Ho Chi Minh City commonly known and referred as Saigon — Vietnam’s high-octane and electric city combining heritage and modernism. I was in awe of how hectic and energetic the city is. From the swarm of motorbikes to the Bánh mì vendors starting another day of business down to the bustling crowd of Bui Vien street. The city is alive.
The moment I stepped out of the bus from Cambodia, I know I’m in for an adventure. An adventure indeed when I braved the traffic of Ho Chi Minh City. One thing I learned during my first visit to Saigon is to fake the confidence of a local when you cross the street. Walk at a steady pace across the road, never stop or hesitate because the motorbike riders will just go around you. And sure it worked.
Experiencing the upbeat life of the city is quite interesting. There are the tourist default places and of course the road less travelled spots. Let’s just skip the tourist-staple sights and leave that list to Lonely Planet. My version of Ho Chi Minh City is lesser known which will inspire discovery among travellers.
Jade Emperor Pagoda
If you don’t have enough time to explore all the temples and pagodas in the city, at least make time for this Vietnamese pagoda. The temple, also known as the Tortoise Pagoda is both spiritual and awe-inspiring in range and ambition. It was built in the 1900s by the Chinese community in honour of the supreme Taoist god — the Jade Emperor.
With the shrine’s intricate carved figures and dieties lining the interior, architectural elements, Buddha sculptures, turtle pond, monks draped in their red and orange robes, and ribbons of incense smoke, the Jade Emperor Pagoda is a photographer’s paradise.
Insider tip: Head upstairs, out to an embellished roof terrace, where you will find a statue of Quan Am, the goddess of mercy, which overlooks a sacred Bodhi tree in the courtyard.
War Remnants Museum
Insider tip: Make sure to bring some tissues because I failed to hold back my tears as I took a glimpse of those photographs.
This Saigon spot lives up for its name. Tucked away at a rooftop a faded 5-storey apartment building down a small alley of Saigon’s District 1, this casual yet charming restaurant surprisingly provides a wide array of homestyle dishes served with great views of the city. Buddhist statues adorn the place giving it a more Asian feel that complement the garden atmosphere.
Insider tip: Order the thinly sliced beef in fish sauce with pickled scallion bulbs and the fried spring rolls. They’re a winner. That lemongrass dish stuffed with pork looked interesting but since I do not eat pork, I gave it a pass.
Fancy a high tea? Head to Strata Restaurant and experience the highest tea with a view, literally. Conveniently located just one flight of stairs above the Level 49 Observation Deck of Bitexco Financial Tower, Strata is a perfect pit stop for tourists and visitors to take in the Ho Chi Minh City view a little longer over a Lavazza espresso or an English tea. This elegant gastronomic spot offers delectable cakes and snacks that perfectly go with your afternoon tea and satisfy your sweet tooth. If you are keen for a proper meal, the restaurant offers a five-star buffet for a steep price of 820,000 VND (approx. 36 USD). So I skipped the buffet part. Besides, I’m on a diet. The place is quite pricey compared to other restaurants in the city but it is reasonable enough for a five-star atmosphere.
Insider tip: For men, do not wear shorts and look smart. I felt a little underdressed when I was there because, fashion.
Ben Thanh Market
This market place is the most popular market area. Its iconic clock tower is one of the most recognised landmarks in Ho Chi Minh City. The market is living and breathing. At any given time of the day or night, this place is abuzz with tourists and locals alike from local housewives getting their daily groceries to backpackers getting ripped off over knock-off Lacoste polo shirts. Ben Thanh Market is best visited during the evening when food vendors set their stalls outside and both locals and tourists gather to eat and shop.
Insider tip: Head upstairs and check out the secret room behind the clock tower where superstitious vendors come to pray and offer flowers for a prosperous day. Situated at the second level of the market, this small shrine provides a great vantage point in observing the bustling shoppers below.
Ho Chi Minh City may not be as fascinating for other travellers as it was for me but it is definitely worth a visit. The moment you arrive in the city, you will be welcomed by a sea of motorbikes and friendly locals. There are tons of activities and other attractions you can explore in Saigon that will keep your entire stay packed. Now it is your time to wander in this vibrant city and experience all the possibilities Saigon has to offer.