Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), commonly known as Saigon is one of the most vibrant and largest cities in Vietnam. Known for its complex history dating back to the Vietnam War, its French colonial landmarks, and delicious healthy cuisine, Saigon is a good base for backpackers and budget travelers to start their exploration of Southeast Asia.
Cheap flights to Vietnam are now more accessible to tourists with the launching of AirAsia’s direct flights from Manila to Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon. Last November 17, 2017 AirAsia launched their inaugural flight from Manila – HCMC with send-off ceremonies at NAIA (Ninoy Aquino International Airport) Terminal 3 led by AirAsia Philippines CEO Captain Dexter Comendador with His Excellency Ly Quoc Tuan, Ambassador of Viet Nam to the Philippines, as keynote speaker.
AirAsia aims to make Vietnam and the rest of the ASEAN region more accessible to tourists with their low-cost flights. Flights from Manila are currently scheduled 3x weekly, every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday.
Flight Schedule for Manila, Phippines (MNL) – Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam (SGN)
- Flight Z2294: MNL – SGN: DEP – 10:25 pm | ARR – 1:05 am (Every Tuesday, Friday, Sunday)
- Flight Z2295: SGN – MNL: DEP – 1:35 am | ARR: 4:10 am (Monday, Wednesday, Saturday)
Members of the media, travel bloggers and influencers were treated to a two-day media familiarization tour to experience the highlights of the vibrant city. For first-timers planning to visit, here are 10 essential things to do in HCMC.
1. Visit the city’s most important historic landmarks
Those interested in history, architecture and photography, will want to visit the main landmarks and museums around the city. Depending on how much time you have to spare, you can spend half a day to the whole day on a city tour covering the main city landmarks including:
- Reunification Palace (Independence Palace)
- War Remnants Museum
- Notre Dame Cathedral
- Saigon Post Office
- Opera House
Many tour agencies offer group sightseeing tours aboard an air-con bus, with English speaking guides and inclusive of entrance fees for around $30 per person. Tours usually include a lunch stop at a local restaurant (not included in the tour price packages).
2. Go on a river cruise
There are various Floating Restaurants where you can enjoy dinner cruises along the Saigon River. We took the cruise on Tau Ben Nge, which serves a mix of Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. The food here was not really exceptional, but tourists take the cruise mostly to enjoy the breeze, the view of the skyline and live music. This particular floating restaurant caters mostly to Chinese tourists, larger tour groups, families and colleagues. Other floating restaurants may specialize in different menus.
For a more authentic experience that will give you a look at local life, take a day trip tour from Ho Chi Minh City on the Mekong River Boat Excursion, a tour by riverboat along the Ham Luong River, a tributary of the Mekong River.
Aside from riding the larger express junk boats, one of the highlights is transferring to a sampan or traditional wooden boat (good for four passengers) which locals use to get around waterways.
The boat ride passes through Saigon canals and mangrove areas. All passengers are provided with the non la (traditional conical hats) to wear during the boat ride.
3. Learn about local industries
The Mekong River Boat Excursion takes visitors through scenic country landscapes and up close to local cottage industries. At Thoi Son Island, you can visit a factory where coconut candy and handicrafts are made from coconut palm. Tourists can also visit a bee keeping farm to taste natural honey, honey wine and traditional tea paired with local candied delicacies.
There are various local workplaces located at the edge of the water, from activated charcoal to dried coconut, coconut husk brooms, and coconut fiber crafts. This is a good time to do souvenir shopping on the unique Vietnamese products that are sold as souvenirs by community-based entrepreneurs, such as woodcarvings, traditional costumes, bags, coconut based make-up and even snake wine. At the end of the tour, visitors can enjoy tropical fruits while being serenaded with local music.
4. Feast on healthy Vietnamese cuisine
Traditional Vietnamese cooking is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world. The most popular dishes make use mostly of fresh ingredients, minimal use of dairy and oil and complementary textures, and heavy use of herbs and vegetables. Most meats are only briefly cooked. Vegetables are eaten fresh and if they are cooked, they are boiled or only briefly stir-fried.
The most iconic Vietnamese dishes are Phở (a noodle soup), Bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette or sandwich), and Gỏi cuốn (spring rolls). These are usually served in many traditional restaurants as well as street-side stalls. One of the best meals we had during our visit was the traditional lunch during the Mekong boat cruise, especially Mekong’s famous deep-fried elephant-ear fish served with Vietnamese fish sauce.
For lunch in the city, try Non La Restaurant, a local restaurant named after the traditional Vietnamese conical hat. They serve set menus with dishes like spring rolls, sauteed pork with vegetables, coconut salad with pork and shrimp.and mung bean sweet soup for dessert.
Nga Hang Di Mai also serves delicious and modern takes on Vietnamese cuisine set in an open kitchen with a contemporary design. Be sure to try their fried vegetable spring roll, fish balls sour soup (with pineapple and rice paddy herbs) and coconut ice cream with peanuts, mango passion fruit and toasted coconut chips for dessert.
5. Crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels
The Củ Chi Tunnels are a network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district, about 50 km away from Ho Chi Minh City. As the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, the tunnels were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.
The complex now serves as a war memorial park and tourist destination. Visitors get to visit weapons galleries and view man-made traps, pose with tanks and model figures of guerilla fighters and jump into foxholes. The main highlight is entering the bunkers and crawling through the tunnels. You can also try firing high powered weapons in the shooting range here.
READ MORE: Crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels
6. Soak up the local culture
Traditional culture is still very evident in modern people’s daily live. Many women still wear the traditional ao dai, a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over trousers and the non la, a traditional conical hat. If you’re into photography, the vendors riding vintage bicycles and various markets including the floating markets are interesting subjects for street and human interest photos.
Beyond going on all the packaged tours, just take the time to walk around on your own, visit the markets or just enjoy the distinct sights HCMC has to offer. If you have more time outside the city, you can also opt to do homestays in local communities to just experience how locals live.
7. Explore by motorbike
I find the motorcycle culture in Vietnam, especially in the countryside, really fascinating. Nowadays, the traffic around the city can get pretty bad because of ongoing construction for their MRT. Motorbikes are the main mode of transportation here and can take you around places much quicker. Everyone rides a motorbike here.
If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, you can go around on a DIY tour. During my first visit to Saigon a few years back, we just rented a motorbike to go around for a day. Many establishments around the backpacker’s district offer scooters for rent for as little as USD $5 a day.
READ MORE: Saigon City Tour by Scooter
If you don’t know how to drive a motorcycle, but still want to experience how locals get around, you can also hail Grab or Uber to get around, including Grab Bike and Uber Moto. Or you could opt for something like Back of the Bike Tours which brings tourists on a street food tour around Saigon.
8. Go shopping for traditional souvenirs
For shopaholics, the Ben Thanh Market is a good place to shop for local handicrafts, branded goods, Vietnamese art and other souvenirs. You can find souvenir shirts, traditional clothing, fabrics and bags on the outer perimeter of the complex, as well as food products, coffee and preserves in various stalls.
Other popular areas for shopping include Saigon Square for modern clothing. Higher quality goods can be found in Takashiyama in the main city center. Aside from these, your’re sure to find lots of souvenir stalls outside main tourist sites everywhere you go including the War Remnants Museum and Saigon Post Office. Lots of tourists make it a point to mail postcards to themselves or loved ones when they pass by here.
9. Enjoy a cup of Vietnamese coffee
With its numerous coffee plantations in the central highlands, Vietnam is known for their rich coffee culture. Budget travelers can head to street pavement stalls in the backpacker’s district for your coffee drinking experience. In some of the more rural towns, you can enjoy your coffee in various Ca Phe Vong or Hammock Cafés along the road.
For a more upscale experience, you can always head to coffee chains like Highlands Coffee (kind of their local Starbucks) or to luxurious cafés like Trung Nguyen, a modern cafe that serves Ca Phe Legend Sua No served with condensed milk. They also sell specialty coffee beans and ground coffee here.
10. Sample the local brews
For beer lovers, Bia Hoi or fresh beer is your introduction to Vietnam’s beer culture. In Pham Ngu Lao Street or the backpacker’s district, you can spot lots of locals and tourists hanging out every night along streetside stalls drinking pitchers of this very light, watered down beer (suitable for extended drinking sessions).
You can also order local mainstream beers including Saigon, 333, Bia Ha Noi, Da Viet & Zorok in most restaurants or buy them from convenience stores. These are all your average light, easy to drink pilsners and lagers suitable for hot weather.
READ MORE: The Beer is On in Saigon
Since I last visited, there seems to have been a craft beer boom in HCMC, with lots of local breweries to visit including Pasteur Street Brewing Company, East West Brewing Co., Winking Seal, LAC, Fuzzy Logic, Platinum and Te Te, to name a few. I found Rooster Beers from Phat Rooster served in several establishments in the backpacker’s district.
If you have limited time and want to sample a good variety, Ong Cao Craft Beer Saigon in the backpackers district is centrally located and offers local craft beer from Saigon on tap from different brewers. I sampled 2 beer flights (4 glasses each), so I could taste at least one from each brewery. Of all the beers I tried, really liked Kurtz’s Insane IPA from Heart of Darkness Brewery, so I had to check out their brewery the next day. Separate beer article coming soon. 🙂
WHERE TO STAY IN HCMC:
If you’re on a budget , you’ll probably want to stay somewhere in Pham Ngu Lao street (the Backpacker Street of Saigon) in District 1. There are many small guesthouses, inns and mid-range hotels here to fit any budget. During our recent trip, we stayed in Le Felix Hotel, a hotel with cozy and homey hotel with cozy guest rooms conveniently located near the city’s top tourist sights.
But for well-heeled travelers looking for a luxury hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, you might want to check into The Reverie Saigon, considered the most spectacularly extravagant hotel in Vietnam and the one and only member property of The Leading Hotels of the World in all of Ho Chi Minh City.
Located at the topmost floor of the landmark Times Square Building, this opulent hotel aims to present world-class hospitality and celebrate haute Italian design and inimitable luxury, giving guests an incomparable perspective on the city with its spectacular views.