Get the most out of a trip to Ho Chi Minh and discover everything from chic coffee shops and street food to Vietnamese art and Vespa tours
There’s a lot of history to Ho Chi Minh, some of it still pretty raw, but it’s also one of the fastest-growing, most vibrant cities in Asia. You can easily while away three or four days enjoying eclectic dining and interesting tours, in the city formerly known as Saigon, at the start or end of a south-east Asia tour.
Coffee and kitsch
Transport yourself back to the Vietnam War era, with a visit to Cong Caphe, a coffee chain with a retro, Vietcong-inspired decor.
Decorated with Communist propaganda posters, vintage typewriters and army kitbags, this hipster-style spot has the theming of a tourist attraction but also draws in locals with its ambiance and artisanal approach to coffee. Try the house special, a coconut coffee, or refresh with a Vietnamese staple, iced coffee with condensed milk.
If a picture paints a thousand words, then Vietnamese art can fill an entire library with its stories. Sophie’s Art Tour takes a closer look at the country’s history through the eyes of artists and curators. The small-group guided tours run Monday to Saturday 9am-1pm, taking in private collections, museums and contemporary art spaces.
The narrative delves not just into Vietnam’s tumultuous recent history, but its contemporary creative art scene, and Sophie and her fellow guides add an extra layer to the city tour experience with their informative and thought-provoking approach.
Is the smell of chocolate in the dark even more tempting? To debate this and other important culinary questions, try Noir – a tasty indication of Ho Chi Minh’s increasingly sophisticated gastro scene.
Noir’s gourmet plates are served in a pitch-black restaurant by blind or visually impaired staff. This is so much more than a meal, it’s a sensory dining experience built around flavours and textures. You won’t be able to see what you’re eating, but the meal will stick in your mind for a long time after.
You’ll need to hold your nerve while weaving in and out of Ho Chi Minh’s heavily congested traffic as a passenger on a vintage Vespa. The Italian scooters have been a part of Vietnamese culture ever since they were introduced decades ago by the French but they fell out of favour when cheap Japanese and Chinese motorbikes flooded the market.
Using lovingly restored models, Vespa Adventures offers the best adrenalin rush in the city – if you dare to join the chaotic columns of motorbike traffic that snake around the streets. Trust your guide to navigate the roads with the determination of a marching ant and enjoy the ride.
The concrete jungle quickly fades into the Mekong Delta, a fertile area of rice paddies, rivers and swamps. Here on the outskirts of the city, tourists melt away and village life steps forward – a beguiling picture of farmers tending fields, market sellers peddling wares, children playing streetside and dogs and hens roaming free.
Historic French architecture and tree-lined boulevards record Saigon’s time as a French colony, but there’s energy flowing through this city, and Ho Chi Minh is rapidly growing skywards.
The tallest beacon on the skyline since 2010, the 68-storey, 262-metre Bitexco Financial Tower has an unusual shape, owing to a helipad cantilevered out from the 55th floor. Ascend to the SkyDeck for 360-degree views – or for the price of a beverage that’s roughly the same as the viewing platform entrance fee, you can visit the bar on the 50th floor to drink in the views.
Frozen in time
An imposing concrete block, surrounded by gardens, the Reunification Palace is a time capsule that bore witness to dramatic moments in Vietnamese history. In 1975 tanks belonging to the North Vietnamese Army crashed through the gates, signifying victory for the communist party and the end of the Vietnam War. Two of these original tanks are parked on the lawns outside.
Staff escaped from the rooftop helipad minutes before the palace was taken over, part of Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation in history. As the former seat of South Vietnamese presidential power, the palace hides secret rooms, a warren of tunnels, and a war command centre with maps fixed to walls. Although the palace is still used for national events, as you wander around, there’s an eerie sense that time stopped in 1975.
Hotel on the frontline
Another landmark with echoes of wartime is the Caravelle, one of the city’s most prestigious hotels. It’s been a hotel since 1959 and during the war, it was the office and social hub for the international media. By its closing days, they could see the frontline from their bar stools.
Skyscrapers have muscled in on the view from the foreign correspondents’ beloved Saigon Saigon Bar, but Lan Som Square, Saigon Opera House and Notre Dame Cathedral are all still in the picture. Visit between 4pm-7pm for happy hour specials and after 9pm for live music and dancing on the black and white tiled floor.
A water puppet show is a traditional form of Vietnamese art, and the most popular venue in Ho Chi Minh is the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. The daily 50-minute show depicts the culture, traditions and folklore of Vietnamese life and has a soundtrack of old-fashioned music played on authentic instruments.
Don’t worry that the dialogue is in Vietnamese – the puppeteers, immersed in water to the waist and hidden behind the set, create a show that is comical, poetic and visually spectacular.
Want to rub shoulders with an industrious young crowd? Head where the hipsters go, to Cafe Apartment on Saigon’s Walking Street – an art deco nine-storey apartment block that is chock-full with one-off cafes and boutiques. Before you tackle the stairs, step back and admire the view of the tower block from the street below.
Each balcony is decorated a different way, giving the block the look of a giant doll’s house. The building may have seen better days, but the funky personalities of its tenants makes this one of Ho Chi Minh’s most vibrant addresses.
Shop til you pho
Ben Thanh market in central Ho Chi Minh is one of the city’s most diverting areas. An archetypal Asian urban market, Ben Thanh bursts at the seams with edibles, essentials, and expendables.
A social buzz lingers around the tight grid of aisles, and spills out into the surrounding pavements, as locals chitchat and tourists indulge in a spot of good-natured haggling.
Venture beyond the conical hats, lacquerware and T-shirts to see pyramidal stacks of exotic-looking fruit and vegetables, and the eye-popping sights of buckets of eels and baskets of pigs’ snouts. If that’s not the sort of “delicacy” you can stomach, you’ll find everything that’s good about Vietnamese cuisine here too, with the nourishing pho – spicy noodle soup – a lip-smacking winner.
Dare to beer
A popular evening pastime in Vietnam is drinking cheap, mass-produced beer, most commonly consumed street-side while sitting on a low plastic stool. But beer tastes are maturing in Ho Chi Minh. In the past couple of years more than a dozen artisan brewers have brought their trade to the city, giving beer drinkers stronger and bolder alternatives to the ubiquitous Bia Hoi and Saigon beers.
Leading this imbibing revolution are the likes of Heart of Darkness, East West Brewing Company, and Pasteur Street Brewing Company. Their professional craft-brewing expertise and their use of all-natural ingredients produces an intriguing choice of beers.
Infused with hints of tropical fruits, spices, chocolate or coffee, you’re unlikely to stop at one. Feeling particularly thirsty? Then walk and talk with self-confessed beer geeks Saigon Craft Beer Tours to learn about the rapid growth of the city’s craft beer movement.