Thursday, May 17, 2012

Saigon Recommendations: First Time Visitor

I feel like at least once a month we get an email from someone who is coming to Ho Chi Minh City (or whose friend's friend's mother's dog-sitter is coming) and rather than writing a ten thousandth email, wouldn't it be so much easier to just write a quick post?  Most people arrive in Southeast Asia with an extensive itinerary and leave only one or two days of time in our beloved swollen metropolis.  This list should easily fill up a short trip.

So here it is - Our "Dropping Through Saigon" Recommendations:

Where to Rest Your Weary Head:
We aren't buffs in this department.  If you are a budget traveler we would recommend a guest house in the Pham Ngu Lao area.  This is a proper backpacker slum and cheap beds abound.  For the mid-range ($25 to $30) a night, we can vouch for the centrally located and clean Thien Xuan @ 108-110 Le Thanh Ton, D.1.

How to Get Into Town From The Airport:
Take a taxi or arrange an airport pick-up with your hotel.  Airport taxis are notorious for ripping off tourists and despite recent efforts by city officials, the scams run rampant  Only take Mai Linh or VinaSun taxis, which you may have to queue up for.  It should cost around 120,000 VND ($6) to get to the city center.
How to Get Around:
Once you're in town, stick with the aforementioned VinaSun or Mai Linh taxis.  They are cheap and reliable and the drivers usually know the city pretty well.  If you are feeling a little more daring, take a Motorbike Taxi (xe om).  Look for chronically idle men sitting or laying on their motorbikes on street corners, with an extra helmet in tow.


Where to Eat:
Pho Hoa (260C Pasteur, District 3)  The bowls of pho are massive, basically unrivaled in the city, and fill you up for the day.  Dip a few pieces of the doughy bread (banh quay) into the broth.

Cuc Gach Quan (10 Dang Tat, District 1) Try the Sea Bass drizzled in passion-fruit, homemade egg-tofu, and the awe-inspiring regional vegetable selection. Best food and atmosphere in the city.

Nhà Hàng Ngon (160 Pasteur, District 1)  While a bit too trodden by pink tourists for us (although it remains quite popular with Vietnamese folks as well), their menu really encapsulates the entire breadth of Vietnamese cuisine and you can have a look at the different dishes being prepared around the restaurant.  I love the Bot Chein and the array of Che (legume-based desserts).

Rat Hue (136/11 Le Thanh Ton) Great place to order tons of small dishes and experience Central Vietnamese cuisine.  Meat heavy, but usually quite delicious without a drip of pretension.  Try Bo La Lot (succulent beef strips wrapped in betel leaves) and Banh Da Xuc Oc (tiny mussels served with rice crackers).

Where to Drink:
The "Rum Bar" (Phan Van Dat, next to Black Cat) Sit outside, order a bottle of bathtub-brewed Vietnamese rum and mix with soda and lime.  Relax and take in the scene. Order their Canh Ga Chien Bo (chicken wings fried in butter) to soak up the booze.  Just be prepared to dash if the police show up!

Yoko (22A Nguyen Thi Dieu, Dist. 3)  Live music every night, good atmosphere, and drinks.  The epicenter for independent music in the city.  Check for special events, as Sunday's at Yoko are often epic.

Thi Cafe (224 De Tham, D.1) An expat stronghold in the heart of the Pham Ngu Lao.  Live music every night and a great spillover scene on the pavement outside. Just be aware of your surroundings and your belongings as thugs abound.

You can refer to our directory for food other than Vietnamese.

What to See: 
War Remnants Museum (28 Vo Van Tan, D.3) A tear-evoking and informative space documenting the war in Vietnam through words and pictures.

Reunification Palace (106 Nguyen Du, D.1)  Wander around this art-deco oddity for an afternoon.  After taking a self-tour around the palace, check out the photographs and film showing in the basement to learn more about the history of the building.  Get a coffee in the outdoor cafe on the grounds of the palace after your visit.

Notre Dame Cathedral and the Post Office (Han Thuyen) Just a short walk from the Reunification Palace.  Take a few pictures and then scurry off to some nearby shade in the park opposite.

Mariamman Hindu Temple (45 Truong Dinh) A marvelous splash of color and intricately carved figures from the annals of Hindu lore.  A surprising find in a city with just a scant Hindu population.
Cholon (District 5) We have ventured down to Chinatown on numerous occasions.  Hire a xe om to take you around Cholon for several hours and visit crumbling Buddhist temples and mesmerizing markets for around $10.  Great food and the intoxicating bustle of modern Southeast Asia.

Where to Shop:
Hit up the countless markets around town.  Check out Ben Thanh Market and Cho Dan Sinh (both in District 1), as well as Cho Binh Tay in District 5.  I also love Saigon Square located at 77 - 89, Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1.  You can find sun dresses, work clothes, casual clothes, and workout gear there for both men and women.

What are your "Must See" spots in Saigon?  We'd love to hear from you!

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