Coming to Ho Chi Minh City?

11 ideas for your first week in HCMC

Night time is when Ho Chi Minh City Hall illuminates beautifully.

This guide is based on my experiences spending my first week in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City, or as many call, Saigon. In total there are 24 districts with 19 considered inner-city and 5 suburban. Some districts are known by their numbers, others by their names.

District 1 is considered the downtown area and is home to towering office headquarters, luxury hotels, and cosmopolitan nightlife. For other areas that are popular with foreigners, you can check-out District 2 (where many expats and international schools are based) and District 7 (home to many Korean people).  

If you have any questions, feel free to message me on Instagram or e-mail me.

Purchase a SIM card and get used to the Đồng

Prepaid SIM card stall at Tan Son Nhat International Airport.

There are no coins in the Vietnamese currency.

The first to-do once you step out of Tan Son Nhat Airport’s immigration area is sort out your phone plan and money situation. I spent 350K Dong (~22 AUD) for a SIM card at the Viettel store for a SIM card that allows 6GB of data per day and lasts for 30 days. It’s perfectly suited for a digital nomad lifestyle in Saigon because 1) there is hotspot functionality and 2) you’ll probably not use the full 6GB every day because of the regular availability of Wi-Fi in cafes. If you’re connecting to public Wi-Fi networks though, be mindful about whether you should use a VPN (virtual private network) for safety reasons.  

Order from where the locals go

A delicious bowl of noodle soup with a selection of beef & pork cuts.

The Google map location is here.

From my conversations while travelling, locals are most excited when they’re talking about their cuisine. Yes, Ho Chi Minh City has many of the familiar international brands – Jollibee, KFC, Burger King, McDonald’s. Plenty of comfortable, air-conditioned restaurants will also serve you familiar options like Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) or Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup). I tend to look for places the locals go to because they offer more local-style dishes and are better value-for-money. Want a list of recommended restaurants? E-mail me.

Hop on a Grab motorbike, it's cost-effective

This Grab driver is 68 years young. He merrily spoke English to me while we rode.

On a Grab motorbike, you can see more of the city.

It might take a little time to get used to, but commuting around on the back of a motorbike with a Grab driver leading the way has many benefits. First, it’s cost-effective. Why book a 4-seater car when you only need room for one person? To replace a 25-minute walk, I usually pay 18K Dong (~1.20 AUD). Secondly, while zipping around, you’re closer to the sights, sounds and smells of the city. Thirdly, it’s fast! I’ve ridden with many Grab drivers who are adept at navigating traffic like road ninjas.

Enjoy the entertainment along Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard

You’ll encounter nightlife entertainment on Nguyen Hue pedestrian street. 

Singers and dancers I expected, but a lady with two live snakes?!  

I stumbled upon Nguyen Hue on a weekday night and was surprised to see it buzzing with people and conversation. This big pedestrian street is in the centre of District 1, adjacent to cafes, bars, hotels and restaurants. Nguyen Hue is perenially energetic, with street performers like dancers and singers drawing in crowds and applause. Vinpearl, a hotel company, has a detailed guide which is especially helpful for foodies here.

Appreciate the diverse architecture

Saigon Opera House (map link) is in the more glitzy part of down.

Buildings can look very different depending on which part of District 1 you’re in.

From the late 19th century to mid 20th century, Vietnam was part of region called French Indochina. Many buildings from the colonial era still remain, notably Saigon Opera House, Ho Chi Minh City Hall, Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, and Saigon Central Post Office. Juxtaposed to these French-style buildings are more gritty neighbourhoods with lower-rising buildings.  

Join a social meet-up in District 2

Meet new friends at Mundo Lingo events in District 2.

The Mundo Lingo language meet-up is located in SOMA, a bar in Thảo Điền.

If you’re travelling solo and feeling like your first week could do with more social activity, Mundo Lingo hosts a meet-up every Thursday from 8pm. Inside SOMA, a bar in the expat-friendly neighbourhood of Thao Dien (synonymous with District 2), people from different countries attend to practise languages and grab a drink. I found the atmosphere friendly and upon meeting a few locals, I learnt more about lifestyles in Saigon. 

Check-out the hidden bars

Leo is a friendly bartender whom I met at Layla, arguably downtown’s most popular bar.

Drinking and Healing is a fashionable bar on the 3rd level of an old building.

The fun starts in trying to find the bars themselves. “Layla Eatery & Bar” (63 Đông Du, District 1)  is well-known amongst locals and foreigners, and yet it’s barely visible from the street level. Google Maps had taken me to a run-down looking building with a board that advertised Massage & Spa services. It took a kind confirmation from an old lady at the entrance and a closer observation that “Layla” was indeed written in small letters for me to go up the stairs. “Drinking & Healing” (25 Đ. Hồ Tùng Mậu, District 1) had a similar discovery process. Inside both bars, the atmosphere is conversational, pleasant, and lively with music. 

Enjoy time for yourself

Mebuki is pricier than an average massage place you’d see in Saigon. The service is friendly and professional.

In Vietnam, the Lotus is the national flower. Catch this romantic view at the end of Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard in District 1. 

My first week was busy with settling into my Airbnb (which cost ~260 AUD per week) and straightening my priorities for the month ahead as a digital nomad. It’s often said that we shouldn’t spend so much time preparing for the future that the quality of our present is reduced. I brought myself indulgently back to the present with a mind & body cleansing treatment at “Mebuki Spa & Massage” (map link). For a 90-minute session, expect to pay at least 1 million Dong (~70 AUD) for a treatment that relaxes your muscles and features hot stones. In a dark, ambient room with music gently playing, the therapist professionally pressed on all my tight areas. I had asked for medium-hard pressure, so pain inevitably came. The night after though, I slept wonderfully. The staff communicated in English and offered ice-cream, snacks & tea after. 

Experience a lively acoustic bar

“Acoustic Bar – Ngô Thời Nhiệm”. Google Map link. An immersive and enjoyable experience.

A line-up of different singers and instrumentalists performed during the night.

In a way, the experience inside the Vietnamese acoustic bar I visited is like what you see when you type “boiler room” into YouTube. There was a beautiful intimacy between the stage performers and the audience crowded (sitting and standing) around. The Acoustic Bar I visited is in a lively part of Ngo Thoi Nhiem (a street in District 3). To my surprise, no entrance fee was charged and the only payment I gave was the 170K for my Gin & Tonic cocktail. I stayed for an hour and a half, listening to covers of Vietnamese music, 80s western music, and newer pop songs. 

Spend a few hours in a cafe

 OKKIO is a charming hide-out at the top of a narrow spiral staircase.

THE COCOA PROJECT specialises in chocolate products. You’ll see their lab and cocoa plantation at the cafe.

Vietnam is the 2nd largest exporter of coffee and this prowess with the bean is reflected in the number of cafes in Saigon, many of which are proudly, independently owned. The cafes I visited have fast Wi-Fi, well-equipped seating (don’t worry, a power outlet is usually nearby!), and opening hours that finish at around 10pm. A must-try drink is cà phê sữa đá. The pairing of earthy coffee with sweet condensed milk is one that starts the morning for many Vietnamese people. Want a list of recommended cafes in District 1? E-mail me.

Visit one of the city's most important symbols

There are plenty of food hawkers inside Ben Thanh Market.

If you’re looking for a souvenir, you’ll be enthusiastically sold one here.

In one of the oldest markets of Saigon, you can explore cultural and culinary diversity. Vendors will enthusiastically chat to you about their wares, which include clothing, handicraft and jewellery. On the culinary side, you can try a smorgasboard of food and drink. During the city’s typically warm weather, an icy Nước Sâm (herbal tea) or sugarcane juice is refreshing. For food, try Bun Rieu Ganh (Crab paste vermicelli soup) or any variety of Cơm Tam (broken rice featuring meat). 

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My name is Garry Ho, I’m the founder.
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It takes just a minute 🙏

My name is Garry Ho, I’m the founder.
If you have enjoyed our content and found it helpful, please consider supporting us.
All major cards are accepted.

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