You say Saigon, I say Ho Chi Minh City (or some say HCMC). It might have been a sticky issue before but it seems that this up-and-coming Southeast Asian city has better things to think about now, such as the city’s exciting new metro line under construction, the downright hip club scene, and its metamorphosis into a modern metropolis. I won’t go into too much details about HCMC’s way forward with urban transformation – me ain’t no expert – but I can point you in the right direction for a couple things to do in the city for a getaway. A bunch of friends – including my little sis and the mister – flew to the city for a breath of fresh air (in more ways than one!) in August, and the fusion of several travel personalities has led us to a comfort zone boundary-pushing yet fun-filled trip for everyone.
Our group was made up of a mix of first-timer and repeat travellers, as well as some pho lovers versus virgins ;-) All in all, we spent around 4 days in the city, hitting up many places when the mood strikes. Some good, some only so-so, some which I’d consider highlight/first timer places, next to some off-the-beaten-track or less touristy spots. Here’s a map for the places… good thing they are all centrally located so if you want you could walk to them all!
This is PART ONE – where I picked out the places we went that are more suitable for a first-time trip to this city, especially if you only have 2 days before moving off.
There is a bit of everything here, shopping in the market, coffee drinking, boulevard strolling, museum wandering… Plus, I hope my reviews can help you plan a solid itinerary to make the best of a tight schedule! (I’ll post PART TWO next week!) Altogether we spent 4 days in the city – not a lot but not enough either (as usual) – and missed a couple places we initially planned to go, but we’ll be back!
Let’s hop to it! ^_^
For The Saigon Virgin
BUY – Ben Thant Market
First up, SHOPPING! ;-) The moment we stepped inside this labyrinth, hawk-eyed and red-lipped ladies grabbed our arm and persuaded us to buy their marked-up goodies, from lacquerware to dried coffee, from preserved fruits to baskets, from “I Love Saigon” T-shirts to the signature conical hat (nón lá). Here, I was rather intimidated and got the impression even if I bargain, I’d still get ripped off. But hey, you’re on holiday and they gotta eat, right?
Tip: Don’t buy your conical hat here! We paid only 20,000VND for one in Cholon! (which you’ll want to go.. more in Part Two).
After getting a little dizzy from the mad maze that is Ben Thant market, we made a dash for the stalls around the perimeter. Government-regulated, no-bargain stalls. Which meant a stress-free time for those who just aren’t turned on by all that haggling.
EAT – Open-air Night Food Stalls behind Ben Thant Market for Dinner
We ordered dishes out of a menu book – stir fried, charcoal-grilled, soup, anything you fancy but definitely local Vietnamese style. I didn’t really like what I ordered but it was all in the spirit of adventure eating. Plus the cheap beer made up for it.
For something more comfortable for the Western-oriented palate, we went to Chanh Bistro Rooftop (level 6, 43-45 Hồ Tùng Mậu, Bến Nghé, opposite the Bitexco Financial Tower, Sky Deck entrance). Great burgers and fries, lovely, breezy chill out atmosphere.The entrance is a bit hard to find… you have to pass a bistro with a full glass wall facing the street, and on the right go to the tiny lift lobby and take it up to Level 6.
LEARN – War Remnants Museum
This place gave me shivers, made me tear up, and turned my mind upside down. I did good to read up on modern Vietnamese history – the history section of a Lonely Planet guidebook would suffice in a pinch – as it helped me appreciate the photographs and exhibits without having to gulp down chunks of history.
You need at least two and a half hours; there’s TONS to see even if you’re not a history buff. Just don’t come here immediately after a meal. When Tripadvisor reviews say you need a strong stomach, they meant it.
WALK – Dong Khoi Street
The wide boulevard flanked by shops and restaurants, teeming with people young and old – skateboarding, singing in circles, taking an evening stroll… a beautiful sight of peace times that has been a long time coming for HCMC.
It was crowded but in a pleasant, buzzy way. A bit like Shanghai’s Nanjing Lu – big and spacious to have a nice meander without the smog and noise. A bit like Times Square without the brash billboards and slow-walking tourists. The time to see this place is now, before the metro line is done.
I expect there will be a much larger crowd – may not be a bad thing – and even more happening stuff here, but I guess there would be a certain innocence lost by then. Come and get that picture with Ho Chi Minh’s gleaming statue, before the street touts start charging US$2 for a snap. (a la Berlin’s silly fake border guards at Brandenburg Gate)
DRINK (COFFEE) – Cafe RuNam @ 96 Mạc Thị Bưởi
If Blair Waldorf and Serena Van Der Woodsen of Gossip Girl came to HCMC, they would make a beeline for this place… and never leave. Classy and chic, and a little too dim (lighting-wise) for our liking, this cafe is the sort of place you’d imagine bringing your best girl friend or mom for a treat after your first paycheck!
Just off a side street from Dong Khoi Street, this stylish place prides itself with their signature drip-brewing style – using the traditional Vietnamese ‘phin’ coffee-filter method. If you’re a coffee lover, you’ll start seeing this almost every time you order coffee in Vietnam so hopefully your first time is here at this magical and overly-perfumed cafe.
CLUB/DRINK – Chill Skybar
(NOTE- I’m not recommending you to go here, but some of you would be curious at some point, so here was my experience. The rest is up to you.)
Gentlemen. Proper nice clothes and shoes, only. We learnt the hard way, traipsing back with the guys to our hostel so they could get changed. So we didn’t check the dress code, but we were kinda trying our luck. Good thing it was only an eight-minute walk away.
The ostentatious greeting was a bad enough omen for us, but we wanted the view, and heard enough to go at least once. The door hostess simpered at us now that our toes were fully covered – and up we went.
The music was way too loud, and a waiter barred us from entering the dance floor unless we bought drinks. A Saigon beer is more than US$10 beer each. Downstairs on Bui Vien, the exact same thing costs less than US$1. (Eh, ten times is a lot, you have to agree.) This was the most affordable thing on the menu. We were flabbergasted. Yes this place marketed itself as classy but from the looks of it, it was not so fantastic albeit the height. Plus it was drizzling outside and the deck was closed to the patrons. So, we left…
And we went back to Bui Vien for some drinks. At 20,000 VND (around US$2) a pop, the satisfaction was not just with the pleasure of being with friends and having a nice, cold drink in hand. The satisfaction was really enjoying how it feels to not have to stop yourself after five beers or cocktails because it would bust your budget.
Hope this pho-nomenal appetiser of an itinerary has opened up your stomach for more Saigon adventures! Stay tuned for Part Two coming right up! A couple of quirky things to do if you have more than just 2 or 3 days in Ho Chi Minh City! ♥