24 hours in Saigon
Aromatic bowls of noodle soup, tranquil temples, sobering images of war, uber-cool cafes, grand colonial architecture, tropical parks, and glitzy rooftop bars: you can do a lot in 24 hours in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Going from dirt cheap to high-end chic is part of the fun of this city, and there’s excellent value at both ends. My 24 hour itinerary for this burgeoning, steamy metropolis, peels back the layers so that, even with limited time, Saigon is sure to leave a lasting impression.
See more Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) travel guide at here.
(See the end of this article for Details & Map)
The perfect start; a bowl of phở at Phở Phượng
7.30am | Breakfast in a Bowl
Start the day, as millions of Vietnamese do, with a bowl of phở. This famous beef noodle soup is Vietnam’s national dish. Phở Phượng, located on the leafy banks of the Thi Nghe Channel, has been serving up one of the best broths in the city for over a generation. Cinnamon-scented with a deep, meaty flavour, this phở stands out from the competition. Garnished with fresh herbs, chilli and lime, and accompanied by a glass of iced jasmine tea, it’s the perfect foundation to a great day in Saigon.
Prayers & incense at Jade Emperor Pagoda
8.30am | Gods and Incense
Framed by drooping banyan trees, plagued by pigeons, and wrapped in incense smoke, Jade Emperor Pagoda is a peaceful place of worship, just off one of Saigon’s busiest streets. Inside the temple’s mauve-washed walls, there’s a fantasia of intricate carvings and statues from Taoist and Buddhist mythology. Flickering candles illuminate gods and warriors; shafts of light reveal curling clouds of incense, wafting over dark-wood panels and granite altars. This pagoda will imbue you with a sense of serenity and spiritualism that’s rarely felt in commerce-driven Saigon.
In the line of fire; US military hardware at the War Remnants Museum
9.30am | The Horror
Of all the war ‘sights’ in Saigon, the War Remnants Museum is the most important. It’s one of the few war museums that doesn’t shy away from showing gruesome images of war and the consequences it has on human beings and the natural environment. However, it seems everyone is missing the point these days: many international tourists think of the Vietnam War as a ‘cool war’. They get much more out of posing for photos on military hardware displayed in the gardens than they do from the exhibits inside the museum. And the Vietnamese authorities undermine the impact of the horrific images on the museum’s walls by captioning them with blatant propaganda. The real value of this museum is to communicate the horrors of war, regardless of what your opinion is of this particular conflict.
Time-out in the shade of Tao Dan Park's tall trees
11am | Peace in the Park
With towering tropical trees and benches in the dappled sunlight, Tao Dan Park is the perfect place to find some inner peace after the turmoil displayed at the War Remnants Museum. The dense canopy of trees muffles the sound of traffic and construction from the city. Old men read newspapers while the young gather in groups to practice dance routines.
Grilling pork chops at Cơm Tấm Ba Ghiền
12.30pm | Saigon Special
No trip to Saigon would be complete without trying cơm tấm, Saigon’s favourite dish. Cơm tấm is broken grain rice topped with a grilled, marinated pork chop and other accoutrements. Well worth the 10-15 minute taxi ride from downtown, Cơm Tấm Ba Ghiền is a bustling, smoky, open-sided eatery. With peeling plaster, smoke-stained walls and tissue-strewn floors, people don’t come for the décor: it’s all about the food. Famous for its enormous cuts of pork, the cơm tấm here is deeply satisfying.
1.30pm | Who’s Ho?
Get to know the city’s namesake at this museum dedicated to Uncle Ho. Housed in an attractive customs house from the 1860s, the exhibits here reveal something of the man whose impact on Vietnam is unquantifiable. Like him or loathe him, Ho was an intriguing character. At the age of 21, Ho travelled the world while working on a French vessel, which sailed from this very building, in 1911. He would not return to Vietnam for 30 years, but when he did, it would be to sow the seeds of revolution.
Uber-cool; Things Cafe is hidden in a dilapidated apartment building
2.30pm | Hidden Cafes
An aging apartment block in downtown Saigon hides many a secret café. Bearing the scars and telling the stories of all its 128 years, this dilapidated building is riddled with cool cafes, oozing retro-chic. Things Café is tucked away in a corner on the first floor, behind a yellow wooden door. Tiled floors, antique furniture, rotating ceiling fans, and assorted ‘art student clutter’ make this an atmospheric place to take a time-out from sightseeing. Upstairs, on the 4th floor, Mockingbird Café feels like an invitation-only bar, where university sororities might hold secret meetings. Doubling up as a fashion and photography studio, there’s a cozy little terrace to while away half an hour with a cup of strong Vietnamese iced coffee.
Notre Dame Cathedral bathed in tropical sun
3.30pm | Colonial Amble
Dong Khoi and its intersecting boulevards was the centre of French colonial Saigon. Known to the French as the Rue Catinat, today this tree-shaded street is lined with enticing Vietnamese boutique stores. Take a walk from its east end by the Saigon River to the northern extreme at Notre Dame Cathedral. Drop into a shop or two for some retail therapy and keep an eye open for hidden architectural gems from colonial times.
Take the time to admire the red brick exterior of Notre Dame (1883) and the brightly painted façade of the Central Post Office (1891). Designed by Gustave Eiffel, the post office sports elaborate flourishes on the outside, but inside it’s a cavernous, echoey hall, reminiscent of the great railway terminuses of Europe. Don’t miss the giant maps of Saigon and the Mekong Delta from 1892 and 1936 respectively, painted on the walls just inside the main entrance.
Honey & lime crepe at Le Creperie Cafe
4.30pm | Coffee in the Park
After all that walking, it’s time for a drink and snack to tide you over until dinner. Le Creperie Café is housed in an elegant white villa overlooking the leafy grounds of Liberation Park. Indulge in a French-style sweet crepe, or a delicious cake, and a coffee. Alternatively, do what the local youth do, and take a seat on a sheet of cardboard on the ground, under the tall trees in the park. Known as cà phê bệt (literally ‘coffee on the ground’) this is a favourite way for Saigon’s students to spend the twilight hours.
Top spot; a cocktail on the 52nd floor at Eon Heli Bar
5.30pm | Sky Cocktail
Taking advantage of Saigon’s ever rising skyline, rooftop bars have proliferated in recent years. The ultimate ‘sky cocktail’ is found on the 52nd floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, at the Eon Heli Bar. Also known as the ‘Lotus Building’, on account of its curving layers resembling the overlapping petals of a lotus bud, this is Saigon’s shining new architectural icon of the 21st century. The panoramic views at sunset are stupendous, and this is perhaps the only place where you make some sense of Saigon’s seemingly incoherent sprawl.
Romantic rooftop ambience at Secret Garden Restaurant
7pm | Secret Dining
Down a cluttered alleyway, up a musty staircase, and out onto a rooftop decked with lanterns, wooden tables and chairs, hanging vines, potted plants and billowing drapes: Secret Garden Restaurant is one Saigon’s hidden gems. A casual but sophisticated ambience sets the scene for a romantic, breezy Vietnamese meal, overlooked by the city’s towering high-rises. The menu is a treasure trove of fresh, crisp and colourful dishes from north and south Vietnam. Food is beautifully presented and exceptionally good. Try the steamed, lemongrass-infused, fresh water snails stuffed with minced pork and wood ear mushrooms: ốc bươu nhồi thịt hấp sả.
Lush, comfortable & chic; La Fenetre Soleil
9pm till 6am | Drink, Dance, Drop
Accessed via an elegant, narrow wooden stairwell, La Fenetre Soleil is a chic, high-ceilinged night spot with nightly live music performances. Wooden floorboards, exposed brickwork, cushions and soft lighting add up to a lush ambience. Half price drinks until 7.30pm get things started, but it’s not until around 9pm, when the live music starts, that Saigon’s young and beautiful begin to fill this intimate space. Dancing continues into the humid, tropical night.
When things die down, head to Cargo Bar by the Saigon docks, which regularly hosts international DJs and bands in a large space that was formerly a French colonial warehouse. At 2am, slip across the way to another dockside location housing The Observatory. Here, music and dancing continue close to dawn, but if you’ve still got it in you, the backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao has plenty of ‘dive bars’ that will carry you over to the first light of a new day in Saigon.
Details & Map:
1. Phở Phượng | 25 Hoang Sa, District 1 | 45,000vnđ ($2) a bowl
2. Jade Emperor Pagoda | 73 Mai Thi Luu, District 1 | Entrance: Free
3. War Remnants Museum | 28 Vo Van Tan, District 1 | Entrance: 15,000vnđ ($0.75)
4. Tao Dan Park | Intersection of Nguyen Thi Minh Khai & Truong Dinh, District 1 | Entrance: Free
5. Cơm Tấm Ba Ghiền | 84 Dang Van Ngu, Phu Nhuan District | 35-70,000vnđ ($1.50-$3.50)
6. Ho Chi Minh Museum | 1 Nguyen Tat Thanh, District 4 | Entrance: 10,000vnđ ($0.50)
7. Hidden Cafés Apartment Building | 14 Ton That Dam, District 1 | 40,000vnđ ($2) a coffee
8. Colonial Amble | Dong Khoi Street, District 1 | Free
9. Le Creperie Cafe | 5 Han Thuyen, District 1 | 50-100,000vnđ ($2.50-$5) for coffee & cake
10. Eon Heli Bar | 52nd Floor, Bitexco Financial Tower, 2 Hai Trieu | 150-250,000vnđ ($7-$12) a cocktail
11. Secret Garden Restaurant | Rooftop on alleyway 158 Pasteur Street, District 1 | 50-100,000vnđ ($2.50-$5) per dish
12. Drink, Dance, Drop:
- La Fenetre Soleil | 1st Floor, 44 Ly Tu Trong, District 1
- Cargo Bar | 7 Nguyen Tat Thanh, District 4
- The Observatory | 5 Nguyen Tat Thanh, District 4
- Pham Ngu Lao (Backpacker District) | Pham Ngu Lao, Bui Vien, & De Tham streets, District 1
Article and Photos by Tom Divers. See more Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) travel guide at here.