Just 3 days before 2019 was about to bid us a generous goodbye, we hopped on a flight to explore Saigon and welcome 2020 in the Vietnamese way! A place that has witnessed some of the most gruesome wars of modern history, this city breathes life and vitality into all who are settled here and enchants travelers like us.
The moment we stepped out of Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport, we could feel the pulsating energy among the people! At a first glance, Saigon – or Ho Chi Minh City, as it’s called now (after the reunification of North and South Vietnam at the end of the Vietnam War) can seem like a megacity of chaos – courtesy of 13 million people and over 8 million motorbikes!
The first thing we figured out while on our way to the Airbnb from the airport is that the traffic rule in the city is crazy and one really needs to be impeccable at driving to deal with the wheels in Saigon!
In those 2 days, while we were there, we realized how true the words from Lonely Planet are when they said – “From the finest of hotels to the cheapest of guesthouses, the classiest of restaurants to the tastiest of street stalls, the choicest of boutiques to the scrum of the markets, HCMC is a city of energy and discovery.”
Honestly, we did our fair share of research before traveling to Saigon, but once we were there – we decided to keep the bucket list aside and go with the flow, soaking in the dynamism that the city had to offer, while walking around the timeless alleys and tiptoeing inside the incense-infused temples, before embracing the madness of the nightlife and gorging on delicious bowls of Phở!
Covering an area of over 4,100 square miles, Vietnam’s biggest city & business capital is a place worthy of months – but we just had 2 days to explore, and here are the best things that we managed to do in those 48 hours in Saigon!
Walking Around The Iconic Places In District 1 & Soaking In The Nightlife At Bùi Viện
While we spend almost a day and a half walking around District 1, the heart of Saigon, we mostly covered the popular touristy spots that are there! The day we arrived, we decided to drop the luggage at our Airbnb which was in De Tham Street (one of those backpacker’s hubs in the city) and thanks to our host, we figured out that we were pretty close to a lot of places that we wished to see!
Without wasting much time, we headed straight to Notre-Dame Basilica – Ho Chi Minh City’s most iconic Cathedral. Portraying a grand Romanesque and French Gothic style, this Cathedral was built in the late 1880s by the French colonists, and it’s one of the few remaining strongholds of Catholicism in the largely Buddhist Vietnam. Most of the materials used in the cathedral’s construction had been shipped over from France, including bricks from Toulouse that gave the cathedral its distinct red color, as still seen today. In 1959, a statue of Our Lady of Peace was installed outside the church, made with granite from Rome.
We couldn’t step in and had to adore the beauty from the outside, as it is undergoing a massive renovation project that began in August 2017 and is expected to last until June 2020.
Right across the road is the Saigon Central Post Office & for people like me who still believe in handwritten letters and postcards, this place is surely a treat. No matter whether you wish to mail a postcard back home or simply looking forward to admiring the architecture of a bygone era, this is definitely the place worth visiting. The bright yellow walls of this gorgeous building have made it one of the most Instagram-worthy places in the city. We had to make our way through the crowd that flocked outside, to get a perfect shot!
As we walked in, it felt like an old European city thrives inside this colonial building – with numerous shops selling everything from postcards and curios to perfumes and coffee, polished old-school phone booths standing in a row, original oil paintings hanging on the walls, wooden countertops along the sides with old glue pots to place stamps on envelopes, and areas to write a letter to a loved one.
Walking out of the Post Office, we quenched our thirst with chilled tender coconut water and tried finding our next stop on Google Maps, which seemed to be about a couple of minutes’ from where we were! At a distance of about 100 meters, right behind the Notre Dame Cathedral, around a bylane of the Post Office was this quaint paradise – Nguyễn Văn Bình Book Street.
Unlike the previous ones which were there on every traveler’s checklist, this street can be seen as one of those beautiful escapades, not known to all. This place can be rightly termed as an ‘outdoor library’ with numerous bookstalls on both sides of the lane and some cafes, where you can sit with a book for hours, sipping in your Vietnamese coffee! Not just books, but we did stumble upon stores selling attractive souvenirs, postcards, and stationeries at a very reasonable price. If you are a book lover, you gotta drop by the book street if you’re traveling to Saigon.
It was late afternoon when we could finally drag ourselves out of the book street (honestly, we could have spent an entire day there!) and headed straight for lunch at Phở Hòa Pasteur, one of the most popular local eateries selling the best Phở in Saigon! Seeing the crowd, we already knew that we’re gonna have a delightful lunch, but it all felt real when we slurped the first spoonful of soup! Run by successive generations of the same family, the broth recipe here is a family secret that helps create a little mystique around the flavors – and our tastebuds kept drooling over it.
[Thanks to Alyshia for suggesting this place!]
With a full stomach and a happy heart, our tired bodies craved for some rest – so we booked a Grab (the popular app-based taxi service in Vietnam, similar to Uber) and went back to our nest.
It was around 5 PM when we woke up and decided to head straight to Bến Thành Market. Known to be the oldest & largest marketplace in Saigon, this place is a paradise for shopaholics! From local handicrafts to branded goods, Vietnamese art and other souvenirs – you’re gonna get it all here! We were thrilled to see this tiny row inside the market, that was fully immersed in the world of Vietnamese food. People were sitting on these tiny stools with their steaming bowls and platters, gorging on the delicious stuff.
Note: You need to polish your bargaining skills, ‘coz everything here is a bit overpriced for tourists. But if you can negotiate, you’ll definitely get a good deal.
Grabbing some munchies and picking up some souvenirs, we stepped out of the market and decided to take a walk to Bùi Viện Street, which was about a kilometer away, in District 1. Our host told us that this street gets awesome at night – and we were quite excited to explore the backpacker’s paradise in Saigon!
To those who have been to Khao San Road in Bangkok, Bùi Viện Street is just another younger brother to it! With numerous pubs and restaurants on both sides of the lane, people selling handmade stuff and fire shows happening in the middle of the street – it was indeed a crazy scene out there! And it wasn’t just humans who were having fun, but there were fancy dogs with their masters, chilling on a bike!
The street food scene here is too good to be true (and at dirt cheap prices!). 2 people can easily have a hearty meal in just about 4 – 5 USD (800,000 – 1000,000 VND). We binged on some delicious grilled prawns and oysters, shared a Bánh mì (Vietnamese hotdog). And finally, taking a walk around the graffiti-laden corners and laughing with strangers over beer, we ended our first day in Saigon in the most amazing manner.
Soaking in the grueling history of the Vietnam War at the War Remnants Museum
Our morning began on sad notes, as we walked inside the War Remnants Museum which narrates the stories of Vietnam’s dark past. It felt like one of those scenes that we’ve seen in documentaries, where an American Huey helicopter parked next to an M48 Patton tank. Photographs displayed bodies blown to pieces & families grieving over the corpses of children, posters telling how landmines killed hundreds of innocent people, so on and so forth! The War Remnants Museum probably documents every single detail and even the minute costs of the Vietnam War that took place from 1955 to 1975.
Inside the museum, there are rooms dedicated to a particular theme. There’s one room that tells about the effects of the use of Agent Orange and Napalm by American and South Vietnamese forces with graphic photos. Another room talks about the legacy of unexploded munitions, one on “Historical Truths,” and another about the “Aggression and Atrocities.” There are showcases with American rifles and machine guns, American bullets and artillery shells, American uniforms and packs, and a large exhibit featuring the work of the war photographers around the world. While we went numb seeing the photographs and reading the anecdotes, we noticed that people were walking out teary-eyed. It made us realize all over again, why peace is so important and war is such a futile act!
We walked out silently and booked a cab for our next stop, the Tân Định Church!
Getting awed by the beauty of Tân Định Church
Scrolling through Instagram, we have come across this gorgeous church quite a few times but when we reached the Pink Church (as it is popularly called), it felt like we are standing right in front of some Disneyland Castle! Located on the Hai Ba Trung Street in District 3, this spectacular Pink Church is a 10-minute taxi ride from District 1 and it’s the second biggest church in Saigon, after Notre Dame Cathedral.
This 150-year-old church was built in Gothic architecture featuring Roman-style designs, and painted with the vibrant pink color on both the exterior and interior, making it more special amidst the heart of this dynamic city that attracts hundreds of local youths and foreign travelers like us!
Walking through the thick incense smoke at the Jade Emperor Pagoda
As we walked through the main entrance, we could see hundreds of people offering prayers and lighting bundles of incense sticks. There was a strange silence that gave us goosebumps, as we went inside the temple and walked down the narrow passageways filled with smoke. Widely considered to be the finest example of a Taoist temple in Vietnam, the Jade Emperor Pagoda now welcomes Buddhist worshipping. The intricate architecture and wood carvings, statues of Gods and Goddesses along with the life-like Chinese characters create an exotic and timeless ambiance.
A pit stop for lunch at Huynh Hoa
By now, you must have figured out that food plays an important role in all our journeys! In fact, over the years, we have realized that you can best judge a place by the food it has to offer and the warmth of the people. We’ve been lucky to have found both in Saigon.
While we already had tried Bánh mì the other day, we got to know that Huynh Hoa Sandwich Shop sells the best! This hole in the wall joint in District 1 is nothing fancy, and might not look very convincing if you pass by at odd hours! There are no tables and chairs, but you will definitely not get to overlook it when they’re open – thanks to the long line of patrons (locals & travelers combined) queuing up for one of the best sandwiches in the city. Our cravings were well dealt with, just after the first bite!
Note: They have a fixed price for both Veg & Non-Veg ones – each for 45,000 VND (that’s not even 2 USD!).
Strolling around District 1, soaking in the laid back afternoon vibes of the city!
Post lunch, we were a bit tired (thanks to the sultry weather in Saigon, even in the month of December) and thus, we thought to take a walk back to the accommodation. To be honest, walking around the streets of this city felt so blissful – especially in the afternoons! We crossed a park in District 1, where youngsters were sitting and chilling in broad daylight. There were kids playing around while their mothers grabbed coconuts and laughed over conversations. People had closed their shops and eating lunch on the roads, and then, there were people like us, wandering aimlessly admiring the beauty of Saigon which often gets slow-paced for a couple of hours every afternoon!
Walking back to our Airbnb, I was counting the places that we were missing out but then RD reminded me that we always need reasons to get back, right?
Walking around Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard and ending the day with lots of desserts
In the evening, we planned to explore this broad walking promenade in the middle of District 1 city center which comes to life after dusk! Starting from the Ho Chi Minh People’s Committee Building, this long lane is meant for pedestrians and has been beautifully revamped with colorful decorations and modern water fountains, fancy cafes and roadside benches for those who wish to sit & relax. It was New Year’s Eve and there was hustle & bustle all around. People were all dressed up, clicking photographs, walking in and out of the Vincom Shopping Center that was right across the road, or just lazing around until the clock struck midnight!
There’s this amazing Cafe Apartment in Nguyễn Huệ Street – an old residential building which now has opened up some of the boutique cafes & restaurants of Saigon, in order to welcome food-lovers, but we didn’t manage to get a table anywhere that night (hard luck!). So instead, we chose to walk around and binge on some delicious desserts, ending the day (and the year!) on some sweet notes!
We tried the Oreo Cheese Tarts from Hokkaido Baked Tart shop and they were too good to be put to words! Later, we grabbed a Japanese fluffy cheesecake from Uncle Lu’s and waited till the fireworks began at midnight and the whole of Nguyễn Huệ Street sharted shouting – “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới – Xin chào 2020!” (Happy New Year, Welcome 2020).
As I said earlier, we didn’t get to see a lot of things in Saigon – whether it’s the Fine Arts Museum or the Independence Palace, the Cao Dai Temple or the Japanese Town – but what we did experience in those 48 hours, was immensely beautiful and worth cherishing!
In case you’re thinking of traveling for a week, Khyati (a friend, and a travel enthusiast) has curated a perfect 7-day itinerary for Vietnam – go check it out!
Have you been to Saigon and want us to know about something that we should definitely add to our bucket list, in case we travel back again? Or would you like to ask us something? – We are all ears!