Dodging over two million motorbikes zipping across Vietnam’s largest city may be a pedestrian’s ultimate challenge, but the nimble traveller can navigate historic District 1 and parts of District 3 with relative ease. Put on your sandals, look both ways before crossing the street, keep your wits about you, and explore Ho Chi Minh City on foot with confidence with our two-day (mostly) walking guide.
Words & Photography: Abby Yao
Relive the city’s storied past and foretell its fast-paced present in the French Quarter of Saigon (as many people still refer to the city). History and local cuisine are the highlights of this weekend getaway, where the sights and sounds of the streets are every bit as memorable as the main attractions.
10 AM Make your way to Trung Nguyen Coffee on Dong Khoi for your first taste of Vietnamese coffee. Or if you stumble upon low red stools by the roadside close to your hotel, have ca phe sua da (iced coffee laced with condensed milk) from the coffee lady to prep you for the day’s walks. Some say that once you’ve tasted the fragrant (and strong) Vietnamese coffee, there’s no going back to the normal everyday espressos.
Don’t forget to keep your bags close to your body and on the side opposite the road as tandems on motorbikes can grab them as they pass. Although it might sound counter-intuitive, locals advise to walk, not run when crossing the street so that motorists will know to slow down.
Trung Nguyen Coffee 80 Dong Khoi, District 1. Open daily 7am-9pm.
Move away from the river and walk up the most historical street in Saigon. Dong Khoi is one of the first streets built by the French in the late 19th century, the Champs Élysées of the city in its heydays. Amidst the French colonial buildings, you will stumble upon the Saigon Opera House, currently hosting the AO Show that seamlessly blends Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics with bamboo props and traditional Vietnamese music.
Contrasting structures flank the Opera House – the iconic Hotel Continental (built in 1880) and Vincom Center A (built in 2012) that puts a French colonial spin on high-end shopping. Cross through the latter and emerge on the other side for your photo op with a bronze Ho Chi Minh statue in front of the Ho Chi Minh City Hall, also known as the People’s Committee Head Office.
Make your way back to Dong Khoi until you reach the Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, better known as the Saigon Notre-Dame. The majestic red brick structure stands peacefully amidst the modern hustle and bustle of the street. To its right, the grand Saigon Central Post Office, designed by renowned architect Gustave Eiffel, is a hive of activity, with stalls selling souvenirs in addition to offering postal services.
Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Mon-Sat visiting hours: 8am-10:30am, 3pm-4pm. Sunday Mass (English): 9:30am.
Saigon Central Post Office 2 Cong xa Paris, District 1. Open daily, 7am-8pm.
Continue along leafy Phạm Ngọc Thạch to Ho Con Rua (Turtle Lake) in District 3, once a popular local hangout, now a roundabout of cafes.
12PM Enjoy lunch at Hoang Yen, a block away from Turtle Lake, or Nha Hang Khoai, close to War Remnants Museum. Why not try bun cha (rice noodles with grilled pork) or com tam (broken rice) as an alternative to the usual pho (noodle soup)? All equally delicious!
Hoang Yen Nguyen Dinh Chieu cor. Hai Ba Trung, District 3. Open daily, 11am-9:30pm.
Nha Hang Khoai 3A Le Quy Don, District 3. Open daily, 10am-9pm.
1PM Time stands still at the Reunification Palace, a mute reminder of the events that ended the Vietnam War in 1973. But nothing can prepare you for the rush of emotions that will greet you at the War Remnants Museum, essentially a photo gallery with artefacts, as well as helicopters, tanks and shells on its grounds.
Reunification Palace 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St., District 1. Open daily, 7:30am-11am, 1pm-4pm.
War Remnants Museum 28 Vo Van Tan, District 3. Open daily, 7:30am-12pm, 1:30pm-5pm.
5PM Book advance tickets to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater show and be amazed by this unusual art form, with puppeteers in waist-deep water, accompanied by traditional musical instruments. A truly unique attraction that every visitor should see.
Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theater 55B Mguyen Thi Minh Khai St., District 1. Shows daily at 5pm, 6:30pm and 7:45pm.
7PM Take a cab back to the French Quarter or the Riverside. If the two-hour dinner cruise on the Saigon River doesn’t appeal to you, stay on land and soak up the ambience at Lemongrass Restaurant, known for its intimate candlelight setting amidst tile floors and charming cane furniture. No tables available? Try its branch at the 14th floor of the Palace Hotel. For dessert, nobody can beat the creamy ice cream flavours at Fanny on Ton That Thiep.
Popular night spots in the area are Rex Hotel Rooftop Garden where American soldiers and war correspondents used to hang out; and Chill Skybar, rated one of the best rooftop bars in town. Both come with equally stunning views, with the Skybar more accessible if you’re staying in the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area, as it will be along the way.
Lemongrass 4 Nguyen Thiep St., District 1. Open daily 11am-9:30pm.
Lemongrass Palace 55-56 Nguyen Hue St., District 1. Open daily 11am-9:30pm.
Fanny 29-31 Tôn Thất Thiệp, District 1. Open daily lunchtime until 11pm.
Rex Hotel Rooftop Garden 141 Nguyen Hue Blvd., District 1. Open 24 hours.
Chill Skybar 26th and 27th Floor,AB Tower, 76 Lê Lai, District 1. Open nightly, 5:30pm until late.
8:30AM Start the day with breakfast of banh mi, the Vietnamese baguette packed with meat and vegetables, at the renowned Nhu Lan Bakery. Right across the street, on the 49th floor of Ho Chi Minh City’s tallest building, is the Saigon Skydeck, offering stunning views of the city.
Nhu Lan 50 Ham Nghi St., District 1. Open 24 hours.
Saigon Skydeck BITEXCO Financial Tower, 36 Ho Tung Mau St., District 1. Open daily 9:30am-9:30pm. Last entry at 8:45pm.
10:30AM Load up on souvenirs at the king of Saigon markets, Ben Thanh Market. If your goal is to shop, come before 8am, as the first customer of the day gets good bargains. You can also try your luck at the Pho Mua Sam Night Market in the side streets around Ben Thanh. The nearby Saigon Square Mall is best for cheap bags and clothing, including knockoffs, seconds and overruns.
Ben Thanh Market Open daily, 6am-6pm.
Pho Mua Sam Night Market From 5pm-12mn.
Saigon Square Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1. Open daily, 9am-9pm.
12:30PM Across the road, stylish boutique and cafeteria L’Usine Le Loi is a prelude to Ho Chi Minh City’s future and a fitting ending to your Ho Chi Minh City weekend. Have a quick lunch before collecting luggage at your hotel in time for your flight. L’Usine specializes in the ‘Art of the Panini’ with sandwiches fresh from the oven, enjoyed with a cuppa or two in a contemporary colonial setting.
L’Usine Le Loi 70B Le Loi Blvd, District 1. Open daily, 9am-9pm.
Got any tips and recommendations for Ho Chi Minh City? Sound off in the comments below.
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