While Vietnam's current capital, Hanoi, is a historical heirloom of a city rooted in traditions, Ho Chi Minh City or as the locals call it, Saigon, appears to be its proud antithesis. The Southern Vietnam's metropolis, home to nine million people, is constantly racing ahead into the future - towards more gleaming skyscrapers, sleek urban designs, and its people living modern and open lifestyles. The Saigonese, as the city's residents are called, are full of vivacious energy paired with an always on-the-go, work-hard, play-hard mentality. Saigon is leading the way for Vietnam's emerging economy, and in short, it is a city that is constantly growing at light speed while retaining its jovial spirit. So, let's discover the most underrated city in Vietnam.
For the uninitiated - some first-time travellers or short-time visitors, Saigon can be utterly overwhelming or underwhelming. The labyrinthine-like traffic of motorbikes, the blaring singing of karaoke on every other block, and the wafting scent of makeshift street food stalls can be sensory-overload. For us locals, it is what makes Saigon so charming and full of character. While other Vietnamese cities have their landmarks and beauties easily accessible on the surface, one just has to dig a little further to uncover what makes Saigon so special. And that is what will make exploring Saigon so rewarding - it is a rare chance to experience a metropolis and go through its metamorphosis. Saigon is an underrated hidden gem, and its pearl awaits those who know where to uncover it.
Incredible street food and gastronomy
If you have not experienced Vietnamese food yet - this is the city for you to dive right in. And if you are a fan of Vietnamese cuisine, well, when you are in Saigon, you are in for a treat. Simply put, this is a city where Saigonese take their food very seriously. Here, eating is a hobby in itself, as well as a love language. In Saigon, there are neighbourhoods from District 1 to District 4’s van kiep street that is legendary for street food. Just ask the Lunch Lady, District 1’s own auntie, who cooks up a different dish each day of the week and serves it under her umbrella.
Salad noodle dishes, diverse rice plates, fresh fluffy warm baguette-like bread called bánh mì that is stuffed with pate, pork and veggies, and the ever so famous steaming bowl of phở are just some of the traditional dishes you can eat on any street corner. That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the food in Saigon. In the evening, places like Turtle Lake and Nguyen Hue Walking Street are filled with mom-and-pop carts that sell midnight snacks popular amongst cool Vietnamese kids.
Nguyen Hue Walking Street, Ho Chi Minh City22 Đ. Nguyễn Huệ, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 700000, Vietnam
Turtle Lake, Ho Chi Minh City
Old-world French architecture
From the wide tree-lined boulevards of District 1 due to French Indochina urban planning to the French villas that dot District 2 and 3, it is not surprising to strolling the streets to see how much at the height of France's empire had adored Saigon. Now, some of these buildings have been repurposed while keeping their historical facade well-preserved. The Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica stands strong amongst modernity and its tall skyscrapers. The Saigon Central Post Office is still a functioning place where you can mail your postcards, while the People's Committee Building has its magnificent stronghold for all roads leading to Saigon.
Saigon Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh City02 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 70000, Vietnam
People's Committee Building, Ho Chi Minh City86 Lê Thánh Tôn, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, Ho Chi Minh City01 Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh 70000, Vietnam
When it comes to the way of transportation, other big Asian cities are known for their traffic congestion due to cars. In Saigon? Make way for the motorbike. Alright, these loud, honking, gas-guzzling two-wheelers can be intimidating at first. Trying to cross the street? It is literally like a real-life game of leapfrog in Saigon. But once you have mastered the magic of weaving through the motorbikes (just walk, the drivers will stop for you - trust me), or better yet, take a foot to the peddle yourself, the urban arteries that make the streets of Saigon opens up to you.
Being on a motorbike, whether driving one or riding on the back of one in this city, is a game changer. It is something unique to Saigon because you are living the real fast and the furious, set amongst the flashing lights of the city’s sky-high buildings. If you do not have an international motorbike license and can not rent your own, then you can order a Grab moto. Grab is South East Asia’s uber equivalent, and the moto option is a way to experience getting around the city like a local. Rides are super affordable, and drivers are friendly and safe. Hopping on a motorbike around the city is an activity in itself - and doing it at night when Saigon is lit up adds to its whimsicality.
Ferocious cafe and coffee scene
Sitting out on the terrace (well, any sidewalk) and leisurely sipping a cup of cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese iced coffee) is a whole hobby and past-time here in Saigon. This concoction of adrenaline-pumping caffeine that looks black as tartar mixed in with a gooey white condensed milk is beloved nectar nationwide. Still, in Saigon, the options are endless and nowhere else in the country has places opened 24/7 like this city.
The cafes here range from the traditional hole-in-the-wall places to the stalls with little plastic stools to dramatic multi-level, decked-out cafes that look like a graphic designer’s artwork come to life. You can have your Vietnamese coffee the classic way - with a slow drip filter, watching the city go by as you wait. Or with funky new twists, like ones infused with tonic, or coffee with flavours ranging from taro latte to salted marshmallow. It is all part of Saigon’s identity as a city that constantly tries and fearlessly tests out new things -including its coffee scene.
A nostalgic love for the retro
Saigon’s youth contains magnitudes - they are ambitious and driven, with eyes set on the future as reflected in the city’s growing modern flair. But this magnitude also contains a contrast of an appreciation and nostalgic longing for simpler times, ones that some younger generations have not even experienced yet still adore.
This is seen in their fashion, as a lot of Saigonese gravitate to vintage clothing and thrift stores. Their loose-fitting clothing reflects their openness compared to the rest of the nation’s more reserved attitudes. The love for retro-tangible, non-digital items is interwoven with the city’s design spaces. From galleries to cafes, record players, and old-school radios adorn as useable decor. Some restaurants and bars have tapped into this love for yesteryear, their interiors and menus reflecting this too. To a lot of Saigonese, it is a way to hold on to their childhood memories and to slow down the pace of living in a city that is always speeding ahead.
Diverse and dynamic neighbourhoods
Saigon’s neighbourhoods, officially districts, are each distinctive and filled with their own sense of identity. There are 24 different districts in Saigon, 19 that make up the metropolitan area and five that covers its suburb. For a dense city - this is a lot, but have no fear. The ones that you should explore upon arriving in Saigon are Districts 1, 3, and 5. Honourable mentions for Districts 2, 6, and Binh Thanh.
Have a peek at what Saigon looks like in this video here:
District 1, the heart of Saigon, is a mixture of French colonial architecture amongst the toppling skyscrapers, a fascinating observation of a city that is working on growing and expanding with a vision for tomorrow - while straddling the line of preserving its past. This is where a lot of museums and cultural landmarks like the Reunification Palace and the Jade Emperor Pagoda are located. There’s also a Japan Town, home to the biggest Japanese community in Vietnam here.
District 3 retains the heritage of French Indochina, the best old colonial estates straddled between stunning churches and throngs of street food carts. District 5 is the city’s heritage jewel, also regarded as Chinatown and worth spending a day exploring in itself (even though many tourists do not even make it this deep into Saigon). Whatever your vibe is, there is a neighbourhood in Saigon that you will resonate with.
Saigon is the most underrated city in Vietnam. It is an ever-changing city, one that is always clamouring for more. To the locals, it is a city of opportunities - as people from all over the country move here to chase their dreams and become part of its fabric. If you are visiting for the first time or revisiting after the previous time - wandering into the lively hẻms (back alleys), going to a different district that you have not explored yet, or just trying a comforting street food dish will help you slowly discover and understand just what makes this city so darn loved. Many may not get it at first, but the cosmopolitanism of Saigon is unmatched and jovially intoxicating.
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