Lots to do and plenty to eat.
Published/Last edited or updated: 10th September, 2017
With the every-growing options for budget flights in Southeast Asia, jetting off for a weekend has never been easier. And with a bit of planning, Saigon can be a terrific getaway.
This trip is based around a Friday late afternoon arrival and a Sunday evening departure, or in other words, two nights and two days in Vietnam’s most populous city. Of course, this itinerary can be done any day of the week and the more days the better. You can easily fill a week exploring Saigon and the outlying areas.
If skipping in from another country on a low-cost flight, look to book well in advance as this is the best chance of snagging the low fares. AirAsia, Jetstar, Scoot, VietJet Air and Nok Air all offer cheap flights into Ho Chi Minh City, with the bulk of these coming in from Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Keep an eye out for special deals from long-haul carriers that are allowed to drop off on the short-hop.
Check for up to date visa requirements as Vietnam changes its visa rules with regularity. As of 2017, some nationalities from select Asian, Nordic and European countries get a visa exemption for stays under 15 days—perfect for the weekend getaway. For most nationalities however, you will need a visa for Vietnam, available at Vietnamese consulates and embassies around the world.
Another option is to get a visa approval letter through an online service. Obtaining this government document allows the person to fly into Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport and pick up the Vietnam visa on arrival at the airport. There are many agencies offering this service. We’ve used https://www.vietnam-visa.com/ and https://www.myvietnamvisa.com several times and the service was seamless and straightforward. Fill out the online form, pay the fee (for the service, not the visa itself) and you will receive the letter and instructions on what to present at the airport. Once at the visa on arrival desk, there’s another form to fill, make payment in US dollars for the visa stamp and a wait, taking anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour—the wait is the drawback to this method.
If you’re already travelling hopefully you have insurance. If you don’t, get it. We recommend World Nomads. Ho Chi Minh City is a frenetic metropolis, you’re unaccustomed to it and stuff happens. We’ve met travellers who have been sideswiped by a car and another who was in a motorbike accident. We saw a snatch and grab where a tourist lost a digital SLR. Insurance is one of those things you hope you never have to use, but when do, you’re mighty glad you have it.
If you are travelling on a tight budget and are somewhat flexible with your standards, there is no need to book a bed in advance in Saigon. Head to Pham Ngu Lao, Vietnam’s version of Khao San Road. This backpacker hub has alleys running off its main streets Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien that are packed with hostels offering air-con dorms for US$6-8—we list several good ones in our Saigon accommodation guide. Try alleys 373, 283 and 241 Pham Ngu Lao to start. Most of these budget places are online so those with limited time may want to book ahead so they can arrive, throw down their bag and get going.
However, if you want a private room in a hostel or guesthouse, book in advance. These budget rooms seem to hit the sweet spot with travellers in want of privacy and their own bathroom, unwilling to spend over US$25. Need more comfort? Pham Ngu Lao isn’t just for backpackers anymore. The neighbourhood now has a few boutique hotels at the $US50-100 range.
For anything mid-range or above, booking in advance can be worthwhile as there’s good deals to be had online. In fact, when walking into a hotel, more often than not the receptionist can only offer the regular rate despite the same room being discounted on an online booking site. Advanced booking is also convenient if looking to arrange airport pick up.
Ignore the taxi booths inside the arrivals terminal. Outside the building is an informal taxi stand and you can choose whatever taxi company. Only use the following two companies: Vinasun (white and green) or Mai Linh (green). Avoid all others, even if it means waiting and ignoring people insisting you must take their taxi because it’s at the front. A meter taxi trip to District 1 will cost around 150,000 dong to 180,000 dong and take as quick as 20 minutes, more realistically taking 45-60 minutes.
Of course there are many more transport options; meter taxi is straightforward and efficient.
So that’s the logistics. Now the fun.
After settling into the accommodation, it’s time to eat and trying to cram in all those good eats will be the challenging part of a two-day trip. In oversimplified terms, Vietnam has two modes of eating: streetfood/streetside or restaurants. We’ll be incorporating each into the itinerary to give a sampler of both. Do read our street food and local eats primer for a crash course because we’re getting right into it.
If you’re in Pham Ngu Lao, you are about 500 m from Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, a banh mi shop that has locals and tourists alike lining up. Treat this hearty baguette sandwich as a big snack or a meal.
Time to experience nightlife Pham Ngu Lao style. Bui Vien Street, one of the backpacker hub’s main streets, will be buzzing on a Friday night. Once known as “the foreigner’s street” notorious for massage parlours and bad hangovers, Bui Vien now sees a more diverse mix with coffee shops and Saigonese heading here in the evenings to hang out, eat and socialise. Things have become slightly more civilised compared to days of yore.
Don’t despair, there’s still plenty of shenanigans to be had. Anchoring the intersection of De Tham and Bui Vien are the landmark Crazy Buffalo Bar and Go 2 Bar, where bad music and large Saigon beer are paired with prime people watching. Or head to 102 Bui Vien, a hole in the wall shop around since the 90s, selling fresh brewed draught beer bia hoi. To really let loose, The Hideout Hostel on Pham Ngu Lao has a late night pub crawl every day but Sunday.
Cocktail lovers will probably have a hard time getting a good one in this area. Head 500 m north to The Gin House for an upscale tipple. Further afield, try Anan Saigon’s rooftop bar, The Alley or Layla Eatery & Bar. Local Saigon Beer, La Rue or 333 not cutting it for you? Hit up one of Saigon’s many craft beer bars including Pasteur Street Brewery, Heart of Darkness or Winking Seal.
Pham Ngu Lao has the bulk of the city’s good budget accommodation to rest your head but the nightlife atmosphere may not be for everyone. An alternate people watching option is to head to Nguyen Hue Walking Street. Take a long stroll, hang out with locals and tourists and watch kids delight in the water feature-turned-splash pad.
District 1 is Ho Chi Minh City’s centre and this is where the bulk of the historic attractions, museums, galleries and parks are found. A fit person could tackle them on foot but taxi, cyclo, traditional xe om or motorbike taxi via Uber or Grab certainly speeds things along when the feet start to protest.
Of course, a good breakfast is required to help get through the day so get thee to pho. There’s so many pho shops to choose from. Based on location close to Pham Ngu Lao, a good one is Pho Hung 900 m away, or right on the corner of Pham Ngu Lao, Pho Quynh will do the trick. However, some of our favourites like Pho Mien Ga Ky Dong, Pho Hoa Pasteur or Pho Bo Phu Gia are a bit further away and we think they are worth hopping on a xe om for.
Hopefully you didn’t have too late a night because it’s best to hit Reunification Palace or the War Remnants Museum first thing, to beat the crowds and the heat. Both are within 600 m of each other, the footpath shaded by enormous trees. War Remnants is open all day while Reunification Palace shuts down for lunch between 11:00 and 13:00. Each will take around an hour.
From the front gate of Reunification Palace, it’s 300 m straight ahead on Han Thuyen St to Notre Dame Church and Saigon Central Post Office. As of 2017, Notre Dame is closed to visitors due to renovations. In any case, the Saigon landmark was always best appreciated from the outside. It’s business as usual at the post office, an architectural treasure that still deals with that ancient art of un-electronic mail.
It’s definitely time for a meal or at least a refreshment. A block west of the church, at the corner of Han Thuyen and Pasteur St is Propaganda Restaurant, where favourite local eats have been given the restaurant treatment. Enjoy scrumptious bun thit nuong in the funky air-con dining room or on the front terrace which overlooks the park. Another option is to head 250 m south on Pasteur to Secret Garden Restaurant, a rooftop restaurant set in a derelict old apartment block. Tasty Vietnamese dishes are served with a view over the mishmash of old and new Saigon.
Mere steps south, diagonally across the intersection with Ly Tu Trong, is the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, more interesting for the building than the contents. With this area, you are now getting into the French colonial heart of Saigon. Before it was a museum about the city’s development, Gia Long Palace, as it is commonly known as, was used for many purposes including as the Lieutenant Governor’s residence and South Vietnam’s presidential residence and office. A visit can be as quick as 15-minutes of creeping around its eerie corners or longer to look at the displays.
A block east along Le Thanh Ton is the top of Nguyen Hue walking street, a broad boulevard that sweeps from the impressively grand Saigon City Hall, now known as the People’s Committee Building, all the way down to the river. You may have already been here last night but now the details of the historic buildings like the Rex Hotel can be seen. Take a photo with the statue of “Uncle Ho” and photo bomb the wedding photo shoots happening all over the square.
It may well be time for a break but if you can soldier on for another block, one street east is Dong Khoi, formerly Rue Catinat, the oft mentioned street in The Quiet American. Lam Son Square has three historic buildings to snap pics of from the outside: Hotel Continental, Saigon Opera House and Caravelle Hotel.
Head back to your hotel for a little break and to prepare for the 18:00 pick up for Back of the Bike’s Street Food Tour, a delightful way to experience Saigon’s manic traffic and many good eats while getting to know more about Vietnamese culture.
Is it the last day already? Today is a choose your own adventure book. Pick according to your interests.
As we’ve outlined in our One Day in Cholon guide, a ramble through the city’s characterful Chinatown gets visitors out of the neat world of District 1 and into the maze of back alleys and markets of Districts 5 and 6. There’s Binh Tay, one of the city’s largest wholesale markets selling everything imaginable in bulk, as well as traditional medicine shops, temples clouded by incense smoke, Cha Tam Church and more delicious food. With an early start, a full morning here will suffice, capped by lunch of crab noodle soup, a regional speciality at Banh Canh Cua 14 (223A Tran Binh Trong).
For those interested in art and Saigon’s history, Sophie’s Art Tour will guide them through the city’s tumultuous history from French colonial to post-war through the lens of art. The morning includes the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum and a selection of contemporary galleries. Ask to be dropped off at Hum Vegetarian, where flavourful meat-free Vietnamese dishes await, or have a lunch set of homestyle Vietnamese fare at The Old Compass Cafe.
A third option: foodies can learn to whip up three Vietnamese dishes at the morning session (09:00-12:00) of GRAIN Cooking Class. Dishes like chicken and cabbage salad with jellyfish are excellent examples of real Vietnamese cuisine, a sophisticated medley of textures and fresh flavours that are simple to prepare and definitely not boring. It’s a class and a meal in one. There is also an afternoon session available (14:00-17:00).
Assuming you have to be at the airport by early evening, there’s a couple of hours left to spend all the remaining dong. Ben Thanh Market is overwhelmingly touristic, however, here’s the chance to pick up souvenirs like t-shirts, coffee filters and lanterns. Those who want to hunt for cheap clothes, shoes and bags, dive into crowded Saigon Square where shirts costs as little as 60,000 dong and most stalls are stress-free with fixed price. Note: larger sizes are limited and beware of pickpockets at both places. The store Saigon Kitsch has propaganda posters and other Vietnam graphics on mugs, coasters and postcards.
If shopping doesn’t appeal, grab a final drink and nibble. Open at 17:00, Anan’s rooftop bar overlooks a bustling local market and Saigon’s tallest tower. Add crispy chicken thigh bites and spiced pho-jito cocktail or bia hoi fresh beer for a magical sunset. Another option is to tick the tallest tower off the bucket list by heading up to the 49th observation deck or 52nd floor bar of Bitexco Financial Tower. Grab a hot chocolate and decadent dessert at Maison Marou, picking up bars of dark chocolate as a souvenir. Or a quick, simple bun cha back in Pham Ngu Lao at 145 Bui Vien would also hit the spot.
Say farewell to Saigon. Guesthouses in Pham Ngu Lao can offer a flat rate transfer to the airport for 200,000 dong. A Grab or Uber taxi will cost around 100,000 dong. Allow for at least 60 minutes to get to the airport.
By the way, there’s no shame in grabbing one or two banh mi to go, a snack for when you land.
Watch your money. Vietnamese notes are confusing and it’s easy to mix up 50,000 and 500,000, as well as 10,000 or 100,000 with 1,000,000. We don’t need to tell you that paying 1,000,000 for something that is 10,000 really sucks.
Dong is non-convertible, meaning it is difficult to exchange outside the country. Exchange before flying out (or spend it all—I LOVE PHO t-shirts perhaps?).
Snatch and grab robberies are an enormous problem, especially iPhones, cameras, necklaces and one-strap bags/purses. Don’t leave the phone on the table, be aware of your surroundings before taking that photo. We saw a snatch and grab where the thief ran over, grabbed the camera, ran to an accomplice’s motorbike and was off before the victim was even out of his chair. The thieves are brazen, well-practiced and even armed with knives for cutting purse straps. A little prevention and thieves won’t make you a target.
Like Hanoi, one of the best ways to enjoy a Vietnamese city is to just sit back and watch it unfold. The above itinerary is a very full one—especially Saturday. With more time, spread out the sights over the days. Visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, see the floating market in Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, indulge in famous Japanese pizzeria Pizza 4P’s, try dining in the dark at Noir, see a show at the Saigon Opera House and allow for a good amount of time to just sit on the pavement with a coffee or noodle soup, soaking up the sights and sounds of this vibrant, maddening, exciting city.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Ho Chi Minh City