I’ve been coming to and from Saigon for over two years now. It has become so familiar to me that I haven’t thought to do a big write up. I did a cost of living summary for my first full month here, and I also maintain a cafe list, so now it’s time to post my Notes on Saigon.
I often get asked what there is to do here, and often I will draw a blank. It’s not the greatest tourist city. When I first visited Vietnam in 2005 I spent about three weeks in the country with just a couple of days in Saigon. I usually tell people to visit the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace, check out the Notre Dame Cathedral and old post office, and then you are good to go.
I still haven’t gone to the Ho Chi Minh City museum, or gone up the Bitexco Tower. When people ask me if Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh is a better city to visit I usually tell people that Hanoi is a better city for tourists, and that HCMC is a better city to live in.
Visiting and living in are two different things. My home city of Melbourne constantly ranked as the world’s most liveable city, though most people would put visiting Sydney on the top of their Australia list (of course I still tell people to visit Melbourne first).
For me, Saigon is a great place to live and work in. The following is a mix of things I love about life in Saigon, along with other random observations. Many of the the things here aren’t exclusive to Saigon, though they are the some of the many parts that complete the city. This isn’t a things to do guide travel guide either, so that will be for another post. Also note that in this post I have opted out of using Vietnamese diacritics.
Lets start with one of my favourite things about Saigon.
[Workshop Cafe – one of the many cool kids cafes of Saigon.]
One the big draws for basing myself in Saigon is for the cafe culture. There are few cities in the world that can match the amount of cafes that are here.
I spend my days mixing it up between working in my room and working from two cafes per day. I have the opportunity to meet up with fellow location independent travellers, or working anonymously in a cafe in one of the many cafes around the city.
I like that there is a mix of traditional cafes serving Vietnamese coffee and western cafes that serve espresso coffee. While the quality of the western coffee is still lagging it is catching up.
You are paying western prices for espresso coffee, yet you can go to a cafe outside District 1 and find ca phe da (ice black coffee) for 15,000 Dong (about 75 cents).
And to top it off, every cafe I have been to has wifi, making this a great city to work in.
[Preparing coffee on the street.]
Iced coffee and iced tea combo
Speaking of coffee, I have become completely addicted to Vietnamese iced coffee, which is usually served with iced tea. While not exclusive to Saigon, this Vietnamese combo is the most enjoyable here with year-round tropical heat.
Ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk) usually comes with a complimentary tra da (iced tea). You can sit in a cafe and your tra da will be continually topped up until you leave. Whenever I travel anywhere else now I miss not having a side of iced tea with my coffee.
[Hu Tieu Nam Vang – one of the many soups I had never heard of before arriving in Saigon.]
To paraphrase a famous quote, I’m not a foodie but I know what I like. In this case I like delicious food. And in the case of Saigon there is delicious food everywhere.
Before Saigon I was using Chiang Mai as a home base. The cost of living is so cheap there that it will ruin your perception of the value of anything else once you leave.
In the same manor, Saigon has completely distorted my reality when it comes to food expectations for a city. The big draw for me is the street food culture, which can be seen everywhere you go.
Once again this list is not exclusive to Saigon; you could find these meals across Vietnam. Where Saigon excels is in its representation of Vietnamese food with probably the best representation of foods from around the country (Hanoians are free to rebut in the comments).
I’ve put pho first if only because it’s the soup most people know. When I arrived here in 2012 it was the first soup I had, partly because it seemed the most appropriate “welcome to Saigon” soup, and partly because I didn’t know of any other soups. There are so many recipes for pho too, so just when I think I couldn’t possibly have another bowl I discover another place that is serving pho in a different style.
[Pho ga (chicken)]
Once you are on the ground in Vietnam you will start noticing other food names alongside pho. One that is everywhere is bun bo hue, which is literally beef noodle soup from Hue.
[Bun bo hue]
On my second day here I wandered by a soupery that was offering an intriguing dish, so I sat down to see what was going on. What was going on was bun mam; a bowl of soup with fish pieces, bits of squid, shrimps, and pork, all swimming in a tangy fermented fish broth. It’s like Vietnams surf and turf meal. If you had of told me it involved fermented fish I might have hesitated, so as with many dishes here it’s better to eat first and ask questions later (obviously vegetarians and people with allergies should still ask questions).
If you thought bun mam was a ridiculous combination, wait until you meet bun rieu. This is a soup that is based on freshwater paddy crabs and comes in different variations. It has a tomato broth and sometimes it is served with snails, and most of the time served with a blood cube. Hungry yet? It sounds ridiculous yet somehow it works.
[Bun Rieu from a street vendor]
Stepping away from the soups, one of my favourites is bun thit nuong, which regularly takes out the prize for being the first meal back when I return. Grilled pork served with fried spring rolls on top of cold rice noodles with a side of fish sauce and chilli. Sigh, I’m already missing it.
[Bun thit nuong]
Bun cha originated from Hanoi and can be around around Saigon. When it comes to food there is no North vs South rivalry – Saigoners will welcome anything that is delicious.
Mi Quang originated in central Vietnam and is popular here as well. I found this one in Go Vap district.
The classic lunch meal in Southern Vietnam is com tam (broken rice). Vietnam is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice, of which they keep the broken rice for domestic consumption. The world’s loss I say, as I love the texture of broken rice. A com tam shop/street stall usually serves rice with grilled pork and each place will have their own side specialties to add to the plate.
Com tam lunch spots are easy enough to find, but if you need help just look for the plume of bbq smoke on the side of the road.
One of the best com tam’s I’ve been to is Hai’s place, who is the co-author of Eating Saigon.
And I can’t talk about Vietnamese food without mentioning the banh mi. Like pho, banh mi is the most familiar Vietnamese food for westerners. There are banh mi carts all over the city and they make an excellent snack between meals, and some of them are enough to be a meal in themselves.
Check out Jimmy Dau’s banh mi quest for further reading.
[A typical banh mi stall.]
At this point I will have to truncate this food list before it grows into full blown food blog. I’ve left out some of my other favourites (and I realise that I’ve already said half of these were my favourite) so this is just a sample of the good eating that is on offer in Saigon.
The aforementioned Eating Saigon is an excellent resource for Saigon street food that will get you beyond the tourist eateries.
With all the great food in Saigon one of the things I miss the most when I’m away are seafood and snail nights.
I’ve listed this separate from the Vietnamese food list because the previous foods I can happily eat by myself. It’s so easy to get a bowl of soup here and then get back to work.
Seafood nights are best enjoyed in groups, where you can order a variety of different dishes while catching up with friends. Most of the time you will come out spending less than $10. And for drinkers, the beer is usually as cheap as water.
Little blue chairs
Related to food are the little plastic blue chairs that are used by street vendors.
[Little blue chairs.]
I don’t know if I like them because they are associated with eating something delicious, or if they are genuinely aesthetically pleasing.
[Blue plastic chairs. Blue plastic chairs everywhere.]
Even though I am 6’1″ and my knees tend to be around my ears when I sit down, I derive a simple happiness from sitting outside on these little seats.
[Alley eating on blue (and red) chairs.]
The street food ladies in my life
One of the joys of having a homebase is getting known by the local vendors. Whenever I return to Saigon after some time away I make the rounds of my favourite street food ladies.
High five lady
In my first month in Saigon I found a market at the end of the backpacker area. There is a stall that serves a mean bun nem nuong, and next to them is a juice lady. The first time I went there the lady put her hand up to wave me in. I was close enough so without thinking I gave her a high five.
It was kind of awkward at the time, but now it’s a thing we do every time I go back. I’m there at least once a month, if only to collect my high five, and she smiles and put her hand up ready to high five, then makes my orange juice with no sugar.
Sweet tofu lady
I never would have thought you could say sweet and tofu in the same sentence, but that was before I met the sweet tofu lady. This concoction of tofu, ginger, and coconut sauce is a delicious street snack that satisfies my sweet-tooth after lunch. This is a common dessert across Asia, and in Saigon it is known as dau hu. I was an immediate convert and the sweet tofu lady knew it.
When ever she sees me she gains an extra spring in her step knowing that she has an easy sale coming up. She sometimes sees me on the other side of the street and she will call out when she sees me. It’s like she has a sixth sense and knows where I am.
The coconut ladies can be found in the heart of Saigon, next to the Ben Thanh Market. I try to avoid the market as it is the one place in the city where people try and sell you stuff, but I can’t resist the charms of these two ladies. I don’t know where they are getting their coconuts from because they are consistently the freshest coconuts I’ve had in the city. As an added bonus the coconuts are always served cold.
Breakfast banh mi lady
[Mr and Mrs Banh Mi.]
When I was staying on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street I would visit this banh mi lady almost every morning for breakfast. I get an egg roll without meat and I would have to say it’s as close to perfect you can get for an egg roll. I don’t don’t want to say perfect because that sounds hyperbolic, but every time I have one I can’t find any fault. The eggs are cooked just right, the bread is always crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, and it is topped with chilli’s, seasoning, cucumber, coriander, and pickled carrots and daikon radish.
She is around 18 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai in the morning (with Mr Banh Mi) until around 10am, and in the afternoons around 4pm.
Dragon fruit lady
Technically I should be listing her as fruit lady, as she has a fine array of tropical fruits. I come here for the dragonfruit, so dragonfruit lady she is. The great thing about being a regular is that I don’t even have to think about fruit selection. She sees me coming and picks the best two dragonfruit for me, and I don’t have to pretend that I am going to buy anything else.
Orange juice ladies
[The orange juice ladies (who smile when not on camera).]
Another orange juice vendor makes the list, this time near where I used to live. These ladies have a great juicing operation going on and you can’t go wrong with a large cup of OJ for approximately 50c USD.
Saigon is probably more famous for its motorbike traffic than for any monument or building. Apparently there are six million bikes in the city, which at peak hour might feel like an underestimate. Line 1 of the metro is being built here which will be a welcome relief. Until then we swim in a sea of motorbikes, and a roundup on Saigon can’t not include a reference to moto culture.
Crossing the road
[You see traffic, I see gaps in the road.]
When I first came here I remember struggling to cross the street. I would sometimes find a grandma to cross the street with as I figured they have made it this far in life so they must know how to cross the road. Over time I have become proficient at crossing the street by myself.
There is an art to crossing the road, and the trick is to walk slowly and steadily, and to look through the rider and not into the riders eyes. This works well when the traffic is all bikes, but it is harder when there are cars and buses mixed in.
[OK, maybe I don’t see gaps in the road. (And spot the badass going in the opposite direction.)]
The back-of-the-bike economy
With a motorbike being the fastest way to get around anything that can be delivered by bike usually is.
Same goes for people moving as well.
Bikes are used as mobile shops, with anything from fruit to knife sharpeners making their way around the city.
This is how I used to turn up to parties. (No wonder I don’t drink anymore.)
The White Prince of Saigon
On one of my wanders I spotted a man in white riding an all-white motorbike. A few weeks later I saw him again, and then I found out that he is known as The White Prince of Saigon.
I’ve spotted him a few times now, and he even waved at me once when he saw that I was watching him ride. Maybe he was used to people looking at him and gave me a wave. Or maybe he recognised me as well, saying to himself “there goes that sweaty white guy who walks around all day”.
The Iceman Cometh…on a motorbike of course
A common site on the streets of Saigon are the ice delivery guys. I’ve seen the sacks of ice up to seven layers high, and often not secured. I don’t know how they do it, but I’ve never seen one go down.
Wandering the other 23 districts
Ho Chi Minh City has a population of 8 million people spread out over 24 districts. Most of what a visitor will see is in District 1 (with the war remnants museum close by in district 3). I stay in District 1 as I prefer to walk everywhere and it’s where most people I know live. To make sure I don’t remain trapped in my little D1 bubble I like to break things up and go on urban explorations of outer districts.
Go beyond D1 and the markets get a little crazier.
And the architecture a little more whackier.
You will find the occasional refuge in a random temple.
Or refuge in a colonial-era church.
The Bitexco Financial Tower and its helipad folly
A visible sign of the city’s redevelopment is the growing skyline. The tallest building in Saigon is the Bitexco Financial Tower, which would rank as one of my favourite skyscrapers anywhere. Its iconic shape has become a local landmark and I always like seeing it out of the airplane window upon my return. It makes for a useful beacon when I’m in a faraway district, giving an indication of how far I’ve wandered from D1.
The most prominent feature of the tower is the helipad. Legend has it that when the building was completed they realised that a helicopter would blow out the windows of the tower, so it can’t be used as a helipad. I don’t know if that is true. I do know that I have never seen a helicopter on it, nor do I know anyone who has seen one. Even if it’s never used as a helipad I like it as a folly.
Despite the lack of parks there are some beautiful streets in district 1 and 3 that are lined with trees dating from the time of the French.
Some of these trees wouldn’t be out of place in an old-growth forest.
Many of the trees are as tall as the tall and skinny buildings they stand next to, and have been pruned of all their green apart from the top.
On a moonlit night if you look up you may get a view like this.
Urban chickens are a thing
Even in a concrete jungle like Saigon you will still see the occasional chicken on the street.
I like that in downtown District 1 you can still hear the occasional rooster, adding to the aural experience of life in Asia.
Entrepreneurial expats in the commercial capital of Vietnam
Finishing up my list, one of the main reasons I keep returning to Saigon is for the entrepreneurial expat community that is thriving here. After years of travelling around the world it’s been great to have a community of like-minded people to socialise with. In fact there are so many meetups that I have to limit the amount I go to, lest I not get anything done.
There are meetups that are arranged in various social media forums, and then there are the random meetups that happen just by going to a cafe.
[Running into the occasional evil genius in cafes.]
Going out for food is a big part of social life here too, and meeting so many friends here to talk about life, business, and travel keeps me returning.
[Snails night with @legalnomads and @jimmydau (behind the camera).]
For more perspectives on living in Saigon, check out the following posts: