Life plays out in public spaces in Ho Chi Minh – the best food is found in little carts beside the street, the local barber plies his trade from a stool on the pavement, and children play on every corner.

Give in to the charms of Ho Chi Minh City, the sprawling metropolis formerly (and still unofficially) known as Saigon, and you’ll find yourself carried along with it, like blood pumping through its fast-beating heart. 

Behind the well-worn colonial facade is a chequered history that has seen Ho Chi Minh City tangled up in the fates of Cambodia, France, Japan and the US, and at the centre of several bloody wars. Today, the remnants of various cultures and conflicts have combined to form a culture that is utterly, uniquely Ho Chi Minh City. 

The city’s history as a French colony is the most obvious; its centre retains the faded elegant look of a European city, all wide, tree-lined boulevards and grand public buildings. This French link also expresses itself in several popular Vietnamese dishes, especially banh mi, the crispy baguettes stuffed with meat, herbs and pickles, and ca phe, the strong, bitter coffee the Vietnamese drink, often blended with ice – it’s hot all year round here – and condensed milk. 

You could easily spend a week soaking up the culture, nightlife and food of Ho Chi Minh City, but if you have limited time, three days will give you a great overview of the city and its fascinating past. 

Despite the city’s size, the centre is walkable and you’ll find plenty of landmarks within a few blocks. To go further afield, there are taxis (use Vinasun or Mai Lin) or mototaxis, known as xe om, which are the locals’ preferred method of getting around. You’ll see whole families balanced on one bike, or a rider with a box of chickens or a stack of conical hats swaying alarmingly at each turn. The constant stream of bikes across a four-lane road may seem insurmountable but, as with every aspect of Ho Chi Minh City, the trick is just to take a deep breath and do as the locals do. Walk slowly, and make like the prow of a ship gently parting a sea of wheels and motors.

Take advantage of the densely packed city centre and spend your first two days exploring on foot. You can join a tour to see the sights – hotels or hostels will be able to organise one for you – but it’s incredibly easy to do it yourself at your own pace.

Start your first day at the cluster of the city’s most impressive French colonial architecture. Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon, an incongruous show of Catholicism in largely Buddhist Vietnam, was built in the late 19th century with materials imported from France. The statue of the Virgin Mary was the site of an alleged miracle in 2005 – join the throngs of faithful waiting for another. Beside the cathedral is the Saigon Central Post Office, another stunning example of 1890s French colonial architecture that retains its original purpose – though you’ll also find a souvenir shop inside. Both buildings are free to enter, but dress appropriately for the cathedral.

Two blocks away is the People’s Committee Building; originally built as a hotel and today serving as a city hall, it’s not open to the public but is a spectacular building that’s worth a look. Another block on, you’ll spot the Saigon Opera House which has been meticulously restored to its 19th-century glory. If your time and budget allow, performances here are of a very high calibre and will set you back about $75.

Leave the city’s colonial past behind and head to Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in town, for 360-degree views of the city (called the Saigon Skydeck, the high-speed elevator to the top costs about $13). The building also houses the World of Heineken interactive museum and bar (add another $5).

Back on the ground, head into Ben Thanh, Vietnam’s largest and oldest market, with a history dating back to the 17th century. Inside, you’ll find souvenirs, clothing, shoes, toys, electronics, food – literally whatever you want. Be prepared to haggle for the best price and watch your pockets in the crowd. 

At around 6pm, the main markets close and the Ben Thanh night markets open. Expect more of the same, but outdoors and with a wider selection of street food – this is a great place to grab dinner and a cold bottle of 333 beer.

Start day two at the unmissable War Remnants Museum (about $2.50), an expansive museum that pulls no punches in its coverage of the Vietnam War (known here as the American War). It’s quite graphic and fairly one-sided, but it’s an excellent way to learn about the war from the perspective of the Vietnamese. Take your time here, it can be intense but it’s important.

From here, it’s a short walk to the Reunification, or Independence, Palace, which made history in 1975 when a North Vietnamese Army tank crashed through its main gate, as Saigon fell at the end of the Vietnam War. As long as no official meetings are taking place, you can go inside for about $2.50: the basement features tunnels, a war room and telecommunications centre all virtually untouched since the ’70s.

In the evening, head to the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre for traditional Vietnamese storytelling through puppetry. There are usually two shows a night; book in advance (about $18) through your hotel’s reception desk.

After the show, head to Bui Vien, Ho Chi Minh City’s answer to Bangkok’s Khao San Road. There’s a seedy underside to this area, but the drinks are cheap, the music is pumping and the tourist-watching is insane. You can get a meal here, though menus cater heavily to western tastes, and sit street-side to watch the madness of the night unfold.

For your final day, head to the Cu Chi tunnels, about a 90-minute trip north of the city. The tunnels are an excellent addition to your Vietnam War history lessons. The Viet Cong dug, mostly by hand, this extensive network for military operations and for hiding whole communities. Today, you can climb inside and walk through small sections – claustrophobics, go with caution. You can combine this with a visit to the Mekong Delta or another historic site in the north on a full-day tour, though the half-day trips are the most popular option. Book through your hotel, or at one of the tourist operators around Bui Vien.

Spend the evening relaxing at one of Ho Chi Minh City’s many, many trendy rooftop bars. For a big night in the Ben Thanh area, look to the misnomered Chill Skybar on top of the AB Tower, or AIR Saigon’s deep house party vibe. Looking to relax? Pop into Broma: Not a Bar, for craft beers and signature cocktails in a hip space, or try Social Club Rooftop Bar at the Hotel Des Arts for jazz with a view. Life in Ho Chi Minh City is good on the streets, but it’s just as good in the air. 

Where to stay

In Saigon, there are endless accommodation options, from budget hostels right up to ultra-luxe hotel rooms. Look for something in district 1, near the city’s main attractions and markets. At the very top end of the scale is the Grand Hotel Saigon (hotelgrandsaigon.com), a beautifully restored colonial building near the river with a spa, pool and three restaurants, including one on the rooftop. Rooms start at $185 per night.

Or crash at insta-friendly The Hammock Hotel (thehammockhotel.com), where each “nest” (aka room) includes, yes, a hammock, and breakfast, plus there’s free snacks all day and free beer on the rooftop at night. It costs $80 for two people in a bunk bed twin room.

For those on a tight budget, The Dorm Saigon (thedormsaigon.com) offers a standard double room with shared bathroom for $36. The amenities are modern and there’s a lounge area on the roof.

What to eat

Vietnamese food, with its complex broths, fresh herbs and liberal use of chilli, is easily one of the most delicious cuisines in Asia, so get those chopsticks at the ready. You’ve probably already tried pho (but you must also have a local one) and bahn mi (ditto) in Australia, but here are four dishes to try in Ho Chi Minh City.

Bun thit nuong cha gio: When it’s hot and humid, order this flavour-heavy dish of cold vermicelli noodles topped with grilled pork, chopped spring rolls (the cha gio in the name), fresh herbs, lettuce, roasted peanuts, pickled carrots and a sweet and sour fish sauce. It’s so popular you’ll find it everywhere from street carts to upscale restaurants. 

Banh cuon: A favourite breakfast food, these steamed rice paper crepes are filled with mushrooms and seasoned ground pork, and topped with bean sprouts, herbs, and fried shallots. Dip each bite into the sweet fish sauce and add chilli to start the day right.

Com suon: This simple, inexpensive meal of rice and grilled pork chop is a traditional Saigon favourite. It’s served with fried green onions, crispy pork rind, pickled vegetables and a small bowl of broth.

Banh xeo: Unlike in the rest of the country, in Ho Chi Minh City these rice flour and coconut milk pancakes stuffed with pork slices, shrimps, onions, bean sprouts and mushrooms are served small as a snack. Wrap in lettuce or rice-papers along with fresh herbs and a peanut sauce, then dip in fish sauce.

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