While Vietnam certainly has a war-torn history, Ho Chi Minh City has risen above its tumultuous past and grown into a enthralling, vibrant city where old meets new. Teeming with historical landmarks, eateries that range from street vendors to buttoned-up restaurants, bustling markets, and an eclectic nightlife scene, there’s plenty to keep you busy in the metropolis. To help you navigate Saigon, the capital’s former name and often how it’s still referred to, we’ve compiled some of the best places to explore, eat, and play. Here, your 48-hour guide to Ho Chi Minh City.
Day 1: Morning
7:30 a.m.: After you’ve landed at Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN), cleared customs, and gathered your luggage, queue up in the taxi line to hail a cab or use the Grab app to book a car and head over to your hotel. While you likely won’t be able to score an early check-in, you can at least drop off your bags before you explore. And if you’re staying at a luxury property like the Park Hyatt Saigon or Reverie Saigon, they’ll usually let you hop to the spa and freshen up. Even if you’ve chosen not to splurge on your digs, make sure to book something in District 1. The commercial hub is where you’ll find most of Ho Chi Minh City’s historic landmarks and nightlife scene, and likely where you’ll be spending most of your time.
8:30 a.m.: Firstly, you might be feeling a little sluggish and in need of some java. If you want a moment to relax at your hotel, they’ll likely have somewhere you can lounge with a cup of Vietnamese coffee, or ca phe da. The dark roast drip coffee laced with condensed milk will surely jolt you wide awake. But if a trendy café is more your speed, September Saigon is one of the most photogenic in town. Once you’ve gotten your caffeine fix it’s time for a good meal. To kick off what will be an exciting food adventure, opt for the country’s national dish, pho. A hot noodle soup dish where the broth—either beef or chicken—is simmered for hours, it’s a comfort food that’s eaten at all hours of the day. For the more common beef variety, there’s no better place than Pho Le in District 5. Order a bowl with whichever toppings you’d like, such as meatballs and rare or well done steak, and savor the rich soup with every slurp.
10:30 a.m.: Since you’re already in District 5, go down the street to Saigon’s Chinatown, or Cholon, and wander around the recently renovated Binh Tay Market, where over a thousand stalls sell everything from trinkets to delectable bites. Even if you aren’t looking for souvenirs, we’d recommend visiting a fruit vendor to pick up some exotic treats to eat later. Then make your way over to Thien Hau Temple, one of the most beautiful of its kind in the city with its ornate facade and conical coiled incense suspended from the roof. If you want to see more pagodas and temples, head up to the garden-like grounds of Giac Lam Pagoda, one of the oldest in the city that also boasts incredible views; east to Jade Emperor Pagoda, arguably one of the most popular amongst tourists, and even more so after President Barack Obama’s visit in 2016; and back to District 1 for Xa Loi Pagoda, an important center of opposition against the Diem regime in the 1960s.
Day 1: Afternoon
1:30 p.m.: For lunch, try another Vietnamese favorite: banh mi. While the words technically translate to bread, it’s often used to refer to a sandwich made with a toasted baguette—influenced by the French—stuffed with pâté, cold cults, grilled pork, vegetables, and herbs, combining a mix of flavors and textures that’s quintessential in Vietnamese cuisine. One of the most popular places that does it best is Banh Mi Huynh Hua. Locals and tourists alike queue up at this stall for their subs, but don’t be deterred by the long line as it goes by fairly quickly. Once you’ve picked up your order, head back to your hotel to check in, escape the beating sun, freshen up again, and unwind a little after your busy morning.
4 p.m.: If you can muster the energy, go to the War Remnants Museum and learn more about Vietnam’s tumultuous history. And if you’re interested in seeing some up-and-coming work by the creative community, visit 289e to get a taste of what the city’s burgeoning art scene is all about.
Day 1: Evening
6 p.m.: Being a coastal country, seafood is a big part of Vietnamese cuisine. A favorite is snails, cooked in a variety of umami-packed sauces that’ll leave you wanting more. If you want to go really local, venture over to Quan Oc Cam in District 10. There’s also Truoc’s Snail Stall in District 1 that was featured in Netflix’s "Street Food: Asia." And while both places are known for their snails, they also offer mollusks and shellfish like crab, clams, and scallops. Wash it all down with bia hoi, or “fresh beer,” for the full Vietnamese experience. And if you want a place with a livelier atmosphere, Khe Food Garden also serves up delectable seafood plates, but with a laidback party vibe.
8 p.m.: Now that you’ve had your fill and the sun has set, it’s time to check out some of Ho Chi Minh City’s nightlife. Go a little casual tonight and make a stop at Pham Ngu Lao Street and Bui Vien Street. Known as Backpacker Street, the busy thoroughfare is packed with visitors seeking inexpensive fun at one of the dozens of roadside bars and clubs. Yes, it’s touristy, but you have to at least come here once to see what it’s all about and people watch if nothing else. Just be mindful of your belongings, particularly bags and smartphones, as pickpocketing and snatchings are unfortunately common in Vietnam. If you like what you see, stay, but if you find that it’s not so much your scene and prefer to listen to some live music, head over to hip District 3 and check out Yoko Café or Acoustic Bar. Or, if you want to do some singing of your own, karaoke bars like King Karaoke and Kingdom Karaoke offer plush private rooms with waiter service so that you can sing to your heart’s content while throwing back a few cold ones.
Day 2: Morning
11 a.m.: After a busy day and maybe even a late night, you’ve probably decided to sleep in a little. Once you manage to wake up, go for a second round of pho, but this time try the chicken variety at Pho Mien Ga Ky Dong. Tucked away in an alley, locals will tell you this place has the best chicken pho in the city. There’s an option for the usual rice noodles, but we’d recommend getting the mung bean vermicelli for a nice textural contrast. And don’t skip out on the chewy chicken salad, which is marinated with onions and mixed with herbs to add a little extra kick to every bite.
Day 2: Afternoon
12 p.m.: Spend the afternoon diving into Vietnam’s history and marveling at the French-influenced architecture through in District 1. Landmarks such as the Reunification Palace, Saigon Central Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, and Saigon Opera House are all within walking distance of one another. And if you want to explore another market, Ben Thanh Market is also nearby. If you find the heat to be unbearable, duck into one of the many malls in the area for a cold drink and some air conditioning.
3 p.m.: If you’re looking for an afternoon bite with a mix of Vietnamese dishes that you might’ve never tried before, try the fare at Com Que Muoi Kho. Here you’ll find everything from caramelized pork to DIY rice paper spring rolls. Afterward, return to your hotel to get ready for the night ahead.
Day 3: Evening
5:30 p.m.: Saigon is known for its rooftop bars and Chill Skybar is regarded as the best. Pop in for a sunset aperitif and enjoy the spectacular views of the city. They have a dress code that’s strictly enforced, so leave the tank tops and flip-flops at home. And since you’re dressed up for the night, forego the street stalls this evening and make a reservation at a proper sit-down restaurant instead. For a modern take on Vietnamese cuisine, Anan has innovative dishes like banh xeo tacos and Da Lat “pizza.” But if you’re looking to get the party started early with an Asian fusion menu, Qui Cuisine Mixology whips up plates ideal for sharing with stellar cocktail offerings and has a lively vibe on weekends that turns into a full-on boisterous lounge as the night goes on.
8 or 10 p.m.: If you’re more culturally inclined, go to a show at the Saigon Opera House. You’ll have to wrap up dinner quickly and be there by 8 p.m., but the historic venue puts on performances throughout the year that ranges from ballet to concerts. But if you’re a partygoer, start your night later around 10 p.m. and explore the eclectic bars and clubs in District 1. For cocktail enthusiasts, Ho Chi Minh City’s scene has exponentially grown in the past few years and a number of bars are mixing up quality drinks. Rabbit Hole is beloved for its sophisticated atmosphere and classic cocktails, Qui Cuisine Mixology is about innovation, and Firkin Bar pulls at the heartstrings of whiskey fans. More of a craft beer fan? Then East West Brewing Co. will hit the spot. But if you want to dance until the early hours of the next morning, sashay your way over to one of the many nightclubs in the city. Lush is arguably the most popular nightclub in the city as well as one of the longest running establishments and is favored by international DJs; Envy Club combines theatrical performances with heart-pounding music; and hip hop is the music of choice at intimate spots like Commas Saigon and Candi Shop. Whichever one of these you decide to choose, be ready for a long, but fun night out.