For most travelers, 72 hours is enough in crazy Saigon. The traffic is lethal, the chaos is incredible and the weather is stinking hot. Many who travel to Vietnam are overwhelmed by one of Southeast Asia’s most bustling cities, and with rustic Hanoi, romantic Hoi An and the lazy beaches of Nha Trang beckoning, most tourists just want to move on.
But what if I told you that Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s metropolis of commercial promise, could be the best part of your trip?
There are just so many interesting things to do here in 72 hours. I’m talking about a plethora of delicious street food from all over Vietnam, rich, sweet coffee on every street corner and a huge range of markets, malls and shopping centers with luxurious international brands at one end and ridiculous bargains at the other. Rent a motorbike or journey on foot, and get lost among Ho Chi Minh’s winding alleyways. Wander along one of the many canals and sample a tray of bap xao, or make the most of Vietnam’s best bars, clubs and street nightlife in a city that never sleeps.
Talk with people, smile, interact, and you could find yourself belting drunken karaoke with a Ho Chi Minh banker, nibbling rice paper pancakes with that lady from the park, or touring around the city on the back of a local student’s motorbike.
Maybe you’ll invest in your own motorbike, fall in love with the freedom of it all, and end up an expat! Honestly, if you do it right a few days in Ho Chi Minh City can easily turn into a few weeks - embrace the chaos, and I bet you won’t want to leave.
But that isn’t really the purpose of this article. We’re not talking months or years here, no. We’re talking a matter of hours.
And so, after much thought, many tearful exclusions and the addition of 10 great street-snacks (make sure you scroll right down for these delicious nibblies!), I give you Saigon in 72 Hours.
Things to do in Ho Chi Minh City on Day 1:
From the Airport to the Hotel
Arrive, survive your first insane taxi ride, and settle into your accommodation. Look for the official taxi stand at arrivals rather than hopping in with one of the many touts that line the bay, since the touts will demand upwards of VND 300,000 to District 1 while the metered taxis tend to charge half the price. Just a heads up.
Breakfast: If you’ve not yet had breakfast maybe your hostel offers it! Many of Saigon’s hotels, hostels and guesthouses offer free breakfast and sometimes even a free beer included with your stay - just ask TripAdvisor. Otherwise check out my top tip for Saigon’s best snacks at the bottom of this post for something to nibble on until lunch time.
Sightseeing in District 1
Once you’re out of that crazy taxi, take a few moments to stow your luggage and all those important things that every traveller should guard with their life: passport, smartphone, credit cards and most of your cash. If you brought a hair straightener you are now the secret envy of all your female dorm buddies, so maybe chuck that in with the passport too.
The next step for all Ho Chi Minh City initiates is to get out and explore! The air will definitely be hot and the sun intense, but isn’t that why you went on holiday in the first place? If you are staying in District 1, which you probably are, I would suggest a morning of backpacker hotspot exploration. In other words, hit the streets.
Sample a smoothie at the popular alleyway enclave Five Boys Number One, at 84 Bui Vien Street, “buy something” from one of those women with gaudy trays of plastic things you don’t want, or embrace your inner tourist and take photos of EVERYTHING. Why not? You’re on holiday.
Touring the city on a cyclo is a one of the top things to do in Saigon
Lunch:Today’s lunch will be on-the-go. Try a banh mi for VND 15,000 (one of those delicious bread roll sandwiches that are literally everywhere in the city) or a banh bao for VND 10,000 (a sticky dumpling filled with pork meat and often an egg or two. Purple dumplings are sweet inside instead, and green are just dough.
There is a bakery on Đỗ Quang Đẩu Street, District 1 which sells vegetarian savory banh bao - just ask the lady who sells them). Nibble your meal with your smoothie, or take it to the 23/9 park to enjoy under the shade of a tree.
Your own Ho Chi Minh City Walking Tour
Having filled yourself with foodie goodness, stand up and move your feet a bit. Go on your own walking tour. Here is a list of things you could walk to or wander past in District 1 on your first day, and each one could either be ticked-off in ten minutes of drawn-out for 2 hours - it all depends on you. I personally recommend “The Local” option.
The Tourist: Visit famous Ben Thanh Market and the Vietnamese shopping mall Saigon Square, District 1, for some excellent deals, hard-won bargains and fascinating people-watching. Squat at a street-bar on the one of the best backpacker strips in Southeast Asia, Bui Vien, and guzzle 50c beer with your friends.
Ride in a cyclo and admire Ho Chi Minh City from the comfort of your own moving arm-chair, or sit down to some famous Pho on the corner of Phạm Ngũ Lão Street and Đỗ Quang Đẩu Street.
Ben Thanh Market
The local: Meet some great local people at 23/9 Park, District 1, or experience the local way of life with a stroll to the Co-Op supermarket on Cống Quỳnh Street nearby, a coffee with Saigon’s student population at one of our favourite secret cafes, or a meander down the chaotic Nguyễn Thượng Hiền, District 3. This street is one of my favourites for people-watching, and is jam packed with street-foods, boutique clothes shops, tradesmen and little Vietnamese houses.
Try Cho Lon Market, District 5, for a more traditional Vietnamese market experience, or take a Xe Om to Đoàn Văn Bơ Street in District 4 in the evening and marvel at its colorful flan, weird meaty pancakes and delicious soups. Be careful with your things as District 4 is known for its thieves and pickpockets.
The High-Life: The rich, manicured and silk-clad segment of Saigon’s population tend to hang out in certain places around the city. Head over to the city’s famous Opera House and walk the streets surrounding it. Admire the plethora of international brands, pristine glass windows and tall, stone buildings towering over you, and wind up at the high-end coffee shop The Workshop on Ngô Đức Kế, District 1 to sample some of their finely tuned coffee specialities. I recommend the Aeropress with their freshly ground Dalat beans.
Dinner: You had a picnic lunch, right? So why not splash out for dinner. Saigon’s backpacker area doesn’t have much to offer in the way of class, but there are many delicious joints along the main strip Bui Vien which sell reasonably priced and tasty food. Meals on the strip tend to cost between VND 30,000 and VND 100,000 a plate.
We interviewed the owner of the Five Oysters at 234 Bùi Viện about how to own and run a successful business on one of the top backpacker strips in Southeast Asia - check it out here, and go and sample some of his yummy Vietnamese dishes!
Hit the Strip
After dinner Saigon turns into a world of wonders, and tonight is a party night. As I mentioned before, this city never sleeps, and the backpacker district especially is packed with bars, clubs, street-side beer joints, live music and karaoke.
Your options are endless. I seriously recommend hitting the tourist strip at least once during your time in Saigon - there's a reason its one of the top backpacker strips in Southeast Asia!
In fact most tourists will stay around the center of the town, but there are many more sides to Ho Chi Minh City’s nightlife. I have a few suggestions here, and for the best of Saigon after hours make sure you look at our post on The Best Bars in Ho Chi Minh.
Broma, Not a Bar (41 Nguyen Hue, District 1): This bar is hard to find, atmospheric, full of interesting people, and confusingly named. So in other words it’s totally up my street. Broma, Not a Bar also sells delicious tea and shisha, and has a wonderful open mic night on tuesdays.
Acoustic Bar (6e1 Ngo Thoi Nhiem, District 3): The live music hub of Ho Chi Minh, and home to all the most authentic of Saigon musos. Beer here is an astonishing VND 100,000 but the excellent local bands, quality Beatles covers and a room full of smiling music-lovers will make it all worth it.
Be a hobo (23/9 park, District 1, with a bottle of beer and a bag of peanuts): Skint? Not a fan of bars, people and being mainstream? Well why not buy a few cans of Saigon Special and a packet of peanuts and hit the local park. If you’re feeling local replace those peanuts with some dried meat or green mango with salt.
So there is Day 1! Tired? Well drink some more coffee, get some sleep and prepare yourself for Day 2...so much to see.
Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City on Day 2
Breakfast: There are many women who sell Banh Uot in Ho Chi minh’s streets of a morning, but there is only one super amazing woman in this whole city who sells banh uot, happily pretends to understand my awful Vietnamese, and tailors her dish to my tastes. And where is this woman? Opposite the hospital on Pham Viet Chanh in District 1. Trust me, she is amazing.
That being said, search for the delicious words “Banh Uot” pretty much anywhere around Saigon in the morning, and you will find them. I would describe the dish as flat, wide strips of rice noodle nestled in a tangy sauce and covered with Vietnamese herbs, lettuce, bean sprouts and roasted garlic. There is optional chilli, and the dish comes with an assortment of Vietnamese sausages. Yum! It’s about VND 15,000 for a plate.
The next stop on today’s itinerary is a bit of a pampering session at the cutest little coffee and cake shop in all of saigon. The 1985 Cafe, at 223/2K Pham Viet Chanh, is a bizarre mix of Japanese tea, French cakes, Italian coffee and other Vietnamese creations. They bring you iced tea and little cookies with every drink, and most of your fellow patrons will be young Vietnamese couples, university students and groups of selfie-obsessed women. Take a break from crazy Saigon and enter this totally random world of fluffy cakes for a couple of hours. Street coffee in Saigon is also good - famous among travellers for its rocket-fuel potency and delicious rich taste. I recommend you try some before you leave.
Traditional Ho Chi Minh City Market
Having calmed yourself with cake it’s now time to plunge into traditional Vietnamese chaos at Chợ Lớn Market, District 5. Chợ Lớn literally means “Big Market”, which is a very good name for this vast metropolis of tradesmanship, wholesale commerce, incense and rustic clamor. Take a xe om or a nice, clean taxi to the heart of District 5, known also as Chinatown, and get lost in its strange clash of Vietnamese and Chinese culture.
Cho Lon Market
Lunch: One of the heartiest meals in Saigon is Cơm tấm - literally “broken rice”. Sit down at a street stall with the words “Cơm tấm” on it, and select your own preference from the range of fish, meat, vegetable and egg toppings available. I recommend that weird egg-loaf looking thing, which is in fact made from a mixture of pork bits, noodle bits and egg. I’m not really selling this am I… The dish usually comes with soup, and you can choose from a range of condiments including soy sauce, fresh lime, chilli and fish sauce.
Facial, manicure or massage
After a day of non-stop adventuring, a few hours to unwind at one of Saigon’s many spas will probably come as a serious relief. Relax, kick back and let someone pamper your poor tired feet with that pedicure you’re always putting off, wipe of the city grime with a cleansing facial, or let out the stress with a shoulder massage. When you’re fully revived, return to your hotel quick, and get ready for an evening of local Saigon nightlife.
One of the best methods to experiencing local nightlife in Saigon is to get local. To meet with, befriend and hang out with local people, and then join them in an evening of beer, seafood and usually the odd snail.
As I mentioned earlier, a great way to do this is to loiter in the park that runs along Phạm Ngũ Lão Street - 23/9 Park. Students come here to talk with foreigners and improve their English. Chat with some of these friendly people, bond, and soon you’ll probably find yourself at a local grill, surrounded by Vietnamese, laughing at everything and drinking beer from a straw!
Relaxing spa atmosphere in Saigon
Dinner: If you haven’t already been whisked off by a friendly local student, there’s a place on Bui Vien that you have got to try. Trust me.
Opposite number 145 Bui Vien, District 1, check out the Vietnamese BBQ and beer joint that spills out onto the sidewalk, smelling of gently roasting chicken. Tonight, pull up a cheap plastic chair at this joint and order some beef kebab sticks, grilled okra or Vietnamese sausage, washed down with a nice bottle of icy cold beer. Watch fire eaters and street dancers perform in front of you, and immerse yourself in the tourist-meets-local mess that is Bùi Viện.
If you’re feeling super adventurous why not sample some chicken gizzard or a chicken foot? Better yet, ask for vịt lộn and dig into Vietnam’s famous chicken fetus egg. I have actually come to love this weird type of egg, and it is regarded across Vietnam as a delicacy - it’s definitely a must try!
Grilled Chicken Feet
Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City on Day 3
Breakfast: For breakfast today, get onto the backpacker strip Bùi Viện. Here, near the corner of Bùi Viện and Đỗ Quang Đẩu, there are a number of street vendors selling weird and wonderful things. Directly opposite Đỗ Quang Đẩu, a woman squats with a small table of minced pork and fresh herbs, which she will combine with delicious noodles or soft steamed bread and sweet chilli sauce. A little way down Bùi Viện a woman sells delicious fried Vietnamese pancakes, stuffed full of bean sprouts and herbs, crispy and hot.
Relax by the pool
After breakfast, grab your bikini, hail a xe om and direct him to the Van Thanh Pool in 48/10 Điện Biên Phủ, Bình Thạnh District for a morning of resort style sunbathing. This pool is one of many swimming pools in Ho Chi Minh City, and it is my favourite. For a tiny VND 60,000 you can spend as long as you like on the pool-side, nestled under an umbrella with a good book or splashing in the quiet blue water in front of your deckchair. It’s such a strange break from Saigon - in the middle of some exquisite tranquil gardens, and well off the main road. Bring your own food or drinks as eating here is expensive, and make sure you slip-slop-slap!
Lunch: On the way back from the pool, ask your driver to drive via Nguyễn Đình Chiểu in District 3. Near the intersection of Nguyễn Đình Chiểu and Pasteur Street there are a number of art shops which sell an incredible amount of crepe paper, ancient Chinese pastels, beautiful sketch-pads and a maze of exotic pens. There are also some interesting street-food options here, most of which are very cheap since they cater to students and workers in the local area. Try some vegetarian noodles or banh mi thit!
Museums and monuments
An unavoidable must see for all tourists who visit Ho Chi Minh City is the War Museum, and that is what you will do this afternoon. If you miss out on seeing the War Remnants Museum, you’re actually missing out on a key part of Vietnam’s past. The Vietnam War is no hiccup in history - the repercussions of that horrible period are very much alive today. The War Museum will upset you, but it will inform you too.
Whilst you’re feeling historical, why not wander around Duc Ba church in District 3, visit the lover’s enclave at Turtle Lake and watch couples be coupl-y (this is best in the evening when the lake is lit up from beneath by lovely soft lights), or spend some time at the Independence Palace. Avoid the men selling coconuts since they will definitely overcharge you - a coconut should be no more than VND 10,000! And preferably less.
War Remnants Museum
Dinner: Dinner tonight is a visit to what I like to call “the turning circle food court”. At the corner of Phạm Ngũ Lão and Cống Quỳnh, opposite a busy turning circle, there is a delightful array of food vendors selling a full, 3 course meal between them. Start with some egg-fried corn flour wedges with a lovely salty sauce or some homemade wan-tans with sweet chilli, enjoy a main of hu tieu noodle soup with a selection of toppings including quail egg and pork or bun noodles from the lady on the corner, and wash it all down with a cup of sweet, syrupy goodness filled with water chestnuts and jelly. This corner is your metaphorical oyster.
Finally, to end your 72 hours in Saigon why not visit one of the city’s few 24/hr coffee joints. Heritage Coffee and Clothes at 10 Pasteur, District 1, serves a delicious range of hot and cold drinks with not a drop of alcohol in sight. If you like the sound of a trendy, fairy-light filled coffee shop that also sells unreasonably stylish clothes and spills out onto a quiet street, this is the hangout for you.
If a night-cap is your thing, I recommend buying a bottle of whisky at a nearby Circle-K and combining it with the Heritage’s rich, hot ca phe den. This after-hours grotto also features a spectacularly ugly bulldog. You literally can’t go wrong.
And there you have it! 72 hours in Saigon full of great things to do. But wait, there’s more! Check out my list of Saigon’s Best Snacks - try these, and you may well never want to leave.
Saigon’s Best Snacks:
Bánh tráng trộn - sit down with one of the ladies who carry those two baskets full of miscellaneous foods on pole across their back, and ask for bánh tráng trộn. You will receive a bag of delicious rice paper strips, dried beef, quail eggs, nuts, herbs, and oiled spices mixed before your eyes. You can ask for a vegetarian version, or for her to replace the oil with fresh lime juice.
Bắp xào - This is a little corn-based dish, which you can buy from one of those bicycles that drive around screeching “bắp xào đây”. The dish is made of corn (“bắp”) cooked in warm butter and topped with dried shrimp, herbs and spices, and it makes a great comfort food.
Waffles - Another delicacy carried in two baskets on a pole across a woman’s back, you can smell these waffles from a mile away. Watch the vendor mix and cook your waffle, and nibble on its sweet, hot goodness as you browse the streets.
Củ sắn - A white, root vegetable which you can buy from the baskets of the bánh tráng trộn lady. This tastes a little bit sweet and vaguely milky, and is a very healthy, refreshing snack for those who are thirsty.
Tiny Banh Bao - Hanging from the pole of the above mentioned baskets are an array of biscuits, crackers and other exciting baked goods. One is what looks like a tube of tiny banh bao. These are in fact little sweet cakes, costing only VND 3,000 or 4,000 per tube, and they make an excellent compliment to a bag of bánh tráng trộn.
Fruit - the healthiest, arguably the sweetest and definitely the freshest option for Ho Chi Minh City street snacks is fruit. Make sure you don’t spend more than VND 20,000 for a little box of jackfruit, mango, papaya or watermelon, and enjoy it in the shade. If you’re feeling adventurous try it with some salt, Vietnamese style!
Cakes and pastries - Given its French influence, it is no surprise that Vietnamese cuisine has been inundated by French inspired pastries. Walk along Pham Ngu Lao to find one little street stall selling yummy cream puffs and little sweet pies for an average of VND 3,000 per item. Your stomach will thank me!
Smoothies - The perfect internal air-conditioning. You will have no problem finding a smoothie in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, and a good price is from VND 15,000 to VND 25,000, depending on the size.
Soy milk - Keep a look out for the trucks of soy milk that tend to frequent Saigon’s streets in the mornings. You can buy milk with sugar or without, and it is VND 5,000 per plastic cup. You can have it hot or iced - yum! There is usually a vendor beside 23/9 park on Nguyễn Thị Nghĩa, District 1.
Deep fried doughs - I will never ever be able to avoid buying this, no matter how much my waistline expands. Look out for the carts selling delicious, crispy hot breads that have been deep fried before your eyes, and nibble on their sweet doughy goodness as you thank your lucky stars for all things unhealthy.