48 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City dedicated to cooking and eating Vietnamese food – browsing the markets, grazing at streets stalls on food tours, and savouring Vietnamese cuisine in restaurants – is our idea of a weekend in Ho Chi Minh City, as Vietnam’s southern city is officially known.
48 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as the southern Vietnam city is still called by many locals, is not enough time to properly savour one of Asia’s great food capitals. However, if you follow our Ho Chi Minh City itinerary you’ll certainly get a good taste of the food scene and the city’s superb Vietnamese cuisine – punctuated by a combination of must-do sights and off-the-beaten-track strolls with locals.
I was in Ho Chi Minh City recently, hosting some food-lovers on a Vietnam culinary trip and was astonished to see how rapidly the city had changed since my last visit. Most northern Southeast Asian cities are developing at a giddy pace at the moment. Phnom Penh barely resembles the city we briefly moved to in 2012. Siem Reap is remarkably different to what it was like when we shifted here five years ago. And Bangkok is under constant modification.
But the changes in Ho Chi Minh City seem seismic. There were parts of the city I simply didn’t recognise, whole blocks that have disappeared. Many lament the loss of architectural heritage as countless colonial buildings have been demolished to make way for soaring skyscrapers. But there have been positive changes, too.
The new ‘walking street’ has made Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 so much more enjoyable for visitors needing a break from dodging motorbikes, especially in the evenings when it enlivens the city centre. When completed, the new underground train system should relieve a lot of traffic congestion. Then there are all the new restaurants, cafés, bars, and craft breweries.
Fortunately, some things don’t change. Namely, the food. Whether it’s countryside cooking, street food, or more creative and contemporary Vietnamese fusion, Ho Chi Minh City still has some of the best eating in Asia. Here’s how to sample it in 48 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City.
48 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City Itinerary for Food Lovers
Vietnam Airlines, VietJet Air, Jetstar, Air Asia, Scoot, and Nok Air all fly to Ho Chi Minh City. The key to cheap flights is to book either as far in advance as you can if you have fixed travel dates or leave it as late as possible if you can be flexible to take advantage of last minute deals. You’ll need a visa for Vietnam, even if you’re only spending 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City. We recommend arranging your Vietnam Visa on Arrival letter in advance through our visa partner, one the most respected visa agents. Visa approval letters take just 2 business days, although urgent visas can be arranged in as little as 4 working hours and up to 1 working day. More visa information here.
Ho Chi Minh City is divided by district and District 1 is where first time visitors will spend most of their time. While distances aren’t great and the city can easily be walked, it’s not all that walkable. Fortunately, there are numerous alternatives to your feet – traditional cyclo, xe om (motorbike taxis), conventional taxi cabs (only use Mai Linh and Vina Sun), and more recently Grab and Uber have arrived on the scene. An underground metro railway is currently under construction.
Home to a handful of grand hotels oozing history, Ho Chi Minh City hasn’t been known for stylish boutique hotels until recent years. First-timers or visitors who really do only have 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City, should opt for something central in District 1. I’d still recommend heritage lodgings, such as the French colonial-era Hotel Continental, built in 1880, which featured in Graham Green’s The Quiet American and has rooms overlooking Saigon Opera House. Green stayed in Room 214. For more luxurious accommodation, directly behind it is the five-star Park Hyatt Saigon. A hip new boutique hotel that melds old and new, The Myst Dong Khoi is unlike any the city has seen before. Hotels don’t get more central in Ho Chi Minh City than those. Overlooking Cong Vien Van Hoa Park, minimalist Fusion Suites has a Nordic feel with blonde woods and neutral tones. In District 3, the swanky new Hôtel des Arts Saigon M Gallery Collection channels the 1930s and has Ho Chi Minh City’s highest rooftop pool. If you’ve been to the city before, you could opt for a tranquil riverside stay at An Lam Retreats or Villa Song, which offers a complimentary shuttle boat from their private pier to District 1. Ma Maison has snug rooms but abundant French charm. The Alcove Library Hotel is handsome and handy to the airport. Just make sure to book a room with a window.
Kick off your 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City from the lofty heights of the 49th floor Saigon Skydeck in the Bitexco Tower. After you’ve soaked up the jaw-dropping birds-eye views, head up to the 52nd floor bar to gawk at the even more gob-smacking vistas with a cold drink in hand. We recommend reserving a window table: 08 6291 8752, reservations(at)eon51(dot)com.
We always toast to the start of another fantastic 48 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City with a feast on home-style Vietnamese cuisine at Cuc Gach Quan, our favourite restaurant in Saigon. Spread across two atmospheric French colonial houses, beautifully remodelled by the architect owner, the restaurant is decorated with pre-loved vintage furniture and recycled timber tables. The menu is inspired by his grandmother’s ‘countryside cooking’, with a focus on seasonal Vietnamese produce transported directly from small farmers, organic wherever possible, with no MSG, preservatives or chemicals. The long menu is off-putting for first-timers so we suggest trying some of our favourites: fried tofu with lemon, salt and pepper; stir-fried morning glory with garlic; pumpkin flower soup; succulent roasted chicken; and caramelised Vietnamese braised pork with boiled eggs.
10 Dang Tat, Ward Tan Dinh, District 1, 08 38480144.
Take a taxi to the swish new Hôtel des Arts Saigon and head up to the 24th floor to the Saigon Social Club Rooftop Bar for cocktails, more breathtaking views of the city skyline and a peek at the highest infinity pool in Ho Chi Minh City. It could have you checking in if you’re not staying here. Note that the bar closes at 1am weekdays and 2am weekends.
Hotel des Arts M Gallery, 76-78 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, District 3.
The first breakfast of your 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City should be a bowl of phở, Vietnam’s quintessential noodle soup. Skip the hotel buffet and head to one of Saigon’s old-school noodle joints. In District 1, try Pho Cao Van (25 Mac Dinh Chi Street; 6am-10pm) where it all began. Its 90-something year-old owner is credited with bringing pho south from Hanoi, where it originated, and serves genuine Northern-style pho with a clear broth, subtle flavour and tender beef. Blink and you’ll miss tiny Pho Minh (Alley 63 Pasteur Street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1; 6-10am), a 60-odd year-old pho shop that had its heyday in the Fifties when the alley was a destination for Northern food. If you’re in District 3, locals love Pho Dau (Alley 288 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia; 6-11am), for authentic Hanoi style pho in its original location, opened by the mother of the current 70+ year-old owner; order the medium-rare beef, which quickly cooks in the soup.
Spend the morning on some self-guided exploration in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1, where you’ll find all the key sights, museums and parks within walking distance of eachother and easy to navigate on your own. Start at the Saigon Central Post Office, built between 1886 and 1891; after admiring its lemon exterior with green shutters, head inside for a closer look at the vaulted ceiling and portrait of Ho Chi Minh. Saunter across the road to Notre-Dame Basilica, dating to 1887 and another splendid example of French colonial architecture. (Reportedly closed, the church interior was open when we recently visited.)
Cross the road to 30-4 Park and wander through the gardens to the Independence Palace (135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, daily 7.30am-11am & 1-4pm) formerly known as the Reunification Palace. For the Vietnamese, it’s a symbol of victory over the Americans, marking the end of the American War (Vietnam War) in 1975 when a North Vietnamese army tank rammed the main palace gates and hung the Vietnamese flag from the balcony, officially unifying the country. It’s a vintage-lover’s dream.
But first, mosey around the corner to the War Remnants Museum (Le Quy Don Street, daily 7.30-noon & 1.30-5pm) focused on the history of the Vietnam War, which the Vietnamese call the ‘American War’, then visit the Independence Palace later. Told through the eyes of the Vietnamese, with stories and images by some of the world’s foremost war correspondents and photographers, the exhibits at the War Remnants Museum are sobering and confronting but are important to see. You’ll need cheering up afterwards…
Propaganda, on the perimeter of 30-4 Park near the Cathedral, is one of the newer breeds of casual Vietnamese restaurants and is a cool spot for lunch. Literally: the air-conditioning is lovely and chilly and you’ll need it after all that walking. Buzzy and bright, there are floor to ceiling glass windows, French colonial tiles on the floors and colourful Communist-era murals enlivening entire walls. There’s also a fresh, light, contemporary approach to traditional dishes that almost feels Japanese, French and Vietnamese wines, and craft beers from Pasteur Street Brewery (try the thirst-quenching Saigon Saison with lemongrass and ginger). Opt for a set lunch menu if you’re alone, and if you’re not, order a few plates fresh spring rolls to share. Don’t miss the fresh rolls with omelette, avocado, brown rice and soya sauce; the duck in betel leaf and spicy ginger fish sauce; and the fried rolls with crab, prawn and glass noodles. And don’t order dessert. That’s coming…
21 Han Thuyen, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Meander over to the Ben Thanh Market and browse the local section first – note how clean the wet market is and how beautiful the fresh fruit and vegetables are presented – before heading into the dry goods hall, where the stalls have almost entirely given over to tourism, with vendors selling handicrafts, lacquerware, lanterns, indigenous textiles, áo dài, and an abundance of edible souvenirs, including Vietnamese robusta coffee and coffee filter cups, tea, nuts, and specialty snacks. Leave through the front main entrance for the short walk to your next destination: chocolate heaven.
Yes, I know, I’ve diverged from the usual format, but we’re talking about seriously good chocolate here. From Ben Thanh Market, depending how bad the metro construction chaos is when you’re in the city, it’s a five- to ten-minute walk to Calmette Street and Maison Marou, the House of Marou Chocolate. The French introduced cacao to Vietnam in the late 19th century and it is two Frenchmen who have once again been responsible for making Vietnamese chocolate globally renowned. Currently considered one of the finest chocolates in the world, Marou chocolate is being used by many of the world’s best chefs. Sample whatever’s on offer to taste, buy a few blocks (note that they sell flavours here that you won’t find anywhere else), and indulge in one of their decadent French pastries, baked on site.
167 Calmette, Nguyễn Thái Bình, District 1.
Art lovers can amble around the corner to the outstanding Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum (97A Pho Duc Chinh Street, District 1; Tues-Sun 9-5pm), in a 1920s building (with Saigon’s first elevator), for the city’s finest collection of Vietnamese art, from traditional arts such as woodcuts and silk painting to modern works in different mediums. There are also archaeological relics from the Cham kingdom and Óc Eo, which would interest travellers who have visited Cambodia’s Angkor temples. Between the 1st and 7th centuries, Óc Eo was the bustling port of the pre-Khmer Empire Kingdom of Funan, connected by canal to Angkor Borei, Funan’s capital, in Cambodia’s Takeo province.
If you have time on your trip, sign up for Sophie’s Art Tour, ran by British expat art aficionado Sophie Hughes, which examines Vietnam’s history, culture and art, while taking in highlights of the Museum’s collection, as well as small galleries and studios, where you can meet curators and artists.
It’s just a ten-minute walk to Audrey Tran’s Saigon Kitsch (43 Ton That Thiep Street, District 1) which is crammed with retro-cool communist-kitsch gifts, much of which she has designed herself, including notebooks, mouse pads, purses, coffee mugs, and coasters. Continue along Ton That Thiep for two minutes and you’re on the Nguyen Hue Walking Street.
Nguyen Hue Walking Street should be getting lively with locals about now. The wide boulevard was pedestrianised in 2015, making it possible to wander all the way down to the riverside then back up to the splendid old Saigon City Hall, otherwise known as the People’s Committee Building, without having to contend with a single motorbike. It’s tricky to get a good shot with the row of trees obscuring the splendid building, however, most people seem content with taking a selfie with the statue of ‘Uncle Ho’ instead.
EVENING / DINNER
Arrange to meet Saigon Street Eats close by for their 5.30pm Street Food 101 Tour by Moto. One of Ho Chi Minh City’s first street food tour companies, Saigon Street Eats remains the city’s best. Operated by Vietnamese foodie Vu and his Aussie journalist wife Barbara, their tours will provide you with the best introduction to Vietnamese street food you’re going to get in the city. Riding behind a local driver on the back of a xe om (motorbike taxi), you’ll scoot between their favourite spots to sample some of Vietnam’s quintessential specialties in off-the-beaten-track neighbourhoods that most visitors wouldn’t get to on their own. Don’t book a restaurant afterwards. You’ll eat so much you’ll struggle to finish dessert. They also offer a seafood tour and a pho tour. Riding on a motorbike is an incredible way to experience the city. While you’re in safe hands – the drivers are highly skilled at navigating Saigon’s insane traffic – do check that your travel insurance covers motorbikes. If it doesn’t, they can take you by taxi.
If you’re up for a drink, try Layla (2nd Floor, 63 Đông Du; Mon-Sat 4pm-late), with a semi-industrial looking interior with comfy leather sofas and contemporary art in a colonial-era building over Dong Khoi. Not sure what to order? Tell the bartender what you like and let him craft a bespoke drink for you. If gin is your thing, head to speakeasy-inspired The Gin House (28/3A Ton That Tung, District 1; 6pm-late), Saigon’s first specialist gin bar, with vintage style, swing jazz, and house-made gin infusions and cocktails. We loved the zingy green tea and pomegranate gin infusion with tonic, which was super refreshing at the end of a sultry evening.
Yesterday you focused on northern style pho so for your second breakfast in Saigon you should sample Southern style phở. District 5’s Cholon (Chinatown) is home to the first Pho Le (Nguyen Trai Street; 6am-1am), established in 1950, which serves the fatty soup, preferred by locals, packed with beef, meatballs, sprouts, and herbs and spices (coriander, cumin, cinnamon). There’s another in District 3 at 303-305 Vo Van Tan Street. Our Hanoi guide called this “Phnom Penh style-pho” and said the owner was from the Cambodian royal family. In District 3, foreigner-friendly Pho Hoa Pasteur (260 Pasteur Street; 7am-9pm) dishes up big bowls of Southern style pho with a sweetish soup brimming with noodles, sprouts and herbs. It’s a travellers’ favourite thanks to its inclusion in countless guidebooks, hence the huge servings and higher prices compared to other pho joints.
On the second day of your 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City get off the beaten track on a half-day Ho Chi Minh City Free Walking Tour with the charming Hoa Sen University Hospitality and Tourism students. While the walks are technically free, we recommend generously tipping these outstanding young guides. They offer a handful of tours, starting at 8am and finishing around noon. The History and Temples Oriental #2 walk kicks off at the History Museum, where you’ll learn about the early civilisations of Champa and Funan, before strolling to the Temple of King Hung Vuong, where worshippers burn incense in commemoration of Hung King, and visiting busy Tan Dinh Market, and the Jade Emperor Pagoda (Ngoc Hoang Pagoda). Another starts at the colourful Cao Đài Temple in District 5, where it explores this Southern Vietnamese sect that combines Confucianism, Christianity, Taoism, and Buddhism, before exploring the 374 Lê Hồng Phong alleys and Lê Hồng Phong Market, a mini-Cambodia country, where you’ll find Cambodian cuisine specialties. It finishes at the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, where you can see thousands of items used in its preparation and “learn how to become a herb doctor”.
Skip lunch, as you’ll be eating all afternoon during your Vietnamese cooking class as you learn to make four dishes at GRAIN Cooking School (Level 3, 71-75 Hai Ba Trung, District; afternoon class 12-5pm), established by Australian-Vietnamese chef Luke Nguyen, owner of Sydney’s finest Vietnamese restaurant and author of formidable Vietnamese cookbooks. Nguyen’s parents left Vietnam for Australia at the end of the American War and Luke grew up in his family’s noodle house in the Vietnamese suburb of Cabramatta in Sydney. He now splits his time between Australia and Vietnam. The set-up here is impressive and the quality of instruction some of the highest we’ve experienced in any cooking classes. Highly recommend the optional wine pairing.
You could work up an appetite for dinner with a wander along nearby Nguyen Hue Walking Street or you could slip around the corner to Dong Khoi Street and Lam Son Square, to admire the splendid Saigon Opera House and beside it the Hotel Continental, both of which should be looking stunning at this time of day. Note that it’s only possible to see the Opera House interior if you buy tickets to a show and do a pre-show tour. Dong Khoi street is home to two of my favourite Saigon shops: L’Usine concept store and café and Mai Lam boutique.
If you take a right at the Saigon Opera House and stroll past the Hotel Continental, you’ll come to the whimsical boutique Mai Lam (132 Dong Khoi), whose fabulous clothes feature beautiful embroidery, appliqué, embellishments including precious gems, often stitched onto vintage jeans and genuine old army jackets, and bags made from up-cycled old parachutes.
Backtrack along Dong Khoi and cross the road at the Caravelle, from where you should see L’Usine (151/5 Dong Khoi) upstairs in front of you. Accessed by stairs hidden down an arcade, L’Usine is a café and light-filled concept store with a carefully-curated collection of gifts, fashion, jewellery, accessories, such as Saigon-based French expat Valerie Cordier’s wonderful clutch purses (open one up and look inside!). If you are ready for another glass of wine or craft brew, you would have noticed L’Usine Bistro on your way to the café and concept store.
While it’s no longer a secret, the laidback Vietnamese restaurant Secret Garden is certainly secreted away, in speakeasy style, down an alleyway, then up numerous flights of stairs in a residential apartment building. The food is traditional, with a modern, light touch. Enchantingly located on the rooftop in a tropical garden setting, illuminated by fairy lights, dinner here makes for a very memorable final meal in Saigon. Alternatively, if you can’t deal with the stairs, try the owner’s new restaurant, Secret House.
Top Floor, 158 Pasteur, Bến Nghé, District 1.
You could stick with the speakeasy theme of the night and try to find The Alley (63/1 Pasteur Street, District 1; 5pm-late), tucked down a gritty lane on Pasteur Street. Reward yourself with a Mekong Delta, concocted from dried banana-infused bourbon, banana syrup, lime juice, egg white, and ginger bitters. Or you could finish your 48 hours in Ho Chi Minh City on a literal high, surrounded by Saigon’s towering skyscrapers at ANAN’s Rooftop Bar (89 Ton That Dam, District 1; Mon-Sat 5pm-midnight) with a Saigon Sunset (dark rum, fresh sugarcane juice, ginger, calamansi, bitters) or a heady Black Tea Tra Da (tequila blanco, rice wine, lychee, lime, and agave syrup).
Have you been to Ho Chi Minh City or do you live in the city? Do feel free to share your most delicious tips below for people spending 48 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City.
If you’re heading to Saigon, do check out our 48 Hours in Ho Chi Minh City Itinerary for Food Lovers. If you’re still at the dreaming stage, we will be hosting another Vietnam Culinary Tour in 2018. Do get in touch if you’d like to join us.