Hello, Saigon (ehm, Ho Chi Minh City)!
Saigon was my entry point to/ leaving point from Vietnam and I spent a total of five days there (three days at the beginning of my trip and two days at the end). I think it is an optimal amount of time to get used to the city (the weather, the traffic…) and see the main sites.
You can easily view the top historical monuments and museums in Saigon within three days (all depends on how intense you travel and how much you want to rest, of course). Devote a day or two to wandering around the markets, testing out the food stalls and relaxing in many of Saigon’s cute coffee places. By the end of your stay, you won’t even notice the swamps of motorbikes passing by and you will be surely used to the humidity 😉
I think that most guidebooks will cover the historical and cultural sites of Saigon pretty well. I will, therefore, try to offer you some extra advice that you might not be able to find as easily. I also want to suggest things that aren’t as popular among tourists (well, who would come to Saigon for its coffee places, right? Maybe they should!).
Always do your research, though, and try to cross-check any information with at least two different sources (even if this requires some digging through blogs and articles, it is worth it in the end because it allows you to tailor your unique experience). I organized my personal highlights into four different themes, but feel free to pick and choose whatever interests you most.
Củ Chi tunnels: I highly recommend making a trip outside of Saigon to see the tunnels dug out during French colonialism and perfected by the Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. The tunnels served not only as hiding places, but also as communication paths, food storage, hospitals and training spots for soldiers. They are absolutely ingenious in their design and execution. It still blows my mind, how people managed to create them in the middle of the jungle and use as living spaces for extended periods of time.
Note that many organised tours to Cu Chi tunnels from the city will take you to tunnels at Ben Dinh, which are not 100% original. They were rebuilt to help accommodate the growing number of tourists in recent years. For instance, the original tunnels were quite narrow, so these ones are made purposely wider – something to do with Western tourists being fatter than an average Vietnamese, perhaps? 🙂
A good alternative is to go to Ben Duoc, which contains original networks of tunnels. It also offers a free tour (our tour was in Vietnamese, though, and my friend translated for me – you would have to double check if the tours are also available in English).
The tour allows you to enter the actual tunnels through super small openings in the ground that were once covered by dirt and grass (not to be found as easily by American soldiers wandering through the jungle). You get to see the rooms built underground, which are, surprisingly, quite spacious.
To access the tunnels by public transport, take the bus number 13 from the BẾN CV 23/9 bus station until the end and hop on the bus 79. Tell the driver to drop you off either at Ben Dinh or at Ben Duoc. The whole trip lasts around 90 minutes one way. Double check what time the buses stop running (79 might stop pretty early in the evening, around 5 PM, but 13 goes on for longer until late evening). If you wish to use the public transport, try to plan your visit early in the day, just to be safe. I paid less than $2 for bus tickets for the round trip.
Good hint before you visit: Avoid wearing white, if you don’t want your clothes to look dirty. There is a fair amount of hunching in narrow tunnels etc. so it is safer to stick to darker and older clothing. Also, don’t freak out if you see a bat or two inside… remember not to flash lights at them in any case!
War Remnants Museum: I already wrote a little bit about the museum in my previous post. I highly recommend visiting the exhibitions inside (even though they might seem a little propaganda-oriented). Testimonies and photos included offer a different view at some of the issues that Westerners just rarely think about and probably can’t relate. We read about the Vietnam War and assess its political consequences. But do we consider other repercussions? Take, for instance, the influence of chemical weapons used by the U.S. military, like Agent Orange, on local Vietnamese population. Do you know that, 40 years after the end of Vietnam War, Vietnamese people in certain areas are still born with genetic diseases caused by those chemical weapons?
Vietnam is a great place for both tea and coffee lovers. I will soon devote a separate post to Vietnam’s coffee culture, but I would like to include some cafe experiences that I had in Saigon. I was actually quite surprised with the high standard of both coffee and the surroundings!
If you like cats, head to ICHI Cat Café. It is a very modern space hidden behind residential buildings, away from the noise and crowd of Saigon’s everyday traffic. You can enjoy a variety of drinks (I opted for a refreshing mango smoothie) while playing with some really cute and fluffy cats. Some of the breeds were pretty unique!
Another cafe worth visiting is Cúcuta Coffee – it is very cute and romantic. I had a really good black sesame ice-cream there and a shot of strong espresso with a dash of sweet condensed milk (plus the complementary green tea). Oh, and the cafe also has some cats hanging out there (even though it is not really advertised as a cat cafe and the owners are rather discouraging the cats from bothering the customers). It has live music on certain days (on the first floor). A very good place for a date 😉
Loc Vung Café is a French-style coffee place, where you are also given a free green tea together with your order (how funny is it to drink both tea and coffee at the same time?). The interior is very elegant. Think: wooden furniture, dimmed lights and framed paintings. The place also has live music on certain days and can host guests on two floors.
When I was searching around for The Other Person Cafe (14 Tôn Thất Đạm, Nguyễn Thái Bình), I accidentally stumbled upon fashion boutiques and another cute coffee place (under that same address). While The Other Person Cafe is no longer there, try to explore those establishments to have a sneak peak into the life of middle-class Vietnamese. I highly recommend the coffee place on one of the upper floors – it has a good choice of fruit shakes and absolutely cute decorations (stuffed toy animals, musical instruments and a lot of books). Don’t be discouraged by the building looking a little bit rough from the outside. It’s part of the charm.
I should also note that I wasn’t successful in finding the famous reptile cafe – it used to be hosted in someone’s apartment and it was closed for good when I got there. A very good rule of thumb, when it comes to cafes in Saigon, is: unless it is clearly marked on Google Maps and has an updated Facebook profile – it probably no longer exists. Things change way too fast in Vietnam, so don’t rely that much on your guidebooks either. Search around for recent blog posts and articles or just stick to street food 🙂
Food and nightlife
Well, street food is everywhere in Saigon. A major plus of the city’s food scene is that you can often find specialties from various regions served in the same restaurant or in the vicinity of each other. It might not be the case in other cities, which usually serve only their local dishes.
Trying the phở is a must! Remember the southern flavor of the broth to be able to compare it to the ones served in the Center and in the North of the country. Also, note how the choice of herbs varies with geographical locations (I found that there is more mint and less basil in the North). You can order the broth with meat types you prefer (balls, ligaments, skin – all inclusive). Hint: a good lunch food or snack is bánh mì – a Vietnamese baguette with meat and veggies. You can pack it up in a bag and take it with you when you go sightseeing or are expecting a long journey by bus.
For some delicious seafood, head over to one of the restaurants by the An Lam Saigon River. I had great oysters (grilled with cheese and garlic) for a ridiculously low price. The meal below cost around $6 (with beer).
For nightlife – I think the backpackers area is your best choice (the Pham Ngu Lao district area, along Bui Vien street). It’s always crowded and fun. Beer is dirt cheap. Note how foreigners sit at bars on one side of the road and the locals sit across, on the other side of the road. No one knows, why that is… For a good rooftop view, go to the bar at Duc Vuong Hotel (note that it closes relatively early, at 10 PM). There are also many hotel bars in the main hotel district (where the Opera House and Louis Vuitton are located, for instance). But they are more expensive and more picky when it comes to their clientele.
Saigon is perhaps one of the best places to do your shopping. Vietnam is a location of many brand factories and a lot of local people work hard to make those T-shirts that you buy at your local H&M. Saigon is sort of the center of that trade, which means you can find a lot of “branded” things sold in the city markets. The items, that I was personally interested in, included typical backpacker’s equipment: backpacks and windbreakers. You can find many brands sold at market stalls, but beware of the fact that the products are one of the following:
a) stolen from the factory
b) sewn from the materials stolen from the factory
c) Chinese fakes that never saw the original factory.
In any case, look closely at what you are buying and avoid c) at all cost. Check the zippers, the quality of the fabric, the labels and logos (“Is that letter a little bit crooked“?) and the sewing pattern itself. And don’t forget to bargain 🙂
To complete my list of Saigon’s highlights I decided to mention all the other sites I visited (you can easily find information about those online): The Jade Pagoda, The Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon’s Post Office and the Opera House.
With that, I end my little story about Saigon and its entertainment options. Stay tuned for more information about other locations in Vietnam!