Ho Chi Minh City, the city where traffic never comes to a full stop is an assault on the senses. A little jet-lagged and excited, you get your first glimpse at street life as you hop into a taxi and make your way to where you’re staying. The first time you’re out in the street, it’s difficult not to feel dizzy and sensory overload when standing in one spot trying to make sense of the traffic rules, the language, and even some of the food and smells. The city is a juxtaposition of chaos and calm, complete freedom and unwritten rules, modern and shiny and old and crumbling, good smells and bad smells……“Were there really 5 people on that motorbike?!?!”…
“Once you’re in the stream, it’s easy to go with the flow” is what people who had been to HCM told us before our first visit there. There is some truth to it but for us, it felt more like a game of Frogger, and each time we crossed a street, we moved up to the next level, and tackled an even busier intersection. It never seems to make sense but you keep exploring, often dreading the next intersection and you end up telling other people “Once you’re in the stream, it’s easy to go with the flow”!
Fast-forward to 2017 and we’re back for round 2, a little wiser, a little more experienced and a little more understanding you could say. Maybe it was how we changed in those 8 years since our past visit or perhaps it was how Ho Chi Minh City has changed, but things were different…so maybe it was a little bit of both.
In this post, we will share highlights of a few of the places that were memorable for us and capture some of Ho Chi Minh’s character as an evolving city.
- Happy Hour at Anan
Set on the 6th floor of what appears to be an apartment building, Anan’s rooftop bar is a great place to see and feel that juxtaposition of life in Ho Chi Minh City. You get views of the market below, life in housing complexes and the bright lights of the surrounding modern towers. Anan’s rooftop menu during happy hour offers up cheap Bia Hoi Saigon lager beer on draught for $0.50 and Vietnamese food with a modern take. One of our favorite things to eat here were the banh xeo tacos, essentially Vietnamese pancake tacos filled with cha ca fish (fried catfish and dill). The crispy tofu skins were strangely addictive and we enjoyed the banana blossom salad and beef in betel leaf, which are some of our favorite Vietnamese dishes. Anyone wanting to eat a full meal from the a-la-carte or tasting menu should make a reservation to sit on the main floor of the restaurant. Happy hour is between 17:00-19:00.
For more information: http://anansaigon.com/
- Exploring the Café Apartments
Located on Saigon’s Walking Street, the Café Apartments is an old 9 story apartment building that was converted into small shops, cafes, restaurants, and co-working spaces. Said to have been built in early 1950s, the building has new life in it despite some parts of it that appear to be crumbling. We recommend visiting the cafes in the morning and coming back later in the day to see the building at night.
For more information and detailed guide: http://vietnamcoracle.com/the-cafe-apartment-on-saigons-walking-street/
- Eating a Banh Mi on the street at Banh Mi 37
After a long flight and checking into to our hotel, we were hungry and craving a light but substantial snack and made our way to Banh Mi 37 to try their renowned grilled pork banh mi. Banh Mi 37 is a very popular street food stand that makes a grilled pork banh mi. It’s a 3 person operation with one grilling, one assembling, and the other accepting payment and handing over the sandwich. For about $0.60, you get a grilled pork sandwich with pickled daikon and carrots, spicy sauce, and fresh cucumber and cilantro. I really recommend giving this a try, make sure you have small bills.
- Exploring the craft beer scene
We like craft beer and visiting breweries because it’s a nice way to meet people, support local businesses and sample various beers. Surprisingly, Ho Chi Minh City has one of the best craft beer scenes in South East Asia with a number of breweries and craft beer bars that not only offer good beer but nice spaces to enjoy beer and food in. Our favorites were Pasteur Street Brewing, Heart of Darkness, Rogue Saigon (craft beer bar), and Bia Craft Artisan Ales.
- NOT going to Snuffbox
We were really excited to go to Snuffbox, a 20s themed speak easy secret bar in an old dilapidated commercial/residential building that hasn’t been modernized. We tried every night we were there and despite following the instructions and consulting various sources to find its operating hours, it was always closed. This was a really fun thing we wanted to do and it just didn’t work out. If you’re in Ho Chi Minh City, please add it to your list and let us live vicariously through you.
For more information: https://www.snuffboxspeakeasy.com/
- Finding refuge from the rain at Propaganda Bistro
We were out walking and all of a sudden a downpour started, which can be expected during the rainy season. We saw a nice covered patio and decided to get out of the rain and enjoy some lunch at Propaganda Bistro, a place that we knew nothing about. It was a lot more modern and touristy than where we intended to have lunch but it was a beautiful space and their specialty, the fresh spring rolls were really good. Since I had a cold, we ordered their sour and spicy fish soup with rice noodles, tomatoes, okra and other ingredients and it hit was delicious.
For more information: http://www.propagandabistros.com/menu/
We can understand why some people are happy to just stay at the hotel or take taxis everywhere when visiting HCM but encourage everyone to venture out just a little. We chose to stay at the Park Hyatt Saigon, which was conveniently located to a lot of the things on our to-do list so we could go out and come back to relax a few times per day. We really hope to visit again to see what stays the same in Ho Chi Minh and what continues to change and evolve. One thing we did notice is how many more cars there were on the road than in the past and as the middle class expands, it will be interesting to see how that changes the traffic patterns and road conditions. The other major change we noticed is the “hipsterfication” of Ho Chi Minh City, which has people divided but that is seen to have given younger generations and foreigners new opportunities. Each place we visit, we imagine living there and as much as enjoy visiting Ho Chi Minh, we perceive it to be a city that would be difficult to live in for us.
Have you visited Ho Chi Minh City? If so, did you enjoy it? Would you like to try banh xeo tacos?
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