HK Magazine Archive

How to Spend a Weekend in Ho Chi Minh City

We uncover the sights, sounds and tastes of Saigon. 

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2016, 10:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:10pm

The irascible dragon’s head strikes and retreats, its protracted body weaving in and out of itself with the fluidity of rushing water, while hundreds of colorful scales catch the glint of the sun’s setting rays—firecrackers waiting to burst into flames. Just behind, a sea of kung fu masters and acrobats dressed in yellow and white sit in military rows on the pedestrian street, waiting for their turn. The crowd is congregated in a semi-circle with cameras ready—tourists who have rushed to the city for the long-weekend holiday, and stumbled on this unique lens into the local culture.

This colorful display of lion dancers and limber acrobats is taking place on Nguyen Hue Street, one of the main thoroughfares in Ho Chi Minh City, which officially opened just over a year ago. The 670-meter-long pedestrian street is one of the best places to feel the pulse of Vietnam’s largest city, a place where old meets new, French colonialism is romanticized, and the modern era is constantly swept in. 

What to Do: Cathedrals, Parks and Puppets

From sobering remnants of a war-torn past to awe-inspiring neo-Romanesque architecture and dreamy hazes floating along the Saigon River, there’s something to inspire and intrigue on every street corner in Saigon.

To start your tour, head to two of the most historical sites in the city, both located in the central District 1. The Gothic-inspired Central Post Office is one of the most iconic structures of Saigon, and still operates after more than 100 years. Send a postcard off to relatives, then walk to Notre-Dame Cathedral across the way, a majestic church boasting iron spires, stained glass windows and two 60-meter-tall bell towers. Considered the most beautiful church in all the French colonies at the time of construction, the cathedral still stands as a remnant of Saigon’s colonial past.

From there, it’s a short 10-minute walk to Tao Dan Park, a 10-hectare green space in the heart of the city outfitted with towering trees and shaded benches—ideal for taking a break to enjoy a potent Vietnamese coffee from one of the park vendors nearby. On the edge of the park lies the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater, where you can catch a slice of local culture while resting your feet.

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Catch a local art form at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater.

At the east end of the park, while away a few hours at Independence Palace, known for marking the end of the Vietnam War when a Northern Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates in April 1975. The complex is a mix of old and new architecture, and houses an extensive collection of mementos, maps and old communication equipment. For an even more poignant—and sobering—reminder of the devastation of the Vietnam War, visit the War Remnants Museum, which displays tanks, planes, artillery pieces and infantry weapons, as well as unfiltered photographs of the victims of war. It’s not for the faint of heart—and decidedly one-sided—but it serves as a standing symbol of Vietnam’s resilient spirit. 

With many more places to explore, from golden temples smoky with incense to bustling local markets like central Ben Thanh brimming with Vietnam’s famous coffee beans, knick-knacks and souvenirs, it’s worth hopping on one of the local scooter tours (Scooter Tour Saigon and Back of the Bike Tours come highly recommended). You’ll go from feeling like an outsider as you dodge the endless throngs of scooters motoring on by, to being instantly assimilated into the rhythm of the city as you whiz with traffic under canopied, tree-lined streets and along the serene banks of the Saigon River.

Where to Eat: Saigon Street Food

While your wallet could easily be dented by glitzy accommodation, the good news is that Ho Chi Minh offers up some of the most affordable and mouthwatering food in Vietnam—and Asia for that matter—ranging from veggie- and protein-packed banh mi sandwiches to steaming bowls of pho and tangles of vermicelli noodles piled high with grilled meat and herbs.

If you’re searching for that best-known of Vietnamese dishes—a fragrant, soothing, hot bowl of pho—you won’t need to look far: Vietnam’s unofficial national dish is available on pretty much every street corner, although you’ll need to dig a bit deeper to separate the good from the great. Regardless, you can expect to spend no more than VND50,000 ($20) on a bowl.

Pho Thin Ha Noi (170 Nguyen Dinh Chieu St., District 3) is a local favorite, a family establishment with an intense beefy broth and springy, al dente rice noodles showcasing the northern style of pho. The beef is sliced small, making it curl up in the hot broth into delicious, juicy morsels. If you prefer a bit more ambience, head to Pho Hoa Pasteur (260C Pasteur St., District 3, (+84) 8-3829-7943), which draws in a crowd of both locals and tourists with its clean, eclectically adorned two-story space. Drop fragrant handfuls of basil, bean sprouts and sawtooth herbs into the lime-scented broth and slurp up the perfect mix of soft noodles, herby broth and rare beef slices. For bang for your buck, there’s nowhere that packs on the meat (a mix of rare beef and beef brisket) like Pho Le (413 Nguyen Trai St., District 5, (+84) 8-3923-4008) which serves up a stick-to-your-ribs bowl of pho scented with cinnamon, star anise, ginger and cardamom. 

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Elsewhere in town, street vendors offer up lesser-known Vietnamese dishes that are all worth trying, from the simple yet satisfying egg and ham breakfast baguette (banh mi op la) to the tomato and crab-stewed soup heavy with crab paste (bun rieu) and the pork- and shrimp-stuffed savory pancakes made of rice flour, water and turmeric powder (banh xeo). If a banh mi is what you’re after, don’t miss the celebrated Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (26 Le Thi Rieng St., District 1, (+84) 8-3925-0885), which comes loaded with six to eight layers of luncheon meat and grilled pork, with mayo, pork floss, pate and pickled veggies.

One of the best places to sample several dishes at once is the Food Alley at Cao Thang Street in District 3, a stretch of local vendors hawking cheap eats alongside souvenir shops. Walk towards the opening in the center of the market and you’ll stumble upon a true off-the-guidebooks gem: A middle-aged lady in a traditional Vietnamese hat and red apron works furiously with two well-seasoned woks, adding just a spoonful of garlic here or a dash of hot peppers there to platters of fresh mussels, snails, crab legs, razor clams, prawns and scallops. Point to what you want, and sit down with an ice-cold glass of sugarcane juice from the stand nearby as you await your meal. It’s the best of Ho Chi Minh City, all on a single plate.

Where to Stay: Fantasia and a Reverie

Of a handful of new concrete giants in the city, the most stunning is The Reverie Saigon (22-36 Nguyen Hue St., District 1), a grandiose Italian-inspired hotel on Nguyen Hue that’s dripping in jewels. Having received numerous accolades since its opening in September 2015, it’s one of the most beautiful and luxurious places to stay in Saigon, if you’re able and willing to splurge on a room—rates start at USD $350 ($2,718) per night.

For anyone traveling through Saigon, the hotel is a destination in its own right: Particularly for design fanatics, with its colorful ceiling installations made of individual hand-blown Murano glass pieces and ostentatious furnishings such as a five-meter-long lobby sofa custom-made with purple ostrich leather. Elsewhere in the 286-room property, seek out the Baldi Monumental clock outfitted in bright emerald green, the Bechstein grand piano dating back to 1895, and the handsome Veliero bookcase by Franco Albini which is an engineering feat in and of itself, made of 1,800 individual glass pieces.

Rooms are even more unapologetically lavish, with commanding views over the Saigon River and the ultimate palatial suite topping out at 313 sq. meters. A force of Italy’s leading design houses have collaborated to bring about the Baroque-inspired detailing of the rooms, encompassing hand-laid mosaic tiles in the bathrooms, floor chandeliers, marbled baths and exquisite Italian silks.

If you've had your fill of banh mi and banh xeo, take a break at The Reverie's homey Italian restaurant R&J, which houses one of the only authentic wood fire pizza ovens in the city in addition to a tempting selection of homemade gelato; alternatively, head to all-day dining venue Café Cardinal which offers classical French dishes in a stylish setting designed by Visionnaire. In the evening, venture up to the Club Lounge on the 38th floor for an evening cocktail as you watch the sun set over Nguyen Hue Street. It's one of the best views in Ho Chi Minh, a city that never fails to captivate and amaze.