Nowhere else on our Vietnam trip did we experience the contrasts of old and new, the inequality of the booming economy and modest social standards and the turbulent market changes as strongly as in Ho Chi Minh City.
Here are our 5 tips for a great HCMC experience full of contrasts. But hurry up! With rapid development, the diversity may disappear soon.
1. Walk through a mix of old and new
Ho Chi Minh City is constantly changing right in front of your eyes. Modern buildings are springing up like mushrooms after the rain. Unfortunately, old houses often need to make room for new constructions. One of the best places to observe the non-stop transformation is the street market on Ton That Dam.
Observe locals doing grocery shopping, bargaining and chatting in front of modest market stands. Then, simply look up, and you’ll spot the shiny Bitexco Financial Tower rising above the old little rooftops.
2. Get a cup of Vietnamese coffee in one of the cafes
If you are a coffee fan, you will fall in love with the chocolate-like taste of Vietnamese coffee at once.
In the city on the Saigon river, you’ll come across a great variety of coffee houses. A hype location to get a cup of the strong coffee brew is the recently renovated “chocolate box of coffee houses” on N°42 Nguyen Hue Walking Street.
Each floor of the former nine-story apartment building hides little cafes, restaurants and bars with great city views. Take the elevator or climb the dodgy stairwell and discover.
3. Enjoy a drink on one of the rooftops
In HCMC, there is also no shortage of rooftop bars, terraces and restaurants. Just look up and pick a place. Sometimes a short break on a small balcony overlooking a narrow street with a bottle of Saigon Special is enough.
For the perfect evening and night views over Saigon and surroundings head to the 51st floor of Bitexco Tower to the EON 51 Heli bar.
It’s a rather pricey alternative, but the vista is worth it.
For a rooftop experience with a hint of colonial flair and a touch of recent history, choose the garden bar in Saigon’s famous Rex hotel.
Sometimes, luck provides you with the best scenes. For our stay in Ho Chi Minh City, we booked a room in the charming Anpha Boutique Hotel. The breakfast hall was actually the hotel’s rooftop with a fantastic view over Saigon’s market and skyscrapers in the background.
4. Get lunch with other travellers on a food market
Street food belongs to the Vietnamese way of life. Saigon is no exception. If you look for a place, where you can enjoy cheap but tasty lunch, relax and plan your next trip, get a bite to eat at the Ben Thanh street food market.
Long benches provide enough space for many food lovers. If you are up to it, you can join some other “Lonely Planet readers” at a table and chat about the past and planned journeys. It’s a great spot to get some useful tips about the area you are visiting next.
5. Learn about history by visiting Củ Chi Tunnels
Ho Chi Minh City is full of history. For example, you can take a tour through the rooms of the Independence or Reunification Palace, where Vietnam War came to an end in 1975.
For a better understanding of the Viet Cong led military operation a visit to Củ Chi tunnel system, is a must. The massive complex of narrow tunnels is about 120 km long. It was used for everything from cooking, sewing clothes and sandals to producing mines and deadly traps.
A superb way to explore the tunnels is on a jeep tour with VJ Adventures. Not only you can enjoy a spectacular drive on a real US Army’s Jeep, but you’ll also get a very knowledgeable private guide, who’ll show you around the tunnels.
Wo opted for the package with the lunch at Mr Mushroom’s farm & restaurant. It was an ideal opportunity to try some Vietnamese delicacies and learn more about life in rural areas of Vietnam.
A word of advice: Ho Chi Minh City is constantly changing. We visited a few months ago, but some of the places might not exist anymore. Don’t try to search for a fancy restaurant mentioned in a guidebook or blog. Just walk around, have a look at the places and pick the one you like the most. As everywhere, the longer the line for a restaurant, the better the food.