Heading to Vietnam but looking for a more authentic experience than the oft-bemoaned backpacker street? Some travellers describe Saigon as lacking in culture, especially compared to its more-charming capital counterpart, Hanoi. Quaint, it ain’t. However, Saigon is incredible fun and visiting it can give you a true and interesting insight to a way of life very different from your own. Here’s how to get a flavour for the local life in good ol’ Ho Chi Minh:
Eat an Authentic Street Food Dinner
Ho Chi Minh City is full of street food, and it’s an important part of the culture. Not only is much of it delicious, it’s cheap too.
For breakfast and lunch, there are banh mí stands on virtually every street; stopping at one is an absolute must. With it’s crusty-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bread, pâté and assortment of meats, the banh mí is arguably Vietnam’s most delicious creation: can you really say you’ve been to ‘Nam if you haven’t eaten one? (Answer: no). For the best one in the city, head to Huynh Hoa Bakery at 26 Lê Thị Riêng, District 1 (it’s super close to backpacker street) between 3-11pm. You’ll spot it a mile off from the long line of loyal patrons waiting for their daily dose of deliciousness, but the queue moves quickly and trust me, it’s worth the wait. ₫35,000 (£1.15/$1.50) for the best sandwich of your life.
At dinner time, you should ditch District 1 for the neighbouring District 4 (a 10-15 minute Grab ride) and go to Ben Van Don street, which my friends and I have dubbed ‘Restaurant Road’ because of the sheer volume of delicious street restaurants. Ôc Phât at 96 / 61B, 109D Ben Van Don is our favourite. You can eat everything from fish and morning glory (the plant, not the other thing) to frogs’ legs and snails- both of which I was not keen to try, but found surprisingly tasty. It’s a great opportunity to get a true taste (see what I did there) of Vietnam and to rub shoulders with the locals- you won’t see many other foreigners there!
Drive a Motorbike
Until you arrive here, it’s difficult to understand just how much the motorbike madness shapes the city. “Mental” is a word I’ve heard used to describe Ho Chi Minh on more than one occasion, and the volume of motorbikes has a large hand in this. The traffic rules the city, and the bikes are everywhere- no, you’re not safe on the pavement. The vast majority of locals get around using a scooter, and it’s hard to imagine what life here would be like without them. So, in order to truly experience life as a Saigonese local, you should climb aboard and go for a little ride around the city!
Obviously, riding a motorbike intimidating and the heavy traffic makes it even more so. If you’re not keen on renting a motorbike, you should at least take a Grab bike (you’ll need to download the app first) and experience what it’s like to be in the middle of the madness.
Watch the Sunset from Thủ Thiêm Park
There are plenty of great rooftop bars in Ho Chi Minh City that boast excellent happy hours, but they’re most often frequented by expats and tourists. For a more authentic experience, head to Thủ Thiêm park in District 2 next to the Saigon River. You’ll see a handful of food carts, drinks sellers and a line of small plastic chairs facing out onto the river- and probably very few westerners. Get there around 6pm, BYOB, pull up a chair and chill out as you watch the sun go down and the city light up. It’s a little off the beaten track, so here’s the exact Google location: follow this and you won’t go far wrong. Assuming you’re staying on Bui Vien backpacker street, it should take you between 15-20 minutes to get there by Grab bike/taxi.
You can also do something similar- though a little less peaceful- on the Thủ Thiêm bridge that connects District 2 and Binh Thanh District. There’s a wide pavement on the bridge where you can park up and gaze at the Saigon skyline as the sun sets and the night lights up; it’s pretty beautiful. You’ll find lots of locals doing the same, especially young couples seeking a little privacy from their parents.
Drink at a Beer Club
Love drinking, hate talking to people? Uncle Ho has just the thing for ya. Beer clubs are a somewhat-confusing pub-club hybrid. You can get cheap, and often all-you-can-drink beer with a side of music so loud your ears will be ringing for weeks. It might be a bit in-your-face upon arrival, but a few cold ones will probably help you enjoy it a little more. With their flashing lights, dancing girls and DJ sets, these clubs are not exactly traditional, but they’ve become very popular with the younger generation. Mahalo and Vuvuzela beer clubs are popular chains and have cropped up all over the city. Even if they don’t become your preferred watering hole, they’re definitely worth a visit.
“Love” is probably too weak a word to describe how the Vietnamese feel about karaoke. Belting out ballads isn’t limited to the hundreds of karaoke bars spread all over the city; you often hear it on the beach, by the side of the road and even once on a small rowboat in Ninh Binh. My Vietnamese colleagues even used to get some classroom karaoke going on our weekend lunch breaks, because why not?! In Vietnam, you do not need to be drunk or possess an ounce of talent to pick up that mic and unleash your inner Whitney.
Since being a little drunk definitely helps most people feel a little more musical, I’d recommend going to a karaoke bar. They’re generally pretty cheap, and huge amounts of fun. You get a private room, a catalogue of songs and the staff bring you beer on beer on beer. I had a great experience at Kingdom Karaoke at 67-69 Pham Viet Chanh Street, District 1. Catwalk and Avatar are also popular choices, but there are a myriad of others- you’ll definitely find something. Happy singing!
Have you been to Saigon? How did you sample local living? Let me know in the comments below!