What to do in the dizzying Vietnamese city if you're heading there for an impromptu weekend with the girls or a solo break
Once known as the Diamond of the Far East, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) – or Saigon, if you prefer – overflows with life and culture. Rich in history but very much a modern metropolis, the charming city is a conflicting image of motorcycle traffic jams, glossy skyscrapers and old-world architecture. Admittedly, I thought Vietnam’s second largest city is just another gritty, chaotic place before the trip, but I returned charmed and ready to move over. With a serious café culture, streets of chic boutiques, a dynamic street life, a fervent nightlife, and lots of excellent pho, HCMC is a fascinating destination you won’t be bored of. Here’s how to fall in love with the city in one weekend:
See the city like a local
If you want to experience Saigon like a resident, you’ve got to travel like one — and that means on the back of a motorcycle. Vespa Adventures was my group’s host for an thrilling evening where we were whisked away to a handful of secret local hangouts on adorable Vespas.
Our first stop was at Café Zoom for free-flow drinks before zipping through the city on our night trail, which included places like 662 Restaurant (a famous seafood restaurant along District 4), Banh Xeo 46A (a traditional Vietnamese eatery serving Saigon most sizzling crepes), Café Vung Oi (a hidden acoustic bar), and The Acoustic Bar (an underground rock bar that showcases up and coming musicians). The experience, priced at USD89, brings a refreshing perspective to sightseeing — the sounds, the smells, the wind in your face and wet splashes on your legs are things you’ll never get when you’re going around in a bus or a car.
The unique sundeck at An Lam River Saigon
Wash away the city with a dip in An Lam's funky pool
An Lam is a great place to catch the sunset
Sit back with a cold drink and magazine at An Lam's sexy bar
Grab a table with a view at Luc Binh restaurant
Stay on the river
If you spend a lot of time in the city like our group did, we recommend staying on the beautiful river for a change of pace and wonderful scenery. Boutique hotel An Lam Saigon River is just fifteen minutes from the city centre – plus they send a speedboat to pick you up from district one, so that you arrive in serious style. The elegant, stylish hotel is perfectly perched on the water, and arranged so that guests can always take in the serene, jungle-y views. From the stunning sundeck over the river to the inviting, swish pool, An Lam is part of its lush surrounds – and is a great place to relax and watch the world go by (or the cute little boats on the river, anyway!). With private villas and a selection of suites, An Lam offers affordable luxury to its guests – with each room mixing classic southern Vietnamese décor with unique, modern touches. Even if you don’t stay here – be sure to enjoy dinner at Luc Binh restaurant which serves up delicious Vietnamese and international dishes (made from organic local ingredients) in a gorgeous open-fronted setting on the Saigon River. See a few snaps above!
Learn how to whip up a Vietnamese feast
That way, you can replicate a taste of Vietnam at home when you miss the city. Saigon Cooking Class by Hoa Tuc starts off with an interesting excursion to Bến Thành Market, where Chef Khang takes students on a little tour to buy ingredients for the dishes in the cooking programme. My group was taught to make chả giò Saigon (Saigon fried spring rolls), gỏi rau muống (water spinach salad) and mì xào dòn hải sản (crispy noodle with crunchy vegetables and squids). Bến Thành Market turned out to be a real eye-opener, so make it a point to visit and sample some of its street food even if you’re not planning to buy any groceries.
Shop for high-street gems
Confession: I had my doubts on HCMC’s shopping selection. I went expecting tacky beer tanks, but was greeted with rows of luxurious brands along Dong Kho Street and quaint fashion boutiques across the city. If you love cheap deals (now, who doesn’t?), Saigon Square stocks factory rejects and high-quality imitations of fashion brands including Forever 21, Cath Kidston, and Zara. Don’t be afraid to test your bargaining skills here and haggle your way to a desired price. (Tip: pretending to walk away really helps lower the prices!)
Booming café and dining culture
If you think Singapore’s café scene is rad, wait ’til you see the many coffee houses in HCMC. As the world’s second largest coffee producers, HCMC has a strong coffee culture, with unique cafés peppered across the city. Due to time constraints (there’s never enough of that in a holiday), I was only able to walk pass them, though I wished I could laze my day away with a cuppa java. Dining options are aplenty too, and no, they’re not shabby at all. Visit Nhà hàng Góc Á for a celebratory dinner, or Nha Hang Ngon for Vietnamese roadside grub in a modern setting.
Get a guide to show you the best bits
To get the most out of the hectic city for the first time, we strongly recommend hiring a guide. The right one can give you a glimpse of real Vietnam. If you’re afraid of a strict itinerary, don’t worry – you can tweak it so long as there are no pre-booked activities. During my girly weekend, I was blessed with the nicest guide, Du (pronounced as ‘you’). Contracted under Viet Travel, Du made sure everyone was happy, patiently answered my incessant questions, and even went the extra mile to bring us to places not listed in our itinerary. #BestGuideEver
How to get there
HCMC is only a two-hour plane ride away, and low-cost carrier airline VietJet Air offers one of the best rates (starting at $124 for a return trip) to Vietnam from Singapore. On our flight to and from HCMC, the stewardesses were super friendly and ensured all my needs were met – extra brownie points! Plus, the leather seats were comfy, with spacious leg room, and the food on board is pretty decent. Go ahead and order Thai fried rice or miến xào cua (crab and shrimp fried noodle) – both are delish.
VietJet Air also offers a special Sky Boss option that allows passengers to enjoy awesome perks like priority check-in and access to the luxurious CIP lounges, stocked with magazines, booze and grub. The benefits of Sky Boss sure made waking up before normal work time a whole lot better.
Special thanks to VietJet Air for the amazing trip!