Less than 48 Hours in Saigon

Saigon, or as it is currently known – Ho Chi Minh, is one of the largest Vietnamese cities in the south of Vietnam, but you can see most of it in less than 48 hours. It serves as a good starting or ending point of the trip to see the whole Vietnam, and possibly Cambodia.

The colorful, green streets of Saigon’s neighborhoods.

Saigon is split into 19 districts, with the Saigon River cutting it across the middle. However, most of the tourists stick around District 1, which boasts trendy restaurants, bars, and the nicer hotels in the city. With all that said, getting around Saigon on your own is a challenge. The traffic never stops although it moves sometimes slower than you wish. Public transportation consists of uber-like scooters and cabs. Although cabs are more comfortable, they move through the city very slowly. Scooters are an adventure on their own and require a passenger to remain cool as others are swooshing by at an extremely close distance, while the smog is slowly killing you as you sit. 

And let’s not forget that crossing a street in Saigon is the scariest thing a westerner can try to do on their own. The traffic never stops, there is lots of it, and it never stops. Did I already mention that it never stops? So, yes, you can try to never cross a street, but then how much fun would that be? 

So, given all this, we hired a private tour guide. This way, we hoped to see everything that we wanted with the highest probability of staying alive and learning as much as possible about Vietnam in less than 48 hours. The best travel decision so far and I wish companies like Xin Chao Tours would exist everywhere I go. 

Xin Chao Tours people are like your best friends who are also very conscious of your likes and dislikes, and will go out of their way to make sure you have the best experience and leave being in-love with Saigon and wanting to come back. Their knowledge of the city, history, and of all the cool places to go, and impeccable English made this an unforgettable trip. 

This was our schedule. 

8:00 am – Cu Chi Tunnels

Being tall was definitely not an advantage in Cu Chi Tunnels.

Phoung, a representative from Xin Chao Tours picked us up at the hotel, with a private car and a driver and we set out to Cu Chi Tunnels. On our way there, Phoung shared a lot of interesting facts about the history of Vietnam (which sounded a lot like a fascinating telenovela), the different sides of Vietnam war, and the Vietnamese life in general. What I appreciated most, was that Phoung brought us to the less touristy Cu Chi Tunnels’ site where besides us, there was just another small group of tourists. 

Cu Chi tunnels is a unique, open-air museum in a jungle with the preserved underground tunnels and bunkers. Those not suffering from claustrophobia can dare to walk-crawl the tunnels where Viet Cong people lived and fought. It was truly an incredible experience. 

1:00 pm – Lunch

We were back in the city and Phoung offered to take us to lunch at a local place. This is the hard thing to do on your own – eating at the really good local places. Most of the people that run them don’t speak much English and then you don’t really know how to order as every dish can be tailored to your specific choices, which again, without the language I wouldn’t know what they were. 

3:00 pmBen Thanh Market

Most famous market in Saigon and a short walking distance from wherever you’re staying in District 1. Most locals will propose to visit this place to tourists as a place to buy “whatever your heart desires.” It is close to the truth, especially if your heart desires cheap designer knock offs for handbags, sunglasses and other crap. But it also has an incredible variety of spices, dried fruits, textiles, locally made china, glassware, souvenirs, and if you get hungry – a ton of food stalls to serve local fare. If shopping is not your forte, grab a meal alongside shopkeepers.

Bahn Thanh Market
Ben Thanh market – be prepared to negotiate and never pay the asking price.

4:00 pm – Happy Hour on the Rooftop

District 1 has a ton of great rooftop bars, but you have to do your research beforehand as rooftop bars are not as easily spotted as a bar you can walk by. I highly recommend happy hour at the Saigon Saigon Hotel Rooftop. Besides being a historical landmark and a haven for wartime journalists in the 1960s, it offers unrivalled views of the city. This is the bar from which a photographer snapped one of the most famous Vietnam photos of american supporters leaving Saigon. 

Saigon Saigon Hotel Rooftop bar.

6:00 pm – Food Tour

Meeting our food tour squad from Xin Chao Tours. We each got a scooter with a driver guide, plus there was an extra scooter with two more guides who served as a back up and photographer of the tour. 

Local seafood market. Lots of snails on the menu.

If you do nothing else in Saigon, a food tour on scooters with the guys and girls from Xin Chao Tours is an absolute MUST. It’s hard for me to say how a picky eater would feel about this although before the tour you can email your food likes and dislikes and they tailor each tour to individual tastes. For us, it was definitely the highlight of the trip. We loved it so much, we booked another one for the day we came back as we figured we’ll never have as an amazing of food by ourselves and see the local places as we would with these guys. 

I felt like I outdid Anthony Bourdain in being Anthony and that’s really one of my life goals. Probably the only life goal I’ve exceeded by a mile. 

Day 2

9:00 am – War remnants museum

For history buffs, a trip to Vietnam is a cornucopia of a telenovela-like historical anecdotes. There is so much more to it than the Vietnam War, but it’s hard to escape it, especially in Saigon. 

Cu Chi Tunnels
Old, bullet-zigzagged war time machines are left all over south of Vietnam.

War remnants museum can be hard to stomach. It’s definitely a well-oiled propaganda machine and some of the floors I had to skip due to the very disturbing images. 

Outside space has a ton of war time helicopters, tanks and other war machines left by retreating Americans. Great place to take some photos (which for some reason I didn’t..). 

11:00 am – Pink Church

Pink candy cotton color church is the number one instagramable spot in Saigon.  There is an official name to it but everyone refers to it as the “Pink Church.”  

The most instragramable spot in Saigon.

12:00 pm – Lunch

In Saigon there is so much food to try and so little time. That’s why having a tour guide with all the local knowledge of best places for certain foods is the key to successfully eating your way through this city. 

1:00 pm – Tour of the city

Our tour guide, Phoung took us around the city and showed us various pagodas, markets, neighborhoods, and districts. 

Interesting places to visit: 

Building from which the last American-supporters evacuated from. The building is not a museum and not open to everyone. But our girl, Phuong, knew people and we were allowed to take an elevator to that famous rooftop.  

Notre Dame Cathedral – even better to take a picture from the Saigon Saigon Hotel Rooftop.

Notre Dame Curch in Saigon
View of Notre Dame from the best place in the city to view it – Saigon Saigon Hotel Rooftop.

Various markets. This is a different experience from that of Ben Thanh market where you can buy awesome local food, souvenirs and a bunch of knock offs of all kinds. These markets are all super specific. One street will host all the vendors selling chickens for example, while the other is selling only pots and pans, and the third one specializes in fish tank fish. These are the markets for locals and they are cool places to visit. 

3:00 pm  – Rickshaw tour 

This sounded entertaining as a rollercoaster ride sounds before you find yourself hanging upside down and going 200 miles per hour into some bat cave-looking thing. 

At first you think, cool, I’ll be pushed around in this crickety wheelchair-bike combination like a boss lady that I am. Sounds like an interesting, colonial-style experience. Although I often feel bad for people doing the pedaling – the streets are not smooth and I’m not a feather. Anyways, all this before you realize that often we’ll be on the streets going along and criss-crossing other MOTORIZED vehicles. 

5:00 pm – Coffee break 

Vietnamese take their coffee seriously. Saigon is full of adorable cafes, all with their own style and flair. You can have coffee on the first floor of the building that served as a hide out for Viet Cong, or hang out in the most romantic garden in the city. 

On the City Hall Square you’ll find the 9-story building that is all cafes. It’s an old apartment building that has been converted into a retail space. Each former apartment now is a coffee shop or a boutique. You can walk up the stairs or pay a couple pennies for the guy to take you with an elevator. 

Is it a museum? Someone’s home that used to serve as a bunker for Viet Cong? A coffee shop? All of the above.

7:00 pm  – Airport drop off. 

Phoung dropped us off at the airport for our trip to Cambodia. We were sad to say goodbye to our new friend but we were looking forward to the next adventure. 

Hotel Recommendations: 

Reverie – if you’ve got money to spend, spend it here. It looks like a modern day russian Taj Mahal – everything is precious stone-encrusted, gold-plated and vomiting with luxury. 

Hotel Majestic – the very first hotel that was owned by a Vietnamese businessman. It is a historic landmark featuring photos of all movie and political stars that stayed there over the years. 

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