Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city of Vietnam, boasts a population of eight million humans and seven million motorbikes. Saigon, as it is still popularly called, will never cease to have things to do, experience, see, learn or consume. The main ‘sites’ are not numerous or massively impressive – a descriptive fact is that one of its most famous sites is the post office – but the distinguishing feature of the Saigon Experience is the atmosphere.
Firstly, make sure you eat. Banh mis (filled baguettes), xoi ga (sticky rice and chicken) and the ubiquitous pho (noodle soup) are best enjoyed at various street food stalls you can find at every corner. For a nice local meal, go up to district 3 and enjoy dinner and people-watching at a canal-side street restaurant, for example Hoa Map on Truong Sa 922 (prices around 50k).
Western restaurants are also exceptionally affordable in Saigon – try Au Parc (23 Han Thuyen) for excellent Mediterranean food; it is easy to find and conveniently right near the aforementioned post office, with prices for mains for 150-325k.
For a stunning sunset, pop by the View (195 Bui Vien), a picturesque restaurant with affordable drinks and decent food (rice served in a pineapple, ah). Prices for food range from 100-150k and non-happy hour cocktails are around 100k. Note that you have to go inside the Duc Vuong hotel to get to the restaurant.
For a proper cloud-skimming experience, visit the incredible Chill Sky bar (AB Tower, 26th floor, 76 Le Lai), just a stone’s throw away from Bui Vien (cocktail prices from 250k). Just remember – you will not be allowed in with flip-flops! (Ironically, murky trainers are usually ok.)
For a cheaper, more down-to-earth experience (literally), find the tiny plastic chairs and 10k beers of 96 Bui Vien, and start your Bui Vien nightlife experience there.
Saigon also has a booming coffee culture going on to. Try out the dilapidated old warehouse 14 Ton That Dam – yes, you have come to exactly the right place – with numerous out-of-the-way cafes, along with funky vintage shops, hidden within the crumbling stairwells.
For non-food-related escapades, visit the lush park on Pham Ngu Lao in District 1. Pick up a smoothie in the morning and chat with the local students, and in the evening, if you’re brave enough, join the local free aerobics classes for some sophisticated hip-shaking accompanied by boppy Vietnamese pop music!
Saigon provides you with plenty of fun days out, too. For a relaxing, paradise-vibed day, take a ride to the Binh Thanh district to the wonderful Van Thanh park (48/10 Dien Bien Phu), complete with an uncrowded swimming pool (60k).
Another popular water-themed adventure is situated the opposite side of the city – Dam Sen Waterpark (3 Hoa Binh Street, 140k for adults), full of rides ranging from the fast-whirling, adrenaline-filled with names like Kamikaze and Boomerang, to the leisurely tyre-rides floating gently down the river.
However, the main experience in Saigon is its traffic. Crossing the road is a thrill comparable to the craziest rides of Dam Sen Park. Remember to never rush across the road, as motorbikers are used to manoeuvring around pedestrians with predictable, steady-paced walking paths. Also remember, motorbikes are always allowed to turn right regardless of the colour of the traffic light. If you feel up to it, definitely hire your own bike (there are many on Pham Ngu Lao street) and brave the streets of Saigon.
Saigon will, without a doubt, keep you entertained for ages and ages. Enjoy it with every sense you have, and soak up the compelling, chaotic madness. And the motorbikes.