Savoring Saigon – 48 hours in Vietnam’s culinary capital…

Saigon, otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City, remains one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant cities. The whirlwind of bellowing vespers and old worn down buildings intertwined amongst several million people, makes for a truly exciting place to visit. Add to that eclectic melting pot a spellbinding history, warm Vietnamese hospitality and some of the world’s best street food, you’ll find plenty of magic within the chaos that is Ho Chi Minh City.

This is Layover Escapades’ 48-hour guide to Savouring Saigon…

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Various goodies on display at Tan Dinh Market.

SLEEP?

Accommodation, like most things here, is very cheap by Western standards. This rule doesn’t apply to the glamorous 5-star hotels, however, should you go budget the choices are bountiful.

In short there are two major areas to consider.

Those with deeper pockets should consider staying in Dong Khoi (District 1), home to the cities best restaurants and bars within easy reach of most major sites. In particular I would consider the Park Hyatt, Intercontinental Asiana or Caravelle Hotel.

Those looking to save a buck or two should head to backpacker central, Pham Ngu Lao. A lively district with the best deals in the mid to low-range category.

We choose the Hong Han Hotel and for just 25USD/night stayed in a comfortable twin room that included breakfast. We couldn’t fault value for money however, were let down on a couple of occasions due to their online booking system. Other recommendations worth considering include Vy Khanh Guesthouse and Diep Anh Guesthouse. I’ll leave you to study the online reviews…

(I had requested an airport pickup but because the hotel lacks an independent email I had no way of confirming this. As a result we made our own way to the hotel before being told we had to fork out for half the cost of the transfer we had failed to see waiting for us out of the airport. Following this we had to change hotels as they had overbooked during our last night’s stay. Admittedly the staff were very nice about both situations, charging us only half the transfer cost and putting us up at the equally nice Blue River Hotel around the corner. However I would recommend the Blue River over Hong Han despite the miscommunication, as we felt the room was a little nicer and the staff just as accommodating (plus they have an email account)!
 
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Arriving in Saigon a wee bit blurry eyed after a colossal wait in line at the worlds slowest airport but we made it! Taken at 2am in Pham Ngu Lao.

GO?

Whether traveling on the back of an Xe Om, or simply crossing the road, the chaos of Saigon’s traffic scene is a high octane adventure that will leave you leaping for joy the moment you hop off the back, or make it to the other side! This is the world’s most exciting city in which to get around…

Top of the list, a trip here wouldn’t be complete without hopping on the back of an Xe Om. Whether you chance it by bargaining a price with one of the many drivers hanging out on their parked bikes, or as part of a tour, this is as quintessential Saigon as is the mesmerizing food scene. The accepted rate for short rides is approximately 20,000 – 30,000d, or US$ 3 to 4 for a hour.

If thats too much excitement, taxis are easy to flag down and cheap enough (roughly US$3-5 within the city centre) provided you’re not ripped off. Stick to the more reliable companies including both Mai Linh and Vinasun.

Other options include bicycle, cyclcos or hiring your own car or motorbike. (FYI I don’t advise trying to learn how to ride a motorbike in HCMC).

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Holly and I on the back of a Vesper at the traffic lights during our XO sight-seeing tour on the first morning!

Walking is easy enough between the major sites (with the obvious exception of crossing the road), although I can’t imagine wanting to do much during the summer. Having said that you will have to work up the courage to the cross the street at some point during your time in Saigon so here are a few pointers.

Rule #1 – WALK SLOWLY – While this may seem counter-intuitive, I strongly advise against making any sudden movements when crossing the road should you wish to avoid colliding with oncoming vehicles. If you see a gap (or even half a gap), slowly walk onto the road, looking both directions and stopping as necessary to let the traffic pass. Try not to worry when you get stuck in the middle – you have to trust the many thousands of mopeds will weave their way round you. Just remain patient and wait until another gap opens up and then finish crossing the road (easy said than done I know)!

Rule #2 – WATCH OUT FOR BUSES – While the many Xe Om and other motorbikes will stop, or weave a path around you, the buses about the city will not. Make sure none are in sight when you attempt to cross.

Rule #3 – FOLLOW THE LOCALS – If you find it too difficult picking your moment, try following a local across. You’ll quickly learn how to cross the road by following their lead.

While the traffic appears massively chaotic, there is some order to the way they drive – the vast majority moving at a slow speed in order to circumnavigate the chaos. In a funny sort of way, this creates a largely constant flow of traffic that allows everyone to move around without being stuck in a gridlock (much). Simply pick your moment, be mindful and walk slowly. Eventually you might come to enjoy the challenge of crossing the road in Vietnam…

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A typical scene depicting the chaos of Saigon – view from the top floor of Allez Boo bar.

EAT?

This trip was about two things: the warm people – forever smiling – and the fresh, fragrant Vietnamese cuisine.

Perhaps because I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, the food in Saigon, particularly the street food, took me by surprise. I couldn’t get over it and I’m not talking about the obligatory Pho Bo or Banh Mi (For some of the best consider seeking out the Banh Mi 37 street vendor). I’m talking about everything from Banh Da Xuc Oc (baby clams cooked in lemongrass, chilli, ginger and white pepper) and Bun Cha Ha Noi (grilled pork patties served in sweet fish sauce with young papaya, bun noodles and herbs) to Com Suon (rice with grilled pork chop) and Che Ba Mau (3 layered che, with beans, tapioca and coconut milk mixed with ice). Simply simple and simply stunning, Vietnamese food must one of the most underrated cuisines in the world.

Below are my suggestion for eating your way across Saigon…

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Our first street food experience – some morning Banh Flan (Vietnamese iced coffee flan). I named this gentleman the Flan Man!

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Saigon is very much about the street food and depending on how adventurous you’re feeling, the mouthwatering rewards are there for the eating.

A good way to get a head start on how to experience the best that the world of Saigon street food has to offer, is by partaking on a food tour. Not only will this provide a great introduction to the vast array of different Vietnamese delicacies on offer across the city, it will also give you the confidence to try these things elsewhere. In particular I would consider hopping on the back of a vesper as part of XO’s Foodie Tour. Should that not grab your fancy, however, Saigon Street Eats is also very well received.

When we visited we joined a tour hosted by none other than the wonderful travel writer Jodi Ettenburg. Her Jodieats food tours are currently only scheduled for January and February this year, but has plans to do more in other cities across the world. Needless to say, should you happen to be in Saigon during this period I highly recommend booking one of her very personable tours.

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Spice, Herb and Veg display.

For those who feel a little less inclined to chance the delicious street food on offer, there are a number of fantastic restaurants worth seeking out.

We had a great meal at the very popular Nha Hang Ngon – a unique restaurant serving a large selection of street food from different vendors surrounding a wonderful courtyard. Simply walk around and choose what grabs your fancy. The Bahn Xeo (Vietnamese pancakes made from rice flour and stuffed with slivers pork, shrimp, green onion, and bean sprouts) is particularly good.

Other good Vietnamese restaurants on an inexhaustible list include May (housed in a beautiful colonial building), Huong Lai (run be disadvantaged kids from the street) and Ru Pho Bar (very well received (MSG free) Pho noodle restaurant).

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Banh Xeo from Nha Hang Ngon restaurant.

SEE?

For me the main thing to see in Saigon happens whenever you cross the road. Having said that the chaos is not to everyones liking and should you feel overwhelmed there are a number of sights worth exploring (if only to provide a little respite).

The role of Saigon as a stronghold for the United States during the Vietnam War, or American War as it’s known here, is well documented and the reason many travel here. The War Remnants Museum provides a stark reminder and well worth spending an afternoon examining.

The Reunification Palace is a fascinating building instantly recognizable as the site where a North Vietnamese tank crashed through its gates signaling the fall of Saigon and the end of the war. It’s preserved almost exactly as it was in 1966 with the very tank located out front. We didn’t go in on the advice there is very little to see.

Other landmarks of note include the Notre Dame CathedralOpera HouseCentral Post OfficeCao Dai TempleThien Hau Temple and the Emperor Jade Pagoda.

For the best views across the city I recommend heading up to the Bitexco Financial Tower Skydeck.

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Reunification Palace.

PLAY?

For many the sheer chaos of HCMC can be overwhelming. If you let it, however, Saigon will sweep you off your feet and throw you in amongst it all.

For nightlife backpacker district Pham Ngu Lao houses the greatest number of late night establishments. Just be mindful as reports of seediness and petty crime are not uncommon.

Allez Boo bar provides a great spot to watch the chaos go by as you enjoy a cocktail or two.

Nearby I highly recommend grabbing a couple of beers along the lively ‘beer street‘ (Bui Vien St), where thousands of backpackers and locals alike perch themselves on one of the many plastic stools to drink and chat while watching the Saigon chaos pass by their feet. Traveler’s Tip – this is probably an accident waiting to happen but great fun nonetheless. Consider choosing a seat a little further back from the road!

For live music the Acoustic Cafe is a cracking little venue. Arrive early in order to nab a seat. Sax N’ Art Jazz club is the place for Jazz while I’ve also heard Yoko bar in district 3 is worth making the track out to with live acts nightly.

For the best clubsGo2 Bar and Crazy Buffalo Bar are both popular haunts in the Pham Hgu Lao area when everything else starts to quiet down. Apocalypse Now is a mega-complex playing a variety of different music across two floors.

The infamous 'Beer Street'.

The infamous ‘Beer Street’.

Layover Escapades’ 48-hour Itinerary:

Day 1 – Start your first day with the perfect introduction by hopping on the back of an Xe Om as part of XO’s sightseeing tour. For lunch consider seeking out some of Saigon’s famous street food at Tan Dinh Market (I’d avoid Ben Thanh Market with a passion – overhyped tourist trap full of very aggressive vendors). You might also consider seeking out the Lunch Lady (made famous by Anthony Bourdain). Spend the afternoon examining the fascinating War Remnants Museum before joining a Saigon Street Eats food tour to combine dinner with a little more exploration. Finish with some drinks along the infamous ‘Beer Street’ in Pham Ngu Lao.

Day 2 – Begin your second day with a spot of breakfast at either L’Usine or, if you didn’t manage it yesterday, the Tan Dinh Market. Continue with your foodie experience by heading to the Binh Tay Market for lunch. Practice your bargaining skills before spending the afternoon exploring the historic Cholon quarter (chinatown), home to many ancient temples and pagodas. Grab a pre-dinner drink atop the Rex hotel rooftop bar before heading to Nha Hang Nong for dinner. Finish the night in style with a cocktail at the Bitexco Financial Tower Skydeck as you enjoy the best views in town. Head to your choice of live music venues or clubs till the early hours of the next morning.

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CONCLUSION…

Saigon is madness personified. A metropolis heading toward the future on the back of its many Xe Om, carrying anyone and everyone along for the ride. For some the aggressive street vendors and hot, humid climate, augmented by endless fumes from the back of a million mopeds, is overbearing. For others, however, the chaos provides an intoxicating, hyper-charged adventure of nightlife and street food, forever moving, every which way…

For me Saigon felt like a city with two faces. One with its foot firmly rooted in the tragedies of its past and the other looking forward, trying desperately to cope with the frantic pace of the modern age. You get the sense that HCMC is very much between identities. Still trying to work out how it wishes to regarded by the rest of the world. A very different place to once upon a time and yet, blink, will be altogether different once more. Having said that you also get the sense there is something unique about HCMC which will never change. That whatever face Saigon chooses to adopt going forward one thing’s certain. Saigon will always be, Saigon.

Have you visited Saigon? What are your thoughts and suggestions? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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One thought on “Savoring Saigon – 48 hours in Vietnam’s culinary capital…

  1. Pingback: Finding happiness in Vietnam – a collection of thoughts | Layover Escapades

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