Saigon / Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam travel tips

In retrospect, we’ve realized that unlike many first time visitors to Vietnam, we were not stunned by the intensity of the traffic, touting, and general chaos. That’s because we came to Vietnam from India, land of the smooth sell.

We’ve since heard Vietnam called “India Light.” That’s an exaggeration, but isn’t an accusation without some merit.

Read on for travel tips to make your transition to Saigon smooth.

Where we ate:

  • Pho 24 – Though conveniently located near our hotel, their pho ga(essentially chicken noodle soup) was all chicken skin, and after a few minutes was topped with a layer of schmaltz a centimeter thick: NAH
  • Fanny Ice Cream – Ice cream melts really quickly in Saigon’s muggy heat, which is no problem at Fanny’s, where their ice cream is so nicely done (if lightly flavored) you will eat it before it melts. Try their unusual flavors like salt caramel, young rice, and ginger: YEH
  • Quan An Ngon, 138 Đ Nam Ky Khoi Nghia between Đ Han Thuyen and Đ Nguyen Diu – Oh Lonely Planet, why don’t you check your maps more carefully? The LP 2007 Dong Khoi Area map is off by a full block on the restaurant’s location (it’s correct on the walking tour map), and the restaurant is hard to find anyway. So, take a cab there and walk back. We thought the Saigon Quan An Ngon was much better than the one in Hanoi. Everything we had was outstanding, from the grilled shrimp paste on sugar cane to the snails in coconut milk: YEH!
  • Quan An Ngon smorgasbord - Saigon, Vietnam
    Quan An Ngon smorgasbord | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Ben Thanh Market food stalls – Inside this sprawling indoor market (see “What we saw” below), there’s several dozen stalls for street-style food. Street food is in a cleaner environment than this market (more than a few small roaches were spotted, though never in, on, or near the food). Still, this is a fascinating place to point at mystery foods and eat. Look out for bun with grilled shrimp and rice dumplings that look like little white ravioli: YEH
  • Flour cakes - Ben Thanh Market, Saigon, Vietnam
    Flour cakes at Ben Thanh Market | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Gato Paris – Near the Notre Dame Cathedral, drinks are twice the price they should be and the service is nonexistent: NAH
  • Com Tam Moc, 85 Ly Tu Trong, HCMC – A very local restaurant. Clean and bright, this place serves almost nothing but simple and satisfying “broken rice” dishes, steamed rice made from pieces that are literally broken, served with a variety of toppings, like fried fish, Vietnamese sausage, as well as nuoc mam (a fish sauce, sugar, chili sauce) and a little bit of pickled vegetables: YEH
  • Broken rice dinners, Saigon, Vietnam
    Broken rice dinners | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Where we stayed:

  • Phan Lan – Not the nicest hotel we stayed at in Vietnam and really nothing special, but it was clean, and relatively quiet, being on an alley behind the crazy main street of the Pham Ngu Lao neighborhood. You can bargain a little bit if you book in person: YEH

What we saw:

  • Sinhbalo Tours Office – This is one of the higher end tour companies, but worth the money. If you want the best deal on your tour price, you will need to be a bit flexible about which tour you take as the price per person drops when you have more people on the tour. Their tours max out at 6 or 7 people, so you get personal attention: YEH
  • Mariamman Hindu Temple – Wow, was this place a trip. Though by name it is a Hindu temple, there’s some Buddhism and Christianity mixed in. But what made it really memorable were the incredibly pushy, obnoxious incense touts who basically shove smoking incense in your hand and drag you in a circumambulation of the temple before pulling you out of the temple and screaming “Money!! Money!! Money!!!” at you. So, approach with your hands in your pockets and it’s a: EH
  • Main Post Office – Can’t see why this is a tourist attraction for anyone who isn’t an architecture dork. Even then, it’s probably not that interesting: MEH
  • Uncle Ho - Main Post Office, Saigon, Vietnam
    Uncle Ho at Saigon’s Main Post Office | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • War Remnants Museum – Well. In case you weren’t convinced that the Vietnam War (called “The American War” by the Vietnamese) was a complete atrocity, a walk through the photo exhibit of people terribly deformed by Agent Orange will convince you – especially when later in the day you see someone with a head the size of a 27″ TV being carted by wheelbarrow through Saigon’s streets. If it’s a hot day, be warned there is no air con and inside the exhibit rooms is hotter than outside. You need to go: YEH
  • At the War Remnants Museum, Saigon, Vietnam
    At the War Remnants Museum, Saigon, Vietnam | Photo by Lauren Girardin
  • Me Linh Square – Along the Saigon River, it’s not much of a draw unless you’re looking for a nice stroll. And even then: MEH
  • Sinh Cafe – You will never know for certain if you are at the real Sinh Cafe anywhere in Vietnam, rumor disagreed with the books which disagreed with the internet. As far as we could tell though, there is no reason to book in bulk, so skip any “open ticket that takes you more than one stop ahead. Just book as you need: YEH