From backstreet bia hoi joints to the best banh mi – here’s how to make the most of a weekend in Vietnam’s biggest city.
Saigon's back, baby. It’s good again. Fondly remembered by foreigners of a certain era as a den of political intrigue and Babylonian vice, it took a while for Ho Chi Minh City to overcome its post-1975 socialist torpor.
Even a decade ago, the city felt dreary and garish compared to the more austere charms of Hanoi’s old quarter. In the last couple of years, with the liberalisation of small business laws, a big influx of enterprising repats and a refurbishment of Saigon’s public spaces are giving the northern capital a run for its money.
Now that there’s daily direct budget flights to and from Yangon, a cheeky three-and-a-half-day sojourn makes a lot of sense for anyone sick of Bangkok as the regular spot for working through their pent-up epicurean urges. Here’s how to make the most of it.
5pm: If you’ve come in on the afternoon VietJet flight you can budget an hour to get into town at the start of peak hour. Your best bet for accommodation is booking a cheap mid-range hotel near the Tran Hung Dao Road roundabout in District 1, close to all the action: US$30-40 a night will net you a decent room with a rooftop pool.
8pm: Take a walk up Le Loi Street, where among the cornucopia of street stalls you’ll find someone hawking a bowl of noodles appealing enough to line your stomach for the evening ahead. Wander up to Barbecue Garden, or any of the outdoor drinking spots on the street, for some al fresco beers and some more snacks.
11pm: Tasteful, low-key nightlife – be still my beating heart. Saigon clubs are, I’m pleased to say, not suffering the extreme ambiance deficit of their Yangon counterparts. If you’re up for a dance or a naughty hook-up, nearby Piu Piu is as good as it gets.
10am: Ow, your head. Nothing a decent brunch and ice coffee can’t fix, though. Go back to Le Loi Street for the otherworldly delights at L’Usine. Downstairs is an art space and craft store, in the upstairs café you’ll get a lavish selection of gourmet takes on traditional Vietnamese dishes. Thank me later.
12pm: Time for a bit of culture. A 10-minute walk away is Independence Palace, the former seat of the southern government, with the tanks that crashed through the gates to decisively end the Vietnam War still parked on the front lawn. Around the corner is the War Remnants Museum – not as emotionally charged a name as its former “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes”, but a bracing experience nonetheless.
3pm: Wow, that was intense. Probably time to start drinking again, right? On the west side of the palace you’ll find a row of a few unassuming bia hoi joints. A nice option for afternoon drinking: beers are dirt cheap and watery enough to not be too much of an encumbrance for the evening ahead.
6pm: Saigon has a huge population of Japanese expats, thanks to the ongoing construction of the underground metro and other urban development projects. The back alleys around Thai Van Lung and Le Thanh Ton streets are a warren of yakitori and ramen joints – take your pick. Once you’ve finished eating, there are plenty of hole-in-the-wall cocktail bars to close out the night.
9am: Banh mi time! Any old streetside baguette cart will be fit for purpose, but if you’d rather hold out for the best in town, take a stroll in the afternoon and visit the humble Banh Mi Huynh Hoa on Le Thi Rieng Street.
10am: Time to get out of the city centre and journey into Cholon, better known as Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown. Good for a couple hours’ wander, there are a number of Chinese temples worth a stickybeak. For another touch of history, it’s also worth checking out the gaudy Cha Tam Church nearby, where former South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem was seized and assassinated in 1963.
1pm: Ready for another opulent café lunch? Propaganda, opposite Cong Vien Park, is a great place to while away a few hours with a coffee and a full roster of Viet-Western fusion lunch options. After a walk through the park, wash it down with a sampler of the craft beer selection at Pasteur Street Brewery.
5pm: Might as well make the most of indulging in all the gastronomic treats off-limits to your normal life as a resident of Yangon. A number of incredible barbecue eateries have sprung up on the shores of the Saigon canals after their Japanese-funded redevelopment. It’s hard to go past Quan Ut Ut, offering a full complement of smoked pork products and a menu of craft beers brewed onsite.
8am: Hopefully you’ve woken up with all your faculties intact. If not, time to seek out – hopefully not your first of the weekend – a quick bowl of the greatest dish in the Southeast Asian culinary canon and the greatest hangover cure known to man: Pho. Any old roadside place near your hotel will do a bang-up job, and the earlier the better for taste and freshness.
That leaves just enough for the airport taxi, an hour in Mingaladon gridlock, and sitting at your desk pretending to work for the rest of the afternoon while surreptitiously scanning Vietnamese recruitment websites.