Sai Gon is Vietnam at its busiest- it’s chaotic, crowded and noisy but so worth exploring.
As the biggest city in Vietnam, many know it as Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). When the South lost the war against the North, the city changed its name in 1975.
Despite the name change, many locals still call it Sai Gon, which at times is interpreted as a stand against submission to Communism.
Located on Vietnam’s south coast, Sai Gon is known for its rich history, and not just because it’s the place where the reunification of South and North Vietnam took place.
Sai Gon’s food scene is incredible, and the cafes I visited were among the best in the country.
Markets abound, along with opportunities to shop.
There’s even an entire street dedicated to bookshops.
Incense swirls at countless, gorgeous temples.
Vivid pink churches pop up in the middle of an unassuming street, leaving you breathless.
Activities that mark the Sai Gon’s uniqueness seem endless- for instance, a motorbike street food tour, visit to the Mekong Delta, or underground venture in tunnels used during the war.
And while there’s a certain craziness to Sai Gon, it felt less frantic (to me) than Hanoi. Many of the main sights short stay visitors want to see are located in District 1 and accessible on foot.
Whether you have a few days or a few weeks in the city, it’s a wonderful place to wander- to see modern Vietnamese culture mingle with practices of the past.
In many ways, Sai Gon feels as though it couldn’t be more different to Hanoi, but at the same time, you’ll find yourself surprised at how similar the two cities- at opposite ends of the country- are.
The Ultimate Guide to Sai Gon
WHAT TO DO
Send a postcard from the Central Post Office: Or, you can send bags of coffee home if you’re like me and obsessed with Vietnamese roasts. Whether you need to send something or not, the Central Post Office is a must see. Its bright yellow exterior and French-inspired architecture makes it a beauty to behold.
Observe history at the War Remnants Museum: A somber activity, but an important one, the museum showcases the helicopters, tanks and bombs that were used during the war. The photography is vivid and heartbreaking, but serves its purpose in educating about one of the most controversial wars in history. Take note, the war is called the American War in Vietnam.
Visit the famous Cu Chi Tunnels: Not far from the city, you can visit the tunnels Vietnamese dug to hide from the Americans, and shield themselves from bombs.
Admire the pink facade of the Tin Dinh Church: Safe to say I’ll be forever smitten with the pink churches of Vietnam.
See the city from above at the Bitexco Financial Tower: The observation floor on the 49th floor is the place to head for a landscape view of Sai Gon. The city’s skyline is fascinating: new juxtapositioned against old, and buildings of all colours- pastel, metal, neutral. Fitting for a city so diverse and exciting.
Visit Reunification Palace: The Independence Palace has an eerie presence, but visiting is important to understanding Vietnam’s difficult history.
See the Norte Dame Cathedral: Built between 1863 and 1880, today, the cathedral serves as a remembrance of when Vietnam was colonised by France.
Visit Book Street, an entire street with nothing but bookshops: Nguyen Van Binh book street is an open space- a street with loads of book shops and communal seats to allow people to enjoy and appreciate reading in public.
Take a day trip to the Mekong Delta: The Mekong Delta is the southernmost region of Vietnam, and contains the Mekong River that flows out into the East Vietnam Sea. Full of fertile land, the delta is the perfect place to see more of the rural side of the country, and take a long-boat ride.
Browse the stalls of Ben Thanh market: One of the oldest markets in Vietnam, in the early 17th century, local vendors would gather near the river to sell their goods. From this activity, Ben Tanh was born. This market has everything you could need from purses to souvenirs to clothes, and a wide array of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as spices, herbs and dried fruits.
Wander through Thien Hau Temple: From the moment I walked in, I was mesmerised by the swirl of temple incense. Dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess Mazu, the temple is a 15 minute motorbike ride from downtown Sai Gon, but so very worth visiting. Bright, vivid details, and heady incense make the temple a must see.
Go on a motorbike street food tour: Whizzing through city streets. Whipping around corners. Pulling up curb-side to a street food stall with locals snaked around the corner. This will be nearly the exact scene stop after stop on a motorbike street food tour of Sai Gon.
It’s rare to find a tour so well designed for any kind of traveler, but the motorbike food tours are just that. As a solo traveler, I was matched with a guide who drove me around the city over the course of four hours, making five food stops in total. Beyond a chance to try some of the city’s best eats, it’s a chance to talk to the local guides about Vietnam’s culture and cuisine. And, beyond receiving payment, it’s an opportunity for the guides to practice their conversational 1:1 English.
On my food tour, we tried the traditional savoury crispy pancake, banh mi, sugarcane juice, kumquat tea, banana chips, noodle and fried wonton-esque dishes, and a tofu boba dessert that was absolutely to-die-for. Without question, one of my favourite experiences the entire time I was in Vietnam.
WHERE TO EAT
- My Banh Mi: I found this place on my first day in Sai Gon, and came almost every day for their tofu banh mi. If My Banh Mi was my favourite breakfast in Vietnam, then this tofu banh mi was my favourite dinner. A crisp baguette packed with salty-spicy tofu, pickled vegetables, red chili, coriander and mellow cucumber crunch. Would 10/10 visit Sai Gon again just to have this banh mi
- Banh Mi 24: The reason this banh mi, filled with egg and your usual accompaniments, was so good? The bread is baked 24 hours a day on site. Nothing beats bread fresh from the oven when it comes to banh mi
- Partea: Beautiful English-style tea room
- L’usine: Trendy boutique meets modern brunch. Some days you eat bánh mi or
bánh cuốn for breakfast, and other days, you’re all about the avo toast, eggs and fresh squeezed juice
- Pizza 4P: As elsewhere in Vietnam, Pizza 4P is the spot for great wood-fired pizzas
- Bun Cha 145: Awesome spring rolls
- Hum Restaurant: A bit more upscale than your usual restaurant in Sai Gon, Hum is Vietnamese fusion and insanely delicious. A must visit for vegetarians
- Bep Me In: Great spot for traditional Vietnamese food- fast and low key
- Chi Cu: Fantastic vegetarian menu
And, a few ordering tips for my fellow vegetarians:
- Look for the words ‘quan chay’ or ‘com chay’ for vegetarian. ‘Chay’ is pronounced ‘chai’
- Toi an chay (I am vegetarian)
- Che is a sweet soup, fresh fruit, coconut milk
- Nộm hoa chuối: banana flower salad with lime
- Đậu sốt cà chua: braised tofu in tomato sauce
- Rau muống xào tỏi: stir-fried morning glory with garlic
- Bánh xèo chay: savoury rice pancakes with bean sprouts, and mushrooms
- Cao lầu chay: Hoi An-style noodles in soy dressing with greens
- Đậu hũ chiên sả ớt: Tofu fried with shredded lemongrass and chili
- Ca tim xoi mo hanh: Eggplant simmered with green onion
WHERE TO DRINK
I’d taken a break from drinking alcohol by the time I reached Sai Gon, but know the city is home to a slew of up and coming cocktail bars, along with beer gardens, and your more traditional beer on a street corner establishments.
A few places recommended by friends: Saigon Social Club, Chill Sky Bar and Pasteur Street Brewing.
WHERE TO HAVE COFFEE
Vietnam is the second largest coffee producing country in the world, so you know they mean business when it comes to brew.
Heading to Sai Gon, as my last stop in Vietnam, you’d think I’d be tired, figuratively- not literally- after drinking so much caffeine. How much more could I really drink?
Spoiler: A lot more.
Whether you’re an all-in coffee addict like me, or rarely find yourself sipping a cuppa, you should definitely try different types of coffee in Vietnam. From egg coffee to coconut coffee, it’s a way to experience the culture of this incredible SE Asian country.
I loved the coffee shops in Sai Gon, especially.
Often on the second or third floor of a building, they’re not always apparent from street level. You usually enter through a covered walkway, then navigate hallways and stairs to find the place you’re after. Sometimes there are signs, other times, you don’t know you’re in the right place until you climb to the right floor. The whole experience makes it feel like you’re discovering hidden gems all over the city.
- Cong Caphe: New city, same coffee order. Coconut coffee, please and thank you.
Tip: The Cong on Lý Tự Trọng, Bến Nghé, Quận has a beautiful balcony, overlooking the chaotic city streets below
- The Loft: Tucked above the busy streets below, The Loft is next to the Cong location mentioned above. This cafe has become Insta famous for its rustic interiors, huge clock wall and twinkling string lights. There’s no denying it’s a dreamy place to escape the rain or heat for a bit. Here, I had a cà phê đá that was absolute perfection
- Saigon Coffee Roastery: Like many of Sai Gon’s cafes, this one is hidden down a hallway several levels above the street below. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see a giant clock, and a narrow sipping room with a long, communal table. Here, I tried the iced coconut coffee, which was very different from the coconut coffee I’d grown to love at Cong- instead of frozen, it’s served iced. Less sweet, and a stronger brew. Two thumbs up
- Goc Ha Noi (Little Hanoi) Egg Coffee: Hidden down an alleyway, this egg coffee is the real deal. The women who run the cafe are from the north, so you know it’s gonna be good. Climb up the narrow ladder, and you’ll find yourself in a tiny room that resembles the living room of a traditional home. Don’t bother asking for a menu here- the only thing you should order is the egg coffee
- Shin: Legendary. You’ll see tourists from across Asia piling in one of their two locations to snap photos, buy beans, and order pour overs. I’ll admit it: I bought a few bags myself to ship back to the States. I liked Shin so much, I came a few times- twice for egg coffees and once to try their cold brew. Everything was excellent. The egg coffee is a different style than what I had in the north, but still great
- Cafe Apartment: An entire apartment block of cafes? When can I move in? I spent a morning here, visiting a few cafes and roaming the different floors, but could have easily come back time after time to try new places. My advice? Pay the small fee to take the lift to the top, and then work your way down
- ID Cafe: Stopped in here one night after dinner for lychee tea. I can’t speak for their coffee, but the menu looked incredible, and the space is seriously great for chilling out or catching up with friends
EXTRA VIETNAM TRAVEL TIPS
Language: Transactional English is widely spoken, especially in Old Quarter and among younger Vietnamese. If you find someone who doesn’t speak English, you’ll likely be fine getting by with gestures and Google translate
Currency: Vietnamese Dong
I withdrew from a bank ATM. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- many purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards
Budget: The cheapest place I visited in SE Asia, by far. You can definitely spend money in Vietnam, if that’s your thing and you’re living the luxe life, but if you’re trying to ball on a budget, you’ll have no problem eating well here, and doing cool activities
Getting There (flying): Sai Gon’s airport is a major international one. If you don’t fly directly into it, you’ll likely come from another hub in Asia- Bangkok, Kuala Lumpar or Singapore. To get from the airport to the city, hop in a Grab car- an easy and affordable way to get around the city
Getting Around: Sai Gon is huge. You can walk to places in District 1, the city’s main financial and commercial hub, featuring French colonial architecture, tree-lined streets, and tons of places to eat, shop and drink coffee. Here, you’ll find the Norte Dame Cathedral, Bitexco Tower, Reunification Palace, and Saigon Central Post Office- among other attractions. If you’re heading somewhere outside of District 1, take a Grab car or hop on the back of a Grab motorbike. I prefer traveling by motorbike when I’m solo as it’s cheaper, and faster
Where to Stay: I stayed in a budget Airbnb in District 1. It was walking distance to loads of things, but I wouldn’t stay in that exact Airbnb again. I waited until the day before my stay to book, which limited places available. There are tons of modern, upmarket places to stay in Sai Gon, and as you’d expect, the best places are snatched up first, so book in advance for a good selection
When to Visit: Vietnam has two seasons, wet and dry. In Sai Gon, the rainy season begins in May and usually runs through October. Visiting the first week of May, I thought, surely it can’t be that rainy just yet?
Not only did it rain every day I was in Sai Gon- it down-poured. The kind of downpours where it’s hard to even see through the sheets of rain, let alone walk or drive in it. The first day, I thought, no big deal, I’m sure this will be over in a few minutes.
The downpours were especially long- sometimes lasting hours with little relief from the pounding rain. In the first week of the rainy season, I got caught in a flood. Definitely wasn’t expecting that.
The lesson? Visit in the dry season if you don’t want your plans hindered by the rain.
Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Vietnam, although I’ve seen the practice debated on travel forums. Some upmarket places may add a service charge, and everyone appreciates if you round your Dong up, which is what I normally did
WiFi Access: Every modern cafe I visited had WiFi, key word here is modern
SIM Card Options: I bought a 30-day SIM upon arrival at Hanoi’s airport when I entered the country, paying ~$12 USD for an unlimited month’s worth of data. I’d also expect Sai Gon’s airport to have SIM options, or you could get one once you’re in the city
Have you ever been to Sai Gon? Is it a part of Vietnam that’s on your travel wish list?
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