The whirlwind formally known as Saigon is a hot, noisy, dynamic city that rarely sleeps, with a complex history and plenty of culture to soak up.
Combine this with the laughably good-value prices of everything from lodgings to lunch, and there’s never been a better time to explore this south Vietnamese gem. Here are 10 ways to make the most of a visit.
Hit the spa
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is awash with spas, offering the chance to relax and unwind far from the madding crowd while still being slap bang in the city centre. Unlike in the UK, you can easily spend a day pampering yourself without breaking the bank.
Jolene Spa in District 1, just round the corner from Ben Thanh market, charges 250,000VND (£8.70) for a gel manicure and regular pedicure, or 150,000VND (£5.20) for a full body massage.
The biggest and best of HCMC’s markets is Ben Thanh (chobenthanh.org.vn). Head over there to grab cheap street food and pick up a range of souvenirs. There are traditional Vietnamese lanterns aplenty, plus colourful fans, scarves, bowls and chopsticks, and, of course, “lucky” cats.
Be sure to negotiate heavily on price – as a tourist you’ll be asked to pay far above the odds unless you barter.
An excursion to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels makes for an eye-opening afternoon. Used by the Vietnamese during the war with America, these immense networks of underground tunnels enabled whole villages to stay safe, plus meant Vietnamese guerrilla fighters could take the enemy by surprise.
Visitors can crawl their way through a 100m stretch of tunnel and watch their tour guide demonstrate with ghoulish pleasure the ingenious traps the Vietnamese used to kill or maim US soldiers. Costing from $20 for a half-day tour (8am-2pm or 1-7pm), this trip includes return transfers plus entry to the tunnels (viator.com).
Take in a show
Enter into a magical world of wooden puppets diving and splashing across a water stage at the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre. This traditional form of Vietnamese entertainment includes narration and musical accompaniment from musicians and singers seated at either side of the stage.
There are daily 50-minute performances at 5pm and 6.30pm with tickets costing 230,000VND (£8) on the door.
Go for a scoot
HCMC is a city of mopeds – they’re everywhere. And one of the most enjoyable experiences is hopping onto one, which is by far the best way to see the city. Hiring one isn’t massively recommended – there seem to be few rules on the road, with drivers doing random U-turns into oncoming traffic whenever the mood takes them – but you can hire an Uber moto instead.
It’s booked exactly the same way as a regular Uber, with a 10-minute ride costing around 10,000VND (35p).
Change your caffeine fix
If there’s one thing the Vietnamese have indisputably nailed, it’s coffee. You can pick up a Vietnamese coffee – white or black, hot or cold – in pretty much every HCMC restaurant or café.
Why is it so good? When served white, it’s made with condensed milk, creating a miracle drink that balances the strength of the drip filter coffee with a rich, sweet finish.
Buff up on your history
A visit to the War Remnants Museum (baotangchungtichchientranh.vn) is a sobering experience – but an important one. Containing exhibits relating to the Vietnam War and the first Indochina War with the French colonialists, it features photographs, military vehicles, and various weapons.
It’s rare to see the horrors of war displayed so starkly. Graphic photographs depict the effects of the USA’s chemical weapons – Agent Orange, napalm, and phosphorus bombs. Entry costs 15,000VND (50p) and the museum is open daily from 7.30am-6pm.
Eat with locals
Com Nieu Sai Gon (comnieusaigon.com.vn) in District 3 dishes up a range of great-value Vietnamese dishes. It’s slightly under the radar for tourists, so don’t be surprised if the English isn’t too good, or if they don’t have everything listed on the insanely long menu. Just go with it – whatever they bring you will be delicious.
A decent piece of sea bass in chilli sauce with a side of steamed rice costs 150,000VND (£5.20).
For unrivalled views of the city, head to Bitexco Financial Tower, otherwise known as the Saigon Skydeck (bitexcofinancialtower.com), in District 1. Opt to enjoy the 360 degree views at 230m from the bar on the 50th floor – it’s free, and you can grab a drink for roughly the same price as entry to the Skydeck.
Cocktails start from 220,000VND (£7.60) or a smoothie costs 169,000VND (£5.80).
Experience a touch of Paris
Perhaps the most stand-out of the many traces left by French colonialists in the 1880s is the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral (giothanhle.net/gio-le/nha-tho-duc-ba-sai-gon).
Trying to recreate the feel of the cathedral of the same name in Paris, builders used French bricks and constructed huge Romanesque bell towers. Have a gander any time from 5.30am-5pm daily.
Helen was a guest of Fusion Suites Saigon (0084 28 3925 7257, fusionsuitessaigon.com), a chic yet fun minimalist hotel next to Tao Dan Park that opened last year. Breakfast is a cut above, with traditional Vietnamese dishes such as pho served alongside eggs royale, while the hotel’s wellness philosophy means every guest gets a free spa treatment for every day of their stay. Doubles from £75, B&B.
Click here to find hotels in Ho Chi Minh City
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