“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It’s designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman
If you read my last post about a few things to keep in mind while travelling in Vietnam, I mentioned that you may go through a bit of culture shock on your first few days. As you set out to explore the sights and sounds of Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City, you will without a doubt experience your first obstacle within the first 5 minutes. Crossing the street. Thinking back to our first day in Saigon, as we clung to the shoulders of another couple who clearly had more experience than us, it’s almost comical to think of what we must have looked like as we struggled to keep a steady pace without losing our cool and running head on into a motorbike as it weaved around us. Fast forward 2 weeks later and you’d never know that the 4 of us only set foot in Vietnam for the first time a few short weeks ago. Just remember to keep your cool, walk at a steady-pace and stick together and you’ll most likely make it alive with only a few close calls.
Before we left for Vietnam, I was warned that Saigon was dirty and quite frankly not worth too much of our time. I couldn’t disagree more with this. Saigon is a great place to get your bearings for exploring the rest of Vietnam, and if I had to choose between Saigon or Hanoi, I’d choose Saigon every time. There is just so much to see in and around the bustling hub and it’s a great place to situate yourself for trips to the Mekong Delta, Phu Quoc or the stunning deserts of Mui Ne, as we chose to do. Not only that, Saigon was far more clean than I ever anticipated. Prior to arrival, I pictured it to look something like Bangkok, and while I absolutely loved Bangkok, there’s no denying that it’s dirty, smelly and chaotic, which is part of what makes it so alive. Saigon was different. While it was still chaotic, as any city with over 8 million people living within its parameters would be, it was surprisingly clean, and full of lush-green parks and courtyards. To top it off, Saigon is full of history due to its pivotal role in the Vietnam War, and full of some of the best night life I’ve experienced in all of Asia.
Take a Walk with Saigon Free Walking Tours
If you’re short on time, I highly recommend signing up for one of the free walking tours with Saigon Free Walking Tours. You’ll get a knowledgeable guide (or two) who will take you around the city and show you all the hot spots and tourist destinations for absolutely free. Now keep in mind these guides are college students who are practicing their English and donating their time for free, so tips are always appreciated. Kim and Tanh were absolutely amazing and toured us around Ben Thanh Market, War Remnants Museum, Central Post Office, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Turtle Lake and even showed us some of the best restaurants to eat at it Ho Chi Minh City. Tours are around 4 hours long and are in my opinion, worth every minute to get a locals perspective on some of the history of this city and the pivotal role it played in the Vietnam War. I’ll write a more detailed post about our free walking tour soon, but for now check them out on their website or send them an email to book your free tour.
Check out the sights and sounds of Saigon – and be prepared to walk!
Don’t feel like booking a free walking tour? Well you’re crazy, but suit yourself. There are a tonne of historical monuments and buildings to explore in and around Ho Chi Minh City, so set out with a map (provided by your hostel or hotel) and get lost! Be prepared to put on a lot of miles walking around District 1, especially when you account for the time you will spend getting lost, which is all part of the experience. Give yourself lots of time and enjoy the sights and sounds as you explore Ho Chi Minh City. I’d say at least a full day, maybe even two to three, depending on what you want to see. Just remember that you are visiting a lot of places that hold cultural significance with the locals or may address sensitive topics so always be respectful. Don’t be the one to give travellers a bad name.
Popular attractions to visit include:
- War Remnants Museum
- Independence Palace
- Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica
- Saigon Central Post Office
- Ben Thanh Market
- Giac Lam Pagoda
- Museum of Vietnamese History
- Ho Chi Minh City Hall
- Bitexco Financial Tower
- Gia Long Palace
- Book Street
Relax and Unwind in the Backpacker’s District
If you’re looking to do a bit of relaxing in Saigon before you head out to explore the rest of the country, there are plenty of spas in the backpackers district to help you do just that. Chantelle and I decided pedicures were in order and for approximately 100,000 dong (around $5) you can’t go wrong. The guys had a traditional back massage for around 200,000 dong (around $10), but be prepared for a slightly unorthodox type of massage unless you get the traditional Swedish massage. As we sat there getting our feet pampered, we couldn’t help but laugh when we looked over to see a tiny Asian man walking across Devan’s back.
The backpackers district is also a great place to meet other like-minded travellers and get some tips on the “must-sees” throughout Vietnam. You never know who you’re going to meet, and this couldn’t have rung more true when we realized the girl sitting beside us at the spa was from our hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. This may not seem like a chance encounter if you’ve never been to Saskatoon, but I’d say running into someone from a city of less than 300,000 people when your 12,000 km across the world is pretty rare.
After pedicures, grab a Vietnamese coffee (my favorite was the white coffee which is a mixture of delicious Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk) from Trung Nguyen and head over to Central Park of Saigon were you can take in the beautiful trees and watch the locals as they go about their day. For a bit of exercise and a whole lot of fun, try the fun hip swing thingy’s (yes that’s the technical name) and work up an appetite before heading over to Pho 24 for some delicious noodle soup!
Bright Lights and Late Nights in Saigon
If nightlife is what you’re looking for, look no further than the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao. Pham Ngu Lao is basically the Khao San Road of Vietnam, and with the streets brightly-lit with bars, clubs and restaurants, its easy to see how its unique vibe draws people from all over the world. Every bar will offer some sort of happy hour with 2 for 1 buckets or cheap drinks, so it’s really just a matter of deciding what you’re in the mood for. Some of our favorites were Crazy Girls, Donkey and Radio. Now’s also a good time to try the infamous “balloons” (yes they’re legit) and hit the dance floor before grabbing some delicious street food and calling it a night. If a bit of luxury and world-class views are what you’re looking for, try one of the many rooftop bars around the city but be prepared to pay a premium for drinks and adhere to the dress codes.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, take a stroll into one of the many tattoo shops in Pham Ngu Lao. They’re open late, so if it doesn’t sound like a good idea now it might sound like a great idea after a couple buckets. At least I thought it was a good idea when I walked into Saigon Ink. I was actually quite pleased with the customer service and cleanliness of Saigon Ink, and to be honest, if I would have had the cash on me at the time, I probably would be sitting here with a tattoo on my forearm. The artist took what I had in mind from a photo I had saved on my phone, put it in their design software and tweaked it a bit for me and quoted me around $35, which was a great price for what I had in mind. Now I am in no way suggesting that you go to Vietnam, get a little tipsy and get a tattoo randomly from some dive in a back alley in Vietnam. But if you do your research and have something well thought out ahead of time, I would highly recommend checking Saigon Ink out!
Ideas for Day Trips from Saigon
If you have more time in Saigon, check out some of the day tours that many of the hostels and tour agencies offer in the backpacker district. The Cu Chi Tunnels and the Mekong Delta are just two of the day trip destinations from Saigon, and although we didn’t have time to check these out for ourselves, I’ve heard that the Cu Chi tunnels are definitely worth the day trip. As for the Mekong Delta, if group tours aren’t your thing, try staying near the Mekong and exploring the area on your own. Instead of checking out one of these two destinations, we decided to head to the Coastal town of Mui Ne, which ended up being one of our favorite places in all of Vietnam. Getting around Vietnam is so easy and actually quite efficient despite what you may have heard, which makes it easy to explore most areas on your own with a little common sense and resourcefulness.
Have you been to Saigon? What did you like/dislike about this vibrant city? Comment below!
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