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The best way to learn about what to do and where to go in a city is from the locals and expats who live there. That’s why we are so excited to share this guest post, written by Alex who was born and raised in Saigon, moved to Australia at 15, and now lives in Saigon again as an expat. In this article, he shares his favorite places to eat, drink and explore in the city. Take it away, Alex!
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Getting Off the Beaten Path in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Even though I grew up in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), it never fails to amaze me how quickly the city has changed in the past 10 years. I was raised in Vietnam until the age of 15 before I moved to Australia. Back then Saigon was a very different place to live. I returned to my roots as an expat in 2016 and since then have spent time rediscovering this incredible country.
Saigon is still such a special city with so many different experiences to offer, although it is more commercialized nowadays with global food chains starting to leave their footprints here. You’ll have to venture off the beaten track from time to time in order to discover some of its hidden gems.
It is really fun to explore the city on your own in order to find these diamonds in the rough. But if you don’t have much time, here are a few to get you started!
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1. Secret Garden
This Vietnamese restaurant is a personal favorite of mine and is the epitome of authentic Vietnamese dining. As the name implies, it’s not the easiest restaurant to find. Hidden in a deep alleyway of a run down complex on 158 Pasteur Street, you have to walk up 5 floors to reach this cozy restaurant.
Secret Garden definitely lives up to its name. When you see the view from the dining area it makes it worth the effort. Its traditional Vietnamese decoration helps you forget you’re in the biggest city in Vietnam for a while.
The popular traditional foods on offer give you a taste of genuine Vietnamese cuisine. Although I’ve been to the Secret Garden many times, I can’t leave without trying the irresistible “Dot bi Xao Bo” (Stir-fried beef and spinach).
From the dining area, you can see the spot where the last American helicopter fled Saigon during the Vietnam war. The photo of this event is one of the most iconic moments of the Vietnamese war.
How to get there: Take a taxi to 158 Pasteur Street (next to Pho 24 food store). Find the alleyway which should have a sign for the Secret Garden in the entrance. Walk all the way past the bike parking and then look left where a second sign will direct you to the restaurant.
2. Pho Hoa Pasteur
Pho is arguably the most popular Vietnamese dish around. If you are looking for a place to enjoy this traditional dish, look no further. This restaurant specializes in pho and has served three generations of my family from my grandad to me. Standing at the same place for at least 50 years, Pho Hoa Pasteur is well known by the locals as one of the best in town.
Locals come to this restaurant often for its generous pho portion sizes, tender beef, and soup sweetness. I normally order a coconut to eat with the soup to counteract the spiciness.
How to get there: Take a taxi to 158 Pasteur Street or simply ask the driver to take you to Pho Hoa Pasteur and they know exactly where to go.
3. The Cafe Apartment
You can’t mention Saigon without mentioning its coffee culture. Drinking coffee and spending hours hanging out at coffees shops is in the blood of the Saigonese. Coffee shops in Saigon are in constant competition because there are so many coffee shops opening up every day. However, none of them can compete with the uniqueness of The Cafe Apartment on Ly Tu Trong Street.
This run-down five-story building is not so much of the beaten tracks due to its central location but has lots to offer in terms of hidden gems. The apartment block boasts a number of art galleries, coffee shops and small fashion boutiques all with a unique theme.
Each small shop trying to prove its individuality has resulted in some very quirky and fun shops that allow for a great time if you are browsing the ‘chocolate box’ of independent coffee shops.
Two coffee shops that really caught my attention were the Loft Coffee with its gothic style and Cong Cafe (Viet Cong style coffee) with the staff dressed up in guerilla outfits. Both of these can be found on the 2nd floor.
How to get there: The building is on 26 Ly Tu Trong, overlooking Dong Khoi and Ly Tu Trong Street.
4. ID coffee
ID Coffee is found in an apartment building behind Ben Thanh market. It’s very tranquil and a peaceful place for a nice drink and conversation. Although it is found in the heart of Saigon’s tourist hub, the majority of the crowd here are locals. You wouldn’t know you were so close to the hustle and bustle of Ben Thanh Market unless someone told you.
The display in this coffee shop is made up of artistic and vintage decor with Gramophone records and typewriters from the Vietnam war. There is a balcony facing the backstreets of the Ben Thanh district. Below, you can watch how the local people go about their lives. The delicious menu caters to both Vietnamese and Western tastes. My personal favorite meal is the “Bun Thit Nuong” grilled pork vermicelli and ID Yogurt.
How to get there: 34 Thu Khoa Huan (a few minutes walk from the back of Ben Thanh market).
5. Acoustics bars
I love live music. I discovered the Acoustic Bar through word of mouth and decided to check it out, as I heard it hosted the best live music in town. Hidden in an alleyway in 6E Ngo Thoi Nhiem, this is the locals favorite open mic bar.
All the local talents and guest singers looking to make a name for themselves are sent on a small stage to perform in a small but cozy atmosphere. From the blind rock stars to Americans singing in fluent Vietnamese, Acoustics Bar is the place where everyone comes together and enjoys music, no matter where you come from.
It opens at 7.30pm and the live music starts at 9.30pm. But if you want to come on the weekends, make sure you come early. They tend to run out of seats and you might end up standing.
How to get there: Take a taxi to 6E Ngo Thoi Nhiem and walk all the way down the alley. The bar is at the end of the alley on the right-hand side.
You can’t leave Saigon without experiencing one of its rooftop bars. There are many great rooftops, but from my experience, the most welcoming of them is Broma. With a great vibe and easy going ambiance, everyone is there to just relax and look over the incredible Saigon skyline.
It’s a little place tucked in a corner building on Nguyen Hue Street and doesn’t require the smart dress code of other rooftop bars in Saigon. The open rooftop overlooks a busy street below so it’s a great spot if you enjoy people watching. It is also the perfect spot to watch the sunset and the lights around Saigon come alive one by one.
If you are looking for a nice place for a date that won’t burn through your wallet then this is the place for you.
How to get there: The bar is on the top floor 41 Nguyen Hue.
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About the Author
Alex is an editor at Inspitrip. During his expedition to Fansipan Mountain, Alex realised his local guide who came from a poor minority tribe in Sapa only earned 10% of what he paid to the agency. Since then, Alex has quit his corporate job and devoted his time to Inspitrip, a platform connecting travellers to locals in South East Asia. Prior to Inspitrip, Alex was an investment banker and a finance manager. You can follow Alex and Inspitrip via Facebook and Twitter.
Have you been to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)? Do you have any tips to add? Share them in the comments!
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Venkat Ganesh says
Ah! This post brought back so many memories. Of the close two years I lived in Vietnam I spent my first 3 weeks in Saigon.
A great way to get off the beaten path is to take the local buses. They really take you away from D1 and you can see how life goes on in the typical neighborhoods. And they were really cheap as well.
I became friends with some locals there and who actually took me to their universities and five a side football games
Jennifer Joslin says
That sounds like so much fun! People in Saigon are so friendly 🙂
Great suggestion. Taking the local buses is a great way to explore the city, even if you don’t know where you’re going. You can just hop off when something looks interesting, and if you get lost there’s always the reasonably inexpensive option of taking a taxi back to your hotel.
Carmen's Luxury Travel says
Great spots! I’d definitely visit the Secret Garden and those acoustic bars. Getting off the beaten path is so important during your travels. Thanks for sharing 🙂
Sara Broers says
The Secret Garden caught my eye right away in your post. I’m all about fresh food and a view! Chain restaurants seem to be everywhere, yet the locals still know how to serve the best food!
Joan Torres says
Hey! Thank you for these tips! I always try to travel to off the beaten track places and I just can’t enjoy properly when I see so many tourists around! I’ve been to Saigon, but it was so many years ago. I believe that things have changed more since then, but still I can remember the streets being packed with other travelers. If ever go back, I will definetely try these places. Cheers mate 😉
Elaine J Masters says
What massive insights from the local perspective. There are experiences and places that only locals know and this makes a long sojourn in Saigon jump to the top of my list. A gothic style coffee bar?! Acoustic hangouts? I can’t wait to visit.
I had no idea Saigon had that thing with coffee. All your recommendations are great and without your instructions. it looks difficult to discover those places. what really caught my eye though was the roof top bar, my favourite place in every city!
Mar Pages says
Oh my, I love hearing insider information from locals and expats. They always know where the best places to go and eat are. Those extra dishes are like eating at a Korean restaurant, you won’t be charged extra though. Great insider information to a vibrant city 🙂
Megan Jerrard says
How interesting it would be to see the city change over the past decade – I’m always fascinated to return to destinations I visited 10+ years ago (albeit I didn’t grow up in any of them like you did with Saigon) and see how they’ve changed over time. Thanks for the tip on the Acoustic Bar – I love music, and am a huge fan of this kind of scene 🙂
This is perfect timing and will definitely come in handy–we were just talking about planning a trip to Vietnam! Hopefully we can make it there this spring. I would love to visit all of these spots, especially The Cafe Apartment and Broma–rooftop bars and coffee are two of my favorite things! Thanks for the great suggestions!
I love Vietnam and i want to go!! So useful your post and great photos!! The food there is awesome! Happy New Year
All the food pics! I’m so jealous. I think Vietnamese food may be one of my favorites ever. I need to get back there. Great post!
Looks like some great places. I would love to visit one day. I agree with you that sometimes you have to get off the beaten path. That phrase is used a lot but for me it can mean just getting away from the main tourist spots and exploring the area where I am visiting. I always find some great places this way.
Stephen Schreck says
I am addicted to the coffee in Vietnam! Thinking about heading there late next year. Thanks for the helpful tips. I will have to The Cafe Apartment. Can’t wait to see the quirky cafes! Thanks for sharing!