Two years ago, I made a promise to myself – to travel to at least one new country each year. 2011 was Sangkhlaburi, Thailand. 2012 was India and 2013, Vietnam. Having returned from my third trip in Vietnam this year, I am certain that Vietnam remains one of the best bets for a weekend getaway. While the perception is that Ho Chi Minh is so boring that one could finish it in a day, this post will prove you wrong. Here’s the list of awesome to-dos in Ho Chi Minh:
Drink beer, smoke and be merry
Drinking in Saigon is an experience like no other. Unlike posh bars with expensive liquors, drinking beer in vietnam involves sitting in small plastic chairs along a dirty street. Why would people do that? Simply because beer is dirt cheap. Ranging from 5,000 – 7,000 (USD 0.25) per glass to 12,000 (USD0.70) per bottle, what’s there to mind? The tables are so close to one another, it’s almost impossible not to chat up your stranger-soon-to-be-friend. Popular choices are Tiger beer and Saigon beer. But then again, you could try both since beer’s so cheap anyway.
Where: Pham Ngu Lao – the street that never gets quiet, even at 3am.
Enjoy french cuisine without feeling the pinch
Being under the French colonial rule for years, it’s no wonder there’s strong French influence in Vietnam, even today. Bistro 48 is the perfect restaurant for quality gastronomic French food without the price tag. If you enjoy quality food without the pretentiousness, this is the right place for you.
French delicacies such as beef steak with goose fat, stewed rabbit in red wine, roasted lamb chops with mint and apple jelly range between 78,000 – 300,000 dong (USD 5- USD15). The baked oysters are a must. When each are about the size of a human palm, it’s not to be missed. End your meal with their signature creme brulee/ molten chocolate cake or french wine.
48/52 Le Thi Rieng, District 1
Open 10am-2pm, 5pm-10pm
Slurp pho noodles
Known to the world, this dish needs little introduction. Most Pho noodles come with a dish holding mint leaves, bean sprouts, chopped chilli and cut lime. Garnish your bowl of Pho with the vegetables and add a dash of lime for wholesome flavorful beef noodles.
My favourite Pho stall lies in a corner of Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker street of Ho Chi Minh city. A bowl of combination beef Pho costs about 60,000 dong (USD2-3). While this is a Pho noodle shop, my top choice isn’t their Pho but their beef stew, Pho Bo Ko. The golden crusted Banh (baguette loaf) goes perfect with the tender stewed beef. The stew is beyond impeccable.
323 Pham Ngu Lao, Ho Chi Minh.
Munch Banh Mi on-the-go
When it comes to the topic on Vietnamese food, most only know of Pho. & while Pho is indeed a popular local delight, so is Banh Mi.
Light airy baguette with a golden crackly crust, this simple fare packs a bomb. The culinary embodiment of French colonial rule in Vietnam; this is what I call a match made in kitchen heaven. I thought I knew what baguette was, until I sank my teeth into the Banh Mi along the streets of Ho Chi Minh. Within a wholesome loaf lies a variety of fillings – ham slices, pork pate, char siew, and a bright mix of crunchy shredded cucumber, carrot, jalapeno pepper seasoned in fish sauce.
As with all local Viet cuisine, the Banh mi is very economical. They range from 10,000 – 20,000 dong (USD 0.50 to 1.50). How do you know if a banh mi stall is good? Try to see if there are locals on bikes waiting by the street stalls. A common sight along the better stalls are locals on their bikes, waiting to take away their banh mis on the way to work/on the way home.
Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (26 Lê Thị Riêng) – a local shop that specializes on Banh Mi, opens in evening till late night.
Get your caffeine kick
You know you’re having Viet coffee when above the cup lies an unassuming metal tin. Marked by a concentrated dose of black coffee dripped onto condensed milk in a cup, Viet coffee is not for the faint hearted. While the drip coffee is still the symbol of Vietnamese coffee, I like mine iced. These wonderful drinks can be found either in the street stalls, or famous Vietnamese cafes like Trung Nyugen and Highlander or indie cafes like L’usine.
Since street stalls selling Viet coffee are dime a dozen, and Trung Nyuen cafes are literally at every corner of each main street, I shall share the address of my favourite indie cafe. Located within 10 mins of popular shopping site, Saigon Square, this is the perfect cafe for men who need a comfy cafe to wait while the ladies shop. The first level houses an indie concept store selling pretty interior decor accessories. Think pretty bird cage candle holders, leather accessories, marshall earphones. In short, Ubran Outfitters, Vietnam style. Get through these pretty nick nacks and head on to level two for the prettiest cafe in ho chi minh.
L’usine Et Cafeteria
70B Le Loi Street
Indulge in late night beauty treatments
Yes ladies, I’m referring to manicure, pedicure and hair treatments. Ho Chi Minh is probably the only city where you can get two sets of manicure, two sets of pedicure & hair coloring for USD30. That’s the price I paid on both trips at Angel’s Beauty Salon Spa in Pham Ngu Lao.
With manicure and pedicure treatments averaging 40,000 – 80,000 dong, live like a princess cause you’re silly if you don’t do so while in Ho Chi Minh.
One thing to note though. At the end of each visit, your massueue will hand you a “tipping form”. The implementation of this new initiative means tipping is now an obligation, and not on voluntary basis. As such, I’d suggest you spam and satisfy your beauty desires in a single salon. Who would have thought, going for beauty treatments required strategic thinking?
Angel’s Beauty Salon Spa
115 Bui Vien Street, District 1
Pham Ngu Lao
Go for a bone-cracking, body twisting, lady stepping massage
I wasn’t joking when I said bone cracking, body twisting, lady stepping massage. If you’re the kind that has immense satisfaction from hearing your bones crack, or you feel damn shiok having someone step on your back, you will need to visit Eden Spa at Pham Ngu Lao.
Only cautionary word – avoid the lady stepping part if you have a bigger sized massueue. Almost died from lack of oxygen when I did mine the second time.
Those who are less daring can choose from the more soothing options like Aroma Therapy and Hot Stone Massages. Prices range between 130,000 – 200,000 dong (USD 6.50 – 10) for 60 mins of massage.
As with beauty treatments above, all massages end with a tipping form. So strategize before you walk in.
57 Bui Vien Street, District 1
Pham Ngu Lao
Crawl through the Cuchi Tunnels & fire the M16
To be honest, I was never a fan of museums nor historical stuff. But my visit to Vietnam changed everything. The visit to Cuchi was truly eye-opening. See how the Viets designed traps against their enemies in times of war, and experience climbing through the actual Cuchi tunnel while you’re there. Folks with claustrophobia or bigger sized folks should definitely skip the crawl as the tunnels are so narrow and windy, most people who survive the crawl emerge from the tunnel sweating and panting.
The other part I really loved about the Cuchi tunnel tour was the live firing. They have the largest range of guns – from mini shot guns to M16s. Take your pick and fire away. I literally felt my shoulder fling backwards when I fired the shot. It’s an experience like no other.
Cuchi tunnel tours are easily available, especially so if you stay in the backpackers district. I booked mine from my backpacker hostel, Phan Anh Hostel at 131, 000 dong (excludes 90,000 dong tunnel admission charge). This adds up to less than USD10 for a day tour.
Row a boat down the Mekong River
Upon arrival, you will be led to plantations where you see how local goodies are made. Popcorn rice cubes, farm grown honey, coconut candy etc. Before you shove aside as attempts for locals to hard sell, the process is actually pretty educational. Given how technologically advanced we are today where most food products are made and packaged in factories, the experience was pretty insightful. It helped that the goodies tasted great as well.
Depending on the tour you take on, you could visit the floating market where locals buy their local produce such as watermelon, bananas etc. or you could end up donning Samsui hats and rowing through the shady canals. Either ways, you’ll end up at a restaurant where the guide will recommend the Mekong speciality – the Elephant ear fish. If you’ve never had it before, try it. The fish is fresh, tasty and cheap. You’ll have fun rolling your fish meat in your rice rolls and, it’s not like you’re likely to return in the near future anyway.
As with the Cuchi tunnel tour, Mekong day tours are easily available. I booked mine from Phan Anh Hostel. There were two options (a) 220,000 dong per pax (b) 337,000 dong per pax. Having tried both, I’d say go for option (a). The only difference between (a) and (b) was the floating market, which wasn’t that great a deal in my opinion.
Hit the museums
Entrance fees into the museums cost less than USD1 per pax.
The first time I visited the War Remnant Museum, I was overwhelmed with emotions. Walking in, you’ll see tourists cam-whoring with the US Air Force tanks and planes. While the indoors houses several exhibits including one on the Ao Dai, another on propaganda, my favorites were the Agent Orange and prison exhibits. Written in simple language and lined with powerful photographs, the Agent Orange exhibit never fails to amaze.
The prison exhibit is easy to miss since it’s located at the corner by the shops. Walking through it, I truly felt the jitters from the torture that Vietnamese prisoners had to go through. It’s definitely worth your time.
War Remnants Museum
28 Vo Tan Tan, District 3
Ho Chi Minh
106 Nguyen Du St | District 1,
Ho Chi Minh
Shop at the local markets
Unlike Bangkok, Saigon isn’t shopping haven for the fashionistas. It is however, shopping paradise for backpackers. Get your 55/65/75 litre backpack for just USD20. I got both backpacks below on two different trips for less than USD20 each.
Local food stuff like the famous G7 instant coffee, freshly ground coffee powder and tea, dried fruits such as fried mangoes, jackfruit chips and lotus seeds are also easily available. Feel free to haggle prices down by a third as prices in these touristy areas tend to be inflated.
Another must buy, especially for backpackers are the popular graphic tanks. It’s common to see fellow backpackers don the graphic tee. The best price I got for these were 40,000 dong. Touristy areas like Ben Thanh Market inflate it up to 150,000 so do your research before heading out.
Where: Ben Thanh Market, Saigon Square, Saigon Tax etc.
Attend culinary school
The first thought on the topic of culinary school often revolves around Le Cordon Bleu. Who said though that one needs to fly to Paris/France to attend culinary school. While Saigon Culinary Center may not be as renown as Le Cordon, it equips you with the skills and recipes needed for culinary excellence.
Spend the afternoon at Saigon Culinary Center, it’ll definitely give you fond memories of Ho Chi Minh, those that extend beyond that of common Ben Thanh market, Mekong Delta and War Remnants Museum.
The half day course usually starts with grocery shopping at the local wet market. There you’ll get to know more about Viet spices and see live seafood. It was during my visit that I actually got to nudge soft shell crabs. It’s an entirely different experience munching on a soft shell crab and poking a live one with it’s cute eyes blinking at you. You’ll then be transported to the actual school where the chef will walk you through the steps needed to cook up a storm.
Since a picture speaks a thousand words, here’s an instagram shot of the dishes I whipped up at school. Every dish was fabulous – pandan steamed rice, fresh spring rolls, claypot braised fish etc. At the end of the course, we walked away with happy tummies and a certificate with a recipe book. I was indeed a happy girl. Have I not mentioned how I learnt to cut a tomato rose at the course? Sign up if you need a day of fun enrichment away from the hot weather in Ho Chi Minh.
Saigon Culinary Arts Centre
42/3 Nguyen Van Troi Steet
Phu Nhuan District
Get a tailored fit
Tailoring is one of the common things tourists do when hitting countries such as Bangkok and Vietnam. While I never actually tailored clothes before, this shop was recommended by my good friend. Since he’s quite a fashionista and has returned to this shop in his subsequent trips, I figured it’d qualify to this blog post.
Prices range from USD15-19 for shirts and USD20-25 for pants.
Dung Suit And Dress Shirt
241A De Tham Street, District 1
Pham Ngu Lao
There are many other tourist attractions – Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office etc. So if you’re done with my top hits and to kill more time, feel free to check out the others!
Other important tips:
Currency: Some may have heard to exchange US dollar rather than Viet dong. Based on experience, I’d recommend changing bulk of the currency into Viet dong. As most food items are priced at USD0.50 – 4.00 and even more expensive purchases such as massages approximate USD10, you’re likely to end up paying much more transacting in USD as most street stalls/shops may not have small USD change. If you’re heading to Vietnam from Singapore, change the Viet dong at the airport. Here’s the Nov-13 rate disparity (16,698 in HCM airport vs. 15,500 in SG mall)
Taxi: Use only Vinasun/Mailinh. Do not hop onto any taxi, even if they come with a meter. Unless you want to know what it’s like having your heart race along with the taxi meter.
Accommodation: All my trips to Ho Chi Minh, I stayed at Phan Anh Hostel. Don’t let the word “hostel” daunt you. Twin rooms come with a/c, cable tv and wifi and ensuite bathroom with hot water shower. Breakfast is also included. Having had an awesome stay my first time, I never bothered looking for alternative accommodation options. Plus, all city attractions (Ben Thanh market, Saigon square, Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum and… all the places I mentioned above) are within walking distance. You’ll never feel alone at Pham Ngu Lao with like-minded backpackers all around.
In my more recent trip, I got lucky. Though we booked at Phan Anh Hostel, we got upgraded to a triple room in Seventy Hotel (owned by the same guy), which was at the heart of Pham Ngu Lao. Even if you’re unlikely to be as lucky, Phan Anh is still an awesome place to stay.
373/27 Pham Ngu Lao, District 1
70 Bui Vien Street
Backpacking in Vietnam is amazing. Beyond the cheap food/massages, rich culture and scenic areas, I love how it’s not overly crowded like Bangkok. So stay safe, have fun and be awesome (;