City guide: Ho Chi Minh City
Brian is a lawyer with an international firm headquartered in Singapore. He shares his experience of living in Saigon, and gives us some local tips.
What brought you to Ho Chi Minh City?
In 2011, I moved from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City to start the Vietnam offices of my law firm.
What do you love and hate about the city?
First and foremost, I love the food in Ho Chi Minh City. However, I think much lyrical has been waxed about Vietnamese food by others far more qualified in the subject than I am, so I shall choose something else.
A close second love will have to be HCMC's abundance of taxis. Whilst HCMC does not have a rail or subway system yet (it is undergoing construction still), getting around the city centre (i.e. District 1) is relatively easy compared to other cities due to the large number of taxis available.
Also, as Vietnam has only recently (in the past decade or so) started seeing the beginning of a burgeoning middle-class population and a corresponding shift in spending patterns, its populace is still largely frugal and practical, preferring motorcycles over cars in general. This means traffic is still somewhat tolerable for a city of around 12 million people, and much better than Bangkok (6 million) and Jakarta (9 million). Simply put, it's convenient for me to cab all the time.
Hate? Taxi-drivers. Well, not really. Just a minor irritation. Some of them have a habit of deliberately misunderstanding their passengers, especially if you are a foreigner. But thankfully the fares are seldom alarming, even with the merry-go-round.
Pictured above: Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City (credit: Vietnam Gunners)
Most cities have a certain way they are organised. What about Ho Chi Minh City?
I would have to say – it's very French. Like the rest of Indochina, I guess. I am tempted to ask, what town planning? Haha. Large central boulevards. Districts all over. District 1, the main business district, borders District 3. District 2 is by itself somewhere 20 minutes away from District 1. There are some districts with no numbers.
What is the best way to get around the city?
Weekends, by motorbike or motorbike taxis (also known as "xe om" – pronounced as "seh ohm"). Weekdays, taxis.
What are some relaxing things to do in the city on the weekends?
I typically spend mornings at some brunch place, followed by a massage in the afternoon and a slow dinner at one of the numerous french restaurants in town. Typical stuff, nothing out of the ordinary. Lots of beautiful spots to explore.
A good alternative activity I would recommend is a cooking class (at a restaurant named Hoa Tuc) – great way to acquaint yourself with local food and spend 3 hours.
What are some less touristy activities you recommend for friends who are visiting?
Cooking class, and an art tour. For the latter, try Sophie's Art Tour for an amazing experience. Sophie gives a fantastic narrative of Vietnam's history from the perspective of its art and its artists. Exceptionally curated, and beautifully executed.
What are your favourite neighbourhoods in Ho Chi Minh City?
Thao Dien, in Distrct 2. Idyllic and charming area, home largely to expat families, full of international-themed restaurants, very little traffic.
What are some local tips you can share with us?
First, when having 'pho', be sure to include the raw vegetables, as well as the lime, sliced jalapeno (that's the innocuous pale green chilli) and both the black and red chilli sauce.
Second, drink local beer (333 or saigon beer). Put ice into your local beer – it was crafted specifically for that.
Last but not least, don't say Ho Chi Minh, say Saigon.
Where/what would you recommend to eat and drink in Ho Chi Minh City?
Pho Hoa along Pastuer. Best-known non-"fastfood-pho" place.
Pho Hung. To get there, just tell the cab driver "AB Tower, 76 Le Lai Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh", get off at the AB Tower, look for the KFC opposite the road and you should see Pho Hung (signboard has yellow words on black background – difficult to miss)
Pictured above: Pho Hung (credit: Tour Plus)
Le Bouchon de Saigon. French food. Opened in Feb 2012. It's probably one of the better french bistro-styled places. Food is awesome. Prices are reasonable. Noisy, boisterous, superb for friday nights pre-clubbing. Reservation needed on weekends.
Pizza 4ps. Japanese Italian pizza place. They have a proper stone oven. They make and sell their own burrata, mozzarella. Their pastas, pizzas, starters and deserts are all to die for. Reservation needed daily, one week's advance booking for weekends. Tied with Trois Gourmands (below) for best restaurant in HCMC in my opinion.
Shri Restaurant. Good fancy rooftop restaurant. Wine list is excellent.
The Refinery. French Mediterranean food. Favourite of mine. Convenient, very good food, reasonable prices, great decor, decent wine list, etc. Staple destination for all my visitors.
Chill. Fancy place, rooftop concept with great views of the city. Pretty good looking crowd. Reservation required for dinner. No slippers (including Havaianas), no berms.
Dong Pho. Good for wraps and rolls. Hue food. Quality fluctuates but on good nights, probably the best. Average-good on bad days.
Trois Gourmands. A little far out in D2. Probably one of the best fancy French places in Saigon - consistently tied for top with La Villa on tripadvisor (never been to the latter, didn't hear good stuff from friends). They make their own cheeses. They foie gras-sify and trufflelize every bloody thing. It's awesome. Reservations needed.
Ty Coz. Located in a little alley. Homely french food.
Cuc Gach Quan. Typical home-cooked southern Vietnam food. Nice setting. Tastes too much like Chinese food if you ask me. Touristy.
An Vien. Great restaurant for fine Vietnamese food. Flower hot pot with scampy is great.
Tib Restaurant. Good for Hue food. Almost the same type of stuff as Dong Pho. Quality consistently high.
Temple Club. Good for general Vietnamese dishes. Almost similar in style to Cuc Gach but I think they do a better job with the food.
Le Bordeaux. Also one of the best fancy French places in Saigon. Slightly stuffier than Trois Gourmands.
Skewers. Greek, mediterranean place. Damn good skewers. And dips. And just about every thing. Must have made the Japanese guide books because it's always full of Japanese.
La Bettola. Italian. Homemade pastas are amazing. So are the starters. Authentic, hearty Italian. Pizzas are great too. Tends to be full so reservations recommended.
Sunday champagne / prosecco brunch at Park Hyatt Hotel's Opera Cafe, or Intercon's Market 39 – I personally prefer Intercon but it's more difficult to get a reservation. Both places require at least 3 days advance reservation, especially for weekend brunch.
The Refinery. Standard brunch fare, in addition to regular menu.
Au Parc. Same type of food as The Refinery. quaint little cafe facing a park close to the fake Notredam.
L'usine - definitely one of the prettiest places around, along Dong Khoi.
Martini Bar. Great place for pre-clubbing post-dinner drinks. See-and-be-seen sorta place. Drinks only.
Chill Skybar. Great for the view and people watching. See-and-be-seen place (stole a lot of the limelight from Martini Bar). Reservation recommended.
Blanchy's Tash. Popular watering hole for expats and working crowd. 3 floors. People generally head there after Martini Bar (dancing on the ground floor, drinking on the upper floor). Or before clubbing. Drinks and head-bobbing.
Lush. International crowd. Young, mostly early 20s. Happening on Tuesday nights. Good for dancing on most nights.
Velvet. Almost the same as Lush, but with more well-heeled locals. Early to mid 20s crowd. Pretty good vibe most nights. Dancing.
Apocalypse. Quintessential tourist spot. Online reviews are pretty accurate. Pretty trashy place, if you ask me. Never spent more than 15mins there. Trashy dancing.
Sheraton Rooftop Club. Online reviews are pretty accurate. Dancing with little drinking. Good live band.
Xu Bar. This place has seen a revival of late. Well-heeled locals. Crowd mostly in the late 20s to early 30s. Drinks and head-bobbing.
ACE Club. New place. Popular with the well-heeled locals and some overseas Viets because of the owners. Mid 20s to early 30s. Dancing place. Bottle service.
Stylish stays in Ho Chi Minh City
This spacious 3 bedroom apartment, located in the center of District 1, is the perfect starting point to explore the rest of Ho Chi Minh City.
Going to Ho Chi Minh City? Check out more places to stay on Roomorama.
Addresses of Aforementioned Places:
Pho Hua 260 Pastuer Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh.
Pho Hung AB Tower, 76 Le Lai Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh.
Le Bouchon de Saigon 40 Thai Van Lung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh.
Pizza 4ps 8/15 Lê Thánh Tôn street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh.
Shri Restaurant Level 23, Centec Tower; 72-74 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai; District 3, Ho Chi Minh.
The Refinery 74 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh.
Chill 26 & 27th Floor Rooftop, AB Tower (opp where Pho Hung is), 76 Le Lai Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh.
Dong Pho 57 Ho Xuan Huong Street, Ward 6, District 3, Ho Chi Minh.
Trois Gourmands 39 Tran Ngoc Dien Street, Thao Dien Ward, District 2, Ho Chi Minh.
Ty Coz 178/4 Pasteur, District 1, Ho Chi Minh.
Cuc Gach Quan 10 Dang Tat, Ward Tan Dinh, Ho Chi Minh City District 1, Vietnam.
An Vien 178 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam.
Tib Restaurant 187 DL Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Temple Club 29-31 Ton That Thiep Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Le Bordeaux 72-D2 Van Thanh Bac Street, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Skewers 9A Thai Van Lung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
La Bettola 84 Ho Tung Mau, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Au Parc 23 Han Thuyen, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Martini Bar Park Hyatt ground floor, along Hai Ba Trung, opposite where Refinery is.
Blanchy's Tash 95 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Lush 2 Ly Tu Trong Street District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Apocalypse 2C Thi Sach Street District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Xu Bar 75 Hai Ba Trung, District 1, Ho Chi Minh, just further down (or up, depending on which direction you're looking) from Blanchy's Tash.
Ace Club 21 Nguyen Trung Ngan, District 1 Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.