Ho Chi Minh City: A Guide

If you visit Ho Chi Minh City, prepare for an adventure in this beautiful, chaotic city full of amazing food and buzzing with millions of motorbikes. My city guide below is a collection of cultural attractions and experiences, nightlife, and–most importantly–local-recommended foods and restaurants I’ve checked out over my three trips to HCMC. I recommend spending at least four days here to really get to know HCMC.

Budgeting & Where to Stay

In my guide I focus mainly on District 1, the tourist area,  and District 3, where I usually stay. D3 is just north of D1, so it’s only a quick Uber ride to downtown but you get a much better feel for the local lifestyle. Since it’s a way from the tourist sites, D3 is also much less expensive than D1, so it’s a good spot for those of you who are on a tighter budget, like me.

D3: You can get a comfortable Airbnb from $20-30/night here and easily spend no more than $15 a day on food if you stick mostly to street vendors–more if you plan to drink. My go-to Airbnb is here.

D1: In D1, an Airbnb costs ~$35-50/night, and a decent budget hotel costs around $50/night. Expect to pay $65-90 for a nicer, mid-range hotel. I’ve stayed at and recommend the Bay Hotel (booking.com).

For meals in this district, budget $5-15 USD per person, per meal if you’re keeping it on the casual side (without alcohol).

Things to do

Ride a Motorbike! This is my favorite way to get around since HCMC is not so great for walking, at least outside of District 1. The traffic here definitely takes some getting used to, but it’s an adventure every time you get on a bike. If you’re not ready for the streets of HCMC on your own wheels, you can take a moto Uber anywhere–just make sure there’s no rain in the forecast! Pro tip: Wear a surgical mask to avoid inhaling bugs (tasty) and exhaust on the ride. You can find them at mini marts and pharmacies.

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Drink Bia. Cheap beer is everywhere. Just look for brightly colored plastic seats at street corners. You can try locally brewed draught beer (Bia Hoi) and do some people watching for just $0.20 a glass. Full disclosure: I’m not a beer drinker and I’ve heard it tastes pretty meh, but it’s super cheap and does the job.

If you’re a craft beer lover, you’re in luck: Vietnam is recently experiencing a craft beer boom. Produced in HCMC, Pasteur Street Brewing Company has two tap rooms here and combines ‘American craft brewing techniques with fresh and exotic Vietnamese ingredients’. (website)

Get up early and go explore the alleyways of District 3. Ho Chi Minh City is a little like Melbourne, Australia, in that it’s FULL of tiny back alleyways to explore–some so narrow you can touch both sides with your elbows! Unlike Melbourne, you probably won’t encounter hipster bars, but you will find lots of street vendors, like the lady outside my favorite Airbnb who sells grilled bananas in pudding, or the Hu Tieu stand I recommend further on in this post.

The Vietnamese generally get up pretty early, around 5-6am. First–to exercise–and then to buy food for the day’s meals. If you go to District 3 early, you’ll see all the street vendors selling everything from produce to live seafood. Watch out for motorbikes behind you and coming around corners–no matter how tight the space!

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Treat yo’ self to a massage or foot rub at Jolene Spa in District 1 after a long day of walking around the city.  A 90-minute full-body massage with cucumber face mask costs 380,000VND (about $17 USD) before tip.**  (Facebook)

peoplewatchingEnjoy Vietnamese Cafe Life. There are more coffee shops in the city than you could dream. Try the Vietnamese specialty, Ca Phe Sua Da (‘da’ means ‘iced’, ‘sua’ means ‘sweetened’)–coffee with sweetened condensed milk. You can get the unsweetened version, ‘den da’, if you’re looking to put some hair on your chest. Here’s a list of some of my favorite HCMC cafes:

  • C. On Cafe (District 3): A casual cafe with wooden decor that plays great music, has multiple cozy seating areas, and boasts a bar and small food menu. (Google Maps)
  • Flat White Coffee, Teas and Cakes (District 1): A sweet little low-key spot, with a small scruffy grey dog (who looks like a towel that went through too many dryer cycles), offering fresh croissants and cakes. Try their coconut coffee or a ca phe sua da. (Facebook)
  • JuiceOiHCMCJuice Oi (District 3): This spot is one of my absolute favorites for when I’m craving fresh food–gotta balance out all the Pho! At Juice Oi you can get a big salad, freshly made juice, and then grab a delicious Bahn Mi to go. It’s run by a really cool woman named Brooklyn. (website)
  • The Workshop (District 1): At first impression, you might wonder if you’ve stepped into a wormhole and landed in Brooklyn. Hidden away up several flights of stairs, this is an expat scene. The coffees are spendy, but if you’re an aficionado and particular about your java they’ve got you covered with their extensive collection of coffee paraphernalia. Try a fizzy cold brew! They also serve Western food options that are on the healthier side. (Facebook)

 

Culture

Central Post Office (District 1): Constructed when Vietnam was part of French Indochina, this impressive building combines several types of architecture. It’s still in operation, so you can send all your postcards here! (Google Maps)

Notre Dame Cathedral (District 1): A Roman Catholic Cathedral Basilica, opened in 1880, built in the Romanesque style. The cathedral is right next to the Central Post Office. (Google Maps)

The War Remnants Museum (District 1): A memorial and educational experience to document the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Admission is 15,000VND (less than one USD), and you can easily spend half a day here. (website)

thefactory2The Factory Contemporary Arts Center (District 2): A great spot to view work from contemporary Vietnamese artists or attend a discussion. There’s a also library of art books to enjoy, frequent events on the calendar, and a wine bar in the outdoor space out back. I recommend popping in here before heading over to The Deck (see: ‘Drinks’) to have some cocktails and watch the sun set on the water. (website)

Food: What to try and Where to Eat

Bahn Mi: A famous sandwich resulting from the influence of the French colonization (1887-1954) of Vietnam. The traditional version is a baguette spread with mayonnaise and layered with paté, an array of different meats, and topped with fiery chili, cilantro, and lightly pickled carrot, daikon radish and cucumber. You get sweet, spicy, umami, salty, and sour all in one package. You can also try bahn mi op la, which is a version with fries egg. Where to find it: Bahn Mi Huynh Hoa in District 1 — look for the line 10 people deep.

Here, I’m waiting in line for Bahn Mi at Huyn Hoa–a line actually worth the wait!

Bun Thit Nuong: Grilled beef in betel leaf. Look for two-inch green cylinders on a skewer. Where to find it: Certain food stalls at Ben Thanh Market in District 1.

Hu Tieu: A southern noodle soup made from a seafood-based broth, topped with anything from shredded chicken and fried dumplings, to fish balls and even chicken feet. Where to find it: Hu Tieu Co Huong in District 3. This family has been making Hu Tieu for decades.

Hue Style Food: Hue is on the central coast of Vietnam and known for its spicier dishes with an emphasis on seafood. Where to find it: Kim Long Quan – Mon Hue in District 3. Try the fermented shrimp dish with fresh herbs and peanut sauce, and rice served in a coconut. 

Pho: Vietnam’s most famous noodle soup. Read my detailed post about it here. Where to find it:

  • Quan Pho Thai Son in District 1. (Google Maps)
  • Shop at 146E Ly Chinh Thang, District 3

Vegetarian: Ho Chi Minh has a sizeable population of Buddhists who practice a vegetarian lifestyle, which means there are lots of great options for vegetarian visitors. Look for the word ‘chay’, which means ‘vegetarian’ in Vietnamese. Where:

  • Hum Vegetarian (D3), 32 Duong Vo Van Tan
  • Quan Chay Ba Tu at 531 Hoang Sa in District 3 (right: Bun Hue)

Waffles: Watch for sweet little old ladies selling these along the sidewalk on Le Thanh Ton or Ly Tu Trong in downtown District 1.

Upscale Vietnamese: Quan Bui in Distrcit 1. I recommend the honey chicken and sautéed Morning Glory–a regional green vegetable (website)

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Drinks

The Deck (District 2): Enjoy the sunset and cocktails at a resort setting along the water. Drinks are pricey but well made. If you’re on a budget, check out their happy hour daily from 4-7pm when drinks are 50% off. This is the spicy Mango Chili Martini. I’ve had a few.  (website)

Glow Rooftop Bar (District 1): A scene-y rooftop bar playing top 40 and lounge/house.  They also have a happy hour until 7pm but it doesn’t start getting busy until sundown. (website)

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(The bougiest photo I have ever taken, but there is a seat on the ‘O’!)

Shopping

Ben Tanh Market (District 1): A must see. You can get an inexpensive lunch, haggle for souvenirs, and watch local butchers and produce vendors in action. Have your camera ready. (Google Maps)

Ginkgo Concept Store (District 1): A collection of clothing, accessories, and gifts made by Vietnamese designers and artists. (website)

L’Usine (two locations in District 1): A trendy shop selling mid-range clothing labels and accessories, with a chic, white-tiled cafe on the top floor. Check out the rooftop view at the Le Loi location and have a Bahn Mi or fresh coconut (with another coffee, of course). (website)

 

 

 

MAYHEM (District 1): Got a vintage shopping itch to scratch? Check out Mayhem. Among vintage threads, they also carry pieces from local designers, like Sinhtolina. I love her elegant minimalist dresses. (Facebook)

**Tipping Etiquette: Tipping is not standard practice in Vietnam, except for services (haircuts, massage, etc.). When tipping for a massage or manicure, for example, I give about 30-40% of the cost of services; It’s my understanding that if they don’t have a client that day, a masseuse won’t make any money, so their income is potentially exclusively from tips. 

A tip is not expected with taxi drivers, but when I have given one it’s either very much appreciated or refused.

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