How to Spend Two Nights in Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City is a bourgeoning, modern metropolis. For travelers short on time, these quick tips are a can’t miss.
You can almost hear the rotors pounding on top of Independence Palace. You can feel the weight of history hoisted onto the roof, bearing down on the building beneath the helicopter’s blades. You can peer through the windows in the heart of the old South Vietnamese capital and see the gates that Ho Chi Minh’s tanks plowed through to end the Vietnam War.
Then, you can grab a fresh coconut from a street vendor for a dollar.
Saigon is almost too surreal to believe.
The town that maps call Ho Chi Minh City, but people and airport codes (SGN) still call Saigon is more than a nostalgia trip. This is one of the most bustling cities in Southeast Asia, and with more than eight million welcoming inhabitants—all seemingly riding motorbikes—it is one of the best towns to spend a few days in while you trek through the Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam tourist triangle.
But, if you’ve only got a few days between Cambodian temples at Angkor, the ancient halls of Siam and the glowing terraces of Sa Pa, you’ll want to use these tips to tackle Saigon in 48 hours:
Five-Star High Five
With a conversion ratio of roughly 22,000 Vietnamese dong per dollar, Americans have it easy in Saigon. Some ATMs will only allow a maximum withdrawal of $80, which means five-star hotels like the Eastin Grand can be had for less than $75 per night in Saigon. With an all-inclusive breakfast, that offer is too good to refuse, even for transient backpackers.
Do your weary bones a favor and book an all-star accommodation.
Walk the Old City
In the morning, make for the Notre-Dame Basilica to find yourself in a swirling cyclone of motorbikes and authentic French and Vietnamese architecture. The French invaded Vietnam in the late 1800s and left an indelible mark on its historic buildings. Some of the most dramatic examples of that time period still persist around Notre-Dame, including the Saigon Central Post Office (pictured), which doubles as a currency exchange facility.
If Saigon is your first stop in Vietnam, grab a couple million dong at the post office and make like the Monopoly man over to Independence Palace for a soak in modern history. Your route will take you past a number of coffee shops, bun cha and bahn mi eateries if you’ve worked up an appetite.
Expand Your World View
Most Americans will know the U.S. narrative of the Vietnam War, but Saigon serves up a chance to see the other side of the tragic conflict.
Both the Independence Palace (pictured) and the nearby War Remnants Museum provide insight into a local point of view of history. The family-friendly palace will put you in the bedroom of the first family of South Vietnam, while the War Remnants Museum is not for the faint of heart. There, exhibits paint a scene as grizzly as the war itself.
The War Remnants Museum hosts a collection of unforgettable images from war photographer Larry Burrows that serve as a sobering reminder of what once was, while the suburban Cu Chi tunnels put you in the haunting halls of history.
Find Sky-High Vibes
When in Saigon, do as generations before you have and head for the bar. Ho Chi Minh City hosts some of the finest rooftop bars in Southeast Asia. Many bars, like the Chill Skybar in AB Tower, might intimidate with a dress code, but rest easy—this usually means you’ll only need to don something a bit nicer than flip-flops and shorts to gain entry.
Cocktail prices at roof bars tend to be as high as the view, but a few pricey drinks are no problem for you, because the night has just begun. After you pass the twilight hours up top, ride back down the elevator and head for the gritty underside of Saigon—Bui Vien Street.
Ball Hard on Bui Vien Street
Bui Vien Street feels like a cross between Bourbon Street, the circus and a red-light district. If you’re a partier, you’ll likely spend the rest of your evening here. If you’re not, you don’t want to miss the chance to stroll this boulevard of the bizarre, snagging street food and up-close views of fire-breathers and magicians.
Bui Vien is littered with curbside tables and balconies that weave in and out of a labyrinth of neon, electricity and alcohol—all yours for pennies. Locals will be drinking American brew, but take advantage of the chance to absorb Vietnamese brews like 333, Bia Saigon and LaRue.
Learn to Love the Lunch Lady
If you’re getting a late start on day two after a nightcap on Bui Vien Street, grab a cab and make for the Saigon Lunch Lady. You’ll find her in an alley just off of Hoang Sa Street. The Lunch Lady cooks one meal per day, and it’s served from mid-morning until she runs out.
If you can find a spot at one of her pint-sized plastic tables, you’ll also find yourself eating some of the best food this side of the Pacific. For about $5, you can have a full meal and a little hair of the dog to start a new day.
Mekong or Market
For many travelers, the skies from SGN point north towards Hanoi. That means you’ve got limited time to see the majestic Mekong River delta, which only courses through the country’s south. If you have half a day, take advantage of your last afternoon in the flat lands by booking a sunset cruise on the Saigon River.
Find yourself short on time? Head to the Ben Thanh Market to browse hundreds of local vendors within a short drive of the hotel and airport, but be sure to brush up on your bartering before walking through the doors. (Don’t take the first offer.)
However you choose to explore it, Ho Chi Minh City has the power to make a deep impression in just a few hours. It’s a bourgeoning, modern metropolis that makes a perfect pitstop when visiting Southeast Asia—even if you still call it Saigon.