Ho Chi Minh City or more popularly known as Saigon is the most populous urban area in Vietnam. It’s not the populace that would make you dizzy, but, the swarm of scooters moving like bees in a waggling dance in every open space around the metro. If you’re an expert in crossing the streets of any other bustling city in the world, then you won’t have to worry about getting knocked down by motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh. Stoplights can’t help you anyway.
Ho Chi Minh City is a fusion of old and new. From temples, pagodas and post-colonial architecture to hip outdoor cafes, bars, and retail shops. If you’re on the go and don’t have the luxury of a weeklong visit in Ho Chi Minh, here’s what you can do to live the traveler life in three days:
1. Go on a Vespa or bicycle tour
I’ve always thought I can only experience that wind-whipping-through-your-hair moment on a Vespa in Cuba but obviously, the Vietnam version is way cheaper! Short tours of the city are offered where you get to ride in style, at the back of a restored vintage Vespa. The Vespa Adventures also offers a nightlife tour and a foodie tour around the city. You may rent your own scooter or even a bicycle and discover Saigon on your own, but if you’re not sure how to get off the beaten track, you may get help from a guide.
2. Visit the historical museums
The most visited attraction is the Reunification Palace, built in 1873 within a 12-hectare complex. The Reunification Palace is known as the “end of war” marker. A few blocks from the entrance of the Palace is the War Remnants Museum which gives visitors a glimpse of the horrors of war. Also quite close to the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum is the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. A half day tour can cover all three historical museums.
3. Check out the Notre Dame Cathedral
Just a few blocks from the government compound housing the above-mentioned museums is the Notre Dame Cathedral, with two 40-meter high bell towers. The Cathedral, aside from being one of the landmarks of Ho Chi Minh City, has also become a popular spot for prenup photo shoots because of the Romanesque architectural style of its outside walls.
Opposite the Notre Dame Cathedral is the Central Post Office which is also a must-see because of its remarkably structured dome. A stop at these two landmarks may take an hour or two, depending on the level of satisfaction with your snapshots.
4. Face your fears under the Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are one of the main attractions in Ho Chi Minh City. It is a whole area of intersected underground tunnels that were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hideouts and living quarters during the Vietnam War.
If you’re not claustrophobic and you’re sure you can fit into those narrow tunnels, you can crawl underground. You can either take the tour on your own or go with a large group. The Cu Chi Tunnels day tour is a one-hour bus ride that usually comes with a pit stop at a lacquer ware factory.
5. Tour the Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta River is the world’s 12th longest river and Asia’s 7th. It is a river running through parts of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Vietnam part of the river is at the extreme southern end of the Mekong Delta.
You need to spend a day for this tour which includes both bus and boat rides. If you’re traveling alone, join a large group so you can save on the tour fee. Don’t expect though a spectacular river cruise. The Mekong Delta boat trip goes past some floating markets and villages, mostly with stilt houses. Pit stops include the fisherman’s port, a local bee farm, and the coconut village.
6. Eat local
A Vietnamese cuisine experience wouldn’t be complete without pho. Pho is a Vietnamese noodle soup, either with beef or chicken and usually served with basil, mint leaves, lime and bean sprouts.
Another staple in Vietnam is its crunchy spring rolls with veggies and meat filling. Not to miss also is the Vietnamese pancake which resembles a French crepe. It’s stuffed with pork, shrimp, onion, and bean sprouts. And the best Vietnamese pancake I’ve tasted is at Five Oysters along Bui Vien in District 1. Bui Vien street is Ho Chi Minh’s Malate where sleepless foreigners run for authentic local food and drinks. And don’t worry about going hungry because meals in Vietnam are cheaper compared to Cambodia.
7. Shop local
When in Ho Chi Minh, don’t look for huge and high-end malls or shiny supermarkets. Ask around instead for night markets. From jewelry to clothes, to souvenirs and fresh produce, the city’s night markets will provide you better deals. The biggest of these markets is Binh Tay market, a bustling wholesale and retail complex. Be equipped though with haggling skills when shopping.
8. Grab a beer or two
Saigon beer is one of the most popular local beer brands in Vietnam but Tiger is all over Southeast Asia. Tiger is one of the cheapest international beers you can buy in bars in Vietnam. Other available known brands are Heineken, Bia Hanoi and 333.
Whether you’re a coffee junkie or not, you should not miss the authentic Vietnamese coffee. Aside from the unique and addictive flavor of the Vietnamese coffee, it’s the way of brewing it that’s a must-try. Paper filters not necessary! You’ll be served with the Vietnamese Phin filter which sits on top of the coffee cup. The point is, the hot water should not stream through from the filter but drip instead. When the dripping stops, you can set aside the filter and enjoy your cà phê.
If you have been to Ho Chi Minh already, do you have something else to suggest doing in the city?