For those who love exploring cities and discovering hidden gems, Ho Chi Minh City needs to be on your to-visit list. Formerly (and still referred to regularly as) Saigon, it is a buzzing place, filled with people, motorbikes, street food stalls and tucked-away bars, cafés and restaurants. There are around seven million people in the inner city area that covers just 500 sq km, meaning it can be a tight squeeze, but that’s all part of the fun.
Traditional French colonial and Vietnamese styles have long gone hand in hand here, but now there are ultra-modern skyscrapers as well, as the city sets its sights on modernising.
It might be hot, sticky and congested but this is also captivating, exciting, great value and easy to fall in love with.
It’s hard to beat Ho Chi Minh City, named after the revolutionary leader that saw off the US Army, if your idea of a trip is being immersed into a new culture and way of life.
War Remnants Museum
While it’s not an easy way to spend half a day, this collection of artefacts, images and documents from the Vietnam War (known as the American War in these parts, of course), is an important, sobering place.
This sprawling 1960s government building was the scene of the Communist Party’s overthrowing of the regime in 1975 and it has remained trapped in a timewarp since then. It’s an eerie but fascinating place to wander around and we absolutely recommend making your way into the underground telecoms bunker and a very Mad Men-esque games room on the second floor.
Fine Arts Museum
This gallery and museum is set within a fine colonial-era house. The building itself is reason to pay the small entrance fee (it houses what was the city’s first elevator), but the modern and traditional art and sculptures (most of it inspired by the war) are also excellent.
Central Post Office
The French post office from 1886 is still busy to this day (although tourists are mostly to blame for this). Designed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, that one) it’s filled with maps of the area on its walls and is as grand a building as you’ll find in the city. Check out the replica of Notre Dame in the square outside, too (but believe us, it’s not worth going inside).
Ben Thanh Market
One of the city’s busiest areas, the market and the streets around it are where you’ll find street food, souvenirs, clothing and footwear piled high. It should absolutely be on your list of places to see, but the goods inside are better priced elsewhere. If you must shop here, be prepared to bargain. And keep your wits about you when walking around.
Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer of coffee and you’ll find some of the best anywhere here. Try it iced with condensed milk (ca phe sua da) and you’ll never go back.
Foodies will be in their element here. You will find hole-in-the-wall vendors, street stalls and casual eateries every few steps. From banh mi (baguettes) and pho (and other noodle soups) to banh xeo (crispy pancakes) and goi cuon (summer rolls), it’s all bursting with flavour and freshness, and cheap to boot.
Where to stay
Hotel Continental Saigon
Right in the thick of the action with loads of history, it was built in 1880 and is where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American. For those who aren’t wowed by such literary figures it will probably feel outdated. It’s undergoing an upgrade, though, so that shouldn’t be the case for much longer.
There are a bunch of these around the city and they provide a mid-market place to stay (think Premier Inn). You can certainly get cheaper (there are thousands of hostels and B&Bs) and plusher (check the Hotel Des Arts, The Reverie Saigon and Park Hyatt Saigon for proof) but these are a safe bet.
This boutique hotel may be a little out of the city centre, but it’s in an area that offers a real slice of Vietnamese life. The place is gorgeous, the owners and staff are incredible and they will help organise trips for you, as well as give you tips on the locale and the city as a whole. Massively recommended.
Emirates flies daily from Dubai International Airport to Ho Chi Minh City. Direct flights start at around Dhs2,850 return.
You’ll get sticky, you’ll have motorbikes riding towards you and you’ll have to step into the road sometimes, but on foot is the best way to discover Ho Chi Minh City. When it comes to taxis but be sure to look for the Vinasun and Mai Linh Taxi branding, or you could be ripped off. There are motorbike taxis everywhere, but these aren’t regulated, and cyclos are still around, though they’re more for the experience than getting from A to B. Most citizens use motorbikes, but riding here is pretty hairy.