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24 Hours in Saigon: whet your appetite for the city of (motorbike) lights

The situation of your hotel room will determine whether you’re woken abruptly by the simultaneous stirring of thousand of bikes, the cries of early morning vendors or quietly by a solitary cockerel (a very small alley would be needed for the last scenario.)

Saigon, Ho Chi Minh, market woman
Saigon was a city of unbridled capitalism – which is ironic for a nominally Communist country. It was impossible to walk for even a few metres and not be offered something to buy. There were women everywhere, carrying these huge crates on the bamboo poles over their shoulders, with every kind of fruit and drink for sale.
Even when taking a well deserved rest they were on the look out for customers.
Photo by amirjina

Delve into the streets to seek out some breakfast. A bowl of noodle soup is a quintessential Vietnamese dish, it will set you up for the day as well as being delicious, and depending where you are should only set you back around 25,000 or less. Around the city there are scatterings of chain pho shops, the best of which is pho 24, or you can follow in President Clinton’s footsteps in pho 2000, next to Ben Thanh market. Otherwise keep your eyes and nose peeled for any street vendors with ‘pho bo’ or ‘Canh’ written on their carts, although only voracious carnivores may delight in the unidentifiable meat included in some broths.

Then either walk, rickshaw, taxi, xe om or (for the brave and experienced) ride to the war remnants museum. Although many will find some of the exhibits grisly, the museum gives a thorough history of the events that have shaped Vietnam over the past 150 years. It is also written from a very Vietnamese viewpoint, one which we all too often don’t see portrayed in the west.

This area of District 1 is good for a couple of hours post museum strolling. There are numerous architectural splendors including the Opera house, Cathedral and The Intercontinental hotel all within walking distance of each other. The roads around here are also relatively easy going, and although still chock a block full of bikes, do give the pedestrian the advantage of traffic lights.

Having worked up an appetite amid the mayhem, retreat into one of the many excellent restaurants in this area. BBQ garden does a set lunch for 39,000 dong, which involves an assortment of tasty morsels you cook yourself on your own private table top grill. There’s a huge variety of restaurants here representing most cuisines and budgets, so just wander until you find something that takes your fancy, after all the best places you discover yourself.

After lunch, depending on your stamina, perhaps head back to the hotel for a mid afternoon rest and shower. Many people have a siesta in the middle of the day, if for no other reason than because it can get simply too hot to do anything. You may see workmen and vendors snoozing in makeshift hammocks or patches of shade all over the city. Also walking for hours while having the nerves to dodge motorbikes can zap the energy from even the most hardened souls.

When you’re fully rejuvenated head out and grab a coffee. Look out for small plastic tables and chairs on the street, and a kiosk nearby from which someone is selling soft drinks. If you are a fan of coffee partake in a ‘café da’, literally iced coffee, or if you like it really sweet and milky a ‘café sua da’. Vietnamese coffee is syrupy and sweet with a real kick, and with plenty of ice it is cold and refreshing and always goes down too fast. On the street a coffee is usually about 6 – 10,000, more in up market cafes. Sitting and watching street life unravel before your eyes is a fine way to spend half an hour (if the coffee lasts that long.)

After your caffeine intake continue to the Pham Ngu Lao / Ben Thanh market area park for a dusk stroll. Here you will find groups of all ages kicking feather ended plastic shoots to each other, and if you fancy joining in they can be purchased for about 10,000. There is a wonderful amount of frenetic energy around this time, with power walkers doing their rounds after work, young couples sitting together on parked motorbikes and dancing clubs making use of the gazebos as the sun goes down.

(out on the town)

Once the sun has set behind the manic roundabout at Ben Thanh, stay to see the streets light up with neon signs and circling headlights. By now, having wandered all day you may have worked up a healthy appetite. What better way to satisfy your belly than with a hearty, authentic French three course dinner. As French restaurants in HCMC go Ty Coz is a perfect balance of delicious authenticity and value for money. Run by two French gourmands who will guide you through the daily menu in French or English, you will be spoilt for choice. With prices starting at 195,000VND for three courses, including such delights as sole meuniere, tender steaks and muscles cooked in a variety of ways. To top it off free raspberry sorbet and rooftop dining with views of the cathedral should clinch the deal.

After having wined and dined to your hearts content, stroll around the cathedral down the road past the seated statue of Ho Chi Minh himself and around the opera house. On the far side, next to the “24” shop is a little drink shop. Buy a cold beer and you will be given a small plastic stool to perch upon. Although you may need a certain amount of flexibility to perch here for prolonged periods, it is a cheap and vibrant place to stop for a drink. Groups of Vietnamese students shouting the ubiquitous drinking phrase (mot, hai, ba, yo! – 1,2,3, go!) and tourists mixed together, watch the crowds start to gather around the fountain at Q bar, but without paying such hefty prices. Beers are a mere 10,000 and if you’re in the mood for a late night, a bottle of vodka and a few cold cans of mixers will only set you back 100,000.

Once you are suitably inebriated, just a stones throw away from here are Vasco’s and Apocalypse Now. Vasco’s is the venue of the moment for a host of different DJ nights and usually a surefire bet for a cool crowd and good music. Apocalypse now is populated more by foreigners than Vietnamese but has lots more space and generally more people dancing. If you’re not in the mood for dancing, head back to Pham Ngu Lao where you’ll find a high density of bars to satisfy any whim. The Asian Kitchen Hideaway (upstairs) is an excellent place to meet other travelers and expat English teachers (there are a lot of them!) They have cheap nightly specials and drinking challenges for the strong-stomached, plus you can select your own choice of songs from the proprietor’s vast collection. Cheaper still but always packed is the bia hoi on Bui Vien. More of a rarity in HCMC than in Hanoi, here you pay just 12,000 for a litre of home-brewed beer, your wallet can remain healthy but you may pay for it the next day. For those who are partial to a game of pool there’s the upstairs, rather sedate Hoa Mai, and a few doors down the rowdier, cave like T&R tavern.

Most bars around this area close around 3am , but for those night owls who are still after “one for the road” or more the strip of bars which starts next to the Crazy Buffalo and Go2 are open 24 hours and glasses of dubious “rum/vodka” and coke can be had for a dollar. Of course the Crazy Buffalo and Go2 are also open all night but they can be a little tacky and sleazy as well as wallet crunching. If you fancy an outing after dinner which doesn’t involve drinking there are lots of cinemas that show OV films, Diamond Plaza and Galaxy are probably the best. The live music scene in HCMC is rather lacking, but there are occasional concerts at the opera house and in the Nguyen Du arena. The best way to find out exactly what concerts or gigs are on is to pick up a copy of “the word”, which has nightlife listings. These are free and can be found in lots of restaurants and bars around town.

After such a long day, there will be many chariots awaiting to drive you safely home. Late at night it’s best to get in a MaiLinh or Vinasun taxi, as other less reputable companies often over charge. Overall HCMC is a Frenetic and Vibrant place, and has something to offer anyone willing to delve under it’s chaotic exterior. In fact many people find this part of the appeal, for the more you observe, the more you learn there is order to the chaos (most of the time.)

Filed Under: Featured, Saigon

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Currently resides somewhere in the sprawling mass of HCMC. While most of the time getting her kicks from the upbeat pace of life here, she also takes respite from the traffic and chaos by visiting Southern Vietnams more soporific destinations. She finds the most fascinating and amusing aspects of Vietnam are only just hidden under the surface, and hopes she can be of use to those who are keen to search.

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