Earlier this year, I ticked a massive wish off my travel bucket-list and took my very first step into the exotic lands of Asia – or more specifically, I took my first step on to the chaotic motorbike-filled streets of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam (and nearly got run over in the process).
Talk about a baptism of fire! Vietnam’s largest city, and buzzing business capital, was my first stop on a 2-week South-to-North tour of Vietnam and my very first glimpse into this fascinating continent. With a population of 8.5 million locals and more than 2 million motorcycles, this is a city that breathes noise and chaos… but it’s alluring and exciting, all at the same time, and I would absolutely recommend spending at least 24 hours to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of this captivating city.
Where to stay
Ho Chi Minh City is divided into 19 main districts but if you only have 24 hours to spend, I’d recommend basing yourself in District 1, so that you can maximise your time in the city. From here, you can explore the main attractions on foot – plus you’ll have an endless choice of street food, restaurants and bars, right on your doorstep.
As the business capital of Vietnam, the accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City can be more expensive than in other parts of the country – but no matter what your budget, you’ll find something here to suit your taste and price-tag.
The backpackers’ district (Pham Ngu Lao Street) offers up rooms for less than £10 a night but we opted for a more comfortable mid-range option (the ‘perks of part-time travel’ and all!) and based ourselves at the centrally-located Anpha Boutique Hotel. Prices start from around £35-40 per night and this includes breakfast up on the rooftop terrace, where you can enjoy sweeping views of the city skyline and Ben Thanh Market below, with your morning ‘pho’!
Explore Old Saigon
Start your day in the historic Dong Khoi area, where the beauty and character of the colonial buildings stand in stark contrast to the city’s towering skyscrapers. Here, you’ll find Notre Dame Cathedral – one of the few remaining Catholic cathedrals in Vietnam and one of the most iconic and photographed sights in the city.
Due to its popularity with tourists, you’ll find lots of friendly Vietnamese students hanging around this area, who will be keen to practice their English with you!
Just across the street from the Cathedral, you’ll find the Saigon Central Post Office – a bright, yellow building that dates back to the 19th century and looks like it’s been plucked straight out of Europe. The true beauty of this building lies within its four walls, so be sure to pop your head inside to admire the architecture.
Just a few steps across the road, you’ll arrive at Independence Palace (also known as Reunification Palace) – a significant landmark in the history of the Vietnam War and the site of the fall of Saigon. It may not look like much, next to the characterful buildings of the Old Quarter, but the history is fascinating and it’s worth the $1 entrance fee to explore the maze of grand reception rooms and basement war rooms.
Soak up the atmosphere at a temple
Ho Chi Minh City is often overlooked for its temples – especially in comparison to its neighbours up north – but the city has several hidden treasures that are worth exploring. If you visit just one, make sure it’s the Jade Emperor Pagoda – a beautifully preserved and atmospheric temple, dedicated to the Taoist god.
It’s free to enter and inside you’ll find a maze of fascinating, incense-filled rooms with bizarre statues and carvings to greet you at every turn.
If you have time, it’s also worth a quick stop at the incredibly photogenic Mariamman Hindu Temple located just steps away from Ben Thanh Market. Its colourful Indian influence makes it impossible to miss and makes for a picture-perfect photo opp.
Try the Banh Xeo
Just a 10 minute walk from the Jade Emperor Pagoda, you’ll stumble across one of the best local spots for Vietnam’s signature savoury dish – banh xeo. Tucked away down a quiet alleyway, Banh Xeo 46A serves up these delicious rice-flour pancakes, stuffed full of juicy prawns, pork and beansprouts. It’s a no-fuss, no-frills eatery but we soon discovered that’s usually a sign of the best and most authentic food in Vietnam!
Take some time to wander around the vibrant streets and shops in this area – there are fewer tourists about, so you can get a real feel for the local life and culture. Saigon River is also a short walk from here, if you have time to spare.
Learn about the history
As a first-time visitor to Vietnam, I felt it was important to understand more about the troubled history of this beautiful nation. As we made our way up north over the next 2 weeks, we found that locals wanted to tell us their stories of the war and its lasting impact on the people of Vietnam today.
The War Remnants Museum was a perfect introduction to better understanding the context of the war and the atrocities that occurred and still resonate with locals today. Although some of the displays are harrowing, I’m so glad we went and would recommend this museum to any first-time visitor to Vietnam.
Cool down with an iced coffee
You simply cannot visit South Vietnam without trying one of their speciality iced coffees with condensed milk – it’s delicious and so refreshing in the relentless humidity of the city!
Ho Chi Minh City is dotted with excellent coffee shops – we loved the alfresco vibe of Cafe RuNam but check out Olive magazine’s recommendations of some of the very best places in the city to get your caffeine fix.
Browse Ben Thanh Market
If you’re staying at the Anpha Boutique Hotel, you can’t miss the sprawling complex of Ben Thanh Market, located on the opposite side of the street.
By day, this bustling covered marketplace has everything you can imagine – from local food stalls to souvenirs to traditional textiles and handicrafts. After 6pm, an electrifying night market opens up and the surrounding streets fill with colourful stalls, music and the aromas of freshly cooked street food. Although a bit of a tourist trap, it’s a fascinating experience and will make you feel like you’re a million miles from home!
Head to the rooftops
If you’ve read my blog before, then you’ll know that I’m a sucker for a rooftop bar. Whenever I visit any new city, it’s one of the first things I research and pretty much dictates the rest of my evening plans!
In Ho Chi Minh City, you really are spoilt for choice when it comes to the vibrant selection of bars and restaurants perched high above the city. We decided to avoid the more expensive, trendy sky-bars and instead headed to The View on the 8th floor of the Duc Vuong Hotel where colourful lanterns, cheap cocktails and sweeping skyline views await!
What better way to end your 24 hour whirlwind tour of Ho Chi Minh City?!