Weekend Trip: What to do, eat & see in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
Formerly known as Saigon, Ho Chi Minh is the most populated city in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh’s architecture and food are largely influenced by the French; a reminder that the city was once under the French colonial rule for several decades. Interestingly, Vietnam is one of the five remaining communist countries in the world. However, its newly erected swanky skyscrapers and exciting nightlife make it hard to believe that Vietnam is still in the midst of recovering from the recent Vietnam War.
Exploring around Ho Chi Minh is an interesting time travel. We saw a vendor donned in traditional conical straw hats – shouldering a bamboo pole that held two baskets filled with fruits – walking down the street with Vietnam’s tallest building Bitexco Financial Tower in the background. We weren’t sure if the vendor or infrastructure was more displaced. Despite the nation’s recent rapid economic boom, an entire family riding on a single motorbike is a very common sight. Most Vietnamese are still struggling to make ends meet and the extreme income inequality was illuminated with the occasional luxurious cars zooming past us.
There is so much to see and one should definitely spend more than a weekend in Ho Chi Minh. But for those who do not have the luxury of time, don’t be disheartened. You can do A LOT in just 3 days and 2 nights.
Day 1 | Saturday
Cuc Gach Quan – Lunch at Angelina Jolie’s favourite Viet restaurant
Our Vietnamese friend drove us to Cuc Gach Quan, a family-style restaurant that serves simple yet mouthwatering Vietnamese home cooked food. Cuc Gach Quan is located along a quiet residential street in the outskirts of District 1 and at first glance, you might mistake it as someone’s home. It was the highlight of our dining experience in Ho Chi Minh and we strongly encourage all foodies to pay it a visit. Fun Fact: Even Brangelina are fans.
The owner’s brother is a brilliant architect! He has successfully revamped the old villa into a timelessly elegant restaurant without compromising on its captivating old-world charm. Cuc Gach Quan strives to be environmentally friendly whenever possible, which explains the vegetable straws that are made from the stem of morning glory.
Tip: Must-order dishes include homemade tofu and clay pot fish/pork.
Address: 10 Dang Tat, Ward Tan Dinh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Café Runam – Once you go Viet, you can’t go back
Vietnamese coffee at Café Runam is NOTHING like a typical Starbucks latte. It is a trillion times stronger – okay I’m exaggerating but you get the gist. These kick-ass Vietnamese coffee are brewed using a unique Viet coffee filter called Phin.
A little bit of condensed milk (optional) is placed at the bottom of the glass that you will drink from. Remove the upper lid of the Vietnamese coffee filter (Phin) and place ground coffee on it. Cover the coffee with the top lid and screw tightly. Next, add boiling water and…
I shan’t elaborate any further. You just have to try them for yourself. It is life changing and definitely a great way to combat fatigue. Traditional Vietnamese coffee served at Cafe Runam start from VN$65 000 / US$3.
Tip: If you’re craving for desserts, order the green tea matcha cake.
Address: 96 Mac Thi Buoi Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
La Villa – Ranked as one of the best restaurants in Asia
La Villa, a fine dining French Restaurant in District 2, is currently the second best restaurant in Ho Chi Minh Trip Advisor and was rated as one of Asia’s best restaurants by Trip Advisor in 2014.
A swimming pool and a beautiful al-fresco dining area surround the old colonial mansion-turned-restaurant and we chose to dine indoors to escape the heat. There are a few set menus to choose from, starting from VN$990,000 / US$46 per person (inclusive of taxes). Dinner was spectacular despite a few hits and misses amongst the dishes. Tina, the wife of owner-cum-chef Thierry Mounon is such a lovely lady! From amuse bouche to dessert, she ensured that every dish was well delivered and treated us like VIP.
We were beyond stuffed towards the end of our 3-hour long dinner and Chef Thierry Mounon came out to have a chat with us. We couldn’t stop raving about the succulent scallops (even after we left Vietnam)! Fans of fine French food should definitely pay La Villa a special visit.
Tip: Do make an online reservation in advance to avoid disappointment.
Address: 14 Ngo Quang Huy, Thao Dien Ward, District 2, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Chill Sky Bar – The club is far from chill and we love it
The night was still young and we wanted to maximise our time in Ho Chi Minh. Heeding a local friend’s recommendation, we proceeded to Chill Sky Bar. Judging from the name of the bar, we were honestly expecting a quiet bar to chill out. And we were completely wrong. Thumping upbeat music was played all night long and it should be called a club instead of bar. It was a pleasant surprise and we love it!
The music was great, crowd was interesting but the area with the best view was roped off. We were not exactly sure how to get through the restricted area. Our friend ‘bribed’ (take it as you’re paying an entrance fee to an exclusive area) the bouncer with US$10 and we were granted instant access. He treated us like royalty all night and kept offering to take pictures of us though all we wanted was to capture Ho Chi Minh’s dazzling skyline. Honestly speaking, it is a little sad. If someone were to offer US$10 to any bouncers in other first-world cities, he is probably going to get bashed up.
The drinks were pricey, probably as expensive as drinks in Zouk Singapore. But we had an incredible time. Thumbs up to Vietnam’s nightlife!
Tip: No shorts and flip flops are allowed.
Address: 26/27th Floor Rooftop, AB Tower, 76A Le Lai, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Sunday | Day 2
Ben Tanh Market – Skip it if you dread touters & tourist traps
Ben Tanh Market is a huge indoor marketplace selling almost everything – bags, clothes, food, handicraft… You name it you got it. However, most vendors were aggressive and unfriendly, definitely not a situation you want to put yourself in. We are not returning.
Tip: Most prices are marked up so you can even try to haggle up to 70% off.
Address: Lê Lợi, Bến Thành, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Dac San – Foodies should try the dish Bun Mam
Located across Ben Tanh market, this local Vietnamese store caught our eye with its local crowd despite its touristy location. P.s. I can’t find its website but the address is below and in the image above. We ordered bowls of Bun Mam (VN$65,000 / US$3 each) and Vietnamese spring rolls.
The broth is made with fermented fish-shrimp paste, served with pork, chilli, vegetables and whatnot. We will be honest that we struggled to finish the overwhelmingly flavourful dish – sweet, sour, fishy, porky and spicy all in a bowl. It was nonetheless worth a try.
Address: 22 Phan Bội Châu, Bến Thành, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Central Post Office – Duong Van Ngo is what people go there for
We walked towards The Central Post Office, which is impossible to miss due to its prominent architecture. The Central Post Office is a famous tourist attraction but still serves the local community with its mailing and translation services. ATMs can be found inside their telephone booths and there honestly isn’t much to do after taking a walk around it and visiting the souvenir store.
Our only regret is that I did not see Duong Van Ngo, Ho Chi Minh’s last pubic writer who is fluent in Vietnamese, French and English. The 80-year-old man apparently works from Monday to Thursday, providing assistance to those who need help in translating their letters to be sent abroad. And he has been doing this meaningful job passionately for several decades.
Tip: If you have limited time for sight seeing, give this a miss and visit the Cu Chi tunnels.
Address: 2 Cong Xa Paris, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Notre Dame Cathedral – Paled greatly in comparison to the original
Notre Dame Basilica Cathedral is a stone’s throw away from the Central Post Office. It has been listed as a mandatory destination in every guide we have chanced upon and we beg to differ. We weren’t granted access into the Cathedral and the building did not meet our expectations. However, architects and historians may have more reasons than us to appreciate its neoclassical architecture and history.
Address: Bến Nghé, tp. District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Dhong Khoi Street – home to many global brands and local boutiques
We wandered down Dhong Khoi Street which was lined with boutique shops and international high end brands such as Louis Vuitton. The walking street was bustling with life and we ended up at L’usine, a relatively ‘hidden’ but popular cafe. We had to walk through a shabby walkway and stairwell before arriving this cozy quaint cafe. It was a great place to chill; we quenched our thirst with fresh watermelon juices and tapped on their free wifi. P.s. Virtually every cafe in Ho Chi Minh has free wifi!
Saigon Opera House is located on the left of Dhong Koi Street but entrance is only allowed to those who have tickets to a show. We ended up loitering around its vicinity and marvelling at the French architecture that were erected in the 19th century.
L’UISINE: 151 Đồng Khởi, Bến Nghé, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Saigon Opera House: 7 Lam Son Square, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Pho 24 – akin to Vietnamese fast food restaurants
We had lunch at Pho 24, which was like a Vietnamese ‘Mac Donalds’. There are many outlets across Ho Chi Minh and is a great alternative for those who dare not have street food. We had both pho and broken rice, which were pretty average in my opinion.
Tip: Free wifi available at Pho 24 too! I was really amazed by the abundance of free wifi.
Address: 71 – 73 Dong Khoi St., District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Saigon Square – slashed prices up for grabs if you would haggle
We shopped at Saigon Square and its surrounding area, where we bought a dress and a camera tripod at heavily discounted prices. If you are a shopaholic and cannot resist the idea of shopping, head to Saigon Square instead of Ben Thanh Market for retail therapy. It’s air conditioned and the items sold here are way better and cheaper. Do bargain for your goods and should you fail to get at an ideal price, just walk down the aisle as many shops are selling the same stuff.
Tip: Many shops sell the same things so explore your options before making a purchase.
Address: 77 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Com Nieu Saigon – watch waiters skilfully throw hot rice at each other
Dinner was at Com Nieu Saigon restaurant, where it is most well known for its baked clay pot rice. Com Nieu Saigon became even more popular after Anthony Bourdain’s visit several years ago.
The waiters put on a brilliant performance every night – hammering the clay and then skilfully throwing piping hot rice at each other. The clay pot rice was crispy on the outside, way too chewy on the inside and sadly, difficult to swallow. The other dishes were interesting but failed to impress.
Tip: While the experience was entertaining, it’s the food from Cuc Gach Qaun that we prefer.
Address: 59 Ho Xuan Huong St., District 3, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Eon51 – Tallest bar in Ho Chi Minh
We were tempted to return to Chill Sky Bar for drinks but we decided to pay Eon51 a visit. The bar-cum-restaurant is located at the 51st floor of Bitexco Tower which is two levels above the public Observatory Sky Deck. You would have to pay VN$200,000 / US$9 to enter the Observatory Sky Deck, which makes no sense when you can visit Eon51 (no entrance fee is required) and enjoy the same view with a cocktail in hand. Prices are steep but what you are paying for is a fine dining ambience at the highest restaurant in Ho Chi Minh with a view.
Having visited both Eon51 and Chill Sky Bar, the latter is undoubtedly the winner for a great night out.
Tip: Eon51’s glass windows are dotted and hence not ideal for cityscape photography
Address: 50/51 Floor, Bitexco Financial Tower, 2 Hải Triều, Bến Nghé, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam
Day 3 | Monday
Cu Chi – Crawl through narrow pitch black tunnels and fire a rifle
We were back at the Central Post Office at 7.30am to meet our day tour guide from Urban Adventures. We have booked a day tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels at US$43 per pax which included transportation to the village, tunnels and back to the city. However, meals are not included in the 5.5-hour journey so do grab an early breakfast if necessary.
Our first stop was Cu Chi village, where we we were introduced to the traditional livelihoods of rural Vietnamese civilians. A local demonstrated rice paper making (you are also given the hands-on opportunity to make one), brought us around her rubber plantation and pigsty.
We headed to Cu Chi Tunnels next where we learnt more about the impressive complex underground passage built by the Viet Cong and their supporters. The tunnels were built with barehands and simple equipments over a span of 20+ years. These tunnels managed to house entire villages and defended the villagers from American attacks.
However, around 45,000 Vietnamese unsung heroes have died whilst defending the Cu Chi Tunnels. The tunnels also contained vicious booby traps that resulted in instant deaths to prevent intruders. The traps were genius but also a haunting reminder that many have suffered brutal deaths.
We were allowed to crawl through the tunnels in complete darkness and it was a difficult task for those with bigger physiques. The tunnels have been enlarged to allow tourists to climb through but claustrophobes should still avoid it. It is shocking that many Vietnamese actually lived underground for years with poor ventilation and amenities. But their tenacity to survive the attacks is remarkable – they even built hospitals, theatres and schools underground! The tunnels span across 250KM wide and 9 meters deep.
There was a point where we were are allowed to jump into a rather deep hole to snap pictures. I dived right in happily but had no arm strength to propel myself out. After a futile struggle, others had to lift me up. It was so embarrassing!
Another highlight at Cu Chi would be the shooting range where you are allowed to choose from a range of weapons – AK47, M16, 30 cal machine gun etc. I chose the M16 rifle and paid VN$35,000 / US$1.60 for each bullet. We were given ear muffs to minimise the terrifyingly loud shooting noise.
A guide is present throughout the entire procedure to ensure safety. Shooting a rifle is no easy feat. Make sure the back of shotgun is tightly seated in your shoulder. Wrong positioning will injure one’s shoulder as the gun bounces back automatically after a shot is launched.
Tips: Make sure you are comfortably dressed in attire that is fit for outdoors. A guided tour is strongly recommended for this activity as these tour guides are locals themselves who can educate you about their culture and history. The shooting range can be accessed without having to go to the tunnels.
Com Tam Thuan Kieu – Top it with crab patty this time
We asked our day tour guide for broken rice recommendations and he very kindly took us to a local eatery called Com Tam Thuan Kieu. There were many ingredients to choose from to add to our broken rice. We decided to have crab patty on top of the usual grilled pork and chicken.
For first timers, broken rice is a lower grade of rice that has been fractured by milling. In the past, rural farmers ate the rice but today, it is a popular dish in Ho Chi Minh. Broken rice is typically served with a runny egg, grilled pork and a delicious tangy mixed fish sauce (also known as Nước chấm) on the side.
There is no fixed recipe as many variations of the broken rice dish can be found across Ho Chi Minh.
Address: 24 – 26 Ton That Tung, Ben Tanh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Phuc Long – Excellent drinks that local Vietnamese queue for
We started giggling when we chanced upon Phuc Long. It sounded very much like fuck but we soon forgot about the joke whilst sipping on their iced milk tea (VN$30,000 / US$1.40) and hot Vietnamese rich milk coffee (VN$25,000 / US$1.20). We liked the drinks so much that we visited it thrice over the weekend.
Phuc Long has a chain of stores across Ho Chi Minh but the quality of its beverages remains top-notch. The brand has been around since 1968! It is often packed and Vietnamese students make up the bulk of the crowd. Phuc Long also sells an assortment of packaged coffee beans and tea leaves that make great souvenirs.
Address: Ly Tu Trong Road, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | 63 Mac Thi Buoi, District 1 Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Grand Silverland Hotel & Spa – One of the grandest in its vicinity
We stayed in an Executive Room at Grand Silverland Hotel & Spa, a 4-star hotel in District 1 and paid about VN$4,556,315 / US$215 for two nights. It isn’t a lot when compared to Western global cities but our Vietnamese friend and other travellers said that we could have paid way lesser for other hotel accommodation in the same area (but less fancy).
If you observe the other hotels in the same area, you will realise that Grand Silverland Hotel & Spa has a significantly posher and larger lobby than the neighbouring hotels. Free wifi is available throughout the hotel building. Upon check-in, we were greeted with welcome drinks, fruits, desserts, a signed welcome card and a free 45-minute foot massage voucher. Our spacious 34m² hotel room including the en-suite bathroom was spotless. The top level boasts a cozy rooftop pool overlooking the city, while the in-house spa and mini golf course are located on the 7th floor.
We visited their in-house spa, KL Spa twice in a weekend! Book their private room where you get to retreat into their private jacuzzi after a relaxing full body massage. The private room is also fully equipped with shower and toilet facilities.
Their 24/7 room service were life savers when hunger pangs struck us at unearthly hours. The concierge was also very helpful in arranging taxis for us whenever we needed one. Every staff member was friendly and eager to help despite the occasional struggle to converse in English.
Address: 125 Lý Tự Trọng, Bến Thành, District 1, Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam
The above pretty much sums up my weekend trip to Ho Chi Minh. I actually had ample of time, despite the seemingly hectic schedule. I was a busy marketing executive then, hence I sought solace in the hotel’s in-house spa TWICE! Ho Chi Minh is only approximately a 90-minute plane ride away from Singapore. The trip satisfied my gourmet craving and curiosity for Vietnam’s history at a very affordable price. It was a pity that I did not have time to visit the Mekong Delta. I know I will be back and I hope this guide was useful to those who are planning a trip there.
You can also download the free itinerary in pdf document here and word document here. Feel free to tweak it to your own preferences.
Below is a map of all the places we have visited during our trip:
Disclaimer: We embarked on this weekend trip to Ho Chi Minh in late September 2014 and are not liable for any inaccuracies. Do email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you spot any outdated information.