A local's guide to Ho Chi Minh City

Local expert and Insight Guides trip planner Thu Lan shares her local knowledge to help you plan a memorable trip to Vietnam's chaotic yet enchanting Ho Chi Minh City
Street food in Ho Chi Minh City.
Street food in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Shutterstock

When should we plan our holiday to Ho Chi Minh City and why?

The dry season lasts from December to the end of April, however, temperatures start to increase at the end of March. During this ‘winter’ season, the sky is clear blue and the humidity is low. This cooler period matches the busier time with travellers too though. Personally, summer is the season I love. There are less tourists in the city, rain showers are short, and room rates are generally lower during this period too.

Where would you recommend we stay?

For high-end luxury, The Reverie or Park Hyatt are the top choices. A smaller scale chain of hotels are Liberty Central, and for a more boutique choice, I Am Vietnam is a small property located in a suburban neighborhood, a little out of the center. Also out of town, though in an idyllic location, is Villa Song. Located on the Saigon River, 15-mins drive from the central Ho Chi Minh City, it offers a retreat from the bustling city.

Where is a great place for dinner?

Ru Pho Bar restaurant on the edge of District 1 serve tasty, traditional Vietnamese cuisine with an edge.

Is there a ‘must-try’ dish while we’re in Ho Chi Minh City?

Com tam ‘broken rice’ is the quintessential Saigon dish. Made from fractured rice grains, it is usually served with grilled pork, greens and pickled vegetables. Everyone knows pho, however, com tam is served on almost every street corner.

Is there an ‘unmissable’ experience while we’re in this city too?

A two-day, one-night Delta Mekong cruise is an unforgettable experience. Sitting on the deck of a beautifully designed wooden boat, watching the sunset over the river is really what a holiday to Vietnam should be about. Another not-to-be-missed experience is a night tour through Saigon by vintage Vespa. Ho Chi Minh City is a destination known the world over for its millions of motorbikes, and the best way to see the city is as a pillion passenger, cruising the streets as the locals do.

Where is the most romantic spot in Ho Chi Minh City?

Cuc Gach Quan is a Saigon institution though it can get crowded at times. The Deck, overlooking the Saigon River, is an amazing spot to watch the sunset, and the river boats go by.

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Vietnamese broken rice with grilled pork chop. Photo: Shutterstock

Vietnamese broken rice with grilled pork chop. Photo: Shutterstock

Where can we hang out with locals?

In the evenings Cong Vien 30-04 in front of the Reunification Palace transforms into a hang out spot for the locals. You can sit and sip Vietnamese café sua da (ice coffee) on tiny stools overlooking the park and the ‘Notre Dame’ cathedral. In Saigon, you are spoilt for choice on where to eat, however, for a nice breeze and al-fresco dining, the locals head to Hoang Sa to the numerous Bia Quan’s, which offer no-fuss food overlooking one of the city’s many canals. Don’t expect table clothes and fine dining here, it’s plain old local fun.   

Do you have any additional ‘insider’ tips?

We recommend people not to travel in Vietnam over Tet, the lunar new year, which usually falls at the end of January or early February. Trains, buses, and flights are usually booked solid on the main travelling days, as everyone goes home to visit family. Ho Chi Minh City is almost empty, with virtually every business shut, at least for the first few days of the public holiday.

As well as this, another tip is that getting a pre-approved visa on arrival can be cheaper than from the Vietnamese embassy abroad. 

What souvenir should we bring home from our trip?

Vietnamese lacquer ware is special in its style of using resin from the local son tree and the craftsmanship is exquisite. It’s said that high-quality lacquer products goes through 20 stages of development and can be used to craft dishes, bowls, vases, and more in beautiful colours and intricate designs. 

Vietnamese coffee from the Central Highlands is another excellent souvenir, as it really has a kick to it. Buy the coffee together with a Vietnamese coffee filter, which is unique to the country. Vietnamese single origin chocolate is popular at the moment too, with the Marou leading the way with design and taste.

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Life of the Vietnamese people on the Mekong River in Ho Chi Minh. Photo: Shutterstock

Life of the Vietnamese people on the Mekong River in Ho Chi Minh. Photo: Shutterstock