Vietnam’s economic hub Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City on the map) is a magnetic city. Grab yourself a motor taxi for the day and enjoy our 24-hour insider tour through the city’s beauty and craziness.
Start by familiarizing yourself with the traffic and the explosive atmosphere of Saigon by taking a walk around Le Loi and Ben Thanh Market area. Although this falls under typical tourist activities, it offers a valid glimpse of Saigon’s historical architecture and shops. Ben Thanh Market, which recently celebrated its 100th birthday, is considered one of the landmarks of the city. Due to its popularity, the market has become quite touristy in recent years. However, the architecture and the interiors have not changed much, making it an ideal place for people to experience the dynamics of a traditional local market.
Continue your walk down Pham Ngu Lao. On your right the so-called ‘backpacker area’ will start appearing, but look beyond to Pham Ngu Lao Park. In the early evening, the park is populated by locals practicing sport, doing exercise or simply sitting down on the pavement while having a coffee with friends. This is perfect for people-watching.
Truth needs to be told: the best Vietnamese food in town is from street restaurants and quang gánh (the iconic scale-designed baskets). Eating and drinking in the street is a regular social activity in Vietnam, which means that you will not walk more than 100 meters without seeing a restaurant. If you encounter a busy place facing the road, with tiny chairs and tables that seem to have been taken from a kindergarten’s classroom, then that is the place where you should eat. The same goes for street vendors. As long as you see local people eating there, the food is guaranteed to be good. Understandably, most travelers feel intimidated by the language barrier and by the messiness of these places. If that’s the case for you, hop on a xe ôm (motorbike taxi) and head to Cuc Gach Quan.
Try the traditional Vietnamese breakfast of phở, rice noodle soup with herbs and meat. Other breakfast favourites are banh mi, a Vietnamese baguette filled with pate, meats, soy sauce, chilli and crudités – or its variation with eggs, banh mi op la. In the morning, those can be found at every street corner around the city.
On the same road take a xe ôm or a cyclo and head to the War Remnants Museum. The three-storey building encompasses a well-preserved and comprehensive collection of the Vietnam War, from original Life Magazine’s photographs to weapons, aircraft and tanks.
From the Museum, head south along Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa and pay a visit to the Reunification Palace. Designed by architect Ngô Viết Thụ, the building served as residence as well as government workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the War. It became an iconic landmark symbolizing the end of war when a North Vietnamese tank crashed thought its gates. The interiors have been untouched since then, and they present an exquisite view of typical French, Vietnamese and Chinese interior designs of that era.
From the Palace you can see Notre Dame Cathedral (Nhà thờ Đức Bà) on your right. Erected during the French colonial period using imported tiles and marbles, it is the most symbolic church in town. On the right of Notre Dame, there is the majestic post office (Bưu điện Trung tâm). Built by the renowned architect Gustave Eiffel, it opened in 1891 and is still active now. The building is an excellent example of the neoclassical architecture of that era. It also contains old French colonial maps painted on the walls.
Leaving the Post Office, head south on Dong Khoi Street, which embodies the many architectural changes that Saigon has been through since the French period. The face of Dong Khoi has been subjected to drastic modifications in recent years, but you can still find colonial houses and shops.
Still on Dong Khoi, you can visit the biggest theater in Saigon, the Opera House (Nhà hát lớn Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh). Completed at the end of the 19th century by French architect Eugène Ferret, the Opera House is still in use today. Its event calendar presents a variety of classical concerts, dance performances and, since last year, the permanent A O Show. This features circus acts and performances by Vietnamese break-dancers, aerialists, martial arts experts and traditional musicians.
A typical day in Vietnam cannot go by without drinking coffee. Vietnam is the second biggest exporter of coffee in the world and, over the last century, has developed its own way to make and drink the beverage. Locals either drink cà phê đá (ice coffee) or cà phê sữa đá (ice coffee with condensed milk). The same advice given for food applies to coffee: many street vendors are scattered around the city, and they will pull out a chair for you in the middle of the pavement to sit down and enjoy your coffee while people-watching.