Ideally you would allow a minimum of 4 nights in HCMC with all it has to offer visitors. However given annual leave constraints, a weekend escape would have to suffice (this time).
With HCMC only a 2 hour flight from Singapore, leaving after work on a Friday was easily manageable, and by 10pm we had checked in, dropped our bags, and were ready to head out for a late dinner and cold beer.
When travelling from the airport do make sure you only use the two official taxi companies (Mai Linh or Vinasun) and that they turn their meters on.
So, how to enjoy a weekend in this vibrant city?
If this is your first time to Saigon then it’s best to stay in District 1, central to many of the key sights and easy to get around by foot. We stayed in Liberty Central, Saigon Citypoint Hotel and would highly recommend. A modern hotel, with great service, and great amenities which included a very nice rooftop pool and bar.
See / Do
1. Book a ‘back of the bike’ tour
We booked a morning sights tour with XO Tours – a tour group where you get to ride on the back of a motorbike driven by local Vietnamese ladies while they take you about the city seeing some of the key highlights of Saigon. It was so much fun!!! At first I was a little nervous about the traffic, but the girls are excellent drivers and within a few minutes of being on the back of the bike I was loving it. Given the amount of traffic on Ho Chi Minh roads, it was very rare for us to get up much speed, which allows you to take in all the sights and surrounds of street life!
Our guides were very knowledgeable and gave us a good overview of the history and the main city sights as we went along. What I also really enjoyed was that they stop at local markets and let you try some local treats – creme caramel with a shot of espresso on top (YUM!) – and iced sugar cane drink, which is super refreshing in the heat of the city.
An excellent and extremely fun way to get an overview of the city and its history. We saw people of all ages, shapes and sizes getting on the back of these bikes, so I would highly recommend to everyone.
2. Walk pedestrian street Nguyen Hue
Excellent for people watching as this is where the youth of Saigon hang out, but also a great photo opportunity in front of the beautiful colonial style HCMC Town Hall.
Along this street you will find ‘The Cafe Apartment Building‘ (No42 Nguyen Hue) an old apartment building transformed into hipster-heaven filled with tiny cafes and clothing boutiques. Very cool place to grab a cold juice or iced coffee in the afternoon, sit out on the balcony, and to watch the world go by. And its cute, cheap!, and contains various female fashion boutiques for browsing. We particularly liked the iced drinks at The Maker Concept Cafe on the third floor.
We found a really good write up and floor guide on Vietnam Coracle.
3. Explore Ben Thanh Market
The central market is a great place to walk around and browse, and had we had more time I certainly work have been tempted to get my shop on! Lots of clothing, shoes, leather bags, a bit of everything really. Also open at night. From all I read on this market, given it is quite a tourist attraction, hard bargaining is required.
Eat / Drink
1. Vietnamese Coffee
Being the kind of person that loves my morning coffee, I did quite a bit of research beforehand on the best places to try local Vietnamese coffee. From all that I read there is many a coffee shop to chose from, however it is the local chain of Trung Nguyen (the Starbucks of Vietnam) that are located on nearly every street corner of Saigon, that actually served the best quality local coffee!
We only had two mornings in Saigon, but both mornings we walked to Trung Nguyen and ordered takeaway iced vietnamese coffee (iced coffee with condensed milk = cà phê sum đá) and paired this with a delicious croissant from Tous Le Jours bakery – both located just around the corner from our hotel on Le Loi. A great way to start the day!
2. Plastic stools street food for lunch
We were lucky enough to have a family member living in Saigon to take us to their favourite (and for good reason!) Bun Thit Nuong street food place.
Located not far from our hotel – just off the main road Le Loi on the corner of Nguyen Trung Truc street (just near a Trung Nguyen Coffee store). Its a tiny sit-on-the-side-of-the-street food stop, with plastic tables and stools set up along the footpath. They only prepare the one dish and they certainly do it well. To this day it is one of the best Vietnamese dish I have ever eaten, and given the price it certainly makes this a must eat on any future return to HCMC.
3. Drink Vietnamese Beer
It gets very hot in Saigon – so there is nothing better than relaxing with a super cold beer. We enjoyed the local favourites of Saigon Special and 333 (“Ba Ba Ba”).
We really liked the beautiful beer garden all lit up with fairy lights at The Barbecue Garden. A great way to relax at the end of the day, sitting out in the beautiful balmy night air.
Also worth experiencing is enjoying a ‘Plastic Chair Beer’ on Bui Vien Street, in the backpacker district of Saigon. Think: ice-cold beers, plastic chairs, street vendors, backpackers, music, lights, sound. A great spot for people watching.
We didn’t get a chance to make it to Pasteur Brewing Company, but it is on our to-do list for our next visit. A craft beer bar tucked down a little alleyway, with various tasty sounding brews on tap.
4. Enjoy a cocktail with a view
Chill Bar is located on top of AB Tower and provides some really nice night time views over Saigon. Go for happy hour to enjoy some tasty cocktails at a balanced price.
A little more boisterous on a Saturday night is the M Gallery Rooftop Bar at Hotel des Arts Saigon. Open air bar, with DJ, well dressed locals and expats, and drinks flowing. The drinks here are at a higher price point, however the view over the city makes up for the price tag.
My favourite cocktail bar we discovered does not come with a view however. The First Bar is a small hole in the wall bar, run by a Japanese guy who is serious about his cocktails and Japanese whiskies. There is only limited space on the ground floor but it is well worth insisting on waiting for a seat up at the bar, so you can watch the bartender work his magic. The perfect nightcap to round off a full day of exploring!