Filling Up on Food & History in Saigon

Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited! 

After a week of rainy days in beach towns, I was stoked to arrive in Saigon*. I had no idea just how much I had missed being in a big city until I started walking the busy, insane, noisy streets of Saigon.

*(Yes, the official name since 1975 is Ho Chi Minh City. But I much prefer Saigon and will continue to call it that for the duration of this post and probably my life).

I was actually prepared to not like Saigon. More accurately, I had a feeling I would prefer Hanoi to Saigon for some reason. So I was quite surprised when I found myself quickly preferring Saigon. With its skyscrapers and chaotic yet well-planned street grid, I was reminded of New York. It felt familiar and comfortable.

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I had a full four days in the city which I knew I needed so that I could eat everything. Much like Hanoi, I came to Saigon with a full Notes list of places to eat built from friend recos, lots of googling and blog reading (check out Legal Nomads post here), and Culture Trip guides. I planned my time in Saigon around eating and sightseeing, basically taking my own food & history tours of the city each day. It was, in my opinion, the best way to explore the city. Like Hanoi, there are a lot of good places to try all of the dishes so I will share a few of my favorites and the other spots recommended.

Things to Do

There’s a lot of history to experience in Saigon so if you are interested in this (especially Vietnam War era history), you will love it. Much of the city is walkable, but it’s vast. Hopping on a motorbike taxi or doing a Vespa tour will make it easier to see more of the city, especially if you are short on time.

 

 

Cu Chi Tunnels (about an hour and a half from Saigon) – These are the famous tunnels that the Vietcong used during the Vietnam War as part of their guerrilla warfare strategy. People lived in these tunnels, used them to transport things, and they were essential to hiding from the South Vietnamese and American armies. Visiting the tunnels allows you to learn more about their design, purpose, and strategies used to combat the opponent. You can take a walk (ahem, crawl) through a portion of the tunnels as well as see some of the traps and hiding places used during the war. I deliberated this one a lot – I have a bit of claustrophobia and was pretty confident I was not going to like whatever was happening in these tunnels. But I am so glad I went! I had a fascinating tour guide (Jackie) who had fought alongside the US during the war (and was subsequently imprisoned for treason after the war). His perspective and stories made everything that much more interesting. There is also more than just the tunnels to see and it really paints a good picture as to how the Vietcong were able to outsmart the US Army in a totally unfamiliar kind of warfare. The tunnels are quite small and you have the option to skip them if you are uncomfortable. There are also multiple exits in the tunnels so you can check out the first 20 meters and then exit (which is what I did) or you can continue on. There were quite a few bigger guys in my group that made it all the way through to the end (150 meters) though they apparently had to crawl on their stomachs at one point. Note that these tours will stop at a local handcrafts place where you will see individuals affected by Agent Orange making crafts. It’s one of those annoying “required” stops on these tours, but it’s a nice break and some of the crafts were actually quite nice. Tour cost $20US for the smaller group option (about 24 people) which is more expensive than the 45-person group tour, but you get what you pay for…

 

 

Independence Palace – This was the home and office of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and is the place where, during the fall of Saigon, a North Vietnamese tank crashed into its gates. I liked this place mostly for the interior design. It still retains the mid-century modern design from when it was in use which is really cool to see. Entry costs 65K VND which includes access to another museum on the grounds with additional exhibits.

 

 

War Remnants Museum – Probably my favorite sight in Saigon. It’s a powerful place. This museum is quite large and hosts a number of exhibits (some rotating) on the Vietnam War. Not only is there a lot of historical information, but there are also some very moving/emotional exhibits on the impact of the war (immediate and longer-term). I found myself trying to hold back tears a few times here. (40K VND to enter)

 

 

Saigon Post Office & Cathedral – These are located next to each other and are a quick visit (if you are like me). I didn’t go inside the cathedral (I have been to so many that I’d rather not), but I did walk inside the post office which is just one big souvenir shop. It is also a functioning post office and you can buy and mail postcards from here.

Southern Women’s Museum – Free to enter, but there’s not much to see. Nowhere near as extensive as the Women’s Museum in Hanoi. If you’re in the area, stop by for a quick visit. Not worth going out of your way to see.

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Jade Emperor Pagoda – Another place that is nice to see if you are nearby, but don’t bother going out of your way for this one. Very pretty, but small.

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Pink Church – Do a walk by and snap some photos. You cannot go in as a tourist, unfortunately. Close by is Le Van Tam Park. If you are like me and love parks, Le Van Tam Park is a nice spot to walk around and chill out (in between meals, haha). Not a very large park, but lots of benches and shade. Very close to Banh Xeo 46a.

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Saigon Vespa Tour – I really wanted to try one of these Vespa tours and decided to the Vespa Adventures Saigon After Dark tour. It’s pricey ($95), but it was a lot of fun and I got to see a few things I wouldn’t have experienced on my own. For the tour, each person gets paired up with a Vespa driver and there is a photographer around all night taking photos (which are then sent to you after the tour). During the tour, we went to a local seafood restaurant where we have clams, mussels, grilled frog, and some noodles. Incredible (the mussels were amazing). We end up getting banh xeo at Banh Xeo 46a (my 2nd time there!) but we also get to try a few other dishes as well. The best stop was at the end – we went to Cafe Vung which is a cool little coffee shop/bar with live music (open mic style with some fantastic singers). Finally, we went to Woodstock, a rock music club with an awesome Filipino band. Really fun night and totally recommend checking out their tours.

 

 

Visit Cholon (Saigon’s Chinatown) – I took a Grab over to District 5 and wandered around Chinatown. Very different feeling than other parts of Saigon and worth checking out if you have time to explore. There are many small, beautiful temples worth walking into while you are there. I had some incredible com tam (broken rice) with grilled pork and veggies in this area (just follow the scent of grilled pork to Com Tam An Duong Vuong!). You can also check out Hay Tin flower market which is a maze of little streets covered in beautiful flowers.

Eating all the Food

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grilled pork & com tam (broken rice)

I planned so much of my time in Saigon around eating, even to the extent that I would have two lunches (early lunch and late lunch) so I could squeeze everything in. Fortunately, I also did a lot of walking around the city to balance out all the food!

What to try (and where) –

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Banh rieu cua (Crab soup) – I tried to find the vendor that Legal Nomads recommended, but I felt like I was just wandering around a few blocks near Pasteur & Nguyen Du staring into carts hopefully finding the right lady selling this soup. In the end, I found a woman selling banh canh cua and took a seat on the very tiny stool in my short skirt (oops) and enjoyed this soup while it rained on the sidewalk in front of me. (30K VND). These vendors are close to the Independence Palace so make a stop while you are doing some sightseeing.

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canh chua

Canh chua (Sweet and sour fish head soup) – Go to Quan Com so 7 for this, not far from Chill Skybar. The soup comes with rice and it’s quite a large portion (90K VND).

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Pho – If you get pho in Saigon, there are a number of places to try and many recommended. After scanning many reviews, I tried Pho Le which was good, but also expensive (feels like tourists get charged more) – 65K VND for a beef brisket pho. The pho is a bit different than in Hanoi, mostly because of all the greens you get on the side. Frankly, I would skip pho in Saigon and indulge in all of the other goodies here (same goes for banh mi).

 

 

Banh Xeo (savory pancake with pork & shrimp) – I had a version of this in Hue, but the one in Saigon is VERY different. First, it’s massive. In Hue, the banh xeo were like tacos. In Saigon, they are like giant crepes. Filled with pork and shrimp and eaten with mounds of greens and herbs, this is one of my favorite dishes in Saigon. This place is famous and popular for a reason. Note that they close mid-afternoon and re-open for dinner. The banh xeo is 90K VND, but it could easily feed two people.

 

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Banh Cuon (Steamed rice rolls) – Banh Cuon Tay Ho. Close to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. Really nice banh cuon (much better than the ones I tried in Hanoi). Also had the fried mung bean cake on the side which was delicious. Super quick service. Loved this spot.

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Bot Chien (Fried rice flour cakes) – this is basically hash browns with egg. It’s delicious. Try it at Bot Chien Dat Thanh (that place was closed when I was in town so I went to another place right next door. It was great)

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Banh Khot (Mini Crispy Pancakes) – Go to Co Ba Vung Tau which is known for these dishes as well as banh xeo. You can order a sampler of 3 different kinds.

 

 

Che (sweet soup) – I love this dessert so much. Of course, I had to try it in Saigon! Stop by Che Hoa after your sightseeing for a sweet snack. Even better – If you go for bot chien at the spots above, get dessert at the little che stand on the corner (Che Chuoi). This was a little different – a mix of che with some sort of banana cake and peanuts on top. It was so delicious, I nearly ordered a second one. And it’s only 10K VND!

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Bun Thit Nuong (noodles with bbq pork & peanuts) – One of my Vietnamese favorites so had to try a version in Saigon. Found a small street stall selling BTN for 40K VND (with a spring roll). Not the best I’d had, but it was really good. Only downside? There was a lady who basically sat down with me and tried to get me to buy her lunch. Nope.

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Hu tieu (Noodle soup with pork) – Go to Quan Mi Cat and order the dry version (if you are like me and not that into soup). It was awesome! Mostly locals.

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Bun moc (Noodle soup with pork & mushroom broth) – Bun Moc than Mai. I tried this for breakfast and was the only non-local there. Not my favorite dish – I really liked the pork, but not that into the fish ball and meat (similar to bologna) in the soup.

Smoothies – Check out Juicy for healthy smoothies and smoothie bowls. More variety than I have seen in most places in Vietnam!

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the scene at Che Chuoi

Drinking (aside from Bia Saigon)

If you are looking for rooftop drinks, there are a number of hotels and skyscrapers that have restaurants and bars on the roof. It’s a nice way to see the city, but definitely more expensive than those places you will find on the ground. My first night in Saigon I went up to Chill Skybar and had a drink – it was one of the happy hour specials and it was not very good, but I really liked seeing the city from up there.

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Bui Ven Walking Street – This is the backpacker street, the one full of loud bars and restaurants and massage places and crappy souvenirs and too many people. I walked through here one night and then never came back. If you’re looking for some fun pubs and places to meet other travelers, however, this is probably a good spot for you.

Getting There: Easily accessed via bus, plane, or train. I arrived from Mui Ne via bus and the bus stop was not a far walk from my hostel. I took a different bus line (Futa) to get to the Mekong Delta when I left – these buses depart from a station a bit further away from my hostel so I just took a taxi there. I never made it to Tan Son Naht airport, but it’s an easy way to enter/exit if you’re coming from another part of Asia or are going to visit some of Vietnam’s islands.

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one of the churches in District 5

Where to Stay: I stayed closer to the backpacker street (Bui Ven) than I had initially anticipated. But I found a good, quiet hostel nearby and it was a great location for a first-time visitor to Saigon. In fact, I did a lot of research to find which districts are best for people coming to Saigon for the first time and the answer is District 1. Staying here will keep you close to many of the main attractions, and you can take taxis to get around to some of the other areas of the city like Cholon (Saigon’s Chinatown) or District 2 (more popular with expat community).

My hostel, City Poshtel, was a nice spot. Very simple, decent breakfast. Couldn’t beat the location. There are some hostels nearby offering rooftops (and pools) – kind of wish I had had that. But this place was a good base for a few days of exploring. I found it easiest booking these hostels on Booking.com (click here to get a discount on your next booking!)

 

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