Last updated February 2013 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) is an intoxicating metropolis, bursting with energy, life and food. But, it’s not a city that’s filled with typical tourist attractions. To get the most out of Saigon, and discover what makes this city unique, leave the so-called ‘must-see’ sights behind and follow my Top 5 Things to Do in Saigon, listed below.
Click images for full guides, or scroll down this page for an introduction to each of my Top 5:
1. Hang Out at an Independent Cafe [Read Full Guide]
If there’s one thing to rival food in Saigon, it’s coffee. There are thousands of independent coffee shops in this city. Hidden down narrow alleyways, tucked away in forgotten colonial villas, or concealed in enigmatic old apartment buildings, there’s a whole sub-culture of ‘indie’ cafes in Saigon. These coffee shops offer a unique kind of ambience, décor and intimacy that the ever-increasing number of international coffee chains in Saigon can never compete with. Say ‘no’ to Starbucks and spend the day ‘cafe hopping’ from one ‘indie’ coffee shop to another….read more
2. Visit a Local Market [Read Full Guide]
Forget the famous Ben Thanh Market – which, these days, is all but a tourist trap – and head to one of the local markets outside the city centre. Still as bustling, vibrant and fascinating as ever, these markets continue to play a major role in most ‘ordinary’ people’s daily lives. Saigon’s markets are highly organized, the produce local and fresh, and the sheer volume and variety of goods for sale is remarkable. Once you’re in the embrace of one of Saigon’s markets you leave the modern façade of District 1 far behind, and enter a more colourful, friendly, and personal world….read more
3. Eat Broken Rice [Read Full Guide]
Broken rice (cơm tấm) is the defining dish of Saigon: it’s more widely available and more delicious here than in any other Vietnamese city. Served with a pork cutlet marinated in lemongrass and spices, a fried egg and other accoutrements, broken rice is Vietnam’s answer to the English breakfast ‘fry-up’. Eaten at any time of day, there’s hardly a street in the city that doesn’t have at least one broken rice stall. During mealtimes, the aroma of lemongrass and charred meat fills the city streets – all you need to do to find a good stall, is follow the smoke….read more
4. Walk the Alleyways [Read Full Guide]
Sometimes no more than a few feet wide, Saigon is riddled with narrow alleyways that fill-in the ‘gaps’ between the city’s major roads. This is where the majority of Vietnamese live, and these alleyways offer far more charm and interest than the central area of District 1. Getting lost on foot in the web of alleyways brings you into contact with friendly local people, great street food, intriguing architecture, and, best of all, local life. The alleyways are one of the few places where you can escape the roar of the city, and what’s more, this particular ‘attraction’ is free….read more
5. Drink Cocktails at a Rooftop Bar [Read Full Guide]
Rise above Saigon’s busy streets and enjoy a cocktail with commanding views over Vietnam’s biggest city. Sometimes over 50 storeys high, these ‘sky bars’ are a great way to get a ‘visual grip’ on a city that, at times, feels as if it has no beginning or end. As Saigon’s skyline rises ever higher, more and more rooftop bars are opening up. Make the most of sunset happy hours, when the lights of the city flicker on, and the burgeoning streets below start to fill with thousands of motorbikes. For the time being, drinks are affordable for most budgets, but some bars have a dress code.….read more
BONUS: Ride a Motorbike during Rush Hour
For the visitor (if not for the long-term expat), witnessing Saigon’s rush hour should be a highlight of their Vietnam experience. The crush, clamour, noise, heat, and pollution of millions of motorbikes crammed onto the baking asphalt in 90% humidity, is strangely compelling. The only way to fully appreciate this spectacle is on the back of a motorbike taxi, where you are exposed to the elements and become a genuine participant in this phenomenon. If you’re lucky, you’ll be in Saigon for a national celebration or public holiday, when the volume of motorbikes and density of traffic is, in my opinion, one of the wonders of the modern world.