There’s so much more to it than the back-alleys, museums and Vespas.
Sure there’s been heightened security in Vietnam’s major cities after recent political fiascos. But Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is still a cheap and nearby getaway, and with a bit of homework and curating, good ol’ Saigon can deliver plenty of thrills. Of course that means an obligatory pilgrimage to L’Usine, but there are plenty of other movers and shakers in the city’s indie revolution. Here are some highlights.
There may be plenty of reputable hotels in the more tourist-friendly District 1—the city’s center, where the main attractions are located—but skip those and go to the more picturesque District 2 for resort-like vibes. We stayed at Villa Song Saigon, a boutique hotel under the Secret Retreats umbrella, and could hardly tear ourselves away from the near-private saltwater pool and riverside restaurant. Rates start from about 2,900,000VND ($172) per night for a solo room.
Eateries typically close at 10pm here, so if you’re the type to get midnight munchies—who isn’t?—you can stock up on cheese at the nearby Annam Gourmet Market and booze at one of the few craft beer shops we found, Zebrafish. Plus, there’s a handful of quality restaurants and amenities like Harmony Spa for manicures (from US$7, or $8.80) and massages (from US$20, or $25) on the cheap.
The best way to take in HCMC is definitely on a scooter: Try Vietnam Vespa Adventures’ night tour, essentially a bar crawl on a Vespa. This excursion to eateries and bars in different districts—lots of street food, local music and the occasional cockfight—is pretty eye-opening, and once on a bike you’ll come to appreciate the method to the madness that is Vietnamese traffic. If you have time to spare, do a day trip out on a speedboat; Vietnam’s waterways and rivers are gorgeous. Les Rives does full-day tours to destinations like the Mekong Delta and Can Gio Mangrove Forest for small groups.
We recommend that all visitors make the journey to hipster mecca L’Usine, which is hidden behind a dilapidated but very charming alley full of antique art (but of course!). The crowd is photogenic and the grub is good quality and almost Melbournian—a simple but lush garden pasta; grilled octopus tossed with caramelized onion and chorizo—and there’s a fantastic happy hour from 4-8pm with 1-for-1 wines by the glass, which makes the already-cheap wines even cheaper (it works out to $3/glass).
Also check out Work Saigon, a co-working space and café for designers, and also where local boutique Blackmarket was located for a time. Conclusive proof that it’s a hipster magnet: We found a garden growing basil and strawberries for their homemade sodas and salads, and caught arthouse film junkies The Cinephiles setting up one of their regular outdoor film screenings.
If there’s one venue in HCMC we’d kill to transplant to Singapore, it’s live music café Vung Oi Mo Ra. For the full experience, head there in the evening—it’s hidden, so you’ll have to navigate your way through a somewhat scary back alley—to watch Vietnamese musicians perform by candlelight. We didn’t understand a word they were crooning, but the singers we saw were pitch-perfect.
Then there’s art space (by day) and club (by night) The Observatory, where the good-looking and left-leaning congregate. It’s not unusual to find weed smoke wafting around here, but our drug of choice here is the chilli-flavored Saigon Cider, produced by a local brewery so committed that they collect and reuse their empty bottles from their stockists.
Singapore Airlines, Tigerair, Jetstar and Vietnam Airlines have daily direct flights from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City.
Cabs are plentiful and cheap, but to reduce the risk of scams, it’s safer to book a taxi rather than flag one down. Most venues will happily book one for you.
Singaporeans do not require a visa to enter Vietnam, but most other nationalities do.
10,000VND = $0.59 and the grub is good quality and almost Melbournian—a simple but lush garden pasta; grilled octopus tossed with caramelized onion and chorizo—and there’s a fantastic happy hour from 4-8pm with 1-for-1 wines by the glass, which makes the already-cheap wines even cheaper (it works out to $3/glass).