Frenetic moped-strewn streets, an incandescent skyline, hundreds of street-stalls cooking up local delicacies and bicycles laden with goods all bound together by a perpetually humid climate. Whether you’ve already booked yourself onto an escorted small group tour of Vietnam or you’re going to backpack or flashpack your way around the country, this is your quick guide to 24 hours in Vietnam’s largest and most cosmopolitan city!
Breakfast: hit one of Saigon’s many street vendors, grab a small plastic chair, hunch over a hobbit-sized table and tuck into a traditional bowl of Pho for around $2! A broth-like dish, Pho is made up of Vietnamese spices (cardamom, fennel, star anise, coriander and more), noodles, beef (or veg) and often garnished with mint. Quick, cheap, refreshing and incredibly healthy!
Lunch: Wrap and Roll is a particular favourite of mine and they’ve now expanded their operation to round 10 stores in Vietnam (yay!). They serve a huge collection of traditional Vietnamese wraps which consist of rice paper crammed with fresh herbs, salad, noodles and meats, all served with a range of delectable dips. The Saigon branch is (climatically speaking) extremely cool making it a perfect retreat from midday heat.
Another good lunch option is the new KOTO Restaurant (run by an NGO with an established sister restaurant in Hanoi) which serves excellent Western and local dishes.
Dinner: Located in district 1, explore Vietnam’s French Heritage with a trip to Le Toit Gourmand which serves incredible French cuisine in welcoming and intimate surroundings. Other great options are Lemon Grass which is an established favourite amongst locals and Westerners alike, or 3T Quan Nuong which knocks up some sterling BBQ flavours. Both restaurants are orientated around traditional Vietnamese cuisine so prepare for a treat!!
Snacks: are bountiful across Saigon. Grab some deep friend treats from a street vendor; try the delectable chocolate offering from a traditional patisserie or – a favourite of mine! – pull up a chair at a street-side vendor for a glass of delicious iced coffee made with condensed milk which will exceed your RDA of sugar by about 150%.
Lunch: do the tourist thing and get yourself to The Rex hotel which has been one of Saigon’s most recognisable landmarks for the past 80 years. Located in the central District 1, the hotel has an incredible rooftop bar with solid views of the city and a great cocktail menu, all of which make for the perfect budget-busting treat!
Evening: Pham Ngu Lao street and around is home to the backpacker district. Bursting at the seams with budget accommodation, this is also the place to head for cheap eats and evenings of cut price beers and cocktails. Stick to the local brews (Beer Saigon, Huda Beer, and Beer Hue) and avoid the European lager and you’ll manage to stretch your buck that bit further. A local beer will set you back $2+ or so and a street-side meal start from as little as $3pp. Many establishments will stay open until the small hours but this relationship is capricious so be prepared to be turned out early or allowed to stay late.
War Remnants Museum is located in District 3 of Saigon, just off Vo Van Tran Street. Although offering a robustly partisan depiction of events, this quite modern museum offers an invaluable insight into Vietnam’s most recent conflicts with the United Stated (and its allies) as well as the one time colonial rulers, France.
As well as real-life artifacts such as tanks and weaponry, the museum has an extensive collection of photography from the war years. Drawn from all the major publications you can follow the war through the conflict via the museums many (and deeply moving) photo-journals.
Reunification Palace can best be described as one of Vietnam’s handful of truly kitsch constructions. Built in 1962 the palace was the main residence of South Vietnam’s government throughout the American war. Set in grassed grounds and unmistakable from the street, the palace has been largely left as it was when the American’s left in 1975. The old command desks, conference rooms and tunnels remain as they were – there’s even a Huey Helicopter perched on the roof from the final evacuation by American officials.
If you’ve longer then get yourself out to the Mekong Delta, visit the war-time Cu Chi tunnels, or spend a day getting lost in Saigon’s expansive street network!
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