Ho Chi Minh City
Arriving at Ho Chi Minh City airport beware of taxi scams and use taxis from two reputable companies Vinasun or Mailinh. You may have to pay the airport toll which was less than £1. You can arrange a pick up with your hotel and there is also a bus service to near Ben Thanh market.
During your stay hotels will arrange taxis and if you hail one use one of the reputable companies mentioned above. The centre of the city is currently being disrupted with the construction of a subway system but it is still relatively easy to navigate your way around.
Be prepared for two things the noise, which is constant partly because of the millions of motorbikes on the roads which leads onto the other thing, crossing the road. There is never a good time, so start crossing when most of the traffic is at red, keep crossing in a straight line, do not hesitate or stop because they will drive round you, believe me it works, after the first time you will feel like a local.
Internal flights can be booked with JetStar and Vietnam Airlines. Check prices as although we prefer JetStar there were occasions when Vietnam Airlines was the cheapest option.
There are overnight sleeper services that go from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and vice versa known as the Reunification Express. The journey from HCMC to Danang for Hoi An takes about 16 hours and to Hue the old imperial capital around 18 hours. The journey on from Hue to Hanoi about 14 hours. The trains have some compartments with 4 berths and European toilets.They are safe and incredibly cheap and save you a night’s hotel costs. The coastal scenery between Danang and Hue is stunning and there are other stretches where the rural Vietnam scenes are lovely to see.
We had mainly Vietnamese as fellow passengers and had no issues, but noticed far more western passengers than on our first visit six ago. There was lots of food to buy from staff on the train and also at stations where we stopped, if you could work out how long the stop was. You can always take a picnic. We booked our tickets on line before we left and received Etickets, we used Baolau who were very efficient. They are recommended by Lonely Planet and Man in Seat 61, the rail travel guru.
As usual check the web sites www.booking.com and www.hotels.com, we have always stayed near Ben Thanh market which is handy for both the back packing area with its selection of bars and places to eat and the more upmarket area around Pasteur Street.
On our most recent visit we stayed in the same area and chose the Sanouva Hotel, www.sanouvahotel.com and were very impressed with the service, staff and rooms. This was the best choice from any of our visits to the city and would definitely chose to stay there on a return visit.
Hotels in Vietnam often have rooms without external windows, pay a bit more for an external room, they also include breakfast in room rates and offer a choice of Western and Vietnamese dishes.
Don Khoi Area
Ben Thanh Street Food Market, 26-30 Thu Khoa Hian, is just as it says a market of various stalls doing street food. OK it is more expensive than the street stalls but the quality is good, the place well run and it is still cheap. Various options for beer and cocktails also on offer, the stall selling beers at the front of the market is excellent, cheap and a big choice.
Propaganda, 21 Han Thuyen, is a very cool Vietnamese Bistro, we loved the atmosphere and the food. It is very popular, you may have to wait at the bar for a table but the service is excellent and will give you time to enjoy the setting.
Cocotte, 136/11 La Thanh Ton, is in a small alley of the street, close to Ben Thanh Market. We found this on our most recent visit and loved the place, it is primarily a French restaurant, but is open all day and is great for a beer or some very reasonably priced wine. The food is very good but the stars are the lovely staff. Worth seeking out.
Bep Me In, 136/9 Lê Thánh Tôn, is next door to Cocotte and I had read great reports before our most recent trip, we went on the first evening and loved the place and the food. Totally understand the excellent reviews and it is popular so be prepared to wait for a table at busy times.
Nha Hang Ngon, 160 Pasteur Street, is very popular and is set up with various cooking stalls around the courtyard where you can see what is being cooked, there is a huge menu with pictures and English descriptions. The building is beautiful, the food was good and like all of Vietnam incredibly cheap. Great to return and enjoy as much as on our first visit.
Temple Club, 29 D Ton That Thiep, is highly rated and we tried the set lunch on our first visit and this time booked dinner. It was excellent, a lovely setting, very good food and lovely service.
Rice Field, 75 Hồ Tùng Mậu, is five minutes away from Temple Club and close to the Saigon Skydeck, it is owned by the same people as the Secret Garden, we booked in advance but not always needed depending on what time you visit. We loved the food, the service was fine not outstanding but the food made us keen to return.
Pham Ngu Lao
Secret House, by Secret Garden, 55/1 Le Thi Hong Gam Street, near the fine arts musuem. We had read good reports and booked for dinner, the setting is lovely and the food was very good, sadly it was rather quiet the night we visited although we were perhaps eating later most. There is a lovely small coffe place next door which does ace cocktails in the evening.
Bars & Cafes
Most smart bars used by ex-pats have happy hours so are worth seeking out. There are lots of good places for coffees, one common chain is the Highland Coffee Company although once you get away from the Don Khoi area these sorts of places become less and less frequent. Lots of cafes have fabulous fresh fruit juices and smoothies.
Don Khoi Area
Cocotte, see above, great for a beer or wine outside the main lunch and dinner times.They now have a wine bar upstairs called Bar A Vin, it has a small terrace and is worth a visit.
Pasteur Street Brewing Company, 144 Pasteur Street, the best known craft beer in Vietnam, started in HCM and is now available in many good bars and restaurants. They have a couple of bars in the same building, the beer is not cheap compared with standadrd Vietnamese beers but worth trying.
Phattys, 46-48 D Ton That Thiep, a sports bar doing food, very popular again with an ex-pat crowd and visiting Australians catching up on sport.
De Tham & Pham Ngu Lao
Winking Seal, 50 Dang Thi Nhu, we came across this by chance and found a lovely friendly bar with its own craft beer and doing a wide range of excellent looking food.
Air 360, 136-138 Lê Thị Hồng Gấm, 22nd Floor roof top bar with happy hour between 5pm & 8pm, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit, service was good and prices very reasonable at Happy Hour.
The bar life is different from Hanoi, there is a more relaxed atmosphere and in some areas stay open later. The city has much more of an obvious ex-pat and possibly a larger backpacking scene and the main area Pham Ngu Lao is full of bars, cheap eating places and travel agents.
There is a huge mix of places, some frankly totally unappealing, some fine and some very smart. The bars have a variety of beers, spirits, wine and cocktails but beware of some cheap spirits. There are less corner bars with Bia Hoi, the unpasteurized draught beer with a low alcohol content so common in Hanoi.
Craft Beer has become big business in Vietnam, HCM’s Pasteur Street was one of the first but there are now many others in most cities in the country and are popular in restaurants and bars.
Vietnam does produce wine called Dalat, which if you get a better one is like an average table wine, we stuck to imported wines mainly from Australia, Chile and France in restaurants or beer. Imported wine is not ridiculously expensive considering the duty.
Coffee is also a major drink as you would expect from the second largest coffee producing country and there are some lovely cafes to relax in with an iced coffee, very popular, or a regular coffee.
There is a very good free English language magazine called the Word that had loads of information on places to eat and drink.
The War Remnants Musuem is a must, although very busy it is still easy to see the exhibits, there are some harrowing pictures but to understand Vietnam’s history it is a must.
Old Saigon, start at the 23/9 Park and there are walking routes that will take in the main sites starting with Ben Thanh Market, Municipal Theatre or Opera House, Continental Hotel, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Palace.
Take a taxi, quite a long way to Cholon, Chinatown, start with the Binh Tay Market, then wander the streets taking in three of the outstanding pagodas, the Quan Am, the Thien Hau and the Khanh Van Nam.
If you haven’t had enough Pagodas then in the Da Kao area the Jade Emperor Pagoda is worth the short taxi ride.
There is a night market just beside Ben Thanh Market, don’t be afraid to bargain, get an idea of prices in the main market first.