From back alley venues to craft beers to Vespas, we have the essential to-do list. 

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) is still a cheap and nearby getaway, and with a bit of homework and curating, good ol’ Saigon can certainly deliver some thrills. Of course, that means an obligatory pilgrimage to L’Usine, but there are other movers and shakers in the city’s indie revolution. Here are some highlights.

STAY

There may be lots of reputable hotels in the more tourist-friendly District 1—the city’s center, where the main attractions are located—but skip those and head to the more picturesque District 2 for resort-like vibes. We stayed at Villa Song Saigon (197/2 Nguyen Van Huong St., +84 8 3744-6090, www.villasong.com), a boutique hotel under the Secret Retreats (www.secret-retreats.com) umbrella, and could hardly tear ourselves away from the near-private saltwater pool and riverside restaurant. Rates start from about VND2,900,000 (B4,440) 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 (41A Thao Dien St., District 2, +84 8 3744-2630, www.annam-gourmet.com) and booze at one of the few craft beer shops we found, Zebrafish (25 Thao Dien St., District 2, +84 8 3744-6863, www.zebrafish.com.vn). Plus, there’s a handful of quality restaurants and amenities like Harmony Spa (34 Tong Huu Dinh St., District 2, +84 8 3744-6575, www.harmonyvietnam.vn) for manicures (from US$7, or B227) and massages (from US$20, B649) on the cheap.

DO

A scooter is definitely the best way to take in HCMC: try Vietnam Vespa Adventures (from US$65, B2,110, www.vietnamvespaadventures.com) 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 (from VND1,697,000, or B2,599, www.lesrivesexperience.com) to destinations like the Mekong Delta and Can Gio Mangrove Forest for small groups.

EAT

We recommend that all visitors make the journey to hipster mecca L’Usine (151/1 Dong Khoi St., District 1, +84 8 6674-3565, www.lusinespace.com), 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, for example—and there’s a fantastic happy hour from 4-8pm with 1-for-1 wines by the glass, which makes the already-cheap wine even cheaper (it works out to B79/glass). 
 
Also check out Work Saigon (267/2 Dien Bien Phu, District 3, www.worksaigon.com), a co-working space and café for designers, and also where local boutique Blackmarket was based 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 (www.facebook.com/thecinephiles) setting up one of their regular outdoor film screenings.

PLAY

If there’s one venue in HCMC we’d kill to transplant to Singapore, it’s live music café Vung Oi Mo Ra (17 Ngo Thoi Nhiem, District 3, +84 8 2215-7813). 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 (junction of Le Lai & Ton That Tung, District 1, +84 8 3925-9415, www.theobservatory-hcmc.com), where the good-looking and left-leaning congregate. It’s not unusual to find weed smoke wafting around, but our drug of choice here is the chilli-flavored Saigon Cider (www.facebook.com/peaceloveandapples), produced by a local brewery that collects and reuses the empty bottles from their stockists. 

Essentials

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com) offers two direct flights daily at fares starting from B7,820 for a round-trip. For a more budget option, AirAsia (www.airasia.com) offers direct flights at about B3,870 for a round-trip.

GETTING AROUND

Cabs are plentiful and cheap, but to reduce the risk of scams, book a taxi rather than flag one down. Most venues will happily book one for you.

VISA

Thais do not require a visa for trips (up to 21 days), but most other nationalities do. Avoid the dodgy visa websites and go straight to the Embassy of Vietnam (83/1 Wireless Road, Lumpini, Pathumwan, 02-251-3552, www.vietnameseembassy-Thailand.org). 

EXCHANGE RATE

10,000VND = B15.31