How to Travel Ho Chi Minh in 24 Hours
Ho Chi Minh is a dizzying city. Somehow, amongst the chaos of street vendors, scooters whizzing by, and endless coffee and Red Bull, the city has a sense of calm.
I love Ho Chi Minh City — or Saigon, as it’s commonly referred to. At every turn, it vibrates with life. Just in terms of smell alone, there may not be a more interesting city on the planet. From smoking meats to boiling soup broths, fish sauce to motorbike exhaust, to the incense burning at a tucked-away pagoda, it is all intoxicating.
But Saigon’s assault on your senses doesn’t stop there. Of course, there is the endless honking of scooter horns and chatter coming from the countless street side cafes and patios; there is the juxtaposition of timeless buildings and temples sandwiched between modern architecture and skyscrapers. At night, the city lights up like a Christmas tree, pulsating with a renewed energy. Karaoke is always blaring in the background and, come early morning (as if no one ever slept), the local vendors sell their fresh goods at one of the dozens of street markets.
To say you have but one day in Ho Chi Minh would be a crime. From north to south, Vietnam has many fascinating destinations that will compete for your time, but don’t pass Ho Chi Minh City by.
So, let’s go!
6:30 a.m. – Wake Up & Visit a Local Market in Ho Chi Minh
Ya, it’s early, but you’d be remiss if you didn’t see just how alive Saigon is first thing in the morning. Find a local market and carefully step your way around street vendors selling just about everything you can imagine right off the sidewalk.
7:30 a.m. – Have an Authentic Vietnamese Breakfast
It’s Phở time. Phở Bo for beef — Phở Ga for chicken — and don’t be surprised if you find some mystery meat in there. Worried about the food? Just ensure the broth pot at the restaurant is steaming, and locals are eating there as well, and you’ll be fine. Most restaurants have a fairly limited menu (one item), and they’re damn good at cooking it. The Phở will likely be served with cold tea. I’ve never had an issue drinking this tea either.
8:00 a.m. – Coffee Break with Cà phê sữa đá
It’s Cafe Sur Da time…that’s coffee with milk. Believe it or not, Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee in the world. (Brazil is number one in case you were wondering). Usually, Vietnam ships all the good stuff overseas, so they sweeten the hell out of their local stuff and then add condensed milk and ice. It is a drink for the gods — but it’s strong, so be ready for a high-octane jolt that will nicely deal with any possible jet lag.
8:30 a.m. – People Watch or Walk Around the Neighbourhood
Coffee shops often have open seating that faces the street. So, sit down and stay a while; there’s plenty to see.
9:30 a.m. – Les Rives Half-Day Tour Through Cu Chi Tunnels or Mekong Delta
Now, given this is a “what to do in Ho Chi Minh” blog, you’ll be surprised that we’re actually recommending taking a Les Rives half-day tour to either Cu Chi Tunnels or Mekong Delta. Les Rives takes you there by speedboat which means:
- A) you won’t be sitting in traffic with an unpredictable return time
- B) the boat trip takes you through the slums along the canal, which gives you a dramatically different and worthwhile perspective of this side of Ho Chi Minh. They also have an HCM boat tour as well!
Note: I’ve seen most of the city’s landmarks and, in my opinion, they don’t need much more than a drive past on a scooter.
2:30 p.m. – Photo Tour with QRM
You’ve likely had a great local Vietnamese meal on the boat tour, so now that you’re back in the city, grab a Grab (The Uber of Saigon) and rip around on the back of a scooter. Where are you going? Well, my suggestion, especially if you’re into photography, is to book a photo tour with QRM — to visit a local market and apartment complex. There, you’ll have a snapshot of the true character of the city and the wonderful people who live in it.
Oh ya, and if you can find a deep-fried banana from a street vendor — 100% worth every calorie!
5:00 p.m. – Basket in Ho Chi Minh’s Golden Hour
You’ve got an hour or so until sunset. By this time, the street side cafes are starting to fill (think Italian aperitif culture) but Vietnam style. You have two choices. Rent your own scooter and attempt to drive in the city yourself, or order another Grab and let someone else drive; you have not experienced Ho Chi Minh City in its entirety if you have not ridden a scooter. One way or another, you have to do it.
5:30 p.m. – Happy Hour Vietnam Style
Now, pull up a stool, order some Bun Cha or Spring Rolls (or both), and crack open one of Vietnam’s many cheap and delicious beers.
Side note: some restaurants don’t keep their beer cold and instead serve warm beer in a glass with a rather large piece of ice. They’ll keep putting ice in your glass until you’re drinking more water than beer — so drink up!
The sun will set, but the temperature will not change much. As you bask in the warmth of the dusk and the city lights turn up, you’ll probably melt into that stool you’re sitting on and just say “damn!”
But of course, the night has only just begun!
7:00 p.m. – Take a Bonsai Boat Cruise to Your Next Vietnamese Meal
Time to take a Bonsai Boat Cruise, which gives you a stunning view of the city skyline. Or You can get pretty much any kind of food in this city — from Korean BBQ in district 7 (Korean town), Dim Sum in District 5 (Chinatown), and even Mexican food and New-York-style steakhouses — although I cannot opine on either of those.
If a more upscale delicious meal is what you’re after, I recommend Rice Field. It’s local cuisine minus the questionable dishwashing conditions and it will leave your taste buds bursting. The setting is modern with great mural artwork of Vietnamese women and has a rooftop patio with a rice field to boot!
Or head to the Vĩnh Khánh Street District (District 4). Here your options are … well … nearly endless. You’ll enjoy your food and beer amongst the scooters, locals and everything else that’s happening on a street in Saigon. The atmosphere is raucous, but again, it never quite feels that way.
The night is not over, so, if you need another coffee — now is the time!
9:00 p.m. – Visit One of Ho Chi Minh’s Microbreweries
Depending on how ambitious you’re feeling, I recommend making two stops. First, enjoy an actual cold one at one of Saigon many new microbreweries. My favourites are Heart of Darkness or East Meets West. No, there is nothing overly Vietnamese about the beer — but it’s a cool place to enjoy a damn good microbrew.
10:30 p.m. – Hit the Rooftop Bars & Have More Drinks
Head to one of the rooftop bars for a helluva city view and a nightcap. Although Saigon’s food and beer is usually very inexpensive, you’ll be paying more at these places. So, one drink will probably do; it’s more about the view anyway. Times Square in District 1 has a few historic bars. The Rex is pretty cool, but honestly, most are pretty good and some are much, much higher — such as Glow Sky Bar.
Buzzed, full, satisfied, and inspired? Take one last Grab (this time you probably can’t drive) back to your hotel and enjoy the flashing lights of the scooters and the endless warmth of the Saigon air as you whiz home.
If you’re a backpacker on a budget, you may think these last two recommendations are a bit outlandish. That’s fair. The reason I’ve included them is that part of what makes Saigon so unique is both its timeless buildings and the way old culture is mixed so starkly with the fast-paced modern city. To really see Saigon for what it is today, I think one should see both.
12:30 a.m. – Have a Relaxing Late-Night Swim
Although you can get a damn nice hotel in Saigon for $25 a night, and half-decent one for $15, there are also a lot of excellent hotels for about $100. These hotels often have a rooftop pool and, if you happened to have splurged on such a hotel, a late night dip with a view of the city would be the best last image of this remarkable city that I can think of. I’ve stayed at the Equatorial and Nikko.
If you don’t have a pool at your hotel, a late night karaoke session is something you can find just about anywhere to top off your experience.