped with a gigantic ball of house made burrata cheese, prosciutto, rocket, fresh tomato, and more parmesan & olive oil. They slice the pizza at your table and cut the burrata so there’s just the right amount of heavenly burrata on every bite!
Pizza 4P’s (District 1, Ho Chi Minh City)
8/15 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
+84 120 789 4444
The closest beach to Ho Chi Minh city is Vung Tao (2 hours away by bus or you can take a ferry or express water taxi along the Saigon River). Mui Ne beach (approximately 4 hours) is more popular but farther. Nha Trang beach (447 km away) is a candidate for one of the best Vietnamese beaches but is a good distance away. Phu Quoc beach (390 km away) has the whitest sand. We were heading directly to Thailand from Ho Chi Minh City so we decided to opt out of traveling to the beaches and save our beach time for the beautiful beaches of Thailand instead. Off to the beautiful Krabi in Thailand tomorrow, stay tuned!
Panda’s Tips for Ho Chi Minh City:
- In small eateries, prices range from a low $3 for a typically large meal of meat, rice and vegetables but you can pay $50 or more at a four- or five-star restaurant. A service charge of 10% is usually included at the nicer restaurants.
- For airport transfers, tip $1-$2 per person. For tours, tip $3-$5 for the driver and $10-$15 for the guide per person (lower amount for larger groups).
- Vietnam is the biggest coffee exporter in the world and Vietnamese coffee is excellent – inexpensive and available nearly everywhere. Deep-roasted Trung Nguyen is the most popular local brand. Try it with a splash of condensed milk!
- If the crowded Ben Tranh market is too overwhelming for you, the less well known Cho Lon market is a huge Chinese market with a huge variety of goods that is also worth visiting.
- When visiting the Cu Chi Tunels, wear good walking shoes and bring sunscreen.
- Skip the Mekong Delta river cruises…the scenery isn’t amazing for the cost.