Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
The Scene: Forget your images of defensive, agrarian Vietnam. The sexy, colorful, neon-lit streets of booming Saigon are abuzz with a young, exotic flair. The food in Vietnam is exciting, fresh, bright, and much healthier than that of most of its Southeast Asian neighbors.
Talent from throughout Vietnam is flocking here for new opportunity. Good news: these newcomers are bringing their local recipes with them and setting up shop on the street corners of Vietnam’s largest city. In Saigon, you can eat Hanoi-style chicken soup (pho ga) for breakfast, shrimp-covered rice cakes from Hue (banh beo) for lunch and southern-style seafood-stuffed crepes (banh xeo) for dinner. Throughout the day, be the architect of your own snack at one of the countless banh mi carts (French baguettes expose the city’s colonial history) and nibble on fresh spring rolls handmade on nearly every block. Vietnamese cuisine is healthy, elaborate and affordable for every visitor. Though Saigon lacks Hanoi’s head-scratchingly inexpensive bia hoi brew, there are plenty of BBQ restaurants setting up yards of picnic tables filled with beer-guzzling locals relaxing and enjoying themselves after a long day of hustling a living in a city we consider the Miami of Asia (minus the beach and cocaine, of course).
Graham Greene, 1955 (or you can just watch the movie)
Chances are, you’ll need a visa to visit Vietnam. In most cases (if you have a few days) the Visa on Arrival is really easy and the best way to go. We have used Vietnam Visa Pro many times now with no trouble at all. They have the best prices we’ve found and the turnaround is super quick. You pay $10 per person (or less as a group) to apply and then you pay $45 in US cash when you arrive at the airport to get your visa sticker.
Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN)
The most efficient way to get to Saigon, from most places other than nearby towns, is by plane. Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) is a short and cheap taxi ride away from the city center. Once you arrive, transit isn’t really an option so you’ll have to take a taxi. As mentioned above, when you get to the taxi stand just request a Vinasun or Mailin taxi. The line is a bit of a clusterf*&$ so just work your way up and ask the guy running the show. A metered taxi to the center of town should cost you between 80,000 and 100,000 vnd depending on your destination.
You can take a bus or train from other parts of Vietnam but unless you are on a tight budget and have a lot of time, your best bet is to fly.
Unless you’re on a backpacker’s budget, your best bet for booking a hotel ahead of time is through Agoda, Booking.com, or a similar site. Look for something near Ben Thanh Market or Nguyen Hue Street. A favorite of ours is the Alagon Saigon Hotel & Spa. Another great option right in the center of town is the historic Rex Hotel. They have an excellent rooftop pool you can also use for around $5 a day even if you don’t stay at the hotel.
If you are on a backpacker’s budget, head to Pham Ngu Lau Street and the blocks behind it which are filled with cheap guest houses you should be able to score a room in for around $10 a night.
Still cheap, despite the city’s growth. Costs are rising, but you can still enjoy a bowl of soup for $1, $0.75 for a sandwich, $2-3 for a proper meal. A cup of coffee or a beer (both excellent quality) should cost about $0.60 in the outlying districts.
ATMs at the bigger banks are probably your best bet because you don’t want to come into the country carrying a bunch of cash but you’ll probably want to bring a little bit to change at the airport for a taxi in to town. The airport money changers don’t have very good rates though, so if you do prefer to bring in cash to exchange, I’d just change enough for a cab at the airport and then there’s a gold shop we go to near Ben Thanh Market that has really good rates, despite seeming a little shady. There are two gold shops on the same corner but it’s the one that’s on this corner (just look for a crowd of people changing money).
In Vietnam taxis can be kindof shady sometimes. Generally, to be safe you should only take Vinasun and Mailin. It’s easy to remember once you see them. Vinasun are white with red and green logos and Mailin are solid bright green. You’ll see lots of them around. The only rule really is to just make sure they run the meter – don’t let them try to quote you a price and if they do just walk away. Taxis are really cheap in Vietnam.
Another, sometimes more efficient and more fun option, are the guys you’ll see sitting around on their motorbikes on the corners. Those guys are actually motorbike taxis, called “xe oms” (say ohm). If you’re feeling adventurous, they’ll take you anywhere for really cheap (again you just have to bargain/walk away and don’t take any more than half of what they originally quote you). Despite how crazy it looks, riding a motorbike or on the back of a xe om is really pretty safe. It’s also nice when traffic is bad bc they can just zip right through where cabs will have to sit in traffic.
Traffic never gets going too fast and we’ve only ever witnessed accidents in the rain and even then they were minor. Riding on a motorbike in Vietnam is one of our absolute favorite things to do. Which brings us to…
Renting a Motorbike
We don’t recommend it unless you’re pretty comfortable driving one, but in the event that you do want to, you can find a bunch of places that will rent to you down near Pham Ngu Lao which is the backpackers’ district. It’s usually around $5 per day to rent one and just be careful because technically it’s illegal for anyone without a Vietnamese license to drive there but you shouldn’t have any problems. That said, as mentioned above, riding a motorbike in Saigon is one of our favorite things in the world to do. Cruising down the winding curves of Hoang Sa following the river passing countless cafes and seafood bbq joints in the cool evening breeze is just about as good as it gets.
Sim cards are really cheap in Vietnam and it’s totally worth it to just buy one when you get off the plane at the airport. You can get them in town but it’s way easier at the airport and then you’ll have data straight away. For under 10 bucks you should be able to get more data than you’ll need for the whole trip (and many cards will remain valid for weeks). There will be stands in the airport when you exit customs. Viettel, Mobiphone, and Vinaphone are all good.
First things first: where to get your caffeine fix. This is an abbreviated list of some great cafes in Saigon. For a more in-depth list, check out our list of some of the Best Cafes in Saigon.
The drink to order, especially in Saigon where the young cafe owners have developed their own style of the drink, is ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk). In Saigon you’ll almost never be served iced coffee with a phin on top of your glass like you’ve seen in restaurants in your country. These days, the kids in Saigon are pre-mixing your iced crack so it’s perfectly flavored and ready to go.
If you haven’t been, you have to check out L’usine. There are two locations in D1 – the one on Le Loi is a little easier to find but the one on Dong Khoi is kindof cool because it’s a little more hidden. They both also include a retail component with some really cool (but very expensive) goods. As the owner is an Aussie, they’re also one of the few cafes that does decent espresso-based drinks.
The Unofficial Cafe District: D3
District 3 is, to us, the unofficial cafe district of Saigon. There are cafes on just about every corner and tucked away in every little pocket of the neighborhood. There are some great little local retail shops in the area as well. Decibel and Cuc Gach are right next door to each other in D3 and aren’t far from the Lunch Lady. Quan Cafe Gac Hoa (which we call the flower cafe bc it’s also a flower shop) is a fun little spot also in D3.
Phuc Long is a more established shop that makes great iced coffee too – they have a shop right on the traffic circle at the end of Ly Tu Trong. They’re also a great place to get beans to take home as they’re cheaper than a lot of the stuff you’ll find in markets etc. and you have a better chance of quality control. Thuc and Coffee Factory are also chains with a bunch of locations around the city and both are solid.
Egg coffee is really just a Hanoi thing but there is one cafe we know of in Saigon that does it. They’re called Luu Gia and not too far from Hoang Sa street. They’re open at night, too, so it can be a good after dinner/dessert option.
If you come to Saigon and don’t eat as much banh mi as you possibly can, you’re playing the fool… big time. Unlike Hanoi where you have to hunt down a good banh mi, Saigon is the land of baguettes and you can find them pretty much everywhere. Our favorites include the famous Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, Banh Mi 37 Nguyen Trai, and a little spot below the Bitexco tower that you’ll have to just hunt for if you want to find it.
Large,thin, crispy pancake/crepes reminiscent of a south-Indian dosa accompanied by a pile of herbs sometimes larger than the crepe itself. You can find a smaller varity of these guys in central Vietnam but the big boys in Saigon are some of our favorites. You’ll get your hands (and belly) a little greasy but that heap of herbs you’re shoveling down with it will more than make up for it. Our favorite is still the famous Banh Xeo 46a but if you’re feeling adventurous, there’s a street filled with banh xeo vendors called Su Van Hanh Street (that we discovered through Tom of Vietnam Coracle).
Bun Bo Hue
Despite being a Central Vietnamese specialty, Saigon has some damn good Bun Bo Hue. Our favorite can be found centrally located in D1 just blocks from Cho Ben Thanh at Bun Bo Hue Dong Ba.
If you’re from the US, Saigon-style pho is probably more like what you’re used to. It’s a bit sweeter and more herbal than Hanoi-style pho, and usually served with the typical condiments. A good spot to get your fill is the fairly well-known Pho Pasteur
The main rule when eating in Saigon is that if it looks good, give it a try. Look for stalls that are busy, but even if they aren’t that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. We’ve eaten some pretty sketchy looking stuff in Saigon and never been sick on the street. Obviously everyone’s stomach reacts differently but in general, the level of cleanliness is pretty good in Saigon. One of our favorite snack foods that you can find around Ben Thanh Market is a little snack of fried rice cakes and egg called bot chien. Although the market itself is pretty much a tourist trap, the streets around Ben Thanh are a great place to sample lots of street food bites.
BBQ Goat / Goat Hot Pot
This should probably be #1 on our list. If you like to drink beer, it should be your top priority. First and foremost – don’t resist the ice in your beer. It’ll seem weird at first but once you get started you can’t stop. And where else do you get to drink a mug of beer with a tubular block of ice in it? There are two major types of places like this in Saigon that we love to frequent:
The first, is basically the Vietnamese equivalent of Korean BBQ or Japanese yakiniku. While they don’t have the reputation Koreans do for letting loose and going all Homer Simpson on a 12-pack of Hite, the Vietnamese will give any good Irishman or Korean a run for their money when you set it up next to a table full of grilled seafood. Our favorite place for this type of bbq is definitely 5ku Station at 27 Le Thanh Ton. If they aren’t already sold out by the time you get there, definitely try the ostrich. The pork ribs are mighty fine as well.
If you’re looking for seafood (think steamed clams, bbq’d shrimp, etc) you can’t go wrong with pretty much any place along Hoang Sa along the river just north of D1/D3. This strip of road is home to more cafes and seafood bbq joints than you can count and it’s one of the most pleasant strips of road in Saigon to hang out on a nice summer evening. Our favorite spot is the 3-story tower of party known as Xien Khe on the corner of Hoang Sa and Tran Khac Chan.
La Rue and 333 beers on ice are all you should really be drinking in Vietnam but, if you must, you can find decent cocktails at some cafes and fancier bars around town. Some of our favorite spots for imbibing in the city of motorbuzz…
Great clean spot for a very nice and well-priced massage.
Haircut / Head Massage
The mark on the map is a bit off. The actual location is across the street and down a few doors. For around $7 USD you can get a great haircut that includes a 30-minute wash and head massage. It’s seriously amazing. You can pay a few bucks more for an English-speaking Singaporean stylist but we prefer to roll the dice and go with the local Vietnamese stylists. It’s more fun that way.