Ho Chi Minh City Travel Guide and Itinerary

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Top tips on where to stay, where to eat and what to do in Ho Chi Minh City — fast-moving with a high cool quotient, vibrating with energy and excitement.

About Ho Chi Minh City 

There is a special kind of energy at Ho Chi Minh City (popularly known as HCMC, or by its old name, Saigon). It’s a city on the move, with a bevy of malls rising alongside ultra-modern skyscrapers. Its streets thrum with activity, as locals spill out onto the sidewalks for a drink and try to compete with the noise of motorcycles barreling past. Life seems fast-paced and non-stop, and yet the city also invites visitors to slow down, to relax and sip a cocktail by the Saigon River at sunset.  

Unlike other cities obsessed with gentrification, HCMC holds steadfast to its past. Colonial-era spaces aren’t banished to the obligatory heritage site; instead, they’re incorporated into the hubbub, as much a part of the business district as the sleek new high-rises. French colonial buildings are more than mere architectural points of interest and remain in use. Quaint storefronts line busy streets which remain shaded by a canopy of trees. Decaying buildings hide restaurants, bars and boutiques, their hip interiors made cooler by a façade of peeling paint. 

With 24 districts, there is a lot of ground to cover in HCMC. But first-timers can stick to a handful of districts and wards and save the rest for another visit — as you’re bound to discover, HCMC is a place you’ll want to return to again and again. 

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Photos on this page via Shutterstock.com

 

Highlights for the Traveler 

You’ll get plenty of mileage out of District 1 (or D1), HCMC’s business and commercial center. It’s easy enough to explore on foot, although crossing the street can feel like an extreme sport. Motorcycles are the locals’ preferred mode of transport and you’ll find them in droves, sometimes with a family of four on board, at every busy intersection. Just remember that there’s a rhythm to crossing the street, just as there’s a rhythm to this wonderfully chaotic city. Often, all you have to do is go with the flow.  

 

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Stroll down D1’s Dong Khoi Street and take in the heart of HCMC. Look closely as nondescript alleyways can lead to a gem of a restaurant or a trendy bar. Though the 68-storey Bitexco Financial Tower is imposing, the district’s older buildings are arguably more interesting: the 19th-century red-brick Notre Dame Cathedral, the elegant Saigon Opera House and the Central Post Office designed by Gustav Eiffel and beautifully preserved — are all showstoppers.  

Spend an afternoon at Nguyen Hue, a walking promenade with a fountain and a statue of Uncle Ho on one end and the Saigon River on the other. The walkway is flanked by more colonial-era buildings and a luxury mall, but an especially fascinating spot is The Cafe Apartment. The nine-storey building looks like it has seen better days, but that is part of its charm. Formerly an apartment building, it now houses an assortment of nearly 30 vibrant shops, a poster child for the unpretentiously cool Saigon. Many of the restaurants, salons and boutiques have balconies overlooking the river, providing a chill spot for a meal at sundown.  

If you’re on a tight budget, then D3 could make a good home base. Lying a couple of kilometers west of D1, it’s still considered downtown and is geographically optimal but with a good mix of high- and low-end accommodation, dining and shopping options. On the other side of D1 lies D4, where you can get your fill of street food while dining beside locals. Southwest of D1 is D5, the Chinatown of HCMC. Known locally as Cholon, this district has markets, pagodas and photogenic alleyways, all of which come alive during the Lunar New Year. Cross the Saigon Bridge and you’ll find yourself in the bubble that is D2, fast becoming an exclusive residential area that’s home to many expats and that has a good mix of restaurants and gastropubs. 

Whatever district you choose to explore, you’re bound to find something to excite you — just be sure to scratch beyond the surface. Because in HCMC, some of the best things are hiding in plain sight.  


Recommendations list to be updated.

Recommendations list to be updated.

Recommendations list to be updated.

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