The zero-tech challenge to navigating Ho Chi Minh City without a smartphone

Bona-fide millennial David Allegretti navigates a city he’s never been to in search of hidden gems — all without the help of any tech. Will he survive?

Ho Chi Minh City
  • David Allegretti
  • January 2020

Ho Chi Minh City. 9:30pm. I’ve just stepped off my plane and onto Vietnamese soil — or at least as soily as airport carpet can get. As I walk past the duty-free shops and make my way towards baggage claim, I can’t help but feel the slight yet niggling pull of my smartphone in my right pocket.

See, ordinarily, I’d be attempting to connect to the free airport Wi-Fi by now. Except, I’m not — because I’m on a mission to explore Vietnam’s most bustling city the old-fashioned way. You know, the way people travelled before smartphones became a thing. Well, as it turns out, it’s a great way to explore a city. Here are all the amazing unintended gems I stumbled upon.

Turtle Lake Roundabout

Vo Van Tan and Tran Cao Van Streets, District 3

I awake early on my first day, eager to explore. I head downstairs and ask the hotel concierge for directions to the closest market, which turns out to be Ben Thanh Market, the largest and liveliest in the city.

Ben Thanh Market
Located in the heart of the city, Ben Thanh Market is a great place to pick up souvenirs.

“Would you like me to organise a taxi for you?” she asks.

“No, it’s okay, I feel like walking — could you draw me a map?”

“I can, but you’ll get lost.”

She’s right. But I don’t really mind; for whatever reason, I’m particularly happy this morning. Perhaps it’s some sort of contact high from the sheer electricity of Ho Chi Minh City which, even at 6am, is bouncing; the early morning air filled with sounds of whizzing scooters like busy buzzing hornets.

I’d usually be listening to a podcast right about now, but this break from technology is already providing surprising benefits — the constant sound of traffic acts as an oddly pleasant backdrop to one of the loveliest morning walks I’ve had in a long time.

Eventually, I arrive at a giant roundabout with a large man-made pond at the centre. It’s encircled by people sitting on park benches and street food vendors plying their trade, and there’s a raised platform overlooking the pond. Upon reaching the top, I take a seat and watch the world go by.

Turtle Lake
Turtle Lake is the perfect chillout spot for people watching.

With no phone to look at, I strike up a conversation with a young Vietnamese guy who tells me this place is called Turtle Lake. I ask if there are real turtles in the water. “No, no turtles in there,” he laughs. “And even if there were, they’d all be caught and eaten by local people by now.”

The area surrounding Turtle Lake is full of bars and cafés — bursting with energy from people young and old converging on the area for a break from their busy lives; finding refuge from the hustle and bustle in a fake lake in the middle of the city. It’s a place I’d return to often during my stay.

Milano Coffee

62 Mac Dinh Chi, Da Kao, District 1

Usually upon arriving in a new city, one of the first things I’d do is google the best coffee spots. Without that option, I walk a few blocks around my hotel until I find a café that entices me. It turns out to be Milano Coffee opens in new window, with its street-side outdoor area looking too good to pass up.

Milano Coffee
Vietnamese coffee is strong and robust, making it the perfect start to the day. Image:

Soon enough, I’m taking my first-ever sip of Vietnamese iced coffee and, boy, it’s a religious experience. Rich, robust and aromatic, it’s one potent punch of caffeine. As I sit sipping my second coffee, I strike up a conversation with a girl at the next table. Turns out Salena is Spanish, about my age, and staying near the Lunch Lady. Which is perfect because I’ve heard so much about her since arriving in Ho Chi Minh City and apparently she’s notoriously hard to find.

The Lunch Lady

23 Hoang Sa Street, Da Kao, District 1

The Lunch Lady is known for her street food stall where she serves a specific type of noodle dish for each day of the week. So, hopped up on Vietnamese iced coffee, Salena and I set off into the heat of the Saigon sun to see if the hype was real.

The Lunch Lady
The menu at The Lunch Lady changes daily.

It is. Today’s speciality of banh canh tom (noodles in a shrimp- and crab-based soup) is incredibly delicious, although I’m drenched in sweat by the end of it thanks to the scorching hot soup combined with the heat of the midday air. (Though weirdly, all of the locals doing the same thing seem totally unaffected. Am I the only sweaty guy in Ho Chi Minh City? Most likely.)

As we share a beer and a bowl of soup, Salena catches wind of the story I’m writing. “You HAVE to see the pink church,” she exclaims.

Tan Dinh Church

289 Hai Ba Trung, Ward 8, District 3

With Salena heading off to work, I make my way to the pink church, going off nothing but the rough directions given to me. A walk that was meant to last 20 minutes ended up being closer to an hour. I did, however, come upon a beautiful park (which, upon returning to the land of the Internet after my trip, I learn is called Le Van Tam Park).

Tan Dinh Church
Built during the French colonial period, Tan Dinh Church is one of the most beautiful churches in the country.

Eventually, I find the pink church. I’m tempted to chuck it on my Instagram but alas. ’Gram or no ’gram, I highly recommend it — it’s truly a sight for sore eyes.

Rogue Saigon

Floor 2 No.13 Pasteur Street, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, District 1

Rouge Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City has a vibrant scene of local craft beer bars to check out.

I tried many a pint in Ho Chi Minh City but this place is a standout. Don’t take my word for it, though. On the balcony of Rogue Saigon. I meet Peter and Diane, a travelling couple from New Zealand in their 50s. Over a few beers I learn that Peter is something of a beer expert who brews his own ale — and this place gets his stamp of approval.

Bui Vien Street

Bui Vien Street
Bui Vien Street might not be a hidden gem but most first-timers to the city will end up grabbing a drink on this bustling street.

A local tells me to check out the bars along Bui Vien Street, and although I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I have the navigation skills of a headless chicken, that’s not a problem. See, Vietnam is full of welcoming faces, so approaching people on the street and politely saying “Bui Vien” in a questioning tone is enough for a gracious point in the right direction.

Upon arrival, it’s pretty clear Bui Vien isn’t a hidden gem — you’ll find every variety of tourist here. The rooftop bar of the Duc Vuong Hotel opens in new window however, is a great way to escape the crowds — I enjoy a tranquil meal, a cocktail and the great view there.

The people

With an early morning flight back home looming, I had planned to have an early evening on my final night. I left the hotel at around 6pm for one last banh mi, and on my walk home I cut through a park and stumbled upon a group of young men playing football.

Banh Mi vendor
A trip to Vietnam without having banh mi would be wrong.

I sat with my banh mi and watched the game for a while. Soon enough I found myself joining the action thanks to the invitation of one of the older guys. After the game, one of the guys offered me a beer, and to this day, it’s one of the most satisfying beers I’ve had.

As I made my way home I noticed that pretty much every watering hole I passed — from huge tourist bars to small street-side establishments — was setting up chairs and tables on the street, all facing whatever screens were available. They were clearly gearing up for … something.

When I was about five minutes from my hotel, it became apparent that a big football game was on and it felt like the whole of Ho Chi Minh City was tuning in. I stood by the side of a packed bar with tables spilling onto the street with a plan to stay for just a few minutes to soak in the city’s atmosphere one last time.

And that’s when three young men basically dragged me to their table. “You like football? Drink with us!” And so I spent the next two hours engrossed in a World Cup qualifying game between Vietnam and Malaysia — a game Vietnam would win 1-0 courtesy of a 40th-minute goal that sent the whole city erupting in joy. The atmosphere was electric and we all celebrated together — 50-odd locals and one me jumping and cheering frantically thanks to some pixels on a screen … it was magic.

Ho Chi Minh City
Arm yourself with a sense of adventure and dare to get lost when you travel. Who knows what amazing gems you’ll discover?

Forgive me but I’m going to get sentimental here. The real hidden gems of travel — the experiences that are not found in any online listicle — are the people we meet and the adventures we have when we aren’t buried in our phones.

While technology offers so much good, we can fall victim to a sort of paralysis by analysis if we’re not mindful about how we use it. Spending hours googling the best-everything to check out and agonising over star ratings and reviews ... it’s exhausting.

The pursuit of the perfect travel experience is, in itself, an experience killer. So don’t try and replicate this guide — go out, maybe ditch the smartphone, and find your own hidden gems. Or rather, let them find you.