Bursting with colour and energy, Vietnam’s largest city is a French-flavoured mash-up of colonial architecture, chic boutiques, traditional markets and a thriving restaurant and bar scene. Carmen Allan-Petale covers it all in a day.
“I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam. That a woman’s voice can drug you? That everything is so intense – the colours, the taste, even the rain?” said Thomas Fowler in the film The Quiet American, based on the Graham Greene novel (1955) of the same name.
In Greene’s day, Ho Chi Minh City was Saigon – a crossroads of trade, intrigue and style. It was the Paris of the East, ruled by Frenchmen who imposed Gallic life upon a traditional South-East Asian culture that revered food and family.
Then came war and for two decades the country was divided. The city languished until the conflict ended, trade resumed with the West and modern life rushed in.
These days, rickshaws and bicycles have been replaced with motorised scooters, SUVs and designer stores. What remains is the intensity of Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a metropolis that’s always changing, always on the move, always looking for the next bright young thing. Throw yourself in and let it immerse you.
Café, sil vous plait
7:30: Start the day with ca phe sua da, the traditional Vietnamese coffee. Enjoy the country’s signature drink at a street stall or at the “bird café” in Tao Dan Park (enter via Cach Mang Thang Tam street, Ben Thanh). Local men bring their feathered friends here early in the morning and play cards as their beloved caged pets chirp at one another. Take a constitutional walk around the 10-hectare park and, for a quiet moment, surrounded by greenery, you’ll forget you’re in District (Quan) 1 – the heart of Vietnam’s most populous city.
What’s pho breakfast?
09:00: Continue your stroll into the chaos of the morning commute. It’s time for breakfast so head south-east for about 15 minutes to arrive at Pho Quynh (323 Pham Ngu Lao, Pham Ngu Lao), where you can eat like the locals, slurping on beef pho. Make sure to load up the bowl – Saigon style – with herbs, greens, soy and chilli sauce.
A potted history
10:00: Take a taxi to Notre Dame Cathedral (Nguyen Du, Ben Nghe), built to resemble its Parisian equivalent but on a smaller scale. Next door you’ll find the elegant Central
Post Office with a dramatic domed ceiling sheltering the ordered chaos inside. For an eye-opening look at Vietnam’s war-torn history, walk up Pasteur street and turn left onto Vo Van Tan to arrive at the War Remnants Museum. Enter and explore the tragic legacy of decades of conflict.
Lunch with a view
12:30: For lunch, amble back to Pasteur to find Secret Garden Restaurant & Teahouse (158 Pasteur, Ben Nghe). Here you’ll munch on fresh and crunchy dishes like the spicy beef and crab claw salad, which will make your tastebuds sing. Housed at the top of a block of flats, this rooftop garden is a little dining oasis.
Don’t judge a book…
14:00: A trendy scene awaits you. Take a taxi to 14 Ton That Dam (in Nguyen Thai Binh) and search for the easy-to-miss alleyway, before climbing a dark stairwell that leads to the city’s hipster hangout. The calling cards of this rundown apartment block are the local designer boutique stores and trendy bars sitting alongside family homes. Have an after-lunch cocktail at the arty Banksy Cafe.
Find inner peace – or just peace lilies
15:30: Get back in a taxi and travel south-east to Chua Van Phat (14 Nghia Thuc, Phuong 6) for an insight into how local Buddhists live. Walk to the top of the pagoda and take in its majestic beauty – 10,000 buddhas, large and small, are set throughout this holy site. Heading back to the city centre, stop off at the flower market in District 10 on Ho Thi Ky. Down these lanes you’ll find stalls bursting with blooms, such as bunches of roses that sell for less than $5. You may be the only foreign face in the crowd as this market is truly a local haunt.
17:00: To feel the energy the youthful entrepreneurial scene is bringing to the city, hail another taxi to Station 3A (Ton Duc Thang, Ben Nghe). This old factory space has been converted into art galleries, cafés and boutique stores, all with young owners behind the counters, crafting their unique projects. Enjoy sweet delights from Pacey Cupcakes, sold out the side of a Kombi van. Or rest your feet in the air-conditioned Kujuz café, decorated with shabby-chic wooden window shutters.
18:00: Dinnertime! If you want Vietnamese dishes served tapas style, visit Cuc Gach Quan (10 Dang Tat, Tan Dinh), a beautiful home-style restaurant in an old Vietnamese house. Cross the small ponds at the entrance and dine on the second floor for the liveliest atmosphere. The restaurant is frequented by locals and foreigners alike, drawn to the fresh Vietnamese dishes served up as sizzling plates. The pork belly is a must.
Theatre, Vietnam style
20:00: Your next stop is Saigon Opera House, also known as the Municipal Theatre (7 Lam Son Square, Ben Nghe). Built in 1897, the theatre is a classic example of French Colonial architecture. Book tickets to the A O Show: My Village Version, which has been enthralling audiences with its acrobatic depiction of the Vietnamese way of life and runs until the end of June. Afterwards, wander along nearby Nguyen Hue street. It resembles La Rambla, a promenade in Barcelona, and is frequented by families relishing Ho Chi Minh City’s balmy evenings.
Roof-bars and bánh mì
23:00: After dark, the city comes alive. Finish off your night at one of the many rooftop bars dotted around District 1. Try Chill Skybar (AB Tower, 76A Le Lai, Ben Thanh) for stand-out cocktails and a club scene; Glow Skybar (President Place, 93 Nguyen Du, Ben Nghe) to party with the socialites; and OMG (15-17-19 Nguyen An Ninh, Ben Thanh) for the latest pop music. When you stumble out later, try a delicious bánh mì roll – roast pork, paté and herbs encased in a crusty baguette – from one of the late-night street food stalls in the neighbourhood. Bánh Mì Huynh Hoa (26 Le Thi Rieng) is a local favourite. It’s the perfect way to wrap up a perfectly intense day in Ho Chi Minh City.
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