With only a few days holidays available, I wanted to maximise my time off. I was looking for somewhere that I could explore new tastes and flavours, discover a different history and culture, and which provided great value without compromising on comfort and safety. A weekend in Ho Chi Minh City ticked all the boxes on my wish list. And what an adventure it was!
Getting to Ho Chi Minh from Singapore
Getting there is super easy. There are over a dozen direct flights from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City every day and the flight time is only two hours. I arranged to arrive mid-afternoon Friday and leave 48 hours later having ticked off most of the “must see” sights around town plus a few pleasant surprises.
Getting into the centre of the city is very simple with the two new airport shuttles that drop you in, or close, to all the major tourist areas. The bright yellow number 109 was clean, comfortable, air-conditioned and had very few people on board. At just 20,000 VND (S$1.25), it’s great value, and I was able to avoid the infamous Saigon taxi scams.
Saigon Traffic is a real eye-opener. Wow, what a crazy place. It seems there are no road rules at all with thousands of motorcycles vying for space with cars, buses and people. Despite the frenetic pace, it all appeared to flow. I had to wonder… “Would I survive the next two days in Ho Chi Minh City?”
A Weekend in Ho Chi Minh City – Itinerary
Arriving in the Evening
One boutique hotel to check out is Pavilion Hotel as it is located near Ben Thanh Market. It is an ideal location as it is only a five minutes walk to Mariamman Temple, Zen Plaza and Ben Thanh Market. Having your accommodation near the main shopping districts is always convenient as you can unload your shopping loot and enjoy a fuss-free shopping experience.
Without wasting any time, my first priority was to get out and try the famous Vietnamese food!
What better way to get a taste of many different dishes and experience various parts of the city, than to take a “back of the bike” food tour. Everyone in the group had an expert guide who expertly maneuvered through the crazy traffic to a selection of local cafes and restaurants, each offering a different specialty. It was like being on a progressive dinner inside an amusement game. The ride around town was as exhilarating as the food was delicious.
1st Morning in Ho Chi Minh
Vietnam rises early and so did I. After a quick local coffee and bánh mì gà (baguette loaded with shredded chicken) I headed for Tao Dan Park to check out the morning action. The park is one of the larger green spaces in the city, and it’s an excellent place to people watch. Traditional fan dancing, martial arts, tai chi, aerobics and ballroom dancing classes vie with joggers and badminton games for your attention and photo lens.
Despite the size of the city, you can easily visit the main sites on foot in a comfortable day. The early start set me up well to beat the crowds for a tour of Independence Palace and then on to the War Remnants Museum. These are two “must see” things to do in Ho Chi Minh if you’re to gain an understanding of recent Vietnamese history.
By the time many tourists had finished their second coffee of the morning, I had been appalled and saddened at the tragic waste of life in recent wars, then moved to amazement at how well the country, especially Ho Chi Minh City, has bounced back.
Afternoon in Ho Chi Minh
By noon I was headed back into town via the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral and French Colonial Central Post Office
There are lots of cafes and restaurants on this route if you’re feeling hungry, thirsty or just need a rest. Ho Chi Minh City has so many options for food; your biggest challenge will be the decision on what to try next. I used the age old principle of choosing cafes and street food stalls that were popular with the locals. Vietnamese are fussy about their food. If it isn’t good, the place doesn’t last long.
Photo Credit: Sharyn Nilsen
I took my time heading into the centre of town along Don Khoi which runs directly off the square in front of the cathedral. It was easy to spend a couple of hours dropping into the many art galleries, gift shops and bookstores dotted along the way. The juxtaposition of the old and the new is striking. The soaring Vincom Plaza clad in huge LCD screens sits just metres from the wedding cake façade of the recently renovated Peoples Committee building, Continental Hotel and the beautiful Opera House.
After a little more window shopping I headed to Bitexco tower, Saigon’s tallest building. I managed to find my way up to the bar on Level 52 (it takes two elevators) for happy hour (from 1-5pm.) You can enjoy a beer for 99,000 VND while you enjoy 360-degree views of the city. That beats 200,000 VND just for entry to the Skydeck, and you are a few levels higher.
Evening in Ho Chi Minh
As the day turned to night, I headed back to Nguyen Hue – “Walking Street” and made my way back to the rooftop bar at the Rex Hotel for happy hour sunset drinks as the city lit up around me.
Nguyen Hue has become the people’s place, and it’s hugely popular with locals and visitors alike. There are dozens of excellent restaurants, bars and cafes to choose from, offering all types of food. In the end, I chose Asian House which has four floors of restaurants, bars and cafés. They have outstanding service and food at reasonable prices.
Although I was tempted to party on at one of the city’s many nightspots, I had another early morning adventure planned, so I headed back to my hotel via the bustling Ben Thanh Night Market. It’s touristy, but if you bargain hard, there’re some beautiful souvenirs to take home.
The first half of my 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City was everything I hoped – history, culture, great food and architecture. I was eager to explore further, but I needed my beauty sleep. (Note: If you’re more energetic than me check what’s on around town in Any Arena.)
Second Morning in Ho Chi Minh
After another early start, I was picked up by my guide from Saigon Unseen to do their Urban Kaos – Motor Bike Tour and see the ”other” side of Saigon. Tiny temples, bustling markets and narrow laneways filled with street hawkers provided photo opportunities at every turn.
Whizzing around on the back of a motorbike was exhilarating. We covered a lot of ground but took plenty of time out to explore the different locations on foot. And, I finally got to have my first bowl of delicious Vietnamese Pho for lunch.
Chinatown, Ho Chi Minh City / Sharyn Nilsen
In the afternoon I met up with a guide from Saigon Hotpot and head to Ho Chi Minh’s Chinatown. My flight was early evening, but we had a few hours to explore the top destinations in Cho Lon such as Binh Tay Market, Thien Hau Pagoda, Nhi Phu Temple and Cha Tam Church.
Saigon Hotpot offers a free guide service linking tourists with students from local universities. But just because they’re free, doesn’t mean they’re not excellent. My lovely guide Tram had an informed answer for every question.
Cha Tam Church, Saigon / Sharyn Nilsen
Late Afternoon Flight back to Singapore
After another eventful day, it was time to return to Singapore. As I reflected back on my 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City, I couldn’t believe how much I’d packed into the two days. And, despite my initial trepidation of the crazy traffic, I’d survived.
Let’s go to Ho Chi Minh City!