Where to go in Vietnam? See what a local recommends!
My name is Uyên and I was born and raised in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I love to travel in my own country as well as around the world. When meeting people in other countries, I often get asked questions about Vietnam, such as if there is electricity in the cities, if you risk getting stepped on by elephants in the streets, and many many questions about the Vietnam war (or the American war as it is called here). I have come to realize that in many people's minds, Vietnam is still a war-torn farming country.
While we are still very proud of our excellent rice, and lives can be quite different in the countryside villages compared to the more developed cities, Vietnam is now home to skyscrapers (with electricity!), local tech startups, and has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia. Tourists from all over the world love to visit Vietnam due to the rich culture and history, beautiful landscapes, delicious cuisine, friendly people, and vibrant cities.
I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel to many places in Vietnam and experience the good, the bad, and the ugly. Here are my recommendations for top places to visit in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam's largest city where the sun shines the whole year round
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam and the country's financial hub. Located in the south, the city is a mix of old and new, with modern skyscrapers coexisting alongside ancient pagodas, colonial buildings, and lush parks. It has a wide range of culinary options, from bustling street food markets to high-end restaurants. The city is also known for its vibrant nightlife, with various lively bars, clubs, and music venues.
Where to stay in Ho Chi Minh City?
Ho Chi Minh City is one of the biggest cities in Asia. A few popular areas offer different experiences and budgets for your stay. Keep in mind that Ho Chi Minh City is not always easily walkable. It helps if you get a scooter, hire a scooter taxi, or a standard taxi to get around, depending on where you will stay.
The center of the city center
The most central part of District 1 is where you can find the most excellent shopping malls, glamorous hotels, high-rise buildings, and the most famous landmarks, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, and the Reunification Palace. This is considered the most expensive area in Ho Chi Minh City. The area includes some well-known streets such as Nguyễn Huệ, Đồng Khởi, Hàm Nghi, Tôn Đức Thắng, Lý Tự Trọng, Mạc Thị Bưởi, as well as the early parts of Hai Bà Trưng and Pasteur. I recommend that you stay here if you visit Ho Chi Minh City for a short trip and want to explore the city center on foot.
Also located in District 1 and very near the center of the city center. Little Japan (just an informal nickname) is a small area packed with hundreds of Japanese restaurants, bars, hotels, guesthouses, and interlacing alleys. The main streets in Little Japan are the early part of Lê Thánh Tôn and all of Thái Văn Lung. The accommodation is more affordable than the center of the city center with easy access to the city center on foot. Obviously, the Japanese food here is excellent.
The Bến Thành Market area
Also located in District 1 surrounding the biggest day and night market in Ho Chi Minh City, Bến Thành. It is home to the best Vietnamese street food and daily business hustle. Many Vietnamese overseas visitors choose this area to stay so that they can fill their stomachs with the Vietnamese dishes of their childhood. You should stay here if you would like to enjoy local street foods and do not mind the busy vibe. Bến Thành market is a must-visit. In my opinion, you can check it out but be aware that the shop sellers can be very annoying and you will need to bargain. I and most of my friends only go here to eat, not to shop. Bến Thành Market is within walking distance from Litte Japan and the center of the city center.
My favorite: District 3
This is my favorite neighborhood in Ho Chi Minh City! It is right next to District 1, quite lively but you can relax here too as it is pretty residential in parts, and it has a great food scene. I much prefer the more central part of District 3 around these streets: Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, Phạm Ngọc Thạch, Võ Văn Tần, and Hồ Xuân Hương. If you visit Ho Chi Minh City and want to experience a less hectic yet very local feeling, I highly recommend staying in this part of District 3. You can walk to the city center from here too.
Part of District 4 and District Binh Thanh
These two districts are next to District 1. The part close to District 1 includes a massive range of newly built and high-end apartment buildings such as The Manor, Saigon Pearl, Vinhomes Central Park, City Garden, and Icon 56. These areas are relatively close to the city center though it is hard to travel by foot from here so you might need a scooter or take a taxi even for a very short trip.
It is another hub far from the city center, located in District 7. It contains excellent shopping malls, affordable hotels, great restaurants, and fun pubs and is considered the most walkable area in the whole city. It was built and heavily invested in by Korean businesses. Hence the nickname. Even if you do not stay here, remember to visit it. Stay in the Korean town if you enjoy daily walking and a more modern Vietnamese lifestyle with better air quality.
It used to be called the French District and belonged to Ho Chi Minh City. Nowadays, it is considered one of the most wealthy neighborhoods in Vietnam, with a large expat community from many countries in the world and it belongs to Thủ Đức City. It has great restaurants, pubs, shops, and boutiques, as well as many high-end apartment buildings. You will need some transportation to other popular areas of the city. Similar to District 7, in District 2, you will find a bit of a more International lifestyle of Vietnam.
Apart from the areas I listed above, there is another popular area named Phạm Ngũ Lão with many options for accommodation. It is known as the backpacker area and is similar to other backpacker areas such as Khao-san Road in Bangkok. It can be a fun but somewhat shady area, though it has improved. It is at the border of District 1. You can find good food, affordable accommodations, and all-night-long bars and clubs. If you plan a bachelor party, you can stay here, but I recommend not staying with your family.
What to eat in Ho Chi Minh City?
Vietnam cuisine is rich and Ho Chi Minh City is one of the world's best food cities. It is very affordable to eat out. Local people enjoy gathering after work and on the weekends. Even if you are a picky eater, do not worry; you will definitely find something delicious to fill your stomach with. Here I will help you to learn when and what to eat. So you can eat like a local.
For breakfast, Ho Chi Minh City locals often eat:
- Phở, a rice noodle soup that is typically made with beef or chicken broth and garnished with herbs and vegetables.
- Bánh mì sandwiches, a type of sandwich made with a baguette filled with meat, vegetables, and condiments.
- Cơm Tấm, a broken rice dish served with a grilled pork chop, an egg cake, vegetables, and a fried egg.
- Sticky rice with meat or sweet sticky rice.
- Other popular breakfast foods include bánh cuốn, steamed rice rolls with minced meat, cooked sausage, herbs and fish sauce, and different noodle soups.
These types of breakfast dishes can be found almost at every corner of any neighborhood. To complete breakfast, remember to have a Vietnamese coffee to start your day. The two most common coffee drinks are cà phê đen, black iced coffee (coffee, sugar with ice) or cà phê sữa đá, iced coffee condensed milk. The latter is my favorite.
In Ho Chi Minh City we typically eat a combination of rice, meat or fish, vegetables, and a small bowl of soup. We also eat many popular breakfast dishes for lunch, such as Phở noodle soup; other noodle soups from different regions, such as Mì Quảng, Bún Bò Huế, Bánh canh, Hủ tiếu; Cơm Tấm.
Street food vendors also offer a variety of options such as Bún Thịt Nướng, a dried rice noodle dish with BBQ meat, spring rolls, herb, and fish sauce; various kind of rice floured cakes from Central Vietnam (bánh bèo, bánh bột lọc, bánh nậm) topped or filled with a variety of ingredients such as shrimp, pork, and green onion.
Try the cheapest kind of drink available widely in every restaurant to accompany your lunch: trà đá (ice tea). It is very refreshing and goes very well with every meal.
It is very common with snacks between lunch and dinner, especially for office workers. This is why Vietnam is an excellent market for dessert drinks such as boba tea, also known as bubble tea. It typically contains tapioca pearls, tea, milk, and sweetener. The Vietnamese love boba tea.
Other dishes prevalent in Ho Chi Minh City as desserts are smoothies and chè, a sweet soup with various types of toppings and filling, often combined with coconut milk. If you are not looking for dessert, there are other types of snacks such as fresh summer rolls, crab soup, bánh mì, bánh bèo and dried noodles dishes such as egg noodle wok with tofu and vegetables.
Many locals enjoy gathering after work with partners, friends, and colleagues. Many places are what we call nhậu places, a restaurant that serves drinks and a massive food menu. The nhậu place's menu almost always includes seafood, salads, soup, fish, poultry, BBQ, hotpot, rice, and wok dishes. Besides nhậu places, some restaurants offer smaller and more specialized menus. If you are vegetarian or vegan, do not worry, countless restaurants offer only vegetarian or vegan menus. These vegetarian restaurants are usually very calm and have a bit of a Buddhist vibe.
International cuisine food scene
Ho Chi Minh City has a big culinary scene, with many different restaurants offering international cuisine. Popular options include Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Indian, French, Italian, and American food. There are also plenty of restaurants that serve up Western-style dishes like burgers, pasta, pizza, and sandwiches. If you are into fusion, Ho Chi Minh City also offers restaurants with creative takes on traditional dishes.