Help me figure out an urban adventure in Saigon!
November 24, 2009 9:10 AM   Subscribe

Help me have an urban adventure in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City. I'm traveling there by myself, early 20s guy, and reasonably street smart for Asia (I currently live in southern China). I speak fluent English and advanced Mandarin but no Vietnamese. An ex-girlfriend's family lives outside of Saigon and she's got some young cousins who'll be willing to help show me around if I've got some cash to spare. The area where I live in Guilin already has beautiful scenery, I love urban areas, and I really have little interest in getting out to the countryside, except maybe for a one-day excursion. Thanks for your help in advance, everyone! :)

1. I'm a big fan of getting 'mental postcards' that I'll be able to store in my mind for a long time to come; bustling street scenes, a good view from a high-up perch at dusk, that sort of thing.

2. Huge bonus points for anything that involves breakdancing or Vietnamese hip-hop.

3. Bonus points if you can point me to some great expat rag that tells me what's really going on in the city.

4. Cheap shopping and tailoring are not too interesting to me, unless it's something really 'out there'. I'm traveling light and a full, well-tailored custom suit only costs $50 US back at home in China to begin with.

5. I'm not single, and furthermore not looking for "that sort of thing" anyhow. But I have a reasonably filthy mind, and anything that's perverse in the "Well, now *that's* something you don't see every day!" sense that doesn't require my direct participation is more than welcome. :)

6. The more unique, the more "Only in Saigon", the better. I grew up in Little Saigon in California, and I live in China, so I'm looking for something beyond just "Well, I'm not in Kansas anymore" if possible. :)

7. I really have no idea where I should stay! My general plan is to just figure out an area of the city I want to stay in, and then just walk the street talking price with people until I find one I'm happy with.

8. Will motorbike taxis provide me a helmet, as they do in China? Or should I bring my own?

9. Is there any good, not-completely-touristy breakdown on-line of the different 'areas' of Saigon, and where I should be going?

10. Is there anyone in southern Vietnam who speaks Chinese but not English? Or should I just be starting with English straight out?

11. If you're proposing an activity/area that's particularly dangerous, I'm not reflexively opposed, but please let me know going in. :)

12. Restaurant recommendations are always fun!

Thanks again, everyone! :) Sorry if any of this comes off as overly detailed or demanding, I don't mean it to sound that way!
posted by Televangelist to Travel & Transportation around Santiago, Vietnam (2 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I am a researcher who lives in both Canada and Vietnam (Hanoi). I did use to live in Saigon (Phu My Hung district, which won an award for city planning) in 2008 though. Here are my thoughts:

1. For the busy street scenes, etc head to District 1, location of the large Ben Thanh Market (and many hotels, shops, etc.). It is a tourist area, but lots of good mental photographs to be taken there. Easy to get around by foot (or xe om/motorbike). There's a lot of beautiful (and historic) buildings in D1 (Rex Hotel, Continental Hotel, etc.) that show the culture of French-Vietnamese era. District 3 has a lot of embassies and foreign companies if I recall. District 5 is west of the town center and supports the city's large ethnic Chinese population, so maybe you could speak Mandarin there?

2. Sorry, no clue. I'm sure it's out there though.

3. Expat community: So Saigon. It's the companion site to the much more established New Hanoian (which was started by a mefite I think). Some expats loathe the sites, other love them. I have found TNH to be useful, but never have used the Saigon version.

4. I'm a female, I don't own a suit!

5. How about the Saigon Opera House or the Post Office? They're beautiful buildings which I love to admire the detail.
A Vietnamese speciality is Water Puppet Theatre(caution, video autoplays). I've actually never been to a show, but everyone keeps telling me to go.

6. If you've never been to Korea, you could go to Phu My Hung district, where I lived. I call it Little Korea. It's one of the fastest growing areas of the city, and I think I learned more Korean than Vietnamese while I was there (moving to Hanoi, I now speak Vietnamese). You can take an air conditioned-non crowded private bus (xe buyt) that locals take for $10 000VND to get to the district. The pick up point in Saigon is kitty corner to the Versace shop in District 1. There's no sign for the bus stop, but every half an hour, people gather in a spot to wait for a bus (15 min. intervals during peak hours).

7. Hotels are dime a dozen in that city. Pick a district that interests you and start there. I stayed in a long-term apartment, so I have no idea.

8. xe om's provide you with a helmet. I've never met one that didn't.

9. For district maps, you could try here or here. For non-touristy descriptions of the city and districts, I'd look through SoSaigon to see if they have anything.

10. Many locals will assume any visitor speak English. Saigon is trying to become a world-class city, so English is widely used. Just use English.

11. You mean riding a motorbike in Saigon's traffic isn't enough of a risk at times? :)

12. Not Saigon only (there's a location in Hanoi), but Vietnam only is Fanny's Ice Cream. I don't normally go crazy for ice cream, but I adore that shop. They have wonderful and unusual ice creams (sticky rice is a personal favourite).
posted by carabiner at 10:51 AM on November 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

1. Take the Thu Thiem ferry at sunset.
2. Breakdance scene is mostly in Hanoi: see Big Toe Crew.
3. Read The Word Ho Chi Minh City.
4. Buy stuff in China.
5. Get your hair washed at any local hot toc, preferably in an alleyway.
6. Bet on the ponies at the Phu Tho racetrack
7. Check out the area behind Ben Thanh market. Best is Spring Hotel, but there are many small places around there. Be aware that small hotels outside the city center mostly rent rooms by the hour.
8. Yes, xe om driver always has an extra helmet.
9. Good online maps and info at
10. You'll have no problem speaking Chinese in Cholon. Mostly Cantonese and Fukienese, but there are no shortage of Mandarin speakers. Of course, English speakers will always find you everywhere.
11. Rent a motorbike and ride aimlessly through the alleyways. If you get lost, just ask the way to Saigon. ("Saigon" also means downtown).
12. Eat on the street! Browse through the archives of gastronomy and noodlepie for specifics.
posted by Etaoin Shrdlu at 1:56 AM on November 25, 2009

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