A Backpacker’s Guide to Saigon: What to See, Eat and Do in 24 hours
Ho Chi Minh city (alternatively known as Saigon) is located in the south of Vietnam and offers tourists the liveliness of a big city combined with ample amounts of rich history and culture.
If you’re like me and plan to just pass through Saigon for a couple of nights, this blog post will allow you to rest easy knowing that one full day is indeed enough time to get a good feel for this dynamic city. Well, let’s dive into it then!
Arriving by plane:
If you’re arriving to Saigon by plane, you will want to either A) seek out a metered taxi by yourself once you exit the arrivals area (much cheaper than hiring a private car or using a taxi booth inside the arrivals area) or B) use your Uber app to book an Uber. I cannot recommend Uber enough in this city. It’s safer, cash free, more reliable and a lot cheaper. To get to district one it will cost you a mere 70,000 dong compared to 160,000 dong, which most hotels and hostels charge for pickup.
Where to stay:
If you’re interested in staying where all the action is and you don’t want to have to walk far to good street food, the markets, and good nightlife, book a hotel in District 1. Specifically, if you can stay somewhere near Pham Ngu Lao, you’ll be right in the centre of the night life.
Take a trip back in time to the War Remnants Museum:
Located at the edge of District 1, the War Remnants Museum is a must visit for any visitor to Saigon, regardless if you’re a museum buff or not (I definitely am not and I would still recommend going). This museum is dedicated to telling the tragic timeline of the 20-year Vietnam war through poetic stories, bone chilling facts and an array of black and white images. All of which will bring you back in time to the raw memories of Vietnam’s history. If you’re unfamiliar with the war, even a one hour trip to this museum will give you a new lens to see Vietnam through; one that also gives you a better understanding of both the intricate culture and the people that you encounter on a daily basis during your travels.
Take a wander through the Ben Tanh Market:
Similar to other large cities in SE Asia, Saigon is the perfect destination for those who want to do a bit of bartering and shopping, or indulging in cheap local food. You can find essentially everything you might want in this market from clothing and fruit to flowers and gadgets, and it’s all within a decent sized building that won’t leave you feeling overwhelmed. Be prepared though, because unlike some markets in Thailand, vendors at Ben Tanh are very pushy and have zero understanding of the term “personal space”. They will do everything in their power to try and sell you their items and they won’t always stop at a gentle “No thank you”.
I hate to say it, but finding vegan food in this market is quite difficult. I only spotted one vendor with a sign that said “vegetarian food”, but even this wasn’t enough reassurance that they actually knew what vegetarian means. I learned this the hard way. After going up to a stall and telling them “An chay” (pronounced “Ann Chai”: I eat vegetarian), I ordered fresh spring rolls with tofu. It was nice because I watched the woman make them right in front of me and was pleased that she understood my request for no meat. However, when I bit into a roll after dipping it in the peanut sauce dish, I was struck with the realization that something was wrong with the sauce.
As luck would have it, the peanut sauce was in fact loaded with minced pork and the stall vendor had neglected to tell me, their one-year vegan customer, that I wouldn’t be able to eat it. Needless to say, I learned very quickly that you need to ask what’s in everything and make sure the person taking your order is 100% clear about what you do and do not eat. Even then, mistakes can still happen.
Tip: Watch your belongings in this market. Theft is common and you won’t even know your wallet is missing until you leave.
Experience a taste of Europe at the Cathedral:
The towering Saigon Norte-Dame Basilica will make you feel like you’ve momentarily stepped into Europe as you walk through its stunning French architecture and admire its slightly out of place presence in the chaos of the city. When you plan your visit, keep in mind that the cathedral is closed between 10:30am and 3:00pm.
Gorge on Vietnamese pho at Phuong Mai Vegetarian Restaurant:
Located across the street from the Ben Tanh Market, this tranquil vegetarian restaurant serves large, flavourful bowls of vegan phở (pronounced “pha” in Vietnam) as well as other traditional Vietnamese and asian dishes for a decent price. The portions are substantial and it was a saving grace considering how difficult it can be to find real vegetarian pho—and by “real” I mean without meat or meat based broth. You have to be careful when ordering phở in Vietnam because if you ask for it without meat, they will not add meat, but they will likely still serve you a bowl with meat broth. Sneaky, yes, but you have to remember that “vegetarian” isn’t always understood the same as it is at home.
Have a vegan Banh Mi at Coffee Vien:
This small vegetarian cafe has a food cart outside that sells delicious vegan Banh Mi (aka a Vietnamese sub with delicious French bread thanks to the French colonial influence in Vietnam). You can fill it with veggies, lettuce, special sauces, shredded tofu and even fake meats, which taste out of this world compared to some of the stuff you’ll find at home. Enjoy your banh mi at a table in the comfort of the cafe, which offers free iced green tea and wifi. One banh mi will cost you a modest 13,000 dong (75 cents CAD).
Pig out at a “Chay” food cart:
While walking the streets of Saigon, it’s likely that you’ll come across a few food carts with the word “chay” written on the signage. These food carts serve only vegetarian food for a very cheap price. They’re often point and pick style carts where you can choose from a handful of different sides with rice. One of our favourites is called “Com Chay Nhan – Nghia”. The woman who operates this food cart sells one side and rice for 12,000 dong or 2 sides and rice for 15,000 dong (70 and 90 cents CAD respectively). Her faux meat and tofu were to die for and she offered us a bowl of squash soup (probably the best I’ve ever tasted) for free on the side.
Enjoy a cheaper rooftop bar experience at the Vietnam Inn Saigon Hotel:
This is actually a hostel, not a hotel, but rather than paying a hefty price at any other rooftop bar in the city, you’ll get up to the top floor for free here and you’ll only have to pay 30,000 for draft Saigon beer. You can either wait for someone who’s staying in the hostel to let you up the elevator with their key or you can ask the front desk to let you up themselves. I would recommend the former because the staff wouldn’t let us up the next evening unless we paid 100,000 dong.
The bar itself isn’t roofless (you’ll be thankful when the monsoons come), but the view and relatively cheap prices certainly make up for this
Park yourself on a small plastic stool and sip on cheap beer:
When the later evening grows near, you can wander along Bui Vien street and pick a small, colourful, plastic stool to sit on a drink cheap beer. Each section of stools (or “Bai” as they’re called in Saigon) is owned by a local man or woman and oftentimes, where you sit down is just outside the entrance of their home. A bottle of “Saigon Red” (or green) should cost you no more than 15,000 dong (90 cents CAD). It’s a simple concept with zero frills, but it’s a fantastic and cheap way to meet people and pre-drink with friends. Look near “Universal Pub Saigon” for the best Bais.
Go on a pub crawl with Hideout Hostel or Vietnam Inn Saigon:
Both hostels are a riot and if you’ve been dreaming of going on a fun pub crawl in SE Asia for a while, this is the opportunity to finally take part. We never formally signed up for one (although we ended up bar hopping with both pub crawls later on in the night), but from what we heard, they cost around $4-5 CAD and include a free shirt and 2-4-1 drink specials at most of the bars. This is an awesome way to meet other backpackers and get a taste of the insane night life in Saigon.
Final world of caution:
You may have been warned before of the dangers of theft in large cities in SE Asia, but after being a victim myself, I now understand just how careful you actually have to be. Everyday, passing motorcyclists set out to steal purses and wallets from vulnerable travellers in busy areas. Even if your purse is around your body, they will still be able to take it from you in a split second if they’re driving fast enough. And that’s exactly what happened to me during my one night out in Ho Chi Minh.
Always carry your belongings under your clothes or simply out of sight while walking in public—day or night. Or, just leave your purse at home.
The same goes for when you’re walking around with cash or your phone in hand; both are very easy targets for a an expert thief. And the worst part is, there’s often nothing you can do to get any of it back because these kinds of instances happen so often and the individuals who commit these crimes are highly skilled. Think twice about what you bring out with you at night. In other words, bring only the necessities and always keep your passport locked up in your hotel or hostel. Everything stolen can be replaced, but as a traveller, your passport is your livelihood!
Side note: I usually don’t post other people’s (non copyright) images with my blog posts, but I mostly used my iPhone to take photos in Saigon. From the above paragraph, I’m sure you can guess that I lost my phone and all those photos with it.