A local’s guide to Ho Chi Minh City

Also known as Saigon, this Vietnamese city is having a moment. Here is the inside track on where to eat, drink, shop and explore.

Ho Chi Minh City comes to life at night
  • Justine Lopez
  • January 2019

Get off the beaten path to discover these hidden gems that a HCMC opens in new window resident uncovers - from lesser known streets and cool cafes to swapping touristy attractions for secret spots.

City views

Riding the high-speed lift to the observation deck on the 49th floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower opens in new window to catch 360-degree views of Ho Chi Minh City is a tourist favourite but I don’t think it’s worth the $12. Instead, I like to slip in to a breezy rooftop bar – that way I get the same incredible views and a fancy cocktail for the same price. Chill Skybar opens in new window is less than two kilometres from Bitexco and is the most high-end rooftop bar in the CBD. (Be warned: there’s a strict dress code so don’t wear your Birkenstocks or sports shorts.) A more mellow option is Shri Restaurant and Lounge opens in new window in District 3. Take a seat and enjoy panoramic views of landmarks including the iconic Saigon River.

Instagram-worthy hotspots

There are countless hidden gems in this city but one of my most quirky finds is what is dubbed “The Café Apartment” (aka 42 Nguyen Hue) in District 1. This nine-storey complex housed Vietnamese government officials and American military officers during the Vietnam War. After the war, it was home to working-class Vietnamese. Today, roughly 30 boutiques, cool cafés and trendy restaurants occupy most of the former apartments. This place has it all, from English teashops to lingerie stores to poke bowl eateries. Not only is it a fun place to explore but its striking exterior makes it the most Instagrammable site in town. Each shop decorates its balcony with colourful paint, plants and edgy signs, breathing new life into the decaying building.

See all that 42 Nguyen Hue has on offer
See all that 42 Nguyen Hue has on offer.

Café culture

I spend a lot of my time tapping away on my laptop in one of the city’s many coffee shops. Some of my favourite places roast their own locally sourced beans from Vietnam’s Central Highlands and serve up specialty drinks. Given the intensely hot and humid weather – temperatures hover around 30°C year-round – I like to enjoy a chilled cup of cold brew at Vietnam Coffee Republic opens in new window and The Workshop, both in District 1.

Exploring back alleys

With high-rises and high-end shops, downtown is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan. But it’s the city’s untouched areas that intrigue me the most. As the sun goes down, I often wander the narrow alleyways that splinter off the infamous Bui Vien “Backpacker” Street. It’s just a few kilometres from the more upmarket areas surrounding Bitexco Tower but it feels like another world. If you ask me, this is where real life happens. These alleys represent how a large chunk of the city’s estimated 13 million people live. Families sit on living room floors eating together, women stir giant vats of fragrant broth, men play cards on stools outside. For me, the heart and soul of Ho Chi Minh City is here.

Backpacker street is a must do for nightlife
Backpacker street is a must do for nightlife.

Local brews

The city is home to a surprisingly sophisticated craft beer scene. Hanging out at an American-style microbrewery might not sound like your quintessential Vietnam experience but one of my go-to spots is the rooftop terrace of Pasteur Street Brewing Company opens in new window on the edge of District 1. What is fascinating about Pasteur is that their brews are made with ingredients from different areas of Vietnam – jasmine from Sapa, pepper from Phu Quoc. The ultra-tart Passionfruit Wheat Ale is by far my favourite beer – best served with a side of fried pickles.

Top tip

Explore the city in the mornings, late afternoons and evenings, as things really heat up around midday. And when crossing the traffic-riddled streets, walk slowly and the motorbikes will go around you. Never run!