Most visitors will arrive in Vietnam through Ho Chi Minh City (still called “Saigon” by the locals), a sprawling metropolis bursting at the seams with open-air pho stalls, street vendors peddling their wares, and approximately eight million scooters hurtling themselves at you from seemingly every direction. Many tourists overlook Ho Chi Minh City as a mere starting point for their other adventures around this beautiful country and don’t bother to get to know this fascinating city- which is simply a gross oversight.
That being said, it’s understandable why this city can get a bad rap from tourists- you do have to look a little below the surface to find interesting things to do and see other than the most common “tourist attractions” here. Seemingly, the majority of blog articles about visiting Ho Chi Minh City talk about a few major sites: the Cu Chi tunnels, which are thousands of miles of tunnels originating in Saigon that were used by the Viet Cong in Vietnam War and the War Remnants Museum, which features different weapons used during the Vietnam and Indochina Wars. War tourism is definitely not my jam and, after spending hours researching what to do in Ho Chi Minh City before my trip to Vietnam with my husband, Justin, I was still left scratching my head and a bit worried we weren’t going to keep ourselves entertained during our 48 hours in Saigon. It turned out, however, that our two days in Ho Chi Minh City were jam-packed, full of exploring markets, microbrews, and zooming across the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta.
Before we get to our 2 day itinerary of Saigon, though, a few housekeeping issues to make your visit a little smoother:
HOW TO GET THERE
You’ll most likely arrive in Tan Son Nhat International Airport, which is conveniently located about four miles from Saigon’s downtown area. Upon arrival, visitors from most countries will require a visa, which you should apply for online at least 8 business days before your trip. I used Vietnam Immigration.org (they charge around $6 UDS for a “processing fee” per visa) and it took about one business day to receive our approval letters through email. For your arrival to Vietnam, you will need to print out your official approval letter and bring along two passport sized photos (4x6 cm) and $25 USD to give to immigration.
The actual process to obtain your visa upon arrival is not very intuitive- once you enter the immigration area, there will be a line of people on the left hand side and several rows of people sitting on the right. Get in the line to the left, where you will give your approval letter and photos to an immigration officer sitting behind the counter. Plop down on one of the chairs to the right and wait until your name is called to pay for and collect your visa- we got our visa after only about twenty-five minutes, but I’ve read reports online of people literally waiting hours for their visa. With visa in hand, you can breeze past immigration into the colorful, noisy, action-packed world of Saigon.
TRANSPORTATION AROUND HO CHI MINH
Saigon is divided into 24 districts, with the majority of the tourists attractions located in or close to District 1. Therefore, you can cover a lot of ground in Ho Chi Minh City by foot alone. That being said, before you land in Ho Chi Minh, I would highly recommend downloading the Grab application- it’s a ride-sharing app, which offers you a set price for various modes of transportation, including via scooter or car. While you need a Vietnamese bank account to pay by credit card through the application, unlike the Uber and Lyft applications in the United States, you can pay your Grab driver with cash. It’s really affordable and reliable and besides walking on foot, pretty much the only way we got around in Vietnam.
Protip #1- We arrived to Saigon super late in the evening after almost 30 hours of traveling. We were having a really challenging time trying to find our Grab driver at the airport (we wound up waiting for almost an hour for two different drivers) and eventually gave up and took a taxi. BIG mistake- beyond getting shady vibes from our driver, he wound up charging us literally eight times what we would have paid with a Grab and totally kept jacking up the price of our ride while we were already in the car. I’d definitely recommend avoiding taxis at all costs, if you can.
Protip #2- Cash is king in Vietnam- while some of the more upscale places we went accepted cards, you can usually only pay for things with cash in Vietnam. The currency is called Vietnamese dongs (VND) and you’ll feel like an epic baller when you withdraw money- $100 USD converts to over 2 million VND!!
I’d recommend getting an international credit card, like my trust Chase Sapphire Reserve, and using it to withdraw money from ATMs (make sure to check your bank’s fees for international withdrawals, though!). Upon our arrival, we exchanged a very small amount of money at the airport to pay for our transportation to our Airbnb and withdrew the rest from local ATMs scattered across the city. You’ll wind up paying way less in exchange fees this way!
WHERE TO STAY
As stated, most tourist sites are centralized to the city center in District 1, with the backpackers’ district, Phạm Ngũ Lão, stuffed to the brim with hostels, dorms, and other cheap accommodations. Justin and I usually stay in an area adjacent to the touristy spots, so we get a great combination of local residential life with the convenience of staying close to the heart of the city. For this reason, we booked an Airbnb in one of the tallest buildings of the city in District 4- just across the Saigon River and a ten minute Grab ride from all the major sites. I wouldn’t change a thing about where we stayed in Saigon- it was the perfect home base for our explorations around the city.
WHAT TO DO
Now on to the fun stuff! Here’s an hour by hour itinerary of what to do and see in Ho Chi Minh City.
8:00- Kick off the day with Vietnamese coffee
Let’s be real- if you just arrived in Vietnam, you’re still probably getting over some serious jetlag and nothing will wake you up quite like a cup of velvety and strong Saigonese coffee. Start your morning at The Note (183 Bùi Viện, Phường Phạm Ngũ Lão, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam; 08:00-0:00 daily), where your coffee (get it sweetened with coconut meat!) and banh mi (single serving baguette stuffed with a savory filling and topped with fresh carrots, zesty cilantro, and mayonnaise) will be accompanied with a sweet note handwritten by the friendly and attentive staff. While you sip your morning coffee, you can leave behind your own colorful sticky note with words of affirmation on it amongst the thousands that are left on the shop’s walls or simply people-watch from the second story to the bustling street below.
9:00- Live like a local in Tao Dan Park
Tao Dan Park, Trương Định, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam; 07:00-22:00
To catch a glimpse into life as a local in Ho Chi Minh City, there’s no better place to take a stroll than Tao Dan Park, covering 24 acres and boasting over one thousand trees, right in the heart of the city. Tons of Saigonese flock here to do their daily calisthenics, practice martial arts, learn to dance, or even show off their collection of songbirds- so despite its proximity to the extremely touristy Ben Thanh Market, this place is a bit off-the-beaten path for most tourists and an all-around excellent spot to people watch. Plus, with two large playgrounds, this would also be an especially great spot to take kiddos!
10:30- Explore Centuries Old Temples
Jade Emperor Pagoda, 73 Mai Thi Luu Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 08:00 – 17:00
One of the coolest parts of HCMC is how the old is seamlessly integrated with the new- you’ll find temples constructed in the early 1900s tucked amongst bustling pho shops and camera stores. The Jade Emperor Pagoda, an intricate temple constructed at the turn of the 20th century by Cantonese Buddhists, is no exception- with fascinating architecture and beautiful statues and carvings, it’s an excellent spot to catch a glimpse into the day to day religious lives of Buddhist Saigonese. That being said, this temple is relatively small and frequented by locals- so I’d definitely prioritize coming here fairly early in order to take photos in a respective manner, if you’re a shutterbug like me!
11:30- Grab a selfie at the Instagram-famous pink church
Tân Định Church, 289 Hai Bà Trưng, Phường 8, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
While the second largest church in Ho Chi Minh City is gorgeous example of the French colonial architecture erected in the mid-19th century, ‘grammers have been flocking to this spot for one reason and one reason alone- the church’s shocking bubblegum pink color. The church and its property are only open on Sundays for services, but it’s definitely still worth strolling by and grabbing a quick picture while you wander around the streets of Saigon.
12:00- Pho Time
Phở Chay Như, 54 Trương Quyền, Phường 6, Quận 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam; 06:00-22:00
Tucked away in an inconspicuous, open-air stall in a tiny alleyway awaits some of the best pho you’ll ever have, lovingly cooked over a charcoal fire. Order yourself up a bowl of their famous pho chay, which comes piled high with noodles, mushrooms, and my newly-discovered favorite ingredient, fried rolled tofu skins. Who knew that a steaming bowl of spicy broth would quite hit the spot like that under the blazing Saigon sun?
13:15- Explore Ho Chi Minh City’s ever-growing microbrewery scene
Until recently, Saigon didn’t have many craft breweries to speak of, but, in the last couple of years, an influx of expats have founded breweries pumping out some of the most creative and refreshing brews I’ve tasted.
Head first to Heart of Darkness (31D Lý Tự Trọng, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam; 11:00-0:00 daily)- with the brewery’s industrial vibes, an impressive tap list some twenty beers long, and super friendly staff, I highly encourage you to get a flight of beers here to cool off from walking around in the Vietnamese heat.
Next up is Pasteur Street Brewing (144 Pasteur, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 70000, Vietnam; 11:00-0:00 daily). I loved trying this brewery’s unique take on classic beer styles- think Jasmine IPA, Passion Fruit Wheat Ale, and Spice Island Saison. If the sun isn’t too scorching, head on up to the rooftop bar and soak in this brewery’s chill vibes.
While these two breweries are a great place to start, you can also take a walking tour of Saigon’s microbreweries with Saigon Craft Beer Tours. Part walking history tour with a healthy dose of a pub crawl, this would be a pretty epic way to kick off your stay in Vietnam!
15:45 Burn off those beer calories doing some shopping
Apartment 42, 42 Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
An excellent example of the sweeping modernist changes afoot in Ho Chi Minh City, this nine story former mid-20th century apartment building has been converted to a marvelous collection of bookshops, fashion boutiques, coffee shops, and a host of almost 30 other cafes and stores. If you need an afternoon pick-me-up, order up a coffee from one of the building’s many cafes and grab a balcony seat- the building has awesome views out onto the Hue pedestrian street below and over the city itself. And bonus points- it’s epically Instagrammble.
Note that, while it costs 3000 VND to ride the elevator (a whopping 13 cents in USD), this fee is refunded if you purchase anything at one of the complex’s shops.
17:00- Rooftop pool break
If you’re anything like Justin and me, we were pretty pooped come late afternoon after hours and hours of walking around in the hot sun and the twelve hour time difference from our home country. After checking out Apartment 42, we grabbed a Grab back to our Airbnb and chilled out by our rooftop pool for a bit, to give our legs a break and to take tiny cat nap to get energized for our evening festivities.
Given the heat, it seems like a lot of apartment buildings and Airbnbs have pretty decent pools, and while I’m generally a “go go go!” traveler, I’m definitely happy our Airbnb, which was in one of the tallest buildings in Saigon, had a great rooftop setup to enjoy some city views and chill pool vibes for a few hours. One of my favorite memories of Saigon was watching the sunset from our rooftop and watching the lights of the city flicker on- I’d recommend making sure your accommodations have you covered on this front as well!
19:30- Chan Nhu II
131-133 Đường Đề Thám, Phường Cô Giang, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam; 06:00-22:00
Chan Nhu is a small eatery, dishing up mostly plant-based dishes, close to Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacking district and frequented by locals and travelers alike. With a lengthy a la carte menu, featuring dishes made of mock meats and fresh veggies and a drool-worthy buffet, this is a great place to fuel up before a night out in Saigon. Consistent with most of our experiences in this city, the food here is super cheap- a big bowl of pho will run you about 25,000 VND or a little over $1 USD.
20:30- Revel in the cheap delights and frenetic lights of the Phạm Ngũ Lão Area
Reminiscent of Bangkok’s famous backpacker street, Khao San Road, the Phạm Ngũ Lã area is made of two parallel streets, Phạm Ngũ Lã and Bui Vien, and several small alleyways connecting the two. It’s quite a sight to behold at night- EDM and rap music pulse out of open-air clubs; thousands of young, energetic tourists and locals flood the streets; and hustlers from every establishment constantly try to grab your attention and convince you to buy their massage, beer, or whatever other product they happen to be pushing that evening.
While there are literally hundreds of bars and restaurants to check out, my favorite spot was La Vang Café (169 Bui Vien Street), a teeny tiny three-story bar, so narrow and shallow that you basically have to climb a ladder to get from floor to floor- it reminded me of the “Old World” spots in Tokyo, like Piss Alley or Golden Gai. With excellent views of Bui Vien Street below, it’s a fabulous spot to drink a cold Tiger (the national beer of Vietnam) and watch the chaos below. It’s also worth checking out The View (195 Bui Vien Street), a rooftop hotel bar decorated with adorable red heart lanterns and offering sweeping views of the Phạm Ngũ Lã area and Saigon’s skyline. But don’t stop at those two establishments- there are literally hundreds of shops and bars for you to pop your head in and see whether you’re feeling the vibe. Whether you just have the energy for a couple of light beers or want to dance to the wee hours of the morning, Bui Vien Street has you covered.
07:00- Breakfast like a local- street food style
One of the things I knew I absolutely wanted to do in Ho Chi Minh City was to take a Mekong Delta tour. We chose to go with a tour through Vespa Adventures, which pick you up from your accommodations around approximately 08:00. Since we weren’t sure how much we were going to eat on the tour (spoiler alert- it turned out to be a LOT), we headed to a nearby banh mi street stall to pick up some breakfast (read more about that experience here) and stumbled upon an awesome morning market, with literally blocks and blocks of vendors with all sorts of exotic fruits, unfamiliar types of seafood I’ve never seen before, and steaming pots of pho. While the market we went to was in District 4 (at the intersection of Nguyen Huu Hao and Hoàng Diệu), there are markets in nearly every district of Ho Chi Minh City.
As a tourist, there’s a good chance you’re staying in or near District 1, so this may be a good opportunity to check out the food stalls at the most famous market in Saigon, Bến Thành Market (Chợ, Lê Lợi, Phường Bến Thành, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam; 7:00-19:00 daily). While a lot of the market’s stalls are touristy and overpriced, the variety of food here is nothing to sneeze at!
08:00- Scoot across the Mekong Delta
Hands down, our Mekong Delta tour was my ABSOLUTE favorite part of Ho Chi Minh City and definitely a highlight of our whole time in Vietnam. Based on a recommendation from one of my favorite series from the New York Times, 36 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City, I contacted Vespa Adventures to see if their tours could accommodate our vegan diet (several tour companies indicate they cannot accommodate vegetarian, let alone vegan, guests) and was over-the-moon when they said yes!
We were picked up on scooters at our Airbnb and after a quick stop at the Vespa Adventures office to go over information about the tour, we made the hour-ish ride to the Long An Province of the Mekong Delta. We packed a LOT in during this seven hour tour; some of my favorite stops were exploring Chợ Cần Giuộc, a very traditional Vietnamese market, full of interesting and exotic fresh produce and locals lovingly cooking over huge simmering pots; exploring a gorgeously intricate and colorful temple of the Cao Đài faith, a relatively new monotheistic religion popular in the Southern part of Vietnam; and stopping at a homestead to sample the house made rice wine. While the stops and the tour itself were interesting, the undeniable highlight of the tour was actually riding the scooter, zooming through rice paddies, whizzing past local markets and open air cafes.I was nervous about driving through the epically insane traffic of Saigon, but even that was like driving through a marvelously choreographed chaotic ballet.
Not only did we cover a lot of stops during the tour, but we also packed in a LOT of eating during the tour! From picking up mouth-watering fruits from Chợ Cần Giuộc to a glutinous outdoor lunch at a restaurant called Vườn Thư Giãn, you will leave the tour needing to change into your comfiest pair of fat pants. I almost can’t believe how many experiences (and delicious eats) we crammed into such a short period of time, so needless to say, 10 out of 10, would recommend.
16:00- Meander through the market
Bình Tây Market, 57 Tháp Mười Street, District 6; 6:00-19:00 daily
You’ll arrive back at your accommodations from the tour around 13:30 or so; once you’ve had a second to cool off and put those aforementioned fat pants on, head on over to District 6’s Bình Tây Market - beyond the market’s gorgeous French-Chinese architecture, you could spend hours here, pursuing the rows of medicinal herbs, checking out the massive section of incense, paper money and printed prayers that are purchased to be burned as offerings to the ancestors, and a huge array of food vendors, pickled vegetables, and various other dry food goods. Come prepared with your pockets full of spending cash and your best haggling face on.
17:30- Learn a bit about Mazuism
Thien Hau Temple, 710 Nguyễn Trãi, Phường 11, Quận 5, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Once you’ve had your fill of Bình Tây, make the fifteen minute stroll on over to Thien Hau Temple, a Chinese-style pagoda which dedicated to the sea goddess in Mazuism, a religion syncretized to Buddhism and Taoism. The temple is adorned with intricate porcelain dioramas that decorate the roof, featuring colorful demons, animals, and Persian and European sailors and traders. It’s an interesting departure from other temples and shrines endemic to Southeast Asia and definitely worth a stop.
18:15- Pull a Bourdain on Beer Street
Call a Grab and head on back to District 1 to have a truly unique Vietnamese experience. Anthony Bourdain- TV host, traveler extraordinaire and one of my own personal heroes- was one of the reasons I wanted to explore Vietnam in the first place; I was utterly fascinated by the episode of his series “Parts Unknown”, highlighting various parts of Vietnamese culture and cuisine. One thing I learned from the episode was about bia hoi beer, watery lagers brewed on a daily basis with a 24 hour shelf life and pumped out by Vietnamese grandmas for approximately 10,000 VND per jug (about $.40 USD). In Ho Chi Minh City, you can find bia hoi on “Beer Street”, which is located along Bui Vien St., just west of De Tham St. Here, you’ll find dozens of open air bars, each offering a sea of tiny plastic stools on the sidewalk for you to consume seemingly endless amounts of local beer. Pick a bar (I’d recommend Bia Sai Gon 73, located at 73 Bui Vien Street) to pop a squat for a bit and watch the city slowly transition into night.
19:30- Enjoy some sustainable bun
With gluten-free, vegan, and omnivore options alike, Bun Bar dishes up modern Vietnamese cuisine that everyone can enjoy, with a focus on, you guessed it, bun, a chewy Vietnamese rice noodle. The menu is flexible and unique, offering patrons the opportunity to build their own meals with a wide variety of proteins, veggies, and broths. Unlike a lot of restaurants in Saigon, the restaurant has a unique focus on sustainability, limiting its reliance on single use plastics, growing some of its own vegetables, and even starting its own composting program.
20:45- Toast to your time in Saigon at a rooftop bar
While the Saigon sun can be brutal during the day, the cool breeze makes nights in Ho Chi Minh absolutely lovely, making a visit to a rooftop bar an absolute must. Having heard great things about EON Heli Bar in the Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in Saigon, Justin and I first stopped there our final night in Saigon. But we didn’t dig the vibe there at all- because guests are all seated at tables, you have a good chance of not being near the window and with a combination of smudgy glass (yes, the entire bar is encased in glass!) and Ho Chi Minh City’s stunning smog problem, the view wasn’t even that good.
Instead, we wound up at Air360 (136-138 Le Thi Hong Gam St., Dist. 1), an open air lounge on the 23rd floor of a nearby building, offering sweeping views of Saigon’s skyline, a decent cocktail selection, and a cool clubby vibe . While the place was basically deserted when we stopped in a Sunday evening, the bartender assured us the place gets packed on Friday and Saturday nights. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a more energetic experience, Chill Skybar (76A Le Lai, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City 70000, Vietnam) sits on the 25th floor of AB Tower, is a vibrant club with upscale clientele (i.e. flip-flops, tank tops, and sport shorts are not allowed) with breathtaking views of the city.
Be prepared, though- while beer is usually between $.50 to $2 USD in most establishments around Ho Chi Minh City, be prepared to pay prices equivalent what you would abroad (i.e. a simple Corona may cost you upwards of $8 or 200,000 VND) and a “service fee”, ranging from 15-20% of your bill, is usually tacked on top of that. While it was worth it for us, this type of rooftop bar probably isn’t for uber budget travelers.
Phew – that’s a lot to pack into 48 hours, but it’ll be worth it! Have you been to Ho Chi Minh City? What was your favorite part? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!