Even residents aren't likely to run out of interesting neighborhoods in Ho Chi Minh City to visit. And just when you think you’ve seen most of them, you learn of some trendy, up-and-coming area that’s hiding the latest craft beer hotspot or speakeasy cafe—yes, that’s a thing!
With close to 9 million people in the city and more than 21 million spread across 24 districts in the metro area, the possibilities seem endless. Old French and Chinese influences are prevalent as is a contemporary hipster push that’s alive and well in the south. The most popular neighborhoods in Ho Chi Minh City are an inviting blend of old Saigonese style and modern adaptations.
Pham Ngu Lao (District 1)
Pham Ngu Lao is one of the busiest neighborhoods in Ho Chi Minh City—and it’s cheap! The clogged strip and adjacent streets such as Bui Vien stay swarming with budget travelers and locals who want to sell them something. Perhaps a little unfairly, you could say Pham Ngu Lao is Ho Chi Minh City’s version of Khao San Road in Bangkok.
The guesthouses, travel agencies, and outdoor beer hoi bars are some of the cheapest you’ll find in the city. Pham Ngu Lao is always an epicenter for nightlife and socializing; the late-night pho eateries and 50-cent glasses of beer keep it that way.
Dong Khoi (District 1)
Lined with ornate, colonial buildings from the French days, Dong Khoi Street and the surrounding neighborhood are home to numerous upscale hotels, boutique shops, and international brands. This isn’t the place to haggle for bargains; there is a full-sized Louis Vuitton store. Saigon’s historic Notre Dame Cathedral sits at the northern terminus of Dong Khoi, and the southern end runs into the Saigon River.
For visitors who don’t appreciate the chaos along Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien, Dong Khoi is a more sophisticated, less backpacker-oriented base for staying in District 1. It’s busy but also within walking distance of Ben Thanh Market and many other top sights in Ho Chi Minh City.
Cho Lon (District 5 – 6)
Spilling out of District 5 into adjacent districts, Ho Chi Minh City’s Chinatown area is vibrant and photogenic. The many Chinese-style pagodas, temples, and gates provide different scenery and architecture from other neighborhoods around Ho Chi Minh City. If you aren’t sure where to start, consider hiring one of the human-powered cyclos (bicycle rickshaws) for an hour.
Cho Lon actually means “big market,” and that’s exactly what you’ll find there. The historic Binh Tay Market serves as the crowded heart of Cho Lon. Although most of Binh Tay Market is indoors, carts compete for space on the sidewalks outside. Go hungry: You’ll find cheap hawker food, noodle shops, roasted duck eateries, and other unique things to try. Avoid sampling food products that support harmful practices such as shark finning.
Thao Dien (District 2)
Ho Chi Minh City’s Thao Dien neighborhood occupies the sharp bend in the Saigon River northeast of District 1. Many of the high-rise condo towers that can be seen across the river are home to expats willing to pay up for a higher standard of living there.
Until the underground metro is completed (target date is late 2021), getting in and out of Thao Dien isn’t as convenient as other neighborhoods in Ho Chi Minh City. Regardless, Thao Dien could be a good place to grab an Airbnb to relax in a less chaotic atmosphere. The Vincom Mega Mall at the southern edge of Thao Dien has an ice rink inside!
Nguyen Van Binh (District 1)
Better known as “Book Street,” Durong Nguyen Van Binh has so many sidewalk booksellers, it even smells like book paper! Numerous cafes also contribute to the enticing aroma. Although most books for sale are in Vietnamese, writers and book lovers from everywhere will enjoy a little slice of heaven regardless.
The actual “Book Street” isn’t a very long strip, but the shade trees, canopy of umbrellas, and other tasteful touches lend a pleasant atmosphere. Diamond Plaza there is popular for shopping, and the giant lawn in front of Independence Palace provides some greenspace. Nguyen Van Binh is also conveniently adjacent to Ben Thanh, a neighborhood full of popular sights.
Vinh Khanh Street (District 4)
Wedge-shaped District 4 is surrounded on three sides by water, making it feel like a separated area. Perhaps that’s why crime bosses once set up shop there in days past! Today, the Vinh Khah Street neighborhood is best known for its fresh, inexpensive seafood. The area really comes to life at night with neon signs, sizzling woks, and plastic chairs competing for space. Buskers and performers work the young, local crowd. Vinh Khanh is also the place to try quan oc, fresh snails shared as a social snack.
Xom Chieu Market is a local market nearby. The iconic Mong Bridge that connects District 4 to District 1 was constructed in 1894. You’ll recognize the architect’s (Gustave Eiffel) signature work.
Ben Thanh (District 1)
Best known for the famous market of the same name, the Ben Thanh neighborhood in Ho Chi Minh City is one of the most popular with tourists. Inexpensive spas, shops, guesthouses, street food, and pizzerias can be found everywhere.
Along with Ben Thanh Market, Independence Palace is one of the most impressive attractions in Ben Thanh, and you can sometimes catch cultural performances in Tao Dan Park. Saigon Square is a shopping mall in Ben Thanh known as a place to buy inexpensive clothing and knock-off imitations from luxury brands.
Phu Nhuan District
A district all its own, Phu Nhuan is strategically situated between the airport and the busiest tourist neighborhoods of Ho Chi Minh City. For this reason, many young professionals moved in and made Phu Nhuan one of the most densely populated parts of the city.
Phu Nhuan is mainly residential and off the tourist radar, but that’s a good enough reason to visit. Lots of cafes, some with "unique" themes, provide places to work or meet people. The French influence is obvious in some of Phu Nhuan’s restaurants. Gia Dinh Park in the northern part of Phu Nhuan was once a golf course; now, it’s a pleasant park known as the “green lung” of Ho Chi Minh City.