Admit it, unless there’s something really compelling, you’re more likely to be drawn to a new place than go back to a place you’ve been. The world’s a big place and there’s so much to see. But hey, even the best of us fail to give the most exciting places the time it deserves – whether it’s lack of time (I need to get to Bangkok by Monday!) or lack of budget (I can’t spend more than 3 days in this city if I want to do…) or lack of vacation days (uh-uh need to get home). So I had the pleasure and the luxury to spend a little more time in Ho Chi Minh City (from here on HCMC) and it has thrown up some interesting finds. In Part One, I sieved out the must-sees, must-dos for a quickie 3-day trip, but here’s a little extra to get ya feelers on this gorgeous Southern Vietnam metropolis.
I’ve got SEVEN things here for you – buy a conical hat, take a walk, drink some coffee and culture, go dancing, that’s one day. Then, eat a couple of freshly made summer rolls, explore a museum, watch a live performance and get a haircut – that’s another day. BUY A HAT, TAKE A WALK, DRINK COFFEE, GO DANCING, EAT SUMMER ROLLS, EXPLORE A MUSEUM, WATCH A LIVE SHOW, GET A HAIRCUT. Try saying that all in one breath. Now get all that done in 2 days — what do you mean, of course it’s doable! Come on, let’s go!
BUY – Binh Tay Market
A feast for the curious eyes, a nightmare for the orderly mind. This central market of Cholon/Chinatown is as amazing as it is claustrophobia-inducing. Built in 1928, this traditional Chinese marketplace used to be an important trading hub but there seemed to be no signs of slowing down! Tons of small stores jam-freaking-packed from floor to ceiling with stuff. I could not imagine so so so many things could fit into such tiny spaces. And the inventory! How do they keep track!
Nail clippers, stainless mugs, Revlon lipsticks, childrens’ pajamas, brightly coloured women’s underwear, Monin syrups, exercise books, woks… I think this place supplies the whole Saigon. You just gotta come see it for yourself.
Now, you probably have bought nothing since it was more like a feast for the eyes. Your wallet thanks you. Go outside the market and walk down the main street Tháp Mười in the direction towards the city– you’re bound to bump into a couple street peddlers selling the iconic Vietnamese hat (non la). Here they sell it for around 20,000k VND per hat (in August 2015) , a fraction of what you’d pay in the more touristy parts of the District 1.
WALK – A Self-Guided Cholon Walking Tour
After the mind-freaking Binh Tay Market trip, we did a self-guided (Hello, HERE maps!) walking tour, heading eastwards back towards the direction of the city.
We were grabbing a quick bite at a Chinese restaurant called Nam Long near Binh Tay Market, and met the really cool elderly restaurant owner. We had a great convo with him about the Chinese community (story for another day!) and he drew us a map for our impromptu walking tour.
We followed this trail and hit up three temples – the Chùa Minh Hương (marked B, on 184 Hồng Bàng), the Chùa Ôn Lăng (marked C, on 12 Lão Tử) and the Thien Hau Temple (marked D, on 710 Nguyễn Trãi). This walk will take you around 2 to 3 hours, including the stops. If you’re walking through without stopping, it’d take you 30 minutes from A to D. After that, we hopped into a cab heading back to District 1.
Indeed, the temple grounds reminded me of a lotus pond – serene, peaceful sanctuaries to calm even the wildest souls. Amidst the scent of incense I could hear my own thoughts.
Ahh… take a rest, ’cause it’s gonna get crazy soon enough.
DRINK (COFFEE + CULTURE) – Loft Cafe @ the corner of Dong Khoi & Ly Tu Trong
By now, you’d need an extra boost of energy, be it in the form of caffeine or carbs! I’ve a place for you..
Loft has a unique charm – travellers with a penchant for trends will love it for its wrought-iron tables and chairs, plus the gallery wall of black-and-white photos of old Vietnam. Its interior is flooded with natural light through its gorgeous see-through clock fixture. The decor screams ‘hipster’ though it wasn’t clear whether it was decorated like this before the movement began. Yet its menu is interesting and not pretentious enough that it manages to free itself of the unfortunate label. For dessert, we attacked the Oreo milkshake and the Mango Pannacotta. Let’s say… their interpretations are unique…
There are so many cafes in this city. It is really hard to make a choice with what little time we have. Earlier we picked Cafe RuNam (see Part One) for its exquisite decor and the princess-like treatment. But this place is a totally different animal. What drew my attention here initially was the impending doom faced by this building where this cafe is located in.
Loft Cafe is located in the Catinat Building, which got earmarked for redevelopment, meaning that in the near future a bulldozer’s gonna come and turn it to dust and real estate gold. So I felt like if I don’t see it this time round, who knew if it’d still be standing the next time I got around to this city again. Plus, I’ve always been a nerd about this whole redevelopment-gentrification thing.
A lil background – This Art Deco building housed some prestigious French companies and the US consulate in the 30s and 40s, and witnessed a significant piece of Saigon’s tumultuous history — the US evacuation airlift in 1975 right next door. You can find out more about its history here with Saigoneer.com’s detailed coverage in 2014.
So go there, taste every piece of this history that’s melting away from us.
Plus, there are loads of independent designer stores, cafes and galleries in the same building to explore. See them while they are still there! You can spend easily 3 to 4 hours here, chilling out with a book, or just poking around and treasure-hunting!
Address: Loft Cafe | 26 Lý Tự Trọng, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Ho Chi Minh City
DANCE – Apocalypse Now
Flashing lights, no cover charge, sticky floors, two dance floors of distinct characters – one Top 40, one Korean-pop, and a do-whatever-the-freak-you-want devil-may-care attitude. Bonus – a coat check where we left our stuff for hands-free dancing.
Kids that looked nary a day over twenty mashed up against middle-aged young-at-hearters. Sleazy business types with ladies of the night. Ahem. No one cares. Zero judgment.
On the K-pop floor, an androgynous-looking dude was gyrating on an elevated platform to insanely catchy music that would put Gangnam Style to shame. His bare chest was splattered with glow-in-the-dark paint. He beckoned guys and girls to dance with him, dance AT him, dance for him. We all danced. Remember, zero judgment… and just dance.
Address: Apocalypse Now | 2B Thi Sách Bến Nghé Quận 1 Bến Nghé Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh City
…. Rise and shine for day two! You deserve a little sleep in and head right onto an early lunch!
EAT – Bun Mam Dac San
This is a no-menu type of place where we ate almost close to the floor. Located directly across from Ben Thant Market, and we had this for lunchtime, so try to go here before late afternoon.
We couldn’t speak Vietnamese – no menu, remember? – so we just pointed. It was either chicken or seafood broth over slippery bun noodles. The side of Vietnamese summer rolls was the best I’ve eaten, so far. So freshly made, they rolled off the fingers of the lady who was making them next to us.
Not the most hygienic place, so please do not scrutinise the surroundings. Not everyone in our group was amused by this place. I won’t say this is street food, since there is technically a proper shopfront and sitting space. Call it whatever you want, especially if you wanna chalk up some adventure points for eating here.
Address: Bun Mam Dac San | 22 Phan Bội Châu Bến Thành Quận 1 Hồ Chí Minh City
EXPLORE – Museum of Fine Arts
An exquisitely beautiful building that could use a lot more tender loving – we saw paintings that reflected the old and the new Vietnam. Heaps of drawings done during the Vietnam War – people found time to create, which was truly incredible – in a time when photographs are probably difficult to come by save for the odd war photographer (those you’d see at War Remnants Museum).
Our highlight here was strangely not the art itself. We bumped into some local students from HCMC itself on their own heritage tour, who interpreted a piece of art laden with Vietnamese history for us. Right before we left, we stopped to watch a sweaty bunch of middle-aged men play volleyball in the centre courtyard. Riveting stuff.
Address: Museum of Fine Arts | 97 Phó Đức Chính, Nguyễn Thái Bình, Hồ Chí Minh City
WATCH – AO Show
The AO Show is like an elegant poem, artfully performed with a healthy dose of acrobatics. Entertaining and pleasant, like balm to the eyes after a long day of traipsing about. This is not Broadway or West End, so please be gentle with these lovely young performers. It’s one hour long – for me it felt like a just-nice duration, not too long for those afraid to commit three hours (Ahem, Les Miserables) to a play, and not too short to feel like you’re not getting enough. So.. no excuses, heh!
There are two starting times depending on the day of the week, 6pm and 8pm, so plan accordingly!
My recommendation – Get your tickets in advance at the Central Post Office, or with your guesthouse/hotel, do this on the first day you arrived in HCMC, to secure the seats you want. They have three seat categories, Wow!, Ooh! and Aah! from the most pricey to the most affordable. The Wow! is double the price of the Aah! and we were going the budget route and were happy with the Aah! category. In fact, there are some pretty good seats for Aah! – you can see the seating plan before you confirm payment – if you book in advance. Of course, go ahead and splurge if you have the extra dough.
DO – Get a haircut and relaxing hair wash on Bui Vien
After the show, you can make your way slowly back to the Bui Vien area, and find yourself a nice hair salon to get a hair cut and wash!
For the record, the picture on the left is the BEFORE, the right is the AFTER. I don’t know what it’s worth but from the looks of the photo it doesn’t look like an improvement, but in the defence of the hairdresser I can tell you it grows out rather decently. :p
I got a Jennifer Aniston circa Friends-era haircut and hair wash on Bui Vien street, at a typically Vietnamese hair salon – simple mirror-and-chair setup with hairdressers who speak basic (next to none) English. Later on, I actually like my look a lot since it doesn’t look as 1995 as when I first walked out of the salon after my own styling. It was also very affordable – at 120k VND (a bit less than US$6) for both cut and wash. Since it was raining like crazy, we holed up in the salon for 2 hours and had a lovely conversation with the Singaporean boss.
Before you go thinking ‘No way I’m getting a haircut for S$6’, you do realize hair grows, right? Plus, come on, for this price, we could all risk a trim. ;-) And… the hair wash is really comforting.
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Coming from a big city myself, I really enjoy visiting different cities and think about how they come about, why they are the way they are, and what’s the best way to see the place to get the most out of the culture, the people, the food… the essence of it all and then some. (On the same trip, we would later spend another 3 days in the south in the Mekong River Delta, and then head north to hit the seaside town of Phan Thiet and Mui Ne.)
Rowdy, chaotic, charming, sensuous, heart-rending, emotional, artful, trendy – Ho Chi Minh City is a great, eye-opening precursor for a future trip to Vietnam. Looking forward to seeing the North sometime soon – heard it’s actually very different…! ♥