Every year, a few friends say they’re traveling to Vietnam, and since I used to live there, ask me for my top tips for traveling in Ho Chi Minh City. I’m more than happy to share recommendations; Vietnam will forever hold a special place in my heart. But as I’m sure both my Vietnamese and international friends who have lived in Vietnam will tell me—this list is far from complete.
Below started as a list given to a guy I was talking with on OKCupid (I really only gave him this list and then forgot to talk to him afterwards, whoops), and then evolved as other friends asked for recommendations in Ho Chi Minh City. While mostly favorite foods and quick tips and potentially outdated, the list has been vouched for by a friend currently living there (“pretty spot on” in his opinion)—the snails place is his recommendation, so you know who to blame if you need to 😉
Have a GREAT time; I know you’ll love it! Don’t forget to tell me your new favorites.
Each building has their addresses on a sign above the door, which makes it easy to get around. Alleyways have really quirky addresses, but you can generally figure it out. The numbers work it’s way up from alleyway to street (to potentially even larger street). Find common words for road, street, district here.
Take motorbike taxis, or rent your own, but be sure to bargain for absolutely everything (for my China friends, even more so than China). You’ll find people friendlier than in China, but Vietnam is still a developing country so just keep an eye out. Vietnam is not a violent country by any means (I never felt like I was in violent danger), but do be careful of your stuff.
Motorbike thieves will try to pinch your stuff when you’re walking down the street. My friend got dragged by her shoulder bag late at night when a thief grabbed it while she was walking. My older expat friends have told me if this was the case, just drop your bag—it’s not worth it to get dragged. Never be scared, but just a heads up; keep things close to your person (bags/backpacks on your front, etc). I recommend a drawstring/cleat bag for this purpose.
Vietnam also has some beautiful local art, infused with both local and French flavors from the colonial era. One of my favorite things to do was to wander around local art galleries. I bought a few beautiful paintings on silk, which I brought home for gifts (just keep them rolled up in a tube). Naturally I bought mine on the beach in Nha Trang when a lady came up to me and said, “Wanna buy some paintings?” But actually, it was a great decision, and I was able to bargain down to get three at a great price.
I lived on an alley off of Mac Dinh Chi close to the intersection of Dien Bien Phu. There’s a park across the street where they played badminton in the morning—so much fun. If you wake up early enough (before 7), you can join them before they take down the nets; they’re very friendly.
The Main Event: FOOD
Vietnamese food is AMAZING. As is their coffee. Street food is always better than restaurant food in Vietnam, IMHO.
- Quan An Ngon: A great “street food restaurant” that makes Saigon’s amazing street food in a more upscale, hygienic restaurant atmosphere; highly rated on TripAdvisor. I took visitors from out of town here! Go here first to better understand what you’re eating off the street.
- An ambitious friend amazingly finished this list of 100 Vietnamese Foods to Try from Wandering Chopsticks, which has brilliantly more adventurous foods. Here’s a list from CNN Travel that actually still has a great collection, but keeps it to 40. “Banh” means “bread,” but you’ll find that’s a pretty elastic definition. Eat any and all kinds of spring rolls, fresh are my favorite. Try all the sauces; find on any street corner. I’m all about goi cuon.
- Banh Xeo 46A: I LOVE Banh Xeo (fried savory “crepe”)! I didn’t realize until after I’d been there a few times that THIS was the place Anthony Bourdain recommends. It’s tough to find–you’ll wing through a ton of alleyways, but totally worth it. Locals also love it. You can also find it at the Quan An Ngon restaurant.
- Banh Mi—a great breakfast (or anytime) food. When I was there, one cost about $0.25.
- Bun Thit Nuong: This is my favorite kind of dish! I recommend any kind of “bun” (rice noodles), but bun thit nuong is my favorite. I got this meal for lunch quite often, as the lady right outside my window sold it in my alley, but you can find bun thit nuong in a lot easier to find places!
- Ganesh: If you’re tired of Vietnamese, try this Indian place. Best Indian I’ve had outside of India. Surrounding area also pretty cool for exploring.
- COFFEE! Vietnam made me love a good cup of coffee, so be sure to stock up before you leave. My recommendation is the weasel coffee, which you can find at Ben Thanh Market (the big market, near the backpacker’s district). You can find weasel coffee at less hectic places, but this is where I picked up mine. Make sure to pick up the traditional Vietnamese drip coffee filter; they’re super cheap, and make GREAT gifts (Get like five+. YOU get a filter; YOU get a filter)! My favorite way to have Vietnamese coffee is “ca phe sua da”—sweetened iced coffee. “So ubiquitous and so popular that it’s the one single Vietnamese term that expats here are even more likely to be familiar with than the local words for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’” This is most likely accurate. Vietnamese coffee packs a big punch, and it’s consistency may be that of motor oil. Just do it.
- Cuc Gach Quan: Classic Vietnamese dishes in a uniquely artistic, easy-to-dine environment. “Expensive” for VN. Also good for out-of-town guests.
- SEAFOOD: If you like seafood, definitely try to have a seafood night. Snails make a really fun meal, as does crab. Just be careful and try to find one that’s been vetted by friends; I’ve known friends to have a nasty case of the runs after a bad snail meal. This one vetted by Migrationology seems to be all right, though I’ve never been. A friend in HCMC recommends Oc Dao. Fair warning, although super popular with the locals, this place may be a little challenging for travelers (language barrier).
Address: Ốc Đào Nguyen Trai 212/C79 Nguyen Trai St., Nguyen Cu Trinh Wd., Dist.1, Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
- Crab. I don’t have any particular recommendations as to where, but just go and find yourself some ohmygosh delicious crab. They sell it on the beach, they sell it at little shops.
Bonus: District 5 & 6 are Ho Chi Minh’s “Chinatown;” fun for food. There are many Chinese-Vietnamese families in the city and throughout the country.
Double Bonus: Craft Beer. Fairly new to HCMC. I knew Mike when I lived in the city; his blog (linked) shares info on the fledging craft brew scene here. Pasteur Street in general is a pretty awesome area.