Last updated on December 27th, 2020
The city with two names – Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Saigon? As women, we can exhibit multiple personalities and I find Saigon to be the same. HCMC is the more progressive personality always moving forward towards the ‘western’ model. While Saigon is the alluring, sexy personality; reminding me of the old mystique of the Orient. HCMC is not only a mouthful, but it reminds me that progress is on the way; can you guess which name I prefer?
For the audacious woman traveller, Saigon holds many finds and experiences you won’t find anywhere else in the world. The fact that Saigon is a rapidly developing city means that it’s ever-changing. One day your favourite café will be there, and the next day it won’t. No warning, just gone to make way for ‘progress’. Its personality is sometimes gritty and hard-edged, and sometimes elegant and luxurious; it just depends on which streets you walk down. For those Journeywomen who thrive on uncertainty, Saigon is worth a stop!
After spending a year living in this ever-changing city, I slowly evolved from tourist sites to ex-pat insider tips. Since you are a JourneyWoman presumably simply passing through, I’ve tried to pick some of my favourite insider tips that you can accomplish on a short term stay.
Get to know the real Saigon…
To visit the grittier side of Saigon and see how the locals live, pass up all of those cyclo drivers that are ‘pitching’ their tours in District 1, and get out to see the real Saigon with Mr. Binh.
Contact info: Nguyen Nam Binh (Ben)
Mobile +84 0958760273
Let me explain what a cyclo tour is; you sit in an old cyclo (3 wheeled bicycle contraption with a ‘bucket’ seat) and let a guy peddle you around the city. Mr. Binh and his buddies will take you on a one of a kind 2-hour cyclo tour of the lesser-seen districts of Saigon, D5, D8. D10 – all for approximately $12USD. The tour will also provide you with first-hand experience with the crazy Saigon motorbike traffic. It looks like chaos to the westerner, but there are ‘guidelines’ which everyone operates by. Having taken his tour multiple times, I can’t say enough good things about this cyclo experience. Mr. Binh is reachable by phone or text and speaks English well. Please note the standard disclaimer here: Going out into Vietnam traffic or crossing the street may seem unsafe, so please use your best judgment as you travel throughout Saigon.
For the food fanatics…
Looking for fresh, local, clean, budget eats – then grab some food at Wrap and Roll, a Vietnamese chain you’ll find all over the city. The air conditioning and clean atmosphere will be a great respite after the cyclo tour! Everyone does Pho, but Wrap and Roll serve up authentic spring rolls and salads from around Vietnam with a variety of sauces. The menu has pictures and is in English. It’s sort of like eating street food, but inside in a nice environment!
The French connection is alive and well in Saigon – namely in the form of food. Le Jardin (French bistro, 31 Thai Van Lung, D1), Au Parc (23 Han Thuyen Street, District 1), and La Camargue (191 Hai Ba Trung Street, District 3) are three of the favourites of ex-pats and won’t disappoint. However, my favourite is a tiny family-run bistro tucked away where no one will find it serving up amazing mussels and wine – Ty Coz located at 178/4 Pasteur. The atmosphere is simple, but the brothers who run it provide all the personality necessary!
One of the most surprising things about Vietnam is the extensive array of ethnic cuisines offered throughout the city. My favourite being Warda which dishes up Arabic food in a typical Vietnamese dingy alley but packed with a middle eastern atmosphere. The juxtaposition of the two cultures will be fascinating to any traveller.
Some markets are better than others…
If you want to stay off the tourist trail, then be sure to skip Ben Thanh market where you’ll be assaulted by eager souvenir vendors and potential pick-pockets, and instead go to Cho Lon Market in District 5. It’s just as big, but it’s where the locals go shopping. You may not find your tourist souvenirs there, but you will see how the locals shop. Wander down the back alleys to see the specialized street markets such as the motorbike parts street or the temple street. This is a great place for photography; people are willing models if you ask first. P.S. If you have time, check out both these markets as they each have their own unique flavour.
Sure, Saigon has many budget options, however, it also allows an avid luxury shopper to enjoy high-end shopping at moderate prices. If you are a travelling trend seeker, then check out L’Usine – a concept boutique poised on the 2nd floor above the Art Arcade on 1/F, 151 Dong Khoi Street. This find literally has it all; hip fashion, a café, and a gallery. When you’re there, be sure to check out the marriage of Vietnamese art and high fashion produced by CAMENAE, a Saigon/Singapore based company. CAMENAE works with local Vietnamese artists to put their art on leather-goods such as the Dragon Wallet. The art scene in Saigon is one of the most vibrant; Dong Khoi Street is lined with art galleries where you can get original Asian art for affordable prices.
Pamper yourself for less…
Many women come to Vietnam for the economical ‘pampering’ they can get. Spas grace every street in Saigon; and they will beg you to come in — literally. However, if you want something different then you must try Qing Wine Bar on 110 Pasteur District 1. Wine…yes; plus a mani-pedi and brilliant back rub. Stop in and grab a glass of wine downstairs and then walk upstairs to the spa and choose from a menu of bliss.
Track down this tailor…
Vietnam is also known for quality, economical tailoring. As an ex-pat, I had my own tailor who I trusted and worked with. However, if you are a Journeywoman with limited time in Saigon, then take advantage of in-shop tailors at silk stores like Creation, 105 Dong Khoi District 1. Here you can choose any beautiful item off the rack and have it tailored to fit with a very quick turn around. Sometimes this is better than having things made from scratch which tends to take much longer and the urgency creates a loss in quality. While you search the racks at Creation, be sure to look at the gorgeous custom beaded Ao Dais, the traditional Vietnamese dress, they are one of a kind.
Some like it hot…
How do you stay cool in a notoriously hot and sticky city? You don’t. Ladies, I suggest you wear deodorant and stop frequently in coffee shops and art galleries with air conditioning. Even as an ex-pat, I would always pop into the high-end hotels to simply cool down and sit in peace and quiet to revive my energy. After all, it’s free to sit there! I also recommend trying the fresh fruit smoothies sold everywhere in Saigon; they are a cool and refreshing treat. My favourite place to cool off is a little smoothie bar called Juice at 49 Mac Thi Buoi D1 – the colourful décor will perk you up right away!
Saigon is a city of water, built upon waterways that snake throughout the city and cause many traffic woes! Unfortunately, there aren’t any real nice river walks in the main part of town, however, if you venture out to An Phu, District 2, you’ll find an oasis along the river called The Deck. Here you can have a sunset happy hour drink while watching the barges slowly make their way downriver. The Deck is an oasis of calm in more ways than just eating and drinking; they also offer Yoga sessions in the morning along the river.
The nightlife in Saigon is always ‘moving’ every day of the week – in fact – it’s dancing. The Vietnamese love to do ballroom dancing – and they are great at it. To experience a great mix of Vietnamese locals and ex-pats hanging out together, check out one of the many free dance nights around town. Swing Dancing takes place Wednesday nights at Moli Lounge – G/F Petrohouse 5 Le Duan, District 1. The Saigon Swing Club teaches a free class before the open dance begins! Or if you like Salsa check out Salsa Saigon’s website to learn of their weekly open dancing.
After dancing – cool down with a creamy refreshment – ice cream with a Vietnamese twist! Fanny’s Ice Cream serves up flavours such as young rice (my favourite), salt caramel, chocolate chilli, ginger, and anise. Plus – if you are in Saigon on the 1st Friday of the month, stop by Fanny’s for an all-you-can-eat ice cream buffet! You can never have too much of a good thing!
A word on safety…
As a resident there I spent a great deal of time walking around on my own and I always felt safe. Saigon is full of the usual suspects – namely people willing to snag your purse or backpack. So, always keep your handbag or pack security attached to you and while walking down the street, keep your purse hanging on the inside away from the street and motorbike bandits. Also – I highly recommend when at a restaurant, don’t place your bag on the floor or a chair back. I always kept my bag strapped around my knee or simply around my body. Also, consider leaving your passport back in your hotel safe if you don’t need to carry it. However, always carry a copy of the front page of your passport in a money belt close to your body.
Need a doctor?…
Thanks to a large ex-pat community, there are great options for medical attention while in Saigon. The Family Medical Practice Vietnam is a centrally located western run clinic that can see you if the heat, food, or a flu-bug has got you down. They also have 24 hr emergency assistance. The prices are somewhat typical for western medical services, but you know that you are getting the best care while in a foreign country.
Vietnamese cookbook and website to explore…
Are you interested in knowing more about Vietnamese food before (or after) you travel? Journeywoman thought you’d enjoy reading about Vietnamese cooking expert, Andrea Nguyen.
‘When her family was airlifted out of Saigon in 1975, one of the few belongings that her mother hurriedly packed for the journey was her small orange notebook of recipes. Thirty years later, her daughter, Andrea Nguyen had the good fortune of writing her own intimate collection of recipes, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, published by Ten Speed Press, chronicling the food traditions of her native country and how they sustained her family as they adapted to their new home in America’.
This culinary expert and teacher also writes an excellent blog called, Viet World Kitchen. Click here to explore some of her wonderful Vietnamese recipes within that blog.
Know before you go…
If you intend to travel out of Saigon – then a good travel agent goes a long way to navigating the confusing airlines and antiquated booking systems. Try Exotissimo – they are well respected among the ex-pats in the area.
There are millions of small little hotels all over Saigon, but I would recommend Asian Ruby Hotel . This is where my family members stayed when visiting; we found the staff, service, and location all very good.
If you are looking for a unique guidebook – check out To Vietnam With Love for insider tips from people who have lived there.
Want to learn how to cross the busy streets in Ho Chi Minh City without being knocked down by motor scooters, cars, trucks and buses? Click here.
Want more shopping ideas? Vietnam is known for its made-to-measure clothing, lacquerware, woodwork, fine cotton goods, machine embroidered and hand-embroidered goods, scarves, t-shirts, faux jewelry and shawls
JourneyWoman, Sherry Ott last lived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and is now continuing her nomadic lifestyle by travelling the world exploring far off places. She is the Co-founder of Briefcase to Backpack, offering career break inspiration and advice to Americans; and she also shares her own travel experiences via her website, Ottsworld.