Travel: Saigon/Ho Chi Minh Highlights-Top 10 Things To Do

Feb
15
2013

Last week I shared my travel lessons from Vietnam and Cambodia, now I want to highlight the fun adventures in Ho Chi Minh City, (still known as Saigon to those who live here).  The city is divided into 24 administrative districts.  Here’s  a view above District 1, which is where most of the hotels and tourist attractions are located.   Here are my top 10 highlights.

1. Finding The Best Pho

If you haven’t had Pho before-it’s Vietnamese Beef Rice Noodle Soup usually served with fresh herbs like basil, mint and bean sprouts.  In Vietnam, you can get it anytime, but they usually have it for breakfast and lunch.  There are a lot food stalls that serve great Pho, but the Top 3 Places that kept coming up were  Pho 2000-made famous by President Bill Clinton who stopped for a bowl, Pho 24-a popular chain, and Pho Hoa Pasteur.

We went to Pho Hoa Pasteur, which was recommended by two local friends-one a restauranteur.   If you have a Pho Hoa where you live-it’s probably named after this place, one of the oldest and most popular Pho places in Saigon.  It’s a casual restaurant-2 bowls of soup and some of the sides only cost us like $7.  The side dishes are on the table already and you only get charged if you eat them.  There were fried crullers, tea leaf wrapped sausage, and the cute little boxes are filled with a sweet rice dessert. You have to try the fresh coconut juice served in a coconut too.


2. Go On A Motor Bike Tour

Out of the 9 Million people in Saigon, 5 million ride motorbikes, that makes for pretty crazy adventures on the road.   The first few days we were just figuring out how not to get run over. Then we decided to join them. Well, sort of we went on a motor bike tour. What better way to see the city- weaving in and out of traffic with your adrenaline pumping just a few inches from cars, buses and other motorbikes, right?

Tiger Tours was great.  My tour guide may look petite, but she knew how to maneuver her way around town and I felt safe. The 2.5 hour Twillight Tour was the perfect mini adventure and definite highlight of the trip.  Starting at 5:30pm we headed to a BBQ Restaurant, drove through Chinatown (the largest one in the world), along the river (all on the back of the bike), stopped off for some dessert and then back to the hotel. They even take pictures and email them to you.

3. Discover Vietnamese Coffee

Vietnamese love their coffee, the most popular chain is Trung Nguyen.  Starbucks has been trying to break into the market for ages. The first one is set to open in Ho Chi Minh this month, but locals still love their TN. Vietnamese coffee has a dark rich flavor without being bitter and it’s sweetened with condensed milk.  I also tried one of their caramel ice blended coffees which had corn flakes as a topping (weird, but good.)   If you’re adventurous try the weasel coffee.

4. The Nightclub Scene

Check out the beautiful view of the Chill SkyBar from 26th Floor of the AB Tower. Super cool vibe and a total see and be seen place with female DJs pumping music by the open air bar.  If you’re from LA or NY $14 cocktails are normal, but these are way overpriced for Vietnam, but still worth the visit.

5. Discover Top Restaurants

Xu above was great and a definite hot spot.  An upscale lounge downstairs and restaurant upstairs.  Australian Vietnamese chef Bien Nguyen mixes traditional flavors with modern gastronomy bringing classics to life.

This was the Beef Cang Cua Salad-flavorful grilled beef on a bed of this fragrant, floral and slightly spicy herb-also known as the Vietnamese crab claw herb. I loved all the variety of herbs and greens available in Vietnam-now I just have to try to find some back at home.

Mini desserts are my favorite.  I tried almost all of them (from left to right) Mango Tapioca, Sticky Rice w/Durian, Fried Soursop Parcel, Sticky Rice with Red Bean, Chocolate Bomb w/Vanilla Ice Cream and peanuts, Kumquat Truffle.

Monsoon was also fun if you want a break from Vietnamese food.  Really cozy, reasonably priced, chic and clean- it features Thai, Burmese and food from Laos and Myanmar. Loved the food, the friendly owner and that I was able to try a variety of Southeast Asian dishes. It also has a little play area for kids right next to the dining room.

Noa at Centec Tower-great lunch place if you’re looking for a little bit of home (western food-pastas, sandwiches, pizzas), but they have Vietnamese classics as well.   Modern decor filled with an upscale business lunch crowd.  The owner is a young smart and savvy business woman and super friendly.  By the middle of my trip I needed a break from Asian food and pizza really hit the spot.

6.  Get A History Lesson

Most of the historical spots are right in District 1 and it’s an easy walk around most of them.  Check out the General Post Office-in an old colonial building-cool architecture and it’s still a working PO. Notre Dame Cathedral is across the street.Here’s the Reunification Palace. Most notable for it’s symbolic role in the fall of Saigon in April 1975-when these gates were breached by N. Vietnamese tanks.

War Remnants Museum- is in District 3, once called the American War Crimes Museum.  The graphic images and stories of war were hard for me to handle at times, but I believe it’s important to be aware of the history of the Vietnam War.  The tanks outside are fun for kids, but many of the images inside are not suitable for children. The Museum is now a call for peace and hope that history is not repeated.

7.  Cu Chi Tunnels (Day trip 1 hour outside of Saigon)

At the end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail ,this the the base from which the guerillas used to attack Saigon.  They built a network of underground tunnels that covered more than 155 miles.  Amazing-look at how small the holes were and how they covered the entrances with leaves.   You not only get to see the tunnels, but crawl through them.

8. Cao Dai Temple (2 hours outside of Saigon)

This is a view from inside the temple during a noon ceremony.  More than 2-3 million Vietnamese people practice this faith (less than 100 years old) that embraces the teachings of Buddha, Jesus and other non traditional saints like Louis Pasteur and Victor Hugo.  I loved the colorful and bright murals and pillars.

9. Shopping

A stop at Ben Thanh Market is a must, the largest market in downtown area filled with souvenirs, handicrafts and food stalls. Saigon Square-great for knock-offs, but if you look really closely you can find some real Nike, Adidas and The North Face. (many of these brands manufacture in Vietnam) Insider Tip: Make sure they have the English tags with the real logos and on the tag in the back says made in Vietnam.

10. Drink Scorpion/Snake Liquor

Yes, that is a real scorpion and snake!  This wine is supposed to be a cure-all and also thought to increase male virility. They sell these in most local stores and we weren’t sure what to make of it, but when we saw it at the upscale restaurant Xu on the cocktail menu, we decided to order it.  They served it in the style of an old fashioned.  I didn’t have the stomach for it, but my husband did.  He said it was pungent and interesting.  Either way if you’re adventurous worth a try.

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