HERE’S A GUIDE TO A WHIRLWIND TOUR OF SAIGON THAT CAN BE ADJUSTED TO SUIT PARTICULAR MOODS AND DESIRES.
As Vietnam’s largest metropolis, Ho Chi Minh City offers a unique potpourri of attractions including colonial architecture, war vestiges and memories, appetizing street food and a vibrant night life that has earned it the moniker of "the city that never sleeps."
But if you have just 24 hours in this Pearl of the Orient, here’s a tweakable list of the things to do.
EARLY START: 6 A.M. TO 7 A.M.
When many people and travel sites rave about it, you know it is worth starting early and enjoy a cup of hot coffee in the morning, gossiping with locals.
Sitting on small plastic stools on pavements, sipping your coffee and watching the city move from the peace and quiet of dawn to the rush-hour bustle with a zillion vehicles flooding the streets is quite an experience.
Besides the two popular staples -- black coffee and iced coffee with condensed milk that cost from VND10,000 to VND15,000 ($0.44-0.66), you can incorporate a bit of breakfast into your coffee by trying egg coffee, a well-known Hanoian specialty also found in the heart of Saigon.
This traditional egg coffee starts with a layer of condensed milk at the bottom of the cup (the Vietnamese twist) which is topped with strong black coffee. Scrambled egg yolk is then poured over the top. It sounds simple enough but few coffee shops make the drink successfully.
Just follow this map and choose some of the best places to try the egg coffee.
BREAKFAST TREATS: 7 A.M. TO 8 A.M.
The best way to charge your batteries for the day is to have a great breakfast, making your choice from the myriad of delicious and occasionally challenging options.
If you’re in the city for the first time, finding the perfect place for the perfect breakfast can be a little difficult. So, we recommend some dishes and tell you where you can find their most delicious versions.
Pho, which was recently named among the world’s best cheap eats by U.K. travel magazine Rough Guides, is an outstanding early morning option. Slurping down a bowl of this noodle soup while enjoying the mental rock music that is Vietnam’s traffic is never a bad idea.
Try Pho Hoa at 260C Pasteur Street, District 3, or Pho Hung at 243 Nguyen Trai Street, District 1
Situated in an alley off Cao Thang Street in District 3, Hoa Ma is renowned for its signature dish: banh mi served with a sizzling skillet loaded with fried eggs and an assortment of meats.
The eatery has many delicious dishes on its menu, from a simple ham and omelet banh mi for $1.75 to a premium version with Vietnamese pork sausages and bacon for $2.20.
Or, you can go for hu tiu, a soup made with translucent rice noodles that are thin and chewy.
It’s not difficult to find hu tiu stalls in the downtown area, but if you want to get a true taste of the dish, make your way to: Thanh Xuan on Ton That Thiep Street, District 1; or Phu Quy at the Ho Thi Ky Flower Market in District 10.
CITY TOUR: 8 A.M. TO 10 A.M.
Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh City was known earlier, teems with history, particularly contemporary history. So a historical tour is not to be missed.
The transport options for this tour, depending on your choice or choices, include buses, taxis, motorbike taxes or even cyclos (pedicabs or rickshaws). You can fashion this tour according to your interest – architecture, war vestiges, famous landmarks and even the most Instagrammed destinations.
You are pressed for time, of course, so here are the five most-visit destinations in downtown Saigon.
HCMC FINE ARTS MUSEUM
Situated close to the Ben Thanh Market, the HCMC Fine Arts Museum on Pho Duc Chinh Street is a hidden gem in the heart of Saigon.
Housed in a magnificent colonial building, the museum is a prime example of a blend of eastern and western cultures.
Those with an interest in Vietnamese arts and culture cannot afford to miss the Fine Arts Museum. Entry costs just VND20,000 or less than $1. It is open on all days except Monday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saigon Opera House
The city’s largest municipal theater has a strong gothic theme which was very popular in the late 19th century. It was designed and built-in 1898 by French architects Félix Olivier, Ernest Guichard and Eugène Ferret. The main feature of this work of art is an ingenious collaboration between architecture and sculpture.
Today, the French colonial landmark is a center of entertainment and a popular rendezvous for wedding photoshoots.
Central Post Office
The 130-year-old post office, built during the French colonial era, has been voted by TripAdvisor readers as one of the top 25 Asian landmarks.
Standing next to the Notre Dame cathedral, it was designed by French architect Gustave Eiffel, the man behind some of the world’s most renowned landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and New York’s Statue of Liberty.
Still a fully functioning postal hub, it is probably better known now as an icon and a tourist destination. Its phone booths are mainly used for selfies these days.
War Remnants Museum
The museum, founded in 1975, is one of the city's top tourist destinations that keeps intact memories of wars through a display of warplanes, tanks and cannons, as also the reconstruction of the notorious tiger cages.
The museum is home to more than 20,000 artifacts, images of Vietnam’s border wars after 1975 and documentaries about the wars against the French and Americans.
The museum relives the war crimes and their deadly legacy such as landmines and Agent Orange, which kill and maim thousands of Vietnamese people to this today.
TAN DINH CHURCH
This is the second largest church in Saigon after the iconic Saigon Notre Dame Basilica, which has been closed for renovation for the next two years.
The pink church is arguably one of the most Instagrammed places in the city thanks to its vivid colors and unique architectural features.
The remarkable design of Tan Dinh Church is a perfect blend of Gothic and Roman styles.
LUNCH BREAK: NOON TO 2 P.M.
When it comes to food, you are spoilt for choice in Saigon. All of Vietnam’s signature dishes are served at innumerable restaurants, food stalls and street food shops found at every corner. But here are some must-try dishes and places that have been hailed by many seasoned travelers. So save yourself some bother and instead think about writing reviews for other travelers.
A great, light lunch option is banh cuon, or steamed rice rolls: The thin rice-noodle sheet is steamed over a thin layer of cloth on boiling water. It is often served with minced pork and a slightly sweetened dipping sauce.
Tay Ho Restaurant: 127 Dinh Tien Hoang Street, Da Kao Ward, District 1
Thien Huong Restaurant, 155 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, District 1
Xuan Huong Restaurant, 1 Song Da Street, Tan Binh District
Another lunch option is crab noodle soup. The broth of this tasty soup is cooked with crab paste, tomatoes, fish sauce, salt, and onion. The traditional Vietnamese dish is usually served with fresh vegetables and a little shrimp paste.
4 Phan Boi Chau Street, Ben Thanh Market, District 1
87 Co Giang Street, District 1
You can also have a sizzling lunch with banh xeo. These crispy pancakes stuffed with assorted veggies, shrimp and meat, wrapped into a hand-roll with herbs and leaves and dipped into sweet chili fish sauce will have you yearning for more.
Try these at:
An la Ghien Restaurant, 74 Suong Nguyet Anh Street, District 1
Food shop, 6A Dinh Cong Trang Street, Tan Dinh Ward, District 1
Bot chien is another, odd yet delicious, lunch option. The dish is basically pan-fried scrambled egg rice cake, a Saigon special. Steamed rice cake is cut into chunks and fried until they turn yellow-brown and topped with egg and chopped green onions. Not available elsewhere in the country, this is a tasty, filling dish that will whet your appetite for the next time.
Try the dish at 185 Vo Van Tan Street in District 3.
Last but not least, your lunch can be perfectly fulfilled with bun thit nuong cha gio, a mixture of rice noodles, lean grilled pork, fried spring rolls and fresh vegetables.
Ms. Tuyen’s Restaurant, at 195 Co Giang Street, District 1
A food stall at 120 Tran Hung Dao Street, District 1
EXPLORING CHINATOWN: 2 P.M. TO 5 P.M.
After lunch, check out District 5, home to the largest Chinese-Vietnamese community in Saigon and dubbed, not surprisingly, “Chinatown.” But it’s far more than just a traditional Chinese settlement.
In Chinatown, Lady Thien Hau’s Temple has stood for more than 250 years, providing spiritual sustenance to a majority of the Chinese community, as also anyone else who steps into her embrace. The temple reflects the belief in Chinese sea goddess Mazu. Enter the temple at the corner of Nguyen Trai and Hai Thuong Lan Ong streets and you can experience a sacred calmness.
A 100-year-old alley called Hao Si Phuong off Tran Hung Dao Street does not draw the same attention as Lady Thien Hau’s Temple, but its distinctly Chinese architecture has earned it the nickname “Hong Kong Corner.”
TIME FOR A DRINK: 6 P.M. TO 8 P.M.
Bui Vien, the city’s backpacker hub, has become more attractive than ever after authorities turned it into a pedestrian zone on weekend nights. Essentially, it has become a giant partying place.
The place overflows with bars and pubs that shake up the night with loud music, flashing lights and loud revelers. To find your way around, here are a few suggestions.
The Sahara Beer Club can blow your mind with a DJ performing every night, a professional lineup of bartenders and a wide range of cocktails and liquors. The Hideaway Bar is for those who dig rock and ballad music.
The Boheme Pub is packed to the gills with beer fans and you’d best make a reservation in advance on weekends.
NGUYEN HUE BOULEVARD: 8 P.M. TO 10 P.M.
The city’s popular pedestrians-only square has become a cultural hotspot in the short time it has been established, with young and old congregating with guitars, violins, drums and other instruments for jamming sessions that attract many others to gather and watch, including foreign visitors.
Check out nine-storied apartment building at 42 Nguyen Hue. It is full of shops and cafés. You have to climb several flights of stairs, but the views are great and if you are into Instagram and Facebook, it is a great opportunity to collect a lot of likes.
ROOFTOP BARS: 10 P.M. TO 2 A.M.
Photo by VnExpress/Cao Anh Tuan
Last April, Saigon was voted among the best places in Southeast Asia to enjoy nightlife experiences by readers of U.K. travel magazine Rough Guides.
Turn into a night owl for a day to find out why this place gets its rave reviews.
When the sun goes down, there are no better places to enjoy the city’s vibes than the many rooftop bars that offer dusk to dawn views of the city from high up, along with fabulous cocktails and exciting music.
For a taste of Saigon’s chic nightlife, put on your best dress or suit and head to the busiest rooftop bars in the city.
SAIGON NIGHT MARKET: AFTER 2 A.M.
When the rest of the city is fast asleep, there are some places that work and serve customers’ shopping, food and drink needs into the small hours of the morning.
Stroll through the city's most famous sleepless market and experience their inexhaustible energy and vibrancy.
Ho Thi Ky, the city’s largest wholesale flower market, is home to more than 100 households selling hundreds of kinds of flowers in a cornucopia of colors. It operates round the clock and is at its bustling best between midnight and 2 a.m., when retailers rush back and forth with fresh produce.
And, there are also eateries which are open well into the small hours to serve hungry night-owls. Check out them if you are hungry.
You can call it a day now.
Story by Nguyen Quy
Videos contributed by Phong Vinh