“Vietnam. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go. Once you love it, you love it forever.” – Anthony Bourdain
The late Anthony Bourdain called Vietnam “one of his favourite places on earth”. He really was onto something, because I’ve never seen anything like it in all my travels! To think, I would have overlooked this beautiful country when planning our 2-week long trip to Asia, had it not been for my husband. I’m so glad that I listened.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC, for short) was our first stop in Vietnam. Located in southern Vietnam, HCMC is a vibrant and bustling metropolis. Renowned for market stalls and street food, motorbikes, history, and architecture, it’s equal parts enchanting and energizing!
Know Before You Go
- Saigon, or Sài Gòn in Vietnamese, was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975. “Saigon” is still widely used and much beloved, by both locals and travellers alike.
- Ho Chi Minh is a city of motorbikes and people. With a growing population of over 13 million, and over 7 million motorbikes on the road, keep your head up while walking – especially during rush hour, when motorbikes are known to encroach on the sidewalks!
- The local currency in Vietnam is the Vietnamese Dong. $1 CAD currently converts to approximately 17,500 VND. Tip: head to Ha Tam Jewelry near Ben Thanh Market for the best rate.
- You can easily explore many parts of Ho Chi Minh City by foot. For further distances, you’ll need a taxi, unless you’re brave enough to rent a motorbike! Tip: Uber is not available in Ho Chi Minh City, so download Grab app.
- Saigon is safe for all types of travelers, including LGBTQ and solo female travelers. But you should always use common sense and exercise normal precautions.
- Ho Chi Minh City is home to 24 districts – 19 centrally positioned and 5 categorized as suburban. District 1 is the central urban district, and the busiest. You’ll find lots of administrative offices, consulates, and large buildings here, as well as the popular Đồng Khởi street and Nguyễn Huệ boulevard.
- District 3 borders District 1. It’s where you’ll find lots of trendy restaurants, hip cafes, and tourist attractions. Here, you can see a glimpse of what real life is like in Ho Chi Minh City, outside of long lines and busy market stalls.
Where to Stay
Mai House Saigon
Newly opened Mai House Saigon is a luxury 5-star hotel that exuuuudes old-world charm in the heart of central Saigon. Located in District 3, it’s about a 10-minute drive from Tan Son Nhat International Airport.
I’d describe the design at Mai House Saigon as classic French meets Indochinese flair, with hints of colonial influence. Upon entering the main lobby, you’re immediately blown away by the dramatic staircase and high ceilings.
There are 224 guestrooms at Mai House Saigon. We stayed in a very spacious Junior Suite, which had a king-sized bed, living room with a large sectional, and separate closet and suitcase area. The bathroom was outfitted with marble, glass, beautiful tiles, a double vanity, clawfoot tub, and stand-up shower.
In terms of amenities, you’ll find a spa, outdoor pool, fitness centre, bar on the main floor, as well as a restaurant (C’est La Vie) on the second floor. I understand the hotel will soon be opening a sky club lounge and tea lounge.
C’est La Vie serves provincial French & Vietnamese cuisine, and is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We enjoyed daily breakfasts – both inside the restaurant and delivered to our room. There was an enormous selection at the breakfast buffet, including classic western dishes and a good variety local foods. We also had a lovely dinner at C’est La Vie one evening.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City just past midnight, Mai House Saigon was the perfect refuge for us. If our itinerary wasn’t as packed as it was, we would have relished much more time in our comfy suite! We loved our time here and would return!
Must-Try: cocktails at the Lobby Bar. Ask for the Protectorate Punch (gin, yuzushu, Japanese syrup, pineapple juice and lemon juice), which reminded me of an Aviation, my favourite cocktail.
Where to Eat & Drink
Anthony Bourdain loved nothing more than pulling up a tiny stool at a plastic table on the side of the street, and indulging in a bowl of noodles with a cold beer in-hand. When you visit Vietnam, you’ll see tonnes of locals and tourists doing this very thing. For the average traveler, the sanitary conditions are up to par at most food stalls. But if you’re uneasy about eating street food, you’re gonna miss out on all the fun. This is the place to be adventurous with food!
Our time in HCMC was short, so we figured following in the footsteps of the late, great AB would be a sure bet.
Banh Xeo 46A: THE place in Ho Chi Minh City to try Banh Xeo, a sizzling pancake made from rice flour and egg, stuffed with shrimp, pork, and bean sprouts. Don’t just sit at one of the tables in the back. Spend time watching the Banh Xeos being meticulously prepared at the front – it’s mesmerizing! The open-air kitchen makes it easy and fun to observe! Catch a glimpse in my video on 7 Foods You Must Try in Vietnam. Address: 46A Đinh Công Tráng, Tân Định, District 1.
The Lunch Lady: Nguyen Thi Thanh, affectionately known as The Lunch Lady, has a busy street stall in District 1, where she prepares rotating daily specials. She’s best known for her Bun Bo Hue, served on Fridays. Address: Chung Cư, Lô D, Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, Đa Kao, District 1.
Secret Garden Restaurant: this tiny rooftop oasis is a favourite amongst locals and tourists. Perched above an old French heritage building, you’ll have to climb several flights of stairs to get here. But the climb is definitely worth it! One of the best dining options in HCMC, you’ll find authentic Vietnamese food in a beautiful atmosphere for a reasonable price. Address: 58 Pasteur, Bến Nghé, District 1.
Bonus: the bánh mì sandwich was created in Saigon in the 1950s, so you can’t leave the city without trying one. Look for the women wearing áo bà ba (“pyjama suits”), who are known for serving the best banh mis in Ho Chi Minh City.
What to Do
Nhà thờ Tân Định: the Pink Church was built during the French colonial period and still functions as a place of worship today. It’s the second largest church in Hồ Chí Minh, after Notre Dame Cathedral. Go early to avoid crowds (and someone ruining your shot with their selfie stick!). Opening hours are 05:00 – 17:30 daily. Address: 289 Hai Bà Trưng, Phường 8, District 3.
Nguyen Hue Walking Street: there are many sights to see along Nguyen Hue Walking Street. Among the most interesting is Café Apartment at No. 42. Originally built as a residential apartment, this now dilapidated-looking structure is actually home to over 30 restaurants, bars, cafes and other businesses. Spend half an afternoon bar and café-hopping here. Tip: The staircase is free of charge, but you can beat the heat and ride the elevator for $3,000 VND. Address: 42 Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, District 1.
Bến Thành Market: get lost wandering the seemingly endless aisles within one of the city’s oldest landmarks. Look for unique treasures and trinkets, enjoy local delicacies, and haggle with vendors – it’s all part of the fun! Locals will tell you to visit when the sun sets, because the restaurants around the perimeter open their doors, creating a vast open-market atmosphere. Address: Chợ, Đường Lê Lợi, Phường Bến Thành, District 1.
Day Trip to the Mekong Delta: Is it worth it to take a trip to the Mekong Delta, when visiting Ho Chi Minh City? Absolutely, 100%! Located in the southwestern part of Vietnam where the Mekong River empties into the sea, it’s one of the most important fishing regions and one of the most interesting parts of the country. It occupies over 40,500 square kilometres and comprises 12 provinces. Because of its distance from Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll either have to reserve a day trip departing very early in the morning, or spend a night in the region.
We did a day trip with Jason Super Star Service (SSS), who I highly recommend. He is one of few (if not, the only) tour operators offering same-day pickup and drop-off. This is best-suited for those short on time, like we were! His condensed tour will take you to the Cai Rang floating market at sunrise (the best and most bustling time), and other unforgettable highlights, like cruising on the Mekong while lying in one of his signature purple hammocks!
One of my favourite parts about Jason’s tour was passing through the Can Tho Market. Can Tho is the largest city in the Mekong Delta, and the market will be like sensory overload. You’ll find vendors selling everything from produce and meat to frogs that have been skinned.
Rooftop Bar for Sunset: I couldn’t think of a better place to catch a Ho Chi Minh City sunset than at a rooftop bar for sundowner cocktails. There are many upscale rooftop bars in HCMC, so you will be spoilt for choice. We loved Social Club Rooftop Bar at Hôtel des Arts Saigon. Address: MGallery Saigon, 76-78 Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, Phường 6, District 3.
Architecture, The Sights, The People: there’s an endless amount of sights in Ho Chi Minh City, including architecturally impressive buildings. HCMC is actually renowned for its French-colonial landmarks, including the 19th-century Central Post Office and the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Truth be told, I was captivated by all the sights and smells of the city. For me, the local people are always the most interesting part of a destination. Walk around, take it all in, and don’t forget your camera!
We were so impressed by Ho Chi Minh City (and the Mekong Delta) – the energy, the vibe, the old, the new. While only there for 2 days, we did quite a lot and got enough of a taste to want to return!
Have you visited Ho Chi Minh City? What are some of your favourite spots?
Next stop: Hoi An (check out my Hoi An travel guide here)!
*We were graciously hosted for a complimentary stay at Mai House Saigon on this trip. However, all thoughts and opinions are 100% my own.