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A Local-ish Guide to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Creator of the travel blog, There She Goes Again, Samantha Gross found herself in a very unique situation during the pandemic when her month-long stay in Ho Chi Minh City turned into sixteen. Because Vietnam was in a bubble for much of 2020 and 2021, she was able to fully explore the city and get to know it better than she could have ever imagined. Since then she’s been back once more and has plans to return yearly to see friends, re-visit her favorite spots, and find even more. Be sure to follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

Here are some things Samantha loves best about Ho Chi Minh City.

Why did you pick Ho Chi Minh City? How long did you live there?

Back when I was teaching in South Korea, I spent one of my winter vacations in Vietnam. For this trip, my friend and I planned a 2 1/2 week excursion starting in HCMC and ending in Hanoi. I arrived two days before her, and found myself solo traveling for the first time in my life! This was in 2015 and it seemed like everything online bemoaned how difficult Vietnam and particularly HCMC and its crazy motorbike traffic was. I’m not going to lie, I was a little scared.

However, I found myself absolutely in love with the city during my two days alone. Everyone I met was friendly, and I especially remember a kind moment with my hostel host offering me bánh tét, a traditional New Years rice cake, one evening. I would go on to visit Hoi An, Da Nang, Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba, and Hanoi, and through it all the less “scenic” and most bustling HCMC remained my favorite spot.

Fast forward a few years, and I began developing a tradition of returning to Korea every spring for the cherry blossoms. This usually occurs mid-March to early April, and I like to spend the month+ beforehand somewhere warm in Asia. In 2019, I got to know Kuala Lumpur and in 2020, I opted to return to HCMC and get to know it beyond what a two day trip could offer.

Well, as you might guess from those dates, the world was turned on its head in March 2020! The next thing I knew, I was signing a long term apartment agreement and planning on settling in for the foreseeable future. In total, I spent sixteen months calling this city home, and I’m still absurdly grateful for how everything turned out. I’ve already gone back for a month and have plans on returning next year for at least a few weeks.

Three words to describe Ho Chi Minh City

Chaotic, lively, fun

What’s something that might surprise people about Ho Chi Minh City?

Just how big the city is. People who come for a day or two see maybe 1/20th of the city and thus only see a small part. For reference, to get between the two major expat neighborhoods (District 1 & Thao Dien) is 30-40 minutes even if you go on the fastest motorbike during the quietest time at night.

bun thit nuong
Bún Thịt Nướng Kiều Bảo

What are your favorite restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City?

This is such a loaded question! One of the best (and maybe worst) things about HCMC is that everyone pretty much eats out or orders food all the time. I legitimately did not touch my kitchen once after I discovered the Grab app.

When it comes to Vietnamese food, I have a few spots in mind. However, I suggest learning about some dishes instead and then asking around for recommendations. Some of the best versions of these dishes are found on random street corners by a no nonsense chị or cô who may pick a different location week to week. Some particular favorites include:

  • phở- A classic, of course. Southern phở is different from the north and often has a lot more ingredients.
  • bún thịt nướng – You can never go wrong with this dish! It’s basically grilled meat mixed in with vermicelli noodles and some herbs. My favorite place for this is Bún Thịt Nướng Kiều Bảo.
  • bánh xèo – Kind of like a Vietnamese pancake/crepe. The outside is made with a crispy rice batter and filled with all sorts of delicious ingredients. There’s a spot outside of Jolly’s that does a duck one. Bánh Xèo 46A  is another good spot, and the bánh xéo there is massive.
  • cơm tấm – Essentially a rice dish. It can be found just about everywhere and anywhere, and is also a good choice when you don’t know what to eat.
  • bánh mì – Bánh mì is, quite simply, a baguette stuffed with meat, pickled veggies, and herbs. Banh Mi Hoa Ma is often credited as the first bánh mí restaurant in Saigon. They serve the baguette-style, but I also recommend getting bánh mì ốp la, which is like a deconstructed version.
  • bò kho – A sort of hearty beef stew. Really nice in the rainy months. Definitely go out to Bò Kho Gánh Sài Gòn as it also has excellent coconut ice cream for dessert.

Another recommendation I have is to go to the markets to try different foods and dishes. The most tourist-friendly is Bến Thành Market. All their menus have translations and pictures to help ease you into things. Once you’re comfortable, I’d then go out to Hồ Thị Kỷ Market. It’s both a flower and a food market, and that’s where you’ll really start to find the lesser known dishes as well as trendier concoctions.

Where would you go for a special occasion meal?

If you want to splurge, I cannot recommend Quince or Kiyota enough. Quince focuses on mediterranean fine dining and is just incredible. I highly recommend going with a group so you can get a ton of dishes and share them. The aged barbary duck magret and spicy salmon “nori tacos” were some of my favorites.

On the other hand, Kiyota is an omakase experience where you won’t know what you’re getting until it’s front of you. From what my friend told me, the fish is flown in fresh from Japan daily.

If you still want to do Vietnamese food for your special occasion, I love both Propaganda and  Secret Garden, 131 Calmette Branch.

What’s your favorite place to get fresh air?

I’m not going to lie to you – fresh air in HCMC is a bit of an oxymoron because the city notoriously as some horrible air pollution. However, there are ways plenty of people get outside!

There are quite a few parks and spots along the river to hang out at – just make sure you find shade and plenty of water. One spot I really liked was Coffee Home Garden, a little coffee spot a little out of the way but with nice places to relax and lounge around.

In the Thao Dien neighborhood, there are a lot of cute pool cafes and restaurants like L’Herbanyste, Wild Thyme, The Brix, and Vintage Emporium. I always love finding a spot to sit and cool off with a fresh drink and meal.

Otherwise, if you want some truly fresh air you’ll want to hop on a plane and head to Da Lat for a few days!

Mgallery Saigon
Mgallery Saigon

We often don’t get to stay in hotels in our hometown, but let’s pretend. Where would you stay in Ho Chi Minh City?

When it comes to HCMC, I recommend staying in District 1 or 3. I loved living in Thao Dien, but it’s really only nice if you’re an expat and living here long term. Otherwise it’s really far from all the major sights and things to do!

For midrange, I really liked Odys Boutique Hotel and Hammock Hotel, and for luxury, MGallery Hotel the Artes is absolutely stunning.

What’s the art scene like? Anything you think is a must-see/do?

When it comes to art and culture, there’s always a lot going on! It’s hard to nail down one specific thing, artist, or event because everything is forever changing and one event might come back differently the next year or not at all.

To stay up to date, check out different Facebook groups (just type in Saigon or HCMC and see what kind of travel and expat groups pop up). They often have event calendars and small businesses promoting their upcoming events in them.

There are so many reasons to stay up past your bedtime in Ho Chi Minh City. If you had to just pick 2-3, what are they?

Rooftop bars and street food!

What’s the most chill/relaxing experience in town?

Either waking up at the crack of dawn while the city is also still waking up or getting a massage. The really fancy places have pretty good sound proofing, but if I only went to one spot it would be Miu Spa Center.  It’s no frills and looks almost sketchy on the outside but is the best hot stone massage I’ve ever had. I used to live next door and pop in weekly!

What do you think most tourists do wrong in Ho Chi Minh City?

The big problem with visiting HCMC is that all the “top things to do” are often only in District 1 and especially around Nguyen Hue Street. Don’t get me wrong – you should absolutely see all these cool sights, but they can be done in half a day and most people do them all and think, “that’s it?”

HCMC is a massive, sprawling city that covers 24 districts! To only see the major sights – much of which are old French colonial buildings – is to miss out on what makes the city so interesting and lively.

Get out to the random districts and don’t be afraid to go somewhere more off the beaten path! Sure you’ll probably get an odd stare or too, but you’ll be fine and you’ll get a full view of what this city is like.

Best place for a selfie?

Vietnam in general is probably the most photogenic country I’ve ever visited. Of course, you’ll find incredible views and natural scenery, but they’ve also managed to turn less obvious things into iconic symbols. Think bustling, motorbike-filled streets, exposed wire, and, of course, the iconic blue and red plastic stools of food stands.

There’s also a huge mix of architecture in the city, so it all depends on what you want for your selfie. If you want really fun, trendy backdrops – book a stay at one of Hammock Hotel’s locations or visit a quirky cafe. If you want epic city views, go up to the Observation 81 and Bitexco or try one of the many rooftop bars around District 1 or 3 (I love The Social Club atop MGallery). To see Indochine architecture, head towards Nguyen Hue Street.

If I look back at all the photos I took during my time in HCMC, I’d have to say my favorites are from Ho Thi Ky Flower Market, the further out Chùa Bửu Long, a temple that looks like a palace, or Chùa Diệu Pháp, a floating temple in Bình Thạnh.

Best day trip?

Vĩnh Long 100%.

One of the most popular day trips from HCMC is to the Mekong Delta. However, if you look at a map, the Mekong Delta is huge, and day tours will only go to one section – Bến Tre. While it’s a cool area, I loved Vĩnh Long more. There are lots of cool temples and eateries, but the coolest thing to see is a pottery village called Làng Gốm Vĩnh Long. My friend also runs a very cute homestay and does her own tours that take you all over and help you learn more about the area. Since she’s local, she has much more access than a normal tour company would have.

Cholon

Most underrated experience in town?

Hmm I have two.

The first is Chợ Lớn – also known as HCMC’s Chinatown. It’s the largest chinatown in the entire world and probably my favorite neighborhood in the whole city! It used to be its own town before it joined HCMC and has been home to Chinese immigrants, known as the Hoa community, for centuries. Start off at the fabric market, which is massive and full of every pattern you could ever imagine, and then walk around to the different temples, shophouses, and restaurants. The best is to just wander down random alleyways because you truly don’t know what you’ll find!

Another underrated experience is getting clothes made. Most people think of Hoi An when they want to get something tailor made, but I’m a big fan of my tailor in HCMC. Their name is Tuyetlan Orchids Tailor, and back in the 1990s, they even made Chelsea Clinton some clothes! I’ve gone to them for everything from casual linen tops to fancy silk dresses, and I’ve loved every item. If you really want to make an adventure of it, you can shop around some different fabric markets and bring them to Tuyetlan to use.

localish guide to ho chi minh city

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