Friday, August 27, 2010

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: A Three-Day Saigon Itinerary Plus Dining Tips

Le Loi Street in a frenzy. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Taken from the photo archives of Virgin Media.
Saigon is the old (and I should say, romantic) name of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The country's population has swelled in this rather small urbanized city in the past decade. I asked a local why this is so. He said succinctly, "In Saigon, more jobs." Most of Vietnam's foreign guests choose hotel and backpacker accommodations within an area (street) called Pham Ngu Lao. I find it quite eccentric that the heart of Saigon's accommodation capital is severely lacking in good dining options.

I was prompted to create this post by earthjewels. She enlisted my help for her planned three-day Saigon getaway. I do not claim to have the best of suggestions, but I believe my travel guide will offer an unhurried way of relishing what this Asian Dragon has to offer.

First Day
Rise early on your first day. For the more adventurous, eat breakfast with locals on the street. Pho stands abound along the streets. You will need to fuel up for a long day. Move forward to the city's biggest market, Ben Thanh Market where an endless array of local products are on display - wood lacquer, embroidered pieces, wooden shoes, name it! 

Choose your heels and embroidered band to complete your wooden slip-ons!
After scoring a few or a load of great finds from the market, access the heart of Saigon by walking along Le Loi Street. You should notice interesting art and souvenir shops along the way. You should stop by and take photos oustide Hotel De Ville, a town hall painted in sweet pink. Continue on walking along Le Loi street until you reach the Caravelle Hotel. You will find Opera House right across. That is one place you must NOT miss. By this time, your body should need some serious feeding, what with all that walking! Head along Dong Khoi Street for some of the city's best restaurants. After a hearty meal, you can head towards Nguyen Hue Street towards the river. Hire a cyclo driver (a carriage that is pulled by a human) to bring you to Notra Dame Cathedral. If you fancy a museum visit, try out the War Remnants Museum. Frankly, I found it VERY disturbing. Cap the day with a lovely dinner in any of Vietnam's restaurants.  Don't worry. I do have some good establishments listed further below.

Second Day
Soak up some more of Ho Chi Minh's history by visiting the Reunification Palace. If you find the first museum visit amusing, you can also head towards the Museum of Ho Chi Minh just over the bridge of District Four. In the afternoon, you can hire a cyclo driver again to tour Cholon, home to Saigon's pagodas. Trust me, your body should be asking for some rest and relaxation after all this sightseeing. I went ahead and tried a foot spa service from one of those salons along the side streets. Wow, more than two years have passed and I can still remember how much relief that one-hour massage brought to my aching feet! Feeling rejuvenated? Hit the bars and clubs of Saigon where the party ends until dawn!

Third Day
Every Ho Chi Minh visitor MUST include a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Remember to take along a lot of water and start early as it is quite a distance from the heart of the city (around two to three hours drive). A visit to this historical site will open your eyes to the frightening conflict that existed during the war. I give you my word. You will go back home, a changed man or woman. I suggest a visit to the park, perhaps Cong Vien Van Hoa, after your Cu Chi Tunnel tour. Enjoy a delectable dinner in one of the city's finer restaurants and shop around in department stores and malls namely, Diamond Plaza and The Tax Plaza.

Cindy's List of Top Restaurants in Ho Chi Minh
Vietnam House serves delicious authentic Vietnamese cuisine at mid-range prices. It is a two-storey venue in an old colonial building with charming green shutters. Find them at 93 Dong Khoi Street.

Lemongrass is a more intimate version of Vietnam House. Traditional live music is played each evening with a French-style ambiance that is nothing short of enchanting. This place is always packed. I have two favorite dishes from here namely, the fried spring rolls and the beef and mango salad. Find them at 4 Nguyen Thiep Street. 

Creperie & Cafe has one of the best al fresco dining set up with a view that gazes out Le Duan Park. Expect a trendy crowd of locals as well as tourists who enjoy reasonably-priced gastronomic sensations such as crepes with a variety of fillings. I really enjoyed the lobster ravioli with a cream sauce that took me from earth to somewhere near high heaven :D Find them at 5 Han Thuyen Street.

La Nicoise is a hole-in-the-wall dining venue owned by a French man who speaks fluent Vietnamese. Must-order are the steaks, which are priced at unbelievably low prices. I especially enjoyed the steak in tartar sauce and the freshly made pomelo juice.

Sao Dong Restuarant is located outside the Ben Thanh Market and is only open at night, 6pm onwards. The moment the market closes, staff of Sao Dong and other similar establishments set up their eateries. Facing the main entrance (clock side) of the Ben Thanh market, Sao Dong is on the right side. Don't worry if the locals don't understand you. There are photos in the menu so only your index finger will do the moving.


  1. interesting. i'm actually interested to visit vietnam since i've been told that it's like the philippines in its early 80s. and we have a friend staying there for several years already, wanna see her too. thanks for this

  2. Hi May! You SHOULD visit the place. Include Hanoi as well. It is said to be the more ROMANTIC regions of Vietnam. While you're there, you can climb up the mountains to the Sapa region :D These, I have YET to do :D

  3. This is so wonderful! Thanks so much for coming up with this! So excited for our trip! I do have two questions, if you don't mind me asking. Is it hard to communicate there? (Do most people know English?) and Secondly, is it hard to get around? (Can we just walk around and get to most places? Or is it ok to use their taxi system)

    I appreciate it so much! Thanks.

  4. Hi EarthlyJewels! You are most welcome. It was a long overdue post anyway and you helped me put it in place :)

    Communication is of course quite a challenge as not many speak English. However, in the selling markets, the sales people do know a bit of sales English. Other than sales, do not expect much from them.

    Getting around is really easy. If you enjoy walks (long ones), you can do so. Their taxi system is very efficient, if you hire the ones who are reliable like VinaSun and Saigon Taxi. The rest can cheat you with their meters. :)

    I hope all these bits of information help :D