It definitely takes more than 24 hours to experience the best of Ho Chi Minh but if time is tight, or you find yourself with a day to spare before heading off on your Mekong cruise, it pays to have a plan.
There are numerous hotels in which to stay when you’re in Ho Chi Minh. We chose the Sofitel Saigon Plaza for most of our stay. Close to all the main attractions, it’s also an oasis of calm in the bustling city. However, if your budget is a little tight or you want to be closer to the airport, the Alcove Library Hotel served us well on our last night.
The great thing about Ho Chi Minh is that it’s very easy to walk around, thanks to its large, tree-lined, French-inspired boulevards. It is, however, quite humid and the sun is fierce when it shines through the smog, so jumping in a taxi is a better option. Stick to Vinasun or Mai Linh and always ask before you get in how much it will cost to get where you’re going. Taxis in Ho Chi Minh should all have meters, so if there’s no meter, don’t get in.
If you’ve got 24 hours to spare, here are my suggestions for how to fill your time:
0800 – Breakfast
Normally I would never suggest breakfast in the hotel unless it’s included in the rate but if time is tight, it’s a good option to fill up, plan your day and scope your trip on the map. However, if you prefer to eat on the go, simply grab a coffee and pastry from one of the many coffee shops you’ll pass along the way.
The more western Highlands Coffee chain is dotted around the city or be adventurous and try the local Vietnamese brew. Be warned, it’s strong. Also, be sure to ask for it hot or you’ll more than likely receive the iced version.
0900 – Step back in time at the Reunification Palace
Also known as the Independence Palace, this five-storey building is where the Vietnam War ended on 30 April 1975. A North Vietnamese army tank rammed its gates, claiming a victory for the Communist Party, and there’s famous footage of staff being evacuated by air just before the Palace was captured. The Palace remains largely as it was left on that day, complete with helicopter on the rooftop – a perfect photo opportunity.
1030 – Mid-morning street snack
If you’ve opted for breakfast on the go, then you may be a little peckish by now, so head to Ben Thanh market for a typical Vietnamese snack. If you’re keen to try the famous local soup, Pho, simply pull up one of the little plastic chairs you’ll find on the side of the street and almost magically, you’ll be served a steaming hot bowl of noodle soup. If that’s a little out of your comfort zone, a Bahn Mi may serve you better. A traditional baguette, filled with pate, salad and egg, and perhaps some chicken or pork, this is a favourite of the Vietnamese.
1100 – Souvenir shopping
While you’re at Ben Thanh market, it would be silly not to wander around the stalls and pick up some souvenirs. Be prepared to haggle and remember that the labels you see on display are not authentic. But if you want to pick up some monkey poo coffee or traditional Vietnamese linens, then this is the place to do it.
1200 – Take a load off
As mentioned before, it’s hot and humid in Ho Chi Minh and a little refresh won’t do you any harm. Head to one of the many spas you’ll find around the market and enjoy a relaxing massage. Opt for one that is bright and clean and expect to pay around $20 for an hour treatment.
1330 – L’Usine for the cuisine
I know, it seems that all I’m telling you to do is eat, but food is such a great way to interact and experience the local way of life, so it’s difficult not to indulge. As we’ve enjoyed plenty of local fare, I’d suggest heading to L’ Usine, 70 Le Loi Street, just around the corner from Ben Thanh Market. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is European with a Vietnamese twist. The shop downstairs is full of cool knick-knacks; head upstairs for a light salad and a glass of lemon juice. Lemon juice is consumed throughout Vietnam, often with spoonfuls of sugar added to cater to the Vietnamese’ sweet tooth. If you can bear the sharpness, ask for it without the sugar – very refreshing – but be prepared for a strange look!
1500 – Relive the Vietnam War
The atrocities that occurred during the Vietnam War can be confronting but that doesn’t mean you should shy away from what happened. The War Remnants Museum is a pictorial examination of the conflict, in all its horror. The tales of the fallout from the use of Agent Orange and how it’s still affecting families today is enough to make you weep. An hour here is more than enough but worth the entry fee.
1600 – Hotel rooftop
By now you’re probably well and truly shattered so I’d suggest heading back to your hotel to freshen up and get ready for the night ahead. Most hotels in Ho Chi Minh have rooftops and between 4pm and 6pm will offer half-price cocktails. The city view from the top of the Sofitel Saigon Plaza is particularly spectacular and the Champagne Mojitos aren’t too bad either.
1830 – Puppet time
As it’s a little too early for dinner, and you’re probably still full from all you’ve eaten during the day, why not head to the Golden Dragon Water Theatre and take in a puppet show? Originating in the north of the country, water puppet shows portray cultural scenes and last about 50 minutes to an hour.
2000 – Dinner at the top of the world
Many people will tell you that dinner at the top of the Bitexo Tower gives you great views of the city at night, but I would suggest you head to Shri Restaurant for a similar, more relaxed experience. Offering international food with an Asian influence, the feel is eclectic, and the food and cocktails are delicious. This is a great place to end your evening, so don’t rush – your day in Ho Chi Minh is done.