How to Experience Ho Chi Minh City Like a Local

This is a city that never stops, a cement jungle where millions of motorbikes flow through insane traffic in one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Our insider gives us local insights on exploring Ho Chi Minh City.


Photo © Photo by LIM ENG on Unsplash

Also known by its previous name, Saigon, south Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City is an exciting place to be. Even now, after four years of living here, I still love the energy and optimism of the locals. It can be crazy at times, but it's never boring. 

Ho Chi Minh City is famous for its wide boulevards and French colonial architecture – remnants from pre-1975 when the city was called Saigon. But, that’s only one part of what makes this place special. To understand the city's beautiful soul, you must visit its markets, walk through its alleys and, of course, sit on the tiny plastic chairs used at every sidewalk restaurant and cafe.

Beyond the Ben Thanh Market

The Ben Thanh Market is only for tourists. For a local experience, head to Xóm Chiếu Market in District 4. It’s noisy, smelly and crowded, but it also serves a delicious variety of street food, including one of my favorites, bún mm (seafood noodle soup). This is an evening market, so visit after 4pm.

For a mid-morning market, check out Võ Duy Ninh Street, in Bình Thạnh District. It’s a vibrant neighborhood where travelers are rare, and many of Vietnam’s wonderful culinary treats are on display, including frogs, duck and all kinds of fruits and vegetables.

Food and drink around Saigon

To see why this is one of the best street food cities in the world, spend an evening on Vĩnh Khánh Street in District 4. This street is famous for its seafood, and even dinner with drinks will only cost you US $10. And if you come earlier in the day, you can get breakfast or lunch for as little as US $1.

The streets that border the Nhieu Loc–Thi Nghe Canal (Trường Sa and Hoàng Sa Streets) are filled with local restaurants and outdoor vendors, selling icy-cold beer and grilled dishes. While you’ll inevitably visit these historic sites, visit the northern side of where the two streets intersect Điện Biên Phủ to see how locals enjoy their evenings in  Saigon. The canal's tree-lined paths are also great places morning walks, and you'll even see people exercising at outdoor public gyms.

Spend some time exploring the tiny alleys and bars of nearby Little Tokyo – or if the traffic’s driving you mad, get up to a rooftop bar.

Nightlife in Ho Chi Minh City

For a look at the local arts scene, try Indika Saigon. This hip bar is popular among young Vietnamese and regularly features local musicians and DJs. Acoustic Bar in District 3 is another cool spot to see live music on most nights of the week – and so is Yoko Cafe. If you're looking for a spot to dance, I like Piu Piu. It's got multiple floors and plays a nice mix of house EDM and hip-hop.

Turtle Lake in District 3 is a great spot to see Vietnamese social life. Young people park their motorbikes and spend their evenings enjoying snacks from the street food carts, while sitting on the concrete walkways that sit above the water. The towering cement sword jabbing out the center of the pond symbolizes a harmonious layout of the city, with the head of a dragon resting at Independence Palace and the tail lurking under Turtle Lake. The sword pins the dragon's tail to keep it from disturbing people's lives. Chances are you’ll strike up a conversation here – which is a great way to get involved in their late night fun, from karaoke to all-night cafes.

The War Remnants Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels

The War Remnants Museum, Independence Palace and the Củ Chi tunnels, just outside the city, are the best places to learn about the Vietnam War (or the American War, as it’s known here). But you won’t enjoy the tunnels if you’re claustrophobic. This extraordinary network of tunnels, built by the Việt Cộng during the war, is a tight squeeze.

If you travel to the Củ Chi tunnels as part of a boat trip, it also includes a tour of the Saigon River. You'll see Landmark 81, the tallest building in Southeast Asia, as well as the Majestic Hotel, where scenes in Graham Greene's famous novel, The Quiet American (1955), took place.

Motorbike tours

Though it may seem terrifying, because of the famously insane traffic, a motorbike tour is the best way to take in the sights, sounds and smells of this city, and most of the drivers speak English, so they double as guides. Just remember to wear a helmet – if you’re not wearing one, your travel insurance won’t cover you for any accidents.

City tours usually start with the colonial buildings and then take in the hectic alleys and side streets of outlying districts, with stops for street food along the way. You could just ask a motorbike taxi driver (xe ôm) to show you around, but you'll have a much better experience if you book with a reputable company, such as Tigit Motorbikes or VN Bike Tour.

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