A weekend in Ho Chi Minh City: What to see, where to eat, what to do in Vietnam's largest city
Vietnam's biggest city is transforming with new high-rises, bars and boutiques, but still offers old-world charm and chaotic fun.
Ho Chi Minh City is synonymous with street food and motorbikes: It often seems like one massive, sizzling food court combined with a beeping motorcycle rally that came to town and never left.
Almost as dizzying is how quickly Vietnam’s biggest city is transforming with new urbane enclaves and upscale planned communities, as well as the high-rises constantly shooting up, including the country’s tallest skyscraper, Landmark 81, which opened in 2018.
The busy boulevard along the Saigon River at Bach Dang Wharf last year added a pedestrian park and a dramatic suspension bridge over the water to an emerging finance district. What’s constant is the optimism of savvy locals, Vietnamese returning from abroad and ambitious foreigners infusing the city with inventive bars, high-fashion boutiques, chic eateries and hotels.
5.30pm: Rev around town
Hop on the back of a motorbike for a whirlwind street food tour with XO Tours, in which the expert, female driver-guides in traditional ao dai tunics navigate through five of the city’s 24 districts.
The tours steer clear of the conventional banh mi and pho, instead rolling up for dishes like grilled goat at a hot-pot hub in District 8, and scallops on the half shell in the boisterous seafood street in District 4 (XO Foodie Tour, 1,872,000 Vietnamese dong, or about S$106). Or head on your own to District 10’s Ho Thi Ky food street, a long and narrow lane with carts serving dishes like sticky rice cooked in a bamboo branch, and bot chien, fried rice-flour cakes with egg (street-food dishes, 15,000 to 35,000 dong).
10pm: Try a sphere cocktail
Find passionate Vietnamese mixologists in leather aprons using fire, foam and liquid nitrogen at Summer Experiment, the softly lit cocktail bar three stories up in an old apartment building in District 1, the central area with many major tourist attractions, including the nearby Reunification Palace.
SOME KEY STOPS
Ten Thousand Buddha Temple, or Chua Van Phat, is a pagoda in the Cholon (Chinatown) area with an astounding array of Buddha statues.
Ca Phe Do Phu is a cafe in District 1 that was a secret meeting place for Communist special forces plotting against the U.S. military in the 1960s.
Nguyen Hue Street is a teeming pedestrian boulevard stretching to the Saigon River.
9am: Count the Buddhas
At the end of a lane in the Cholon area, or Chinatown, is one of the city’s most astonishing Buddhist temples: Chua Van Phat, the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple.
Climb the stairs to the fourth floor and step into a gilded, towering chamber lorded over by a seven metre-tall Buddha in a gold robe, serenely seated on a lotus flower. Little Buddha statues sit on each of the sculpture’s 1,000 gold-painted petals, and in the thousands of niches in the walls up to the ceiling. Locals kneel and pray, incense wafts and a robed devotee chants and taps a wooden drum and singing bowl.
If you encounter the temple’s head monk, Thich Truyen Cuong, he may answer your questions about the upper chamber’s decade-long construction. Admission free; donations welcome.
11am: Trace history in a cafe
Have a coffee break steeped in history at Ca Phe Do Phu in the Tan Dinh neighbourhood in District 1. During what the Vietnamese call the American War, communist operatives for the north plotted undercover in haunts and homes across Saigon, as the city was then named (many locals still refer to it as such), like this wooden shophouse.
Order a coffee with condensed milk (30,000 dong) or a tea with canned peach wedges (40,000 dong) and climb the ladderlike steps to a room with wartime artefactslike transistor radios and American munitions boxes. Opposite an ornamented family altar stands a wooden closet with a drop panel concealing a ladder that led to tunnels. Under a floor plank, you’ll find dangling metal cans that once held cash and documents to be secreted north via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
1pm: Have a vegetarian lunch
Many Buddhists in Vietnam turn vegetarian each month on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar calendar, but a number of new plant-based restaurants are serving innovative takes on ancestral dishes daily.
One standout is Hum Cafe & Restaurant, which opened its three-story, villa-like space with wooden ceilings, lotus flowers and brightly coloureddrapes, in District 3 in 2012. The thinly sliced and fried lotus root with sesame salt (160,000 dong) are as addictive as potato chips, and don’t miss the winged bean salad with tofu (200,000 dong), the skillet of banana flower in a tomato sauce (190,000 dong), and mango with sticky rice for dessert (80,000 dong).
3pm: Browse painted dresses
Visitors with an impulse to shop often head straight to Dong Khoi, one of the oldest streets in the city and a hub of fashionable boutiques like Gia Studios, Lam Boutique and Ha Linh Thu House of Silk.
But you can also find hidden gems across the city including Tiny Ink, a small boutique at the end of an alley in District 1. A regular on the runway at Vietnam International Fashion Week, the brand is the creation of designer Hoang Quyen. The boutique displays an explosion of brightly colouredgowns and dresses made with silk, satin and organza fabric, and hand painted with floral art and abstract splashes (dresses range from 3.5 million to 24 million dong).
6pm: Opt for fine dining
When the Michelin Guide debuted in Vietnam in June, Ho Chi Minh City netted just a single star, for Anan Saigon, a restaurant that opened in 2017 and transforms classic dishes into contemporary triumphs, like a bone marrow pho with Wagyu beef.
The Michelin guide recommended 55 restaurants in the city, including Nen Light. Opened in 2022 in District 1 and set in an intimate, single room with black ceilings and dark cloths on the eight tables, the restaurant serves creative Vietnamese dishes with seasonal produce.
Highlights of a recent nine-course “Journey” menu (about 2.6 million dong, minus alcohol pairing; reservations recommended) included a dollop of minced river eel and roe in a bouquet of sliced plum, and slow-cooked duck from the north with vegetable purée and purple rice.
8.30pm: Stroll the centre
The city is hardly known for pleasant strolls, given that sidewalks double as motorbike parking lots, and even as ad hoc traffic lanes. But you can find entertaining people-watching on Nguyen Hue Street, a half-mile pedestrian boulevard surrounded by French Colonial landmarks and the Saigon River.
Start at the top in the glow of the grand People’s Committee headquarters, then continue through the Le Loi intersection for a view of the palatial Saigon Opera House.
Head toward the gleaming towers and the river, wading through the chattering couples and families noshing dried squid or cotton candy, and stopping to join the crowds encircling people crooning ballads or dancing for TikTok videos. Pull up tyke-size plastic stools for a coconut ice cream (15,000 dong) from a cart and watch young locals play da cau, a game that involves kicking a weighted shuttlecock high into the air.
10pm: Head to a hipster street
One of the city’s trendiest nightlife enclaves is Pham Viet Chanh Street in the Binh Thanh District, a gritty quarter crammed with eateries and drinking spots in narrow shophouses that has mushroomed from a couple of bars less than a decade ago.
If you still have a taste for dessert, try the caramelisedfried bread with cinnamon ice cream (100,000 dong) at Captain Phook. Then head across to Nong Trai Khoai, where vintage shop meets dive bar, to try a beer cocktail (70,000 dong) mixed with a brew from Quy Nhon, a coastal city in Central Vietnam, and passion fruit from Dalat, in the mountains.
At RetroSaigon you’ll find a multistory warren with a wood-panelled karaoke lounge and a dimly lit rooftop. Drink in the District 2 skyline with a Mangotango, a cocktail with fresh mango, rum and coconut (179,000 dong).
WHERE TO EAT
XO Tours takes visitors on the back of scooters to captivating street-food eateries and markets in five districts.
Ho Thi Ky food street has carts serving everything from pig brains soup to pork, shrimp and rice in a banana leaf.
Hum Cafe & Restaurant, a tranquil space in District 3, serves excellent plant-based dishes.
Anan Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City’s first and only Michelin-starred restaurant, reimagines classic Vietnamese fare with a contemporary flair.
Nen Light serves a set menu of seasonal courses by the executive chef Summer Le in an intimate, minimalist dining room in District 1.
Captain Phook is an open-kitchen tapas bar and restaurant with a dining counter fronting a narrow lane in the Binh Thanh District.
Laang serves contemporary Vietnamese dishes in a serene, gardenlike setting.
9.30am: See a museum on war
The abandoned and captured US tanks, planes and helicopters displayed on the grounds of the War Remnants Museum (admission, 40,000 dong) is the first indication that the victors will be telling the story of the wars in Vietnam.
The museum is filled with photographs depicting the brutalities that the French and later the Americans committed in their losing campaigns against the Vietnamese. In addition to photos of rows of bodies in open pits, burning villages and instruments of torture, the harrowing displays are heavy on graphic shots of Vietnamese deformed by US chemicals like Agent Orange, with hardly any mention of the atrocities the North and South committed against each other.
11.30am: Relax in comfort
The Thao Dien area, across the river from the Binh Thanh District, is home to forests of condo and commercial high rises. Popular with expats and affluent Vietnamese, the area has all the accoutrements of the city’s upturn, from chic boutiques to gourmet eateries.
For brunch, visit Laang, a stylish, vegetarian-friendly Vietnamese restaurant that may be a welcomed alternative to the multitude of uncomfortably warm, open-air eateries. You can’t go wrong with a platter of wraps and rolls, including succulent grilled chicken and veggies wrapped in fresh leaves (239,000 dong), sweet and savoury grilled eggplant stuffed with shiitake mushrooms (109,000 dong) and the refreshing pomelo, lime and butterfly pea juice (79,000 dong).
1.30pm: Buy souvenirs
A short walk from Laang brings you to Ohquao Concept Store, the brainchild of Simon Phan and Hoa Pham, who created the space for local artists to sell alternative souvenirs to the typical lacquer bowls and conical hats found in tourist markets.
Simon Phan designs cartoonish magnets with quips like “Falling Pho You” (110,000 dong) and illustrated greeting cards (80,000 dong). Their Thao Dien store, which opened in 2022, is filled with products by dozens of local artists, including funky T-shirts (530,000 dong) and hats (430,000 dong) from Saigon designer Dang Khim’s street fashion brand easybadwork; as well as Ruou Can Y Mien fermented rice alcohol (630,000 dong), Lacaph coffee (from 190,000 dong), both from the Central Highlands; and a wide selection of art prints (150,00 to 300,000 dong).
2.30pm: Tour a gallery
If you have time for one last stop, see what’s on at the Lotus Gallery in District 7, a fast-developing area of wide boulevards and glossy malls, universities and condo complexes. The long-established private gallery moved into a new warehouse-like space in 2022, just down the road from the Mercedes and Porsche dealerships.Exhibits rotate every couple of months and centre on Vietnamese themes, like the “Soul of the Street” show (through Aug. 31), which features works by 10 artists that include water coloursof fish markets and oil paintings of cyclo pedalers. Admission is free.
WHERE TO STAY
Mia Saigon is an elegant boutique hotel on the Saigon River with a spa and riverbank restaurant. Weekend rates for doubles start from about 6 million Vietnamese dong, or about $253, and include a free speedboat ride downtown four times a day.
Bach Suites is a 36-room boutique hotel with lots of white marble and stylish custom furniture, next to the bustling Turtle Lake pond and traffic circle in District 3. The small rooftop pool offers stunning centrecity views. Doubles start from about 3 million dong.
The Hammock Hotel, overlooking the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum in District 1, has quiet, clean rooms, each with a hanging hammock chair. The minimalist rooftop cafe offers free water, soda and beer for guests. Doubles start from about 1.5 million dong.
For short-term rentals, avoid the construction cranes and the main boulevards and look in the Da Kao and Tan Dinh neighborhoods, with plenty of quiet alleys just a few minutes drive from downtown.
By Patrick Scott © The New York Times Company
The article originally appeared in The New York Times.