Ho Chi Minh City,
Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City is Vietnam's largest city and the engine driving the country's current resurgence. It may be the most capitalist city in the country, but HCMC hasn't forgotten its role in the struggle for Vietnamese independence, as attested by such sites as Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. Communist ideals aside, HCMC is once again a dynamic business-minded city, as a stroll down Dong Khoi Street or through Ben Thanh Market will prove. Aside from pockets of older architecture, HCMC is a sprawling, rapidly modernizing city that offers an urban buzz unlike anywhere else in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is a fascinating destination but a chronic lack of infrastructure, not to mention oppressive heat and seasonal rains, can make navigation difficult. A fearless visitor may embrace the chaos by jumping on the back of a xe om (motorbike taxi) with a hit list of cultural attractions and must-eat street food dishes. Others may prefer to travel by taxi before ending the day at one of the city's many refined eateries. Either way spread your sightseeing over two or three days and let yourself unwind—despite the pulsating street life, this is also a city of soul-soothing spas, swanky cocktail lounges, hidden cafés, and rooftop bars.
Mouthwatering Vietnamese cuisine, whether you choose to eat it on the street or in a more sheltered establishment, is one of Ho Chi Minh City's major draws. Street food or no-frills, family-run restaurants offer incredible value, so after, say, a humble bowl of pho for breakfast and a host of southern specialties for lunch, you can easily justify a splurge for dinner.
Fresh spring rolls and salads, flavorful interpretations of a wide variety of Vietnamese meat and seafood dishes, and attentive but unobtrusive service set May apart from the crowd. The manager is always happy to tailor recommendations to diners' preferences, but with a menu featuring fried tofu with lemongrass, heart of palm salad with pork and prawns, sea bass fillet with passion-fruit sauce, and Vietnamese-style grilled eggplant, visitors usually find plenty of choices to make them happy. May's tasteful colonial decor is the icing on the cake.
This popular spot's French-Vietnamese fusion cuisine and its charming setting inside an old colonial villa make it one of HCMC's more distinctive dining experiences. The bar is one of the top venues in town for premium cocktails and champagne. As it's often packed with well-heeled locals and visitors, reservations are a good idea at peak dining times.
The charming, atmospheric Temple Club is a renovated Chinese temple that's one of HCMC's most memorable places to grab a meal or coffee. Ideal for special occasions or just a romantic meal in an unforgettable space, this atmospheric restaurant serves classic Vietnamese fare—try the fresh shrimp and pork salad rolls or the grilled fish in banana leaf—but the star of the show is the decor, from the lantern-lit corridor through which you enter the restaurant to the Asian art and colonial-era furnishings. Reservations are recommended since a visit to the Temple Club is on the to-do list for many visitors.
Cuc Gach Quan
Serving traditional Vietnamese dishes with an emphasis on healthy, environmentally friendly eating, Cuc Gach Quan has succeeded in carving out its own niche in HCMC's dining scene. Set in an old French home that has received a modern makeover and is furnished with repurposed colonial-era furniture—including a wooden bed that's been converted into a dining table—Cuc Gach Quan is Vietnamese with a green and design-y edge. Reservations are recommended but not essential.
Monsoon Restaurant & Bar Saigon
A Burmese-owned restaurant serving a good mix of Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai, and Cambodian dishes, Monsoon offers diners authentic Southeast Asian cuisine in a smart yet relaxed atmosphere. The fun of sampling flavors from around this culinarily fascinating region is enhanced by its setting, a French colonial villa and its pleasant courtyard.
The centerpiece of this stylish, immensely popular Japanese-owned restaurant is not a sushi bar but a brick oven, and the thin-crust pizzas it produces are truly worthy of Naples. You can opt for classic creations (quattro formaggi or margherita) or something a little more experimental (seaweed calamari or quattro flower—made with four kinds of edible flowers). Italian-style appetizers and pasta dishes are also available. Customers who can't get a seat will stand by the bar just for a slice of the mouthwatering pizza. Reservations should be made days in advance—yes, it's that popular.
Nha Hang Ngon
If you don't have the time (or the courage) to sample various street-food dishes across the city, there's a simple solution: Nha Hang Ngon. In this vast French colonial–period villa, you can browse the in-house "street vendors" that encircle the downstairs area before ordering à la carte, or simply choose one of the many set menus on offer. It's a wonderful, stress-free introduction to Vietnamese street food, one which emboldens first-time visitors to be more adventurous thereafter. No matter how busy it looks, you will always find a table somewhere. Be sure to try southern Vietnamese specialties such as banh xeo (a crispy rice-flour pancake with shrimp and pork) or a bowl of bun mam (noodle soup with anchovy fish sauce and pork).
A family-run food store-cum-restaurant, Thanh Binh serves a variety of scrumptious delicacies from the city of Hue and a number of hearty southern Vietnamese staples. You'll be able to squeeze in a bowl of noodles—try the bun thit nuong (rice vermicelli noodles with marinated pork) or the house specialty, mien xao cua (fresh crab served on glass noodles)—plus a side order, such as banh it tran (savory rice dumplings filled with mung beans, pork, and shrimp) or a crunchy papaya salad. Wash it all down with freshly squeezed pomelo or sugarcane juice. It's an all-day diner, but come for lunch rather than dinner.
A posh restaurant-lounge serving traditional Vietnamese food, fine wines, and highly creative cocktails might seem a bit incongruous, but Xu offers all this and more. The food is exquisite, if pricey (tasting menus start at $40), but you can expect the highest standards of quality in terms of food preparation, service, and decor. The bar downstairs gets lively in the evening thanks to a generous happy hour from 5:30–8.30 with half-price cocktails. A classic martini or an edible concoction blasted with liquid nitrogen—the choice is yours. Casual wear is expected in the evening.
Banh Xeo 46A
A no-frills, family-run institution, Banh Xeo 46A is the go-to place for one of southern Vietnam's most cherished culinary creations: banh xeo (literally, "sizzling cake")—a crispy pancake made with rice flour, coconut milk, and a smidgen of turmeric, and filled with bean sprouts, onion, shrimp, and pork. Place a slice in a giant mustard leaf, add a clump of herbs and greens, roll it all up, and dunk it in a fish sauce–based dip laced with chilies. You can worry about wiping your hands later. There is a room with air-conditioning, but sitting outside is more fun, especially in the evening.
Accommodation options in Ho Chi Minh City run the gamut from swanky five-star hotels and iconic historical digs to a smattering of boutique lodgings and a whole spate of budget options. Free Wi-Fi is ubiquitous, but service can be hit-or-miss. When in doubt, just remember that location trumps facilities.
As a thriving business hub, Ho Chi Minh City works hard and plays hard. As a result, you will find plenty of lively bars and nightclubs all across District 1. In terms of the performing arts, the Saigon Opera House, French-government funded IDECAF, and Conservatory of Ho Chi Minh City all hold regular concerts. For those interested in contemporary art, Galerie Quynh and San Art are both highly-regarded venues.
Far above the bustling crowds, Chill commands an impressive open bar and steak house on the 26th floor of one of the city's modern office blocks. With unimpeded views of downtown HCMC and beyond, this is a dramatic vantage point to watch the sun go down. It's a slick, pricey venue that attracts plenty of glamorous, well-heeled guests, but it's worth a splurge. Gentlemen, make sure you slip on some casual wear lest you have to borrow the dreaded "trousers and shoes for lend."
Since opening in 2012, Blanchy's Tash has become one of the city's most popular late-night haunts, attracting a mix of expats, tourists, and locals. If downstairs gets too crowded for your tastes, head for the rooftop terrace on the third floor. The three-hour-long happy hour on weeknights is a great value, with cocktails going for 80,000 VND (less than $4) a pop. For those curious about the peculiar name, it honors the moustache of Paul Blanchy, a colonial entrepreneur who made his fortune cultivating pepper and went on to become the first mayor of Saigon (1895–1901).
A chill, trendy bar, Broma stocks an impressive array of bottled beers from all corners of the globe, and the bar staff mixes an excellent cocktail. If you're looking for a little local flavor, try the eye-opening Rum bo Hue (made with fresh basil, coriander, mint, chili pepper, rum, lemon, and roasted cinnamon). Make sure to sit in the open-air lounge on the top floor, where you will be right in between two of the city's flashiest skyscrapers (Saigon Times Square and Bitexco Financial Tower). The only drawback is the music, as customers often hijack the sound system.
Nguyen Trung Truc Street
If you're looking to enjoy a fun, laid-back night out, Nguyen Trung Truc Street is home to a string of cheap and cheerful bar-and-grill joints that attract scores of locals throughout the evening. Even though there is indoor seating, everyone is on the street. Ongoing entertainment is provided by fire-breathers and clusters of guitar-strumming, crooning customers. Xua va Nay (33 Nguyen Trung Truc) is the most popular restaurant, but further up the street Saigon Xua va Nay (no relation) is just as good, and Saigon Night repeats the winning formula. To get started, order a round of Saigon beer and a plate of pork ribs (suon nuong). The street party continues until midnight.
Ho Chi Minh City attracts all of the usual international brands, but visitors will be more intrigued by the designer boutiques selling made-in-Vietnam products—many of which are dotted around the Dong Khoi area.
A huge conglomeration of tiny stalls hawking all kinds of clothing, footwear, accessories, and electronics, Saigon Square is a great place to restock on threadbare beachwear: shorts, T-shirts, swim suits, flip-flops, sunglasses, hats, and whatever else you may have worn out while on vacation. The traders may claim there's a one-price-policy, but don't let that discourage you from trying to haggle, especially if there's no price listed. Generally, the more you buy, the bigger the discount. Note that all transactions are made in cash.
This chic, capacious boutique store stocks a variety of trendy imported electronic goods, stationery, and accessories, such as Lomography cameras, Moleskine notebooks, and Sunday Somewhere sunglasses. International travelers might be more interested in the array of stylish, made-in-Vietnam products. Keep an eye out for placemats by Very Ngon Homewares, lamps by District 8, and summer dresses by Trois Filles. The eponymous café upstairs is an excellent spot for brunch and coffee.
Just as the name implies, Saigon Kitsch offers a treasure trove of entertaining knickknacks—mugs, badges, stickers, coasters, laptop bags, shot glasses, ashtrays—all emblazoned with socialist period slogans or quirky Vietnam-themed motifs. It's the perfect place to grab a sack full of souvenirs for friends and family back home. It's also worth wandering upstairs to Dogma, another store where you can buy reproductions of vintage revolutionary period Socialist art and T-shirts.
Yersin (Dan Sinh) Market
If you'd like to stock up for your next camping trip, or if you're just fond of military-themed attire, make a beeline for Yersin Market (Cho Dan Sinh), where you will find military jackets and helmets as well as binoculars, compasses, raincoats, and flashlights. The market is also a treasure trove of memorabilia (dog tags, Zippos, medals, and other military trinkets). Many stalls at the market also sell electrical and plumbing equipment and other hardware, which keeps the atmosphere workmanlike all around.
Vivek Chaudhary, the founder of Gallery Vivekkevin, presents his luxurious contemporary jewelry in ways that often elevates the jewelers from craftspeople to artists in the minds of the customers. Even if you'd rather not splurge for jewelry while on holidays, this gallery and retail outlet is worth popping in for a quick peek. The intricate creations on display are mind-blowing.
Built on the ruins of two previous palaces, Reunification Palace is one of the more potent symbols of Vietnam's 30-year war for independence. On April 30, 1975, it was at Reunification Palace—then known as Independence Palace—where a North Vietnamese Army tank smashed through the main gate, thus ending one of the bloodiest conflicts in living memory. The tank and the fighter jet that bombed the palace weeks before the war's end are both on display.
Dong Khoi Street
This pleasant, tree-lined street in District 1 is home to some of the city's most celebrated French colonial buildings, such as Notre Dame Cathedral, Caravelle Hotel, the central post office, and the Saigon Opera House (now the Municipal Theatre). It's an area that in recent years has reestablished itself as the city's commercial center. Sightseeing aside, there's plenty of shopping, eating, and drinking along Dong Khoi Street, but it tends to be more costly here than elsewhere in the city.
Vietnam History Museum
Much of Vietnam's history, and consequently its identity today, has been influenced by outsiders. In ancient times the Khmer and Chinese empires occupied large portions of modern-day Vietnam, and in more recent times the country has been partially or completely occupied by French, Japanese, and American forces. The Vietnam History Museum is an excellent place to get the Vietnamese perspective on these events as well as some unexpected surprises, most notably the oldest mummy ever found in the country. The competent English introductions in the museum's exhibits are extremely helpful.
Ben Thanh Market
This bustling market is worth a visit for the people-watching opportunities alone, but there is also plenty of shopping and eating to partake of. The market, which traces its history back to the 17th century, is a good place to score deals on textiles, clothing, and artisanal crafts—if you're willing to haggle for your price. Food vendors at Ben Thanh offer authentic local snacks, should all that shopping and haggling work up your appetite.
War Remnants Museum
An extremely popular museum focused primarily on Vietnam's war with the United States, the War Remnants Museum offers a rare opportunity for Americans and other visitors to hear the Vietnamese side of the conflict. Often featuring graphic and unsettling war images, the museum is not for the squeamish. Unabashedly critical of U.S. activities in Vietnam decades ago, the exhibit stands in stark contrast to a modern Vietnam that is extremely friendly to American visitors.
Binh Tay Market
This wholesale market is less a shopping destination (unless you're looking to bulk-buy spices or textiles) and more of a spectacle to behold. Arrive before 8 in the morning to savor the frenetic atmosphere at its peak. In the central courtyard a small shrine honors the market's founder, Quach Dam, a disabled Chinese immigrant who started out collecting scrap before making his fortune. The food court inside serves a wide variety of noodle dishes as well as freshly blended fruit juices and ca phe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk). It's best to come early for the bustle and then stay for brunch.
Bitexco Financial Tower
A symbol of contemporary HCMC, the 68-floor Bitexco Financial Tower is the city's tallest building, and you can enjoy high-altitude views from the observation skydeck (entrance $10) on the 49th floor. This deck features interactive screens that provide information on a selection of streets and sites below. If you want to avoid the entrance fee but still marvel at the view, you can grab a bite to eat at Strata Restaurant on the 50th floor, or head up to Alto Heli-Pad Bar on the 52nd floor at the end of the day for a sunset drink.
Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum
Spread over three floors in a sumptuous French colonial villa, the city's Fine Arts Museum offers a comprehensive run through the main stages of Vietnamese art. Next door, the Blue Space Contemporary Art Center also hosts regular exhibitions of celebrated Vietnamese artists. Strolling around is a pleasant experience, but sadly there is scant information on display to enlighten visitors. To really understand the significance of what's on display, curious sightseers should consider a guided tour.
Depending on your tolerance for heat, you can experience life on the Saigon River by day or by night. If you choose the former, consider taking a leisurely cruise to District 2 and enjoying brunch at The Deck Saigon; the restaurant will happily arrange transport from District 1 if you call ahead. If you'd prefer to wait for the sun to set, you can enjoy dinner and drinks on one of the many floating restaurants, all of which disembark from Ton Duc Thang Street (opposite the Tran Hung Dao Statue). Your last option is to simply admire the river from the fifth floor bar at the historic Majestic Hotel, where Graham Greene once sat and imagined scenes from The Quiet American, his lauded novel set in Vietnam, unfold in the distance.
Unlike Chinatowns elsewhere in the world, there's no discernible entry point to HCMC's Cho Lon district—home to the bulk of the city's Chinese community. Tourist attractions are scattered around a large urban area, and the traffic (not to mention the heat or seasonal rain) can make navigation tough. The best advice is to figure out what you want to see in advance and hire a xe om (motorbike taxi) for a morning tour. Cultural highlights include the Binh Tay Market, Quan Am Pagoda, Thien Hau Pagoda, Cholon Mosque, and Cha Tam Church. Hai Thuong Lan Ong road is worth a peek for the aromatic apothecaries, and Luong Nhu Hoc—home to stores selling all kinds of ritualistic costumes, ornaments, and opera masks—is a great spot to pick up souvenirs. End your itinerary at Hai San restaurant (Thuan Kieu Plaza, 190 Hong Bang, 1st floor) for a dim sum feast.