I may be biased because I lived in Ho Chi Minh City and still call it my second home, but you’ll be struck by the friendly people, the fast yet relaxed rhythm, the tasty food, the fun nightlife and the hot weather all year round. I recently returned as a tourist and am happy to share a list of my favourite spots and useful information to plan your trip to Vietnam, because yes, Ho Chi Minh City is worth a visit.
In case you forget though, Vietnam is a developing country. So be indulgent if you encounter what I like to call organized chaos. My advice? Just like anywhere else, be aware of your surroundings but not overly suspicious. Again, most people are friendly and I’ve never had a bad experience. If you’re careful and you follow these tips, you’ll have a wonderful time there.
Unless you hold a passport from (most) ASEAN countries or some Asian and European countries, you probably need a visa to enter the country. Check your countries’ agreement with Vietnam to find out.
The best website to order it from is vietnam-evisa.org. The cost should vary between USD 9 to 19 per person for a one month single entry and it usually takes one working day to process. To avoid extra charges and worry, make sure to order it a week before your departure, to put in the exact arrival date—otherwise you will need to order a new visa—and to print a copy.
Also, bring enough cash—either VND or USD. Upon arrival, you’ll need to pay USD 25 (cash only) for a single entry and hand in two passport sized photos (4x6cm). You can also get your picture taken at the airport for 100,000 VND (USD 5).
Walking for long distances can be unpleasant as sidewalks are not always in good condition, so here are two alternatives.
If you have an international mobile plan or if you buy a Vietnamese sim card at the airport, Grab Taxi is a cheaper and more convenient option than regular taxis.
Otherwise, the two most trustworthy companies are VinaSun (white and green cars) and Mailinh (green cars) as they are both regulated by the government. Other companies may overcharge you.
Once you get out of the international airport, you’ll find the taxi line on the left. Walk all the way to the back of the line to find VinaSun and Mailinh. It should not cost you more than 200,000 VND (USD 10) to go downtown (District 1).
There are over 7 million scooters on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s the most convenient way to get around in District 1, but only rent one if you’re experienced. Wear a helmet and drive slowly. Accidents do occur.
Most accommodations are in District 1, and that’s where you want to be. You’ll find everything from luxurious hotels such as Hotel des Arts, Intercontinental and Le Meridien, to hostels. The only area I would absolutely avoid because of the nighttime noise is Bui Vien street, also known as the backpacker street.
In nearly two years, I’ve never had food poisoning in Vietnam, but some tourists do encounter stomach issues. Never drink tap water, avoid salads or any fruit and vegetable washed in tap water, and if you’re sensitive, don’t go crazy on street food on your first day. Here’s a list of must-try dishes and restaurants.
Tucked in an alleyway in District 1, Banh Mi 37 has the best banh mis. Made with meat balls, marinated vegetables, and a special sauce, they cost less than a dollar. Beware that this stall only opens from 4ish to 7 PM. If you’re sensitive to spicy food, say “khong cay”, which means “not spicy”.
Bun Thit Nun means noodles with grilled pork. This dish is topped with peanuts (so avoid it if you’re allergic), spring rolls and a fish and vinegar sauce. The best one is served at Propaganda, one of my favourite spots for lunch. You can also order from Au Parc restaurant next door as both restaurants are connected.
If you want to experience a typical Vietnamese restaurant, go to Pho Hoa Pasteur, and if you want a modern and “healthier” pho (MSG-free), go to Mama Pho.
There are plenty of other delicious Vietnamese dishes, such as bánh cuốn, bún chả and gỏi cuốn (spring rolls). For Vietnamese sharing-style restaurants, I recommend Cuc Gach Quan, Secret Garden, Mountain Retreat and Hoa Tuc. Tucked in a courtyard, Hoa Tuc also offers cooking classes. In the morning, they take you to Benh Tanh market to buy the ingredients. I highly recommend it.
Cà phê sữa, which means coffee with condensed milk, is a must. You can have it cold (cà phê sữa đá) or hot (cà phê sữa nóng). Most restaurants will have it but I enjoy it the most at L’Usine, which is also a fashion boutique, Running Bean next to Bitexco Tower (a landmark), and Coffee House Signature which has more of a local feel, but is a little further away, in District 3.
L’Usine (they have three locations, I usually go to the ones on Dong Khoi and Le Loi street)
Coffee House Signature
If you go to the Saigon Center mall, make a quick stop at this Japanese cafe located on the third floor for traditional Japanese tea with a view. I also recommend Annam Gourmet Market on the second basement floor, where you can buy edible souvenirs (chocolate, coffee, pho kits and so on).
Maison Marou is an award-winning chocolate brand founded by two French entrepreneurs. Crafted from local fair-trade cacao, Marou chocolate bars are sold at almost every gift shop in the city. If you have time though, go to their boutique on Calmette street to enjoy a wider array of chocolates, chocolate drinks and desserts. The chocolate chip cookie is a must.
If you need a break from Vietnamese food, Pizza 4 P’s has amazing pizza and pasta. And a great cheese selection. Their burrata cheese pizza is particularly delicious.
Other places I enjoy are Namo for pizza, Quince Saigon for western fusion food, Osterberg for ice cream (in District 2, which is 20 minutes away from the city center), and Dim Tu Tac for dim sums.
The Deck is a beautiful riverside restaurant in District 2. Go on a Sunday evening to enjoy happy hour promotions. It’s a little further away though. Otherwise, MGallery, a rooftop lounge sitting on top of Hotel des Arts, is a nice spot for a 5 à 7 on any day of the week. A few floors down is Social Club restaurant, where you’ll find the best free flow champagne brunch every Sunday for USD 75.
Glow is by far my favourite rooftop bar for its entertainment, ambiance and view.
Layla Eatery and Bar is a casual bar with an impressive list of cocktails—it closes around 1AM.
Racha Room, which serves Asian-inspired cocktails, is another good option for your 5 à 7.
My friends also recommend Firkin Bar, a new whiskey bar.
Although I’m not a beer fan, I enjoy going to Pasteur Street Brewing Company, a cosy bar with flavourful beers, and East West Brewing Bar, a massive in-house craft brewery & kitchen concept.
Other than eating and drinking, there are important landmarks to see. I recommend the War Remnant Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral, Benh Tanh Market, and Nguyen Hue walking street, where you’ll also find Bitexco Tower. By the way, it’s not worth going up to Bitexco’s observation deck. Rooftop bars offer better views—for free.
Picture taken on Nguyen Hue street
If you are interested in history and have enough time, visit the Cu Chi tunnels, an impressive network of connecting underground tunnels used during the Vietnam War.
Temple Leaf, Miu Miu and Indochine are my three favourite spas. Most of the time, you have to book at least a day in advance, but you may be able to book Indochine within a few hours as it’s a little more expensive than the others. Indochine allows you to choose between three oil scents and offers private rooms for two.
Unfortunately, the quality of the massage depends on the therapist. It’s the same everywhere. For USD 10 to 20, don’t expect the same level of service as in North America or elsewhere.
Great shows have been presented at the Opera House, such as the Ao Show. Check out the Ho Chi Minh Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera (HBSO)’s schedule online or go in person.
If you only have a day to spend in Ho Chi Minh, or don’t have enough time to prepare, there are a few tours available, from walking tours to vespa tours. I did the Saigon After Dark Vespa tour which is pricey but allows you to discover hidden corners of the city. They will bring you to Vung oi Coffee shop, a hidden cafe with live music, Accoustic Bar, where different bands perform live, and street food stalls such as Banh Xeo 46A.
I hope this blog post is helpful for your trip preparation. If you’re still unsure of which city to visit, you can read about Sapa here and Phu Quoc here.
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