Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City....but we will call it Saigon because everyone does) surprised the hell out of me. Perhaps it is because I went in with no expectations. Or less than no expectations. I thought I would hate it, which, in my defense, makes complete sense. I spent 3 weeks listening to every person I met who'd already been there say it was awful.
I wanted to skip it, but logistically, it would have been harder to skip Saigon than dip in for 24 hours and leave. So I gave Saigon one of my precious days of travel.
No beating around the bush - Saigon is extremely polarizing and overwhelming. Even the locals agree. Whirring motorbikes, persistent vendors, inverted duck corpses (yep)? It's enough to make your head spin... if you haven't already spent some time in the country.
If you have just arrived in Vietnam for the first time, you will not be prepared for Saigon. End of story. It's the same situation for those who arrive in the north - you cannot be prepared for Hanoi. Both cities are too much for someone in Vietnam (or SEA) for the first timer.
But, after a few weeks in the country, you get used to the speed of life in Vietnam, and the... how do the kids say it? 'No fucks given' attitude of its residents. After that, both Hanoi and Saigon are just big, Vietnamese cities. (same same but different)
I don't like big cities, so I spent 24 hours in Saigon and it was the perfect dose. I suggest the same for others. Unless you're a big city junkie, you can get the idea of the place in one day.
Here we go: 24 hours in Saigon. We will, of course, be getting around via our own two feet. Walking is the best way to see a city. Even if you don't do anything else, walk around. Be sure to bring an umbrella - it tends to rain here.
9:00 AM: BREAKFAST - BROKEN RICE
Start your day with a classic Vietnamese breakfast: cơm tấm, or broken rice. Literally look out for street carts with "cơm tấm" written on them and pick the one that seems to be a favorite with locals. Cơm tấm consists of grains of rice that were damaged during the harvesting process. For a long time, broken rice was impossible to sell and was mostly used as cattle feed... over time it became one of Vietnam's most loved dishes (for humans). Most foreigners won't be able to notice a huge difference in the texture, but apparently they are smaller.
The rice is served with cucumber, tomato, pork, egg, pork skins, scallion, carrots, spicy sauce, and perhaps a few other ingredients, up to the vendor's discretion.
10:00 AM: COFFEE
Iced coffee is the beverage of Saigon. There are coffee shops everywhere, some gigantic chains, others independent cafes. Meander until you find one that seems good and order an "iced white coffee". I have a strict rule against consuming ice in Vietnam, but you just can't go to Saigon and not have an iced coffee.... because of this, pick a place that seems clean. That probably means no street carts, no matter how tempting... to be honest, the only reason I didn't get coffee at street cart is because I absolutely could not read the gigantic menu.
I use this rule to pick a coffee shop - pick the one that mothers of a young child are entering. Those places always serve a lethal brew.
12:00 PM: STREET FOOD LUNCH
The blog Vietnam Coracle is an absolute must for foodies visiting practically any part of Vietnam. This blog features SO many hidden gems, and tips from a dude who has been living in Saigon for nearly a decade. This post has an INTERACTIVE GOOGLE MAP of the best streets for street food in Saigon and what to look out for on each one. I spent 24 hours in the city - I could never compile something like this. I used it to plan my walking routes... I walked several miles for sum of these streets. Pick one near you and find a spot for lunch.
1:00 PM: MUSEUM OF WAR REMNANTS
The Museum of War Remnants is a must visit in Saigon. It is clearly a little dated - it was first opened in 1975 under the title of "Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes," and while the title dropped "US," "Puppet," and "Crimes" in the early 1990s, the inside exhibitions did not change. The exhibitions are one-sided, but being in Vietnam. This is an incredibly powerful place. Bring tissues.
3:00 PM: DECOMPRESS IN A PARK
You might need a little time to think and decompress after the museum. Luckily, there are two really great parks nearby. Parks are the best places to relax and people watch in a city. The 30/4 Park (whose name commemorates the fall of Saigon) and the Tao Đàn Park are perfectly positioned just outside of the War Remnants museum. There will be many street vendors around if you need a mid-afternoon snack. In between the two parks is the Independence Palace. This is the site of the end of the Vietnam war, where Northern army tanks crashed through its gates during the fall of Saigon.
4:00: NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL
Also next to the 30/4 park is the Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon. Bizarrely similar to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the French colonists built this replica in Saigon during the mid to late 19th century. It is a top tourist site because... I mean, come on. It is Notre Dame in Saigon.
6:00 PM: MYSTERY DINNER
I cannot tell you where to get dinner exactly, but I am sure, somewhere near to you, there is a fabulous local restuarant selling a fabulous local dish you will never get the chance to try again. I, for example, stumbled upon a Bánh Canh Cua restaurant- fish soup with VERY thick rice noodles. The place was packed - that is what made me stop in. The experience was unique and while eating dinner alone, I got the chance to observe how locals get their final meal of the day. Find some Pho. Find some com. Find a place where the locals are spilling into the street - that is where you are eating.
7:00 PM: POST DINNER COFFEE
Time to get your energy up before attacking the night! You can wander around finding another cute cafe (they are everywhere), or you could head north of the city a bit, which I suggest! Once again, the Vietnam Coracle hits it out the park with a guide (with map) of the "cafe quarter" in Saigon. I LOVED this area. It was much quieter, and I didn't see any other tourists. I spent about an hour or two in Mộc Hi-end Cafe, the original trendy cafe in this area. It was FAR AND AWAY the most peaceful cafe I have EVER been to. Dim light, soft music... everyone speaks in whispers. I felt galaxies away from the buzz of Saigon. If you had another day in Saigon I think it would be great to do a caffeine crawl through this part of town using the Vietnam Coracle guide.
8:00PM: ROOFTOP DRINKS
A view while getting buzzed.... sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Everyone I spoke to in Saigon got rooftop drinks at one point or another. It has become the unspoken thing to do in Saigon, and I will happily get behind this. There are many, many rooftop bars. I saw (and heard) dozens as I explored the city, and I am sure you will too. If you don't want to leave it up to chance, vietnam-guide.com made a "top 10" list here.
For me, no evening is complete without dessert. That is not even a weird idiom I am just saying. I truly believe that. Guess where I think you should get dessert? From a cart on the street! No shocker there! I stumbled upon a Banh Tieu cart - a hollow Vietnamese donut covered in sesame seeds, and it might have been the highlight of my entire day. If you are lucky enough to find out of these (or smart enough to seek one out), be sure to get a couple - I regretted only getting one almost instantly
10:30 - ????: NIGHTLIFE
There are many clubs and bars in Saigon. I, unfortunately, don't know much about them. Vietnam-guide.com has another great list here. What I can tell you about is the backpackers street. This is a block that looks a bit like Times Square + Vegas + A LOT OF VIETNAM. I normally avoid places like this at all cost. However, because there are SO many bars competing to get people through the door, the deals are unreal.... things like "two free shots for entering," or "buy one, get two beers." These are the type of places where you can even negotiate your deals. Everyone wants to sit on the street and not in the indoor/upstairs seating, so if you agree to go upstairs, you can negotiate a gift for doing so. You can pretty much negotiate any deal. They just want you to come inside.
For more information on Saigon or really anywhere in Vietnam, I highly highly highly recommend the Vietnam Coracle.
Remember to breath, and enjoy your time in Saigon!
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