Thanks to the world financial crisis, the skyrocketing cost of fuel and fluctuating currencies of the late 2000’s, the idea of staycations – a holiday close to home – exploded onto the scene. It was suddenly trendy to stay at a quaint little B&B and visit area attractions instead of blowing the budget on far-flung destinations.
Admittedly, I’m a late adopter to staycations, preferring in my youth to travel to the farthest points I could afford. But now that I’m approaching my first anniversary of living in Vietnam, I can look back on delicious highs and frustrating lows right here in sunny Saigon. I mastered the Figure Eight of Death to get my motorbike license. I’ve cooked next to Michelin-star chefs. I experienced my first Tet. But best of all, I’ve simplified my life to the point where I have stretches of time to explore this vibrant, electric city, moving away from the initial tourist-type things to some of the lesser-known activities. In honor of my staycation at the plush ParkRoyal this past weekend, I present some of my favorite quirky things to do in Saigon.
I love that Saigon is still a transitional city. More developed than the neighboring capitals of Phnom Penh or Vientiane, but still years away from the monorails of Bangkok or the impressive skyline of Hong Kong. That said, getting a bird’s eye view of the sprawling city from the 53 story Bitexco Tower, Saigon’s highest building, puts everything into perspective. Tourists go to the expensive (VND 200,000) Skydeck on the 49th floor, but locals go straight to Strata on the 50th floor where a cappuccino only costs VND 100,000 (no cover charge). Better yet, kick in a few more dong and go for the Highest Tea at VND 350,000.
The Vietnamese are surprisingly artistic and the growing middle class means people have time to invest in the arts. A bit of serendipity led me to a ceramics work shop where the morning started off with a clump of clay and some hasty instructions. Left to our own devices to replicate the ease with which the instructor used the pottery wheel to form vases and bowls, my lump formed and reformed countless times in thirty fruitless minutes, still looking like a 3rd grader’s abandoned art project. I was frustrated and splattered in mud but having a great time. After initial drying, we painted our chef d’oeuvres and came back a week later after firing. Total cost for this half-day activity? About USD7. For a cheaper, quicker alternative, all the government owned bookstores around town will have a crafts corner, usually upstairs. Choose a plaster figurine (starting at USD 0.50) and have at it with included paints and help from the staff. A great family / rainy day activity.
Monkey around the Market
Ben Thanh Market’s iconic clock tower is probably Saigon’s most recognized sight. Its fabled history aside, it’s very much a living, breathing market filled with everyone from local housewives buying the day’s groceries to pasty white foreigners getting ripped off over fake Abercrombie polos. My favorite spot in the market is actually a room set one floor up, through an unmarked passageway in the south corner and up two flights of rickety stairs. This is the market’s shrine where superstitious vendors lay flower offerings in front of the simian-like market god in hopes of a prosperous day. It’s also a quiet, albeit dark, vantage point to look down on the buzzing aisles below. I’ve never seen any foreigners here, but it’s technically not off limits. Grab a friendly local who’ll show you the way.
Three Regions, Countless Meals
Vietnam’s three distinct regions yield a countless variety of dishes. There’s the austere cuisine of the frigid North (my favorite is Bun Cha, a grilled pork and noodle dish with crunchy pickled vegetables and a light fish sauce broth that makes it somewhere between a noodle dish and a soup) or the supreme freshness that marks the dishes in the south. Nha Hang Ngon elevates street food to a trendy (and safe, if you’re worried about traveler’s tummy) restaurant experience. Stalls are set up on the periphery of an old French villa to look like street vendors, and the service is quick. For a slightly more authentic experience, one of my favorite places are the long communal tables at the Banh Xeo (sizzling crepes) place on Dinh Cong Trang. The first time I went there about 20 years ago, there were a bunch of similar restaurants. Now there’s only one. Yes, you’ll probably see a smattering of other tourists there (it’s a favorite spot for small group tours), but the majority of customers are still locals – friends and family – wanting to have these hands-only pancakes stuffed with pork and shrimp, meant to be rolled up in a lettuce leaf and dipped in fish sauce. Their spring rolls are also to die for. I recently went with a fellow blogger from China and we stuffed ourselves silly with crepes, spring rolls, sugarcane stuffed with minced prawn, beef fondue and a crunchy lotus stem salad all washed down with beer for less than USD 10 each. If you’re down for the real thing, though, look for the “banh xeo” signs in front of streetside vendors (78 Ung Van Khiem, Binh Thanh) where super-heated pans make snack size variants for VND 3,500 each. Order 6 for USD 1 and you’ve got yourself a meal. Be prepared to sit on very low stools and get your hands dirty wrapping these crunchy bites in a huge assortment of greens.
When I travel to a foreign country, I always wonder what I’m missing because I don’t know the area and don’t speak the language. Enter the local guide. I’ve done a few free tours around the world and some have been stellar and others awkward. Ho Chi Minh Free Tours has more than 15 volunteer guides (university students looking to improve their English) who take visitors on a half-day walking itinerary, covering sights such as the Opera House and the People’s Committee Building. I talked to Ngan, the group’s administrator, who said, “Often visitors walk around without understanding much about what they’re seeing or about Vietnamese people”. For me, I find that more likely, the most interesting tidbits don’t come out of the commentary, but out of the impromptu discussions about religion, culture, ambitions and family. It’s a great way to have access to an English-speaking local where you can ask about almost anything. As the name implies, tours are free. Tips are not expected but be generous and chip in towards gas or cover admission costs.
Another way to find an instant local friend is with the peer-to-peer travel marketplace WithLocals. Some hosts are professional guides but the majority are regular people who are willing to show you things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, including taking you on a tour, teaching a skill (cooking, pottery, jewelry making, etc.) or my favorite, just having you over for a homecooked meal. I’ve been on a few WithLocals meals and had a wonderful time. There was one put on by a university student with excellent English at her home with her family who couldn’t speak a word of English but were so incredibly hospitable. Another mixed sightseeing with stops for street food. There are literally hundreds of activities to choose from and the hosts are usually very interesting people. I found it a great way to really see how the locals live and usually any topic was fair game, from religion to politics to culture.
Another fun food-related tour is Saigon Street Eats, run by the Aussie-Vietnamese duo of Barbara and Vu. Barbara told me that on returning to Vietnam after a stint abroad, she realized she wanted to do all her favorite things like eating snails and going to her favorite pho place. “Why not try and share all these fantastic places?” was her philosophy. Tours are thematic: pho, veggie, seafood or family. I love that the Pho Trail takes place in decidedly untouristy Binh Thanh district. We had a blast walking past shops selling Buddha statues, betel nuts and wedding dresses, which led into discussions on Vietnamese religion and customs. One of the other participants had been in Vietnam for months, but had never ridden a motorbike or wandered around Vietnam’s back alleys before, so the tour was an eye-opener for her. I also went on the Snail Street tour and leave you with two words. Wasabi Oyster.
Not Just For the Birds
I love going to the zoo in Saigon. Not only is it ridiculously cheap (USD 0.40 for adults, USD 0.20 for kids under 1.3m, 50% more on weekends and holidays) but it’s set on 12 hectares of precious green space 5 minutes from the city center. While Vietnam has a way to go in the area of animal management and enrichment, it’s light years from when I first visited and was horrified to find popsicle vendors right outside the monkey exhibit encouraging locals to gleefully toss sugared treats to the animals. Thankfully, the zoo is now much better run. If you’re at the right place at the right time, you might even see a zookeeper taking one of the full-grown elephants out for its daily walk.
For a totally authentic experience, head to Tao Dan Park in the early morning hours (7am – 9am) as the city’s songbird enthusiasts bring out their charges en masse for a morning symphony. Not only do the birds get fresh air, it’s a de facto training camp – the birds learn new songs from each other. There’s a small café which serves up gritty, almost chocolate-tasting coffee and simple fried egg sandwiches. Expect to see up to 100 cages hung up on wires, placed on the ground or right on the tables on any given morning. Once you’ve been here, you’ll start noticing men driving around town with covered bird cages on their motorbikes, carting their pets to and from these avian play dates.
It’s Not Over Until the Skinny Lady Sings
Inevitably, all visitors will end up walking by the Saigon Opera House at some point. Built in 1897 by French architect Felix Olivier and modeled after the Opera Garnier in Paris, this building, unfortunately, doesn’t offer tours. Instead, a great way to see the inside is to take in a performance. The inside is gorgeous and I counted maybe only 400 seats, not including the balcony and upper floors. This means it’s a pretty intimate space and there are really no bad seats (cheapest seats are VND 200,000 or USD 10). Shows are eclectic. The one I went to a couple of weeks ago was a full orchestra playing Mozart. The concert last week featured British music, from classical to Freddie Mercury with a bit of Phantom and Cats thrown in for good measure.
Vive la France!
My father is from the generation called Bac 54, describing more than a million Northerners who moved to the South after Vietnam gained independence from France in 1954. Even so, the French influence remains strong in Vietnam as seen in everything from the pale yellow buildings with white trim dotted around the city to the french baguettes on every corner to the boeuf bourguinon-like bo kho, with the Vietnamese addition of cinnamon and herbs to the local penchant for not-too-sweet cakes. It’s even rumored that the quintessential pho is a derivation of the French pot-au-feu stew. For a concentration of French inspiration, start on the city’s premier shopping street, Dong Khoi (which my 70-something aunt still calls by its French-era name, Rue Catinat), and head north past the Opera House and the gorgeous post office and on to the Notre Dame Cathedral, all examples of French architecture. Stop by Givral’s at the new Vincom A center, right across from the Opera House for a pastry and coffee with a great view out onto the square.
Pamper Yourself (or at least your ears)
It seems like Saigon has a spa on every corner, with everything ranging from dodgy massages performed by skimpily dressed “therapists” to full-on luxury treatments operated by the likes of Shiseido and L’Apothiquaire. Unlike in Cambodia and Thailand, I haven’t had good experiences at the $10 and under massage places here in Saigon (and no, I’m not talking about the naughty kind, just a regular foot or body massage), with poorly trained personnel and dark, uninviting rooms. Expect the masseuses to demand a sizeable tip at the end, even though no tip minimums are posted. I recently went with a friend to a USD 7 foot massage and when he tipped her USD 2 at the end, she flat out refused it.
Go local and get pampered at your local barber’s. With a haircut and shave averaging about USD 1.50, splurge and get your ears cleaned. Armed with an arsenal of picks, brushes and a miner’s lamp, the barber will dig out every trace of earwax, leaving you with bionic hearing. They even considerately scrape the ear boogers on your arm, so when everything is said and done, you can see the fruits of their labor.
A popular day trip is the Mekong Delta with its lush canals, floating markets and small town living. The first time I went in 1995, tourists were still a novelty and we’d have scores of children running alongside our boats on the narrow waterways screaming “hello” at the top of their lungs. While I’d definitely recommend a 2-day trip (one day is just a LOT of driving), there is a way to see a glimpse of country life without leaving the city. Head on up to the Thanh Da area of town, in Binh Thanh District. Just 20 minutes from the city center, this island (called a peninsula by the locals) is bordered on three sides by the sweeping Saigon River. The government has kept it largely development free, reportedly waiting for a huge foreign developer to come in and transform the whole area into the next glut of high rise buildings. Until that happens, a trip to the hilariously kitschy Binh Quoi Village for a weekend evening buffet is a must. Local Vietnamese love to “get away” from the city and pig out on the many food stations on the expansive grounds right by the river. Better yet, hire a motorbike, come a couple of hours early and lose yourself along any of the many meandering lanes past small one-story houses where people still raise ducks, plant rice and work in fruit orchards.
There you have it. My top ten off-the-beaten-track things to do in Ho Chi Minh City. Click here for Part 2 of What to Do in Saigon, the Mean Girls Edition.
For this staycation, I was a guest at the solid 4-star PARKROYAL Saigon. My requirements for a hotel are simple. It has to be nicer than my already cool apartment with superfast wifi. The bed has to practically swallow me whole. And given my total lack of cooking skills, there has to be a sumptuous breakfast. Check, check and check. At the first atrium hotel in the city, I was greeted on check-in with the Carpenter’s “On Top of the World” done by a live cover band. Cheesy? Yes, in a guilty pleasure sort of way. (Confession: I absolutely love Filipino cover bands. Back in Phnom Penh, my friends and I would regularly crash the InterContinental and dance inappropriately even though there wasn’t a dance floor per se. The bands loved us for breaking up the stodgy golf-clap crowd. Heyyyyyyyyyyy, Macarena!)
Instead of being a stuffy business hotel, the ParkRoyal’s (formerly a Novotel) open concept of lounge, dining area and reception which opens up into the pool was a nice change. Literally at the entrance of the airport, it makes a great business / layover / staycation option only 15 mins from the city center.
Did I miss any must-do activities in Saigon? Have your say in the comments and then share your favorite activities in the “Trade For a Trip” contest for a chance to win a ParkRoyal hotel stay!