36 Hours in Ho Chi Minh

With French architecture, canal-side pagodas, and heady Vietnamese coffee, every day is a surprise in the city.  
Ho Chi Minh
The Vinh Nghiem Pagoda is one of the biggest in the city and dedicated to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Photo by: Andrea Pistolesi/Getty Images

Day 1

11 a.m. City from the Sky

One of the best vantage points to take in Ho Chi Minh’s cityscape is at the 68-storey Bitexco Financial Tower in District 1. Most tourists head to the tower’s observation deck, Saigon Skydeck, on the 49th floor. But you’d rather visit the Eon51 café on the 50th floor, where the expansive view comes without a cover charge. Order a cappuccino and let Saigon’s vibrant skyline blow you away. If you feel like splurging a bit, head up another level to Eon51 Sky Dining, the 360-degree fine dining Asian restaurant. Slurp down a pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) while watching the sun beam over Ho Chi Minh’s skyscrapers, Cantonese pagodas and the Saigon River.

 

Ho Chi Minh 1

Modelled on its Parisian namesake, Hotel de Ville is one of Ho Chi Minh’s most iconic landmarks and houses the City People’s Committee. The gorgeous yellow-and-white building provides ample photo ops. Photo by: Blaine Harrington III/Getty Images

12 p.m. Explore French Connections

Ho Chi Minh’s upmarket French Quarter boasts beautiful art deco buildings reminiscent of the French rule in Vietnam between 1887 and 1954. The area brims with broad tree-lined boulevards and side streets, where colonial facades stand alongside swanky hotels and high-end fashion stores. Western and Asian design elements seamlessly fuse in the Vietnam History Museum building, located next to the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Though closed for renovation until 2019, a famous landmark in the French Quarter is the Notre Dame Cathedral opened in 1880 to provide religious services for French Catholics residing in Vietnam. The neo-Romanesque structure was built using red brick and stained glass, both imported from France. Across the road lies another architectural marvel, the Saigon Central Post Office, constructed by French architect Marie-Alfred Foulhoux (often incorrectly credited to Gustave Eiffel) in 1891. It prominently features on the tourist map for its striking design, complete with a giant clock face and arched windows. Its cavernous vaulted ceilings, art deco tiled floors and walls adorned with rare maps of Vietnam would thrill any history geek.

 

2 p.m. On Top of History

While there are no signs or plaques commemorating the role played by Pittman Apartments’ rooftop in the city’s history, the defining image of the fall of Saigon on April 29, 1975 was captured here by Dutch photojournalist Hubert van Es. The famous photo showed the South Vietnamese clambering up a ladder to reach a U.S. military helicopter perched atop this building’s elevator shaft in a bid to escape the Communist forces who claimed the city a day later. This rooftop at 22 Lý Tự Trọng Street in District 1 may not be a tourist attraction, but remains one of the most significant sites in the city.

 

3 p.m. Hunt for a Bargain

Developed from stalls run by vendors in the early 17th century, the Bến Thành Market at Lê Thánh Tôn, District 1, lies in the heart of Ho Chi Minh, close to several tourist sites. Here, haggling is part of the shopping experience. In addition to clothes, footwear, brocade and jewellery, visitors can score some great souvenirs too. Hot-selling goods include the nón lá (the Vietnamese conical straw hat), wooden slippers, coffee filters and so on. Even if you aren’t looking for anything in particular, a walk around the market is a great way to soak in the city’s sights and sounds. Tip: The jewellery shops across the street offer the best currency exchange rates.

Another popular market for souvenirs and knick-knacks is Lê Công Kiều, popularly known as Antique Street. The stretch is packed with numerous antique shops chock-full of stone statues, lamps, ceramic pots, clocks and coins. Rummage through it all and you might just unearth a rare find.

 

6 p.m. Culinary Tours, For Free

While there are multiple options for street food tours in Ho Chi Minh, Saigon Free Walking Tours is among the best when it comes to sampling local Vietnamese cuisine. Run by a network of volunteer student guides and tour leaders, it was created to support authentic local eateries. The four-hour tour allows visitors to sample dishes such as bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette packed with shredded coriander, pickled carrots, the local daikon radish, and pork, chicken or tofu), bún thịt nướng (cold vermicelli noodles topped with grilled pork) and cơm tấm (broken rice with grilled pork) and wash it down with a chilled glass of local beer available at most roadside establishments for as cheap as half a dollar.

 

Ho Chi Minh 2

Walking along the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal (bottom) is the easiest way to navigate the city; When hungry in Ho Chi Minh, get bánh mì (top right), a baguette filled with pickled carrots, local daikon radish, and pork; Thanks to its red-brick facade and stained glass design, the Notre Dame Cathedral is a significant monument of the French Quarter (top left). Photos by: Mrs. Bakker/India Picture (couple), CSP_bhofack2/Dinodia Photo Library (food), www.jethuynh.com/Getty Images (city)

10 p.m. Treat Yourself

To soothe your weary feet after a long day of exploration, head to one of the many foot massage parlours that dot the Pham Ngu Lao area in District 1. Most are open late into the night and some even serve a glass of wine during manicures and pedicures. A standard foot reflexology session costs less than half of what it does back home. Do decide on the cost of the service in advance.

Day 2

8 a.m. A Sip of Cà Phê Sữa Đá

There’s coffee and then there’s Vietnamese cà phê sữa đá. Since the French colonists introduced it in the 19th century, coffee is something of an obsession in Vietnam. The freshly brewed iced coffee works wonders in Ho Chi Minh’s intense humidity. It is brewed with locally grown dark roast coffee over a single metal French drip filter. The strong brew is stirred with condensed milk and topped with ice. While coffee shops abound in the city, order a cup from any street vendor for half the price and same quality.

 

8.30. a.m. In the Green Heart

In the heart of Ho Chi Minh’s city centre lies Tao Dan Park, a 25-acre haven with a most impressive canopy of tropical trees. Time slows down amid the century-old mahogany trees lining the space. The Ð Truong Dinh street bisects the park—to the northeastern fringes is a sculpture garden, while the centre flaunts a miniature red-brick Cham temple and a shrine dedicated to the Hùng kings, who founded Ho Chi Minh. Every morning, locals throng to Tao Dan for dance classes, tai chi, shadow boxing, and hula-hooping.

 

12 p.m. Brewing New Cultures

Despite the relative infancy of the craft beer scene in the city, beer brewing in Vietnam goes back to the 1890s, when it was introduced by the French. Light lagers by brands like Bia Hoi sold for half a dollar for a glass are local favourites. However, over the past three years, new breweries and tasting rooms such as Pasteur Street Brewing Co and Heart of Darkness have gained popularity. Heart of Darkness’ tasting room has a cosy, brick interior and an airy garden, and brews over 100 different types of craft beer. Try their Kurtz Insane with tones of grapefruit and pine or the smooth Sacred Fire with a hint of passion fruit and caramel.

 

Ho Chi Minh 3

The interior of the Saigon Central Post Office (bottom left) charms with high-vaulted ceilings and art deco tiled floors; At Bến Thành Market, one can pick up everything from dragon fruit to textiles and nón lá, the traditional Vietnamese conical straw hat (bottom right); Visitors can go boating and fishing, and enjoy traditional Viet buffets at the Binh Quoi village (top). Photos by: Fumio Okada/Dinodia Photo Library (village), Gonzalo Azumendi/Dinodia Photo Library (post office), Stuart Pearce/Dinodia Photo Library (dragon fruit)

2 p.m. Binh Quoi Bucolic Bliss

If you can’t fit a trip to the Mekong Delta in your itinerary, head to this rural oasis located eight kilometres northeast of the city centre. Binh Quoi Village resembles a traditional village on the Mekong Delta. Entry is free, and visitors can paddle on the placid lake, try their hand at fishing or just kick back with a beer and enjoy various cultural events that take place across bamboo huts dotting the waterways here. One area includes a tennis course and swimming pool while another exudes a more rustic, idyllic feel with restaurants serving Vietnamese meals and drinks. The best time to visit the village is weekday mornings when there are fewer visitors. However, the vibe is livelier in the evening over the weekend as visitors flock to sample the traditional buffet that several restaurants here offer.

 

4 p.m. Canal and the Pagodas

While the Jade Emperor Pagoda is Ho Chi Minh’s most famous shrine, the ornate Vinh Nghiem Pagoda and Wat Chantaransay are equally worth a visit. The three temples belong to three different schools of Buddhism—Jade Emperor is a Taoist pagoda, Vinh Nghiem the largest Mahayana Buddhist pagoda in the city, and Wat Chantaransay is dedicated to the teachings of Theravada tradition. They lie along the city’s Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal, which cuts through various districts of the city. Walking along it is the easiest way to navigate Ho Chi Minh as you can dodge some of the busiest arterial roads.

 

6 p.m. After Dark

Make the most of your last few hours in Ho Chi Minh. The backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh comprises three main streets: Bui Vien, De Tham, and Pham Ngu Lao. They are packed with restaurants, coffee shops and watering holes, and the revelry goes on till the wee hours of the morning. Also try the rooftop bars of three of the city’s most famous hotels—the Rex, Caravelle, and Majestic. While drinks are expensive, these places have a colourful history and impressive views. During the Vietnam war, a number of U.S. television net-works and news organisations rented offices in Caravelle hotel as it served as a lookout, while Rex was the seat of Joint U.S. Public Affairs.

  • Sayoni Sinha is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who writes on films, food and everything in between. Her hobbies include breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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