Saigon is evolving at breakneck speed, with old relics being replaced by newer, bigger and the often-questionably better. The phrenetic motorbike-filled streets may feel intimidating at first, yet visitors seem to get the hang of crossing the streets. In all, it remains a magical place, with new discoveries waiting down the twisty alleyways (called hems), friendly curious locals, the grandeur of rooftop bars, and the incredible variety of tasty foods sold at bargain prices.
Where does a traveller start one’s journey? I will share the local’s perspective that you will not find in guidebooks, aiming at high-value, quality experiences.
Breakfast and Brunch
If you love phở, why not try the popular Bún bò Huế? Originating from the central region of Vietnam and seasoned with lemongrass, sliced beef, and Vietnamese pork sausage with thick rice noodles – you add the aromatic herbs, mung beans, and chili to your liking. You can dine with locals for close to S$2.00 at sidewalk tables taking in the view of the canal at 1010 Trường Sa in District 3, or if you prefer to eat indoors, there is a lovely French-style building serving it up at Bún Bò Gánh for S2.00-S$3.50 nearby.
One of my favourite breakfast dishes is Bánh cuốn, a northern dish made of a freshly rolled rice noodle stuffed with pork and wood ear mushrooms. Sold on the streets in the mornings, the best ones are found at this street corner in District 1 or this hem in District 5, for close to S$2. The most famous indoor place is Bánh cuốn Hải Nam, charging just over S$3.00, in the well-known banana market area of District 3.
Coffee and Cafe Culture
You won’t have to stumble far out of your hotel to find a cafe. Locals can nurse a single cup of coffee for hours at a time. With a healthy robusta crop coming from the Central Highlands, most establishments serve up a strong cà phê sữa đá, or iced milk coffee, with sweetened condensed milk. Prices range from range from S$1.00 – S$4.50 a cup in indoor establishments with trusted beans.
Some notable cafes include the zen-like atmosphere of Cafe Trầm in Phú Nhuận district, the spaciousness, hyperreal greenery and waterfalls on a quiet hem in Phú Nhuận, Cafe Du Miên, and District 1’s tranquil cushiony She Cafe decorated with large photos of western female icons, hidden in an old building down an alley shared by the scrumptious rooftop Secret Garden restaurant. One of the oldest cafes in town is Cheo Leo Cafe, hidden down an alleyway in District 3.
Lunch and Dinner
A bánh mì sandwich is a must, for any visitor. A baguette is filled with eggs, meatballs, or lunch meats, pate, and cucumber with soy and hot sauce.
My two favourites include Bánh Mì Lan Huệ at their new location in District 3 – follow the signs nearby Hem 402, off of Lê Văn Sỹ. Another standout is a street food vendor in district one, Bánh Mì 37 Nguyễn Trãi, starting at 16:00.
A fun favourite for two or more is bò lá lốt, which is beef rolled in betel leaf and grilled. At your table, wrap it in rice paper along with lettuce and other herbs, starfruit, cucumber, and dip it into the ubiquitous fish sauce. Quán Ăn Cô Liêng in District 3 serves it up perfectly for S$2.50.
There are also some terrific foreign food restaurants. Babas Kitchen now has two locations; the original is on vibrant Bùi Viện Street, or relax in their tranquil Elephant Garden in the affluent District 2.
Feast your eyes on the exquisite variety of North and South Indian foods, with all of your perennial favourites, including vegetarian options and the exceptional mango fish curry.
For an impressive seafood buffet with all-you-can-eat lobsters, sashimi, oysters and more, make a reservation at La Brasserie on level two of the Hotel Nikko Saigon in District 1 for a breakfast or dinner buffet prepared by Japanese Chefs, at S$67 per person.
Where to Stay
With more than 2,500 hotels all over the city, there are many choices from budget dormitory beds starting at S$4.00, all the way up to five-star hotels running S$150 and upwards. Don’t forget to ask about air conditioning. Below are a few of my favourites.
If you want to be in the heart of the backpacker district, wander down any street in the Phạm Ngũ Lão area. A quiet upscale pick in the backpacker vortex is the Beautiful Saigon Boutique Hotel which has a pool, spa, and a destination restaurant. Rooms start at S$75.
About a 10-minute walk from Bùi Viện Street nestled in a sweet little alleyway is the high-value Ngoc Hue Hotel. It’s a large-yet-charming building with no elevators, and you can climb to the rooftop for a wonderfully private retreat with views. For S$20-40, the room includes a basic western-style breakfast.
Alternatively, try Liberty Central Saigon Centre Hotel, reputed to have the best rooftop pool in town. A quiet oasis with clean modern rooms, views, and a central location near Nguyễn Huệ, walking street, rooms here start at S$118.
For a local perspective, grab a plastic stool at a sidewalk restaurant, and have a Saigon Special beer poured over ice. The city recently lost some of its larger venues, so expats usually wind up at Piu Piu, Broma Not a Bar, or Indika. With indoor and outdoor spaces, Piu Piu has an entrance fee and three floors of fun which usually involves loud music. Broma is on walking street, while Indika is the airiest of them all, behind B.O.C. homemade BBQ.
Visitors can now catch a water taxi (Bach Dang River Bus) to Thủ Đức district, about a 30-minute drive from town. Have a coffee in a quiet vintage atmosphere at Lam Cafe, with beans from the famous Buôn Ma Thuột region. Dine on the seafood of your choice from the thick menu at the reasonably priced Nhà Hàng Nai, and take in views of the river. From 4pm, check out the scene at Schiller River Club, a new and wonderful space attracting a mix of creative-minded locals and expats.
Saigon is a vibrant city with over 10 million people, and it is quickly transforming. Cafes and eateries are known to disappear overnight, so don’t waste any time. Wherever you begin, whatever your budget, there is something wonderful for everyone to discover in the twisty alleyways, busy markets and exciting rooftops of Saigon.