All you need to know about Ben Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City
Like many, the South Vietnamese city of Ho Chi Minh is one classic example of a 21st-century metropolis. Buzzing at all times and swamped in its interestingly long days, something is happening here at all times.
A former French colony, Saigon (the informal name of Ho Chi Minh City), flaunts its iconic bold-colored French buildings, showing off the intricate architecture on most of its streets and city squares’s so much more that’s constantly on the move, most will fail to notice. Without a map, you’d quickly vanish in the crowds and quickly regret arriving if you don’t plan well.
In Saigon, we stayed close to Ben Thanh Market in District 1. Heart of the downtown, this one’s a hub for tourists and, in many ways, Saigon’s lifeline. From the myriad of hawkers, vegetable sellers, street-side food stalls (selling delicious fresh food), local shops swarming, and making a life out of it, Ben Thanh is also where backpacking culture has gone through the roofs. Especially in recent years with chunks of hostels and homestays starting to populate the streets, district one is becoming a popular destination for backpackers.
To say it’s a hub for cafes could be accurate, a justice to hundreds of vegan, non-vegan, lively, laid-back, and bookshop-themed cafes which add a great deal to all the fun.
Everything else you need to know before going to Siagon’s Ben Thanh is here:
Provision for VISA on arrival is available for most nationals. You can visit Vietnam Immigration official website to check whether your passport is applicable for one.
The Vietnamese Dong is accepted nationally and is a super-inflated currency. 1 USD counts as 23,335 VND, so if you had plans to become a millionaire overnight, Saigon could be an excellent place to start with.
1 USD = 23,335 VND
1 INR = 308 VND
Getting a good bargain is a serious group-status booster because it’d always need more talent, skills, and patience than ever with the unrealistic quotes that locals will make to you.
Best time to visit Vietnam
A coastline country, the weather is pretty much tropical, and rains are prominent during April-October in Vietnam. Luckily for you, the city has found a way around it with its poncho-style raincoats, umbrellas, and tin shades along the streets. The storms are quick phased and don’t last too long. So you can enjoy Vietnam even during the wet season, especially the walks in your comfy flip-flops.
Winters are for festivals, like the rest of the world, Vietnam has a lot of winter festivals, and it rains way too less during November-March, so it’s mostly pleasant sunshine and festive than ever.
How to get to Saigon
The Saigon International Airport connects most of South-Asia with multiple direct flights. It’s connectivity to the rest of the world is also great via connecting flights.
There are direct flights from New Delhi, India too!
Getting around Saigon
Before you even begin reading this, you should know that to travel in Vietnam; you need to cut through the alleyways of the city like an invisible human. A gazillion two-wheelers and some four-wheelers are always on the move, driving with a super casual-towards-safety attitude, so you have to have faith in you to be still alive after crossing a busy road.
Another must-know is haggling. Local drivers can ask several hundred thousand dongs if not a million, needless to be told that you have to be at the top of your game while bargaining with them.
Here’s how you can get around best:
Taxi on request
Open your mobile phone and download the Grab or GoViet app on it. These Vietnamese versions of Uber can be really helpful when you aren’t in a mood to spend time bargaining on fares.
Aircon buses are super prominent in all of Saigon, and you can hop onto one to get around the town for decently low fares. Not suitable for downtown though, its road rush takes a toll on these.
These are everywhere and that too with different versions, human-pulled rickshaws, engine-powered and super chic multi-colored and lit-up ones. The only challenge is to reach a fair deal.
Crossing a stormy sea is equivalent to crossing roads in Saigon. Nevertheless, it’s an experience in itself to just blend into these thousands of people on the streets.
Things to do around Saigon:
Yes, it is evident for almost everyone who comes to Saigon, to visit the city’s gorgeously built French buildings and iconic public service offices. Of the many, the ultimately beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral, boasting of its French arches makes it a charm from the inside out, this one’s pretty much a staple.
Saigon Central post office is yet another neon-colored French marvel in architecture that you’d love going around. Beauty in the day (when it opens for the general public) is equally attractive from the street view when it bathes in light during the night.
War Remnants Museum is a reality check on the Vietnamese history of War and the changes that it brought. It has a lot for those who are really into history.
There, through the middle of town, runs an old canal across old Saigon which is an excellent route for a sunrise run in the park, do not forget to pick up a refreshing iced tea on your way back.
Street food so delicious, you sure would stick to it.
Be it the local, exceptional Banh Mi (sandwich) that has made its way out of Vietnam to become a popular street snack around the world or the turbocharged Vietnamese coffee; there is just so much for you on the sidewalks of bustling markets of Saigon.
Food tours conducted by local tour companies take you around to try street food, and if you enjoy trying different local flavors, this could be a great experience too!
P.S. (We gave it a pass because most dishes on the tour menu were non-vegetarian, while we follow a veg-only diet and due to Tet holidays the number of tours was less too.)
Crawl back into the secret spaces
Cu Chi tunnels are from the Vietnamese War, as much intriguing it may sound, these were built to hide out and carry out rebellion and attack missions. Wide just enough for a person, these are complex and super interesting connections out of the town going to the villages as much apart as up to 15 km. The 75 mile-long Cu chi tunnel web has been preserved by the Vietnam government, out of which few Tunnels are open for tourists.
For the adrenaline junkies, you can even fire from an automatic gun (mostly an AK47) paying on a per bullet basis, so out you go and target.
Taste the local drinks
Saigon has the coolest drinking culture you’d see around in a while, where you can grab a chilled glass of your favorite drink pretty much in places you’d least expect. Cafes here are outstanding and many. Bars take up space on residential buildings and multi-storeyed buildings in the downtown District 1, so the next thing you know, you are on floor x of a local apartment, chilling around in a pub.
Self-love and spas
One absolute treasure in Saigon that helps all fight Monday-blues best is the variety of spas and massage that you can get in local market boutiques and salons for really cheap. One hour full body massage should cost about 200-300 thousand Vietnamese Dong.
Places to stay in Saigon
Saigon has a variety of places to stay, from it’s lovely home-stays, to luxurious hotels and from the social hostels to boutique guesthouses, Saigon would surely spoil you with number of choices.
Chic, vivid and blasted with colors, this bohemian hostel in District 1 of Saigon breaks all charts when choosing a lively, positive place to stay in the city center. Read a book while swaying on their terrace hammock or get on the community dining table to bond with fellow travelers. They even have a fantastic garden
Top-star and a great choice, Cozrum Home offers multiple theme-based homestays and has at least 5+ homes in and around Saigon. Really affordable, these come with extraordinary hygienic rooms and sometimes with a private pool or lounge. Tariffs begin from as low as 350,000 dongs.
La Vela Saigon
Luxury at its best, this multi-storeyed hotel in District 3 is a wonderful opportunity to gaze at the skyline of Saigon (which, by the way, is a virtual treat). The infinity pool right on top, under the open skies sure has to be the USP of it.
Bare Gallery Homestays
Your very own mini studio right in the city square, the decor here is modern, minimalist, and spotless. Each floor has a balcony that opens up to a spacious terrace, and it seems like the right kind of place just for a little over 1 million Dong (sounds a little far-fetched but trust us, it’s not).
The Dorm Saigon
Beautiful fairy lights and bulbs, an open green area for the garden and out of the box setting on their terrace, Dorm Saigon, is another excellent hostel in District 1, where you get a huge common area to chill around plus amazing rooms, restrooms, and an overall appealing vibe.
La Maison de Pierre
Facing the lake, this semi-luxury hotel is an excellent pick if you match up with its playful setting. With a huge pool to swim in, they even have arrangements for renting out bikes to guests, so that’s some real adventure for you.
Cafes and food in Saigon:
Topped up on the 5th floor of a multi-storeyed building, this is a classic example of how cafes are located in Ben Thanh.
We took the stairs since the elevator had a huge rush. The cafe overlooks the city’s main square and is an incredibly vibrant place to be at. With a combination of outdoor seating, floor-seating, and chic interiors, the seatings are the kind where you’d pick a corner and stay there read for hours altogether- very cozy and lively. For the floor seating, you’d have to take your shoes off.
#whatweloved: Coffee, Hershey’s Shake, and Fries.
P.S. There’s an excellent bakery right next door.
The highlands Coffe is a popular chain in Vietnam and is the kind of place where you’d love to grab a coffee after a wild-day of exploring through the streets of Saigon. This cafe brews its own coffee and does a great job at it.
They even run a bakery serving fresh pastries and bread. This self-serve cafe has a beautiful outdoor garden seating and two-storeyed indoor seating, and the order counter is located on the ground floor, near the garden area.
Rooftop cafes at Saigon are a lovely thing in Saigon, and Regina Coffee is one of the many you can see the city while enjoying a beautiful sunset on a lazy evening.
The stone architecture and the open seating on the first floor, make the evenings here to a different world altogether. It lights up completely and looks very bright, but that is only half of the story. What’s even more amazing is that between 3 and 7 p.m., orders are taken up by specially-abled kids, which we think is brilliant. The staff and the owner were humble and friendly.
#whatweloved: They serve organic food and fresh juices. We tried coffee and baked sweet potatoes, which were great.
P.S. The sugarcane juice here is average.
Nhà Hàng Chay (Vegetarian Restaurant) Hoa Khai
This vegan place is of great interest. Originally suggested by our host, we had an intriguing moment after seeing meat and prawn shaped dishes made of totally vegan ingredients.
We ordered caramelized Tofu with mushrooms and stir-fried noodles with loads of vegetables. The Tofu came in a clay pot, which was quite a creative presentation, and then the dish was shaped like a fish. Took us one bite at it to confirm it was not real meat.
Banana Mama Rooftop & Kitchen
If by now we didn’t tell, sweet Banana fritters are a thing, and they are an amazing dish in Vietnam. But that doesn’t have to do anything with this rooftop cafe, and it’s something we felt like sharing.
Nevertheless, you’d love the ambiance and the variety of cocktails you can get at this place. The staff here is very welcoming, and the city view is gorgeous.
#whatweloved: Burgers and sides were way too awesome.
Shamballa Vegetarian Restaurant & Tea House
Little on the interiors, this one’s a bit away from the hustle-bustle of the main market. Finally, a place that serves authentic Vietnamese vegetarian food, literally very good food to be enjoyed in a peaceful and relaxed overall vibe.
Are you craving an authentic pizza? This place, merely 200 meters of walking from the Independence Palace, could be a great choice. An eased up seating arrangement makes up for a casual chit chat with friends over fresh oven pizzas and refreshing drinks. This block has multiple other restaurants and a superb coffee house too!
Count our travel tips
1: Crossing Roads? You’ve got to relax! Running back and forth will not help; just patiently take your steps forward, and you’d see bikes leaving you alone.
2: Talk to locals? If you don’t wanna get served fish instead of the fresh salad you ordered, talk in English. If that doesn’t work, use Google Translate, cause your slightest change in pronunciation could pretty much ruin your day! (Yes, Vietnamese is a tough nut to crack)
3: Buying a Rolex? Yeah, don’t do that from the local market. It’ll not survive the journey back home.
Saigon is very much like your regular 21st-century city, as we mentioned, but there’s still much to explore. From the windows of its museums to the open garden cafes, and all the way to its roadside food stalls, you’re chasing a city with a rhythm.