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The Definitive Guide to Saigon for Yuppies

by Tam Le from Singapore

Saigon by Tam Le

Saigon: a city of hot chaos. It’s loud, and bright. There are a million sights and smells. Every second on the streets is a conscious effort to not get run over by a motorbike. It makes New York seem quiet and idyllic.

Yet, I love this city. I love it completely. Its vibrancy makes me feel alive—I am energised and optimistic whenever I’m in Saigon and although I’ve visited countless times over the past year, there’s never a shortage of new places for me to explore. Yet I am also aware that it can be an overwhelming city and without the right guide and with an overreliance on TripAdvisor, it’s easy to fly away with the wrong impression of the city (i.e. that it’s impoverished, gaudy and tacky).

Therefore I would love to introduce you to the Saigon that I know and have come to love.

Tam Le in Saigon by Tam Le

A note about me: I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all recommendations. Because of the nature of this medium, I cannot have a conversation directly with you in order to develop a customized guide. So the best I can do is to offer up the places I like and I’m aware my preferences are coloured by my personal experiences. I am twenty-something Vietnamese-American branding and advertising professional who was living in New York before moving to Singapore almost a year ago. I am the quintessential yuppie (young urban professional).

In other words, this guide is best suited for you if you’ve had a pour-over coffee or poké bowl (ideally with a brown rice or quinoa base) within the past year.

Saigon? Ho Chi Minh City? Aren’t these the same city? Which name do I use? 

First things first, a bit of historical background: from 1698 (when Vietnam annexed what was formerly one of Cambodia’s most important seaport) until April 30, 1975 (when the city “fell” to the Communist North or was “liberated” depending on who’s telling the story), the city was known as Saigon. In 1976, the victorious Communist North renamed it Ho Chi Minh City.

Locals and tourists still call it Saigon, understandable seeing as the city was known as Saigon for almost 300 years—longer than America has been an independent country. But local residents of Saigon don’t care if you call it Ho Chi Minh City. I only call it Saigon out of personal allegiance to my South Vietnamese family; so for the remainder of this guide, that is the name you will see.

Saigon by Tam Le


When to Go: November – April. Although it’s forever summer in Saigon, monsoon season (May – October) can be a less pleasant time to visit with the highest rainfall occurring June – August.

One other thing to keep in mind for all travel to Vietnam, is that during Tet (Lunar New Year’s which usually occurs at the end of January or in February), most major cities will shut down as people return to reunite with family in their hometown. So if you’re thinking of visiting Vietnam around January or February, do a quick Google check on when Tet is before booking your tickets.

Language: Vietnamese is obviously the most spoken language here but most people you interact with will know some English.

One word that you should learn when visiting any foreign country is “thank you”. In Vietnamese, the phrase is cam on. The cam rhymes with “-dame” in “Madame;” on sounds like the “-ung” in “young.” This is the part where you tell me cam on for that language lesson.

Saigon by Tam Le

Currency: They use the Vietnamese dong with has an obscene amount of extra zeros tacked to the end. 1 USD is about 20,000 dongs. The smallest denomination is 1,000 dongs. So you will quickly become a millionaire upon entering Vietnam.

Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants and spas so I would recommend using your credit card if you’ve got one with no foreign transaction fees.

Electric Outlets: C, E, or F electric plug, the one with the two round pins (the same kind as most of Europe, South America, and Asia).

How to Get Around

“Nobody gives way to anybody. Everyone just angles, points, dives directly toward his destination, pretending it is an all-or-nothing gamble…Saigon traffic is Vietnamese life, a continuous charade of posturing, bluffing, fast moves, tenacity and surrenders.” 

― Andrew X. Pham, Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

Yes, traffic can seem crazy and intimidating when you first get to Saigon, but trust me; it’s not so bad. Walk with confidence and know that traffic lights are rarely obeyed and that walking on the sidewalk doesn’t ensure that you’ll be safe from being run over by a motorbike.

I recommend using UberMOTO or GrabBike when you’re here. The best way to see and understand Vietnam is on the back of a bike and Uber and Grab makes it easy for you to grab a cheap ride with a local. Also it removes the whole language barrier issue since the driver will already have your destination through the app. If you’re traveling with someone, the both of you can request a ride at the same time and have your bikes race each other to the destination.

Taxis aren’t a bad option. They are only a little more expensive than Uber or Grab and they run the meter so you won’t be cheated.

Saigon by Tam Le


War Remnants Museum: History is written by the victors. No where will you see that as clearly as in this museum. It’s filled with stories about a side of the Vietnamese-American War I’m sure you didn’t hear growing up or in history class.

Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts: Housed in what was originally the colonial mansion of the wealthiest man in Saigon at the time, Mr. Hoa, this museum is probably one of the more underfunded fine arts museums you’ll ever patron. But it’s cheap and actually holds a pretty great collection of Vietnamese art, of which I had very little exposure to before visiting.

In this museum, I discovered one of my new favorite styles: combat art. They basically sent solidier-artists out on the battlefield to quickly sketch and paint war scenes that were secretly sent back and used as propaganda or paint portraits of accomplished soldiers in order to reward them and boost troop morale. These artists were in the middle of a war so they were working with very limited art supplies and time (I mean, imagine how fast you’d have to draw if you think helicopters are going to bomb you). Combat art also involves some very badass depictions of the many Vietnamese women soldiers.

Sophie’s Art Tour: If you want more context to what you’ll encounter in the Museum of Fine Arts, I highly recommend Sophie’s Art Tour. It’s a tour of contemporary Vietnamese art history, and history in general, covering the French colonialism, the French-Indochina War, the Vietnamese-American War, and post-war periods. The tour takes you through local galleries and contemporary art spaces and runs in Hanoi as well. The tour is entirely run in English—in fact, I was the most Vietnamese person there.

Massages: This is one of my favorite pastimes in Southeast Asia, and kind of my area of expertise. I’m quite picky about my massages—quality and cleanliness are key for me. This means, I’ll choose an amazing $60/hour massage over a bad $10/hour massage every time. There are two places I recommend:

If You Want to Splurge (by Saigon standards): Pullman Saigon Centre Hotel’s Thann Sanctuary Spa. I usually distrust hotel spas, but this one was actually great. Thann is a premium natural skincare and aromatherapy brand which makes amazing products, which they will obviously use on you here. The ambiance is amazing so you feel really pampered and it was under $60 USD for an hour-long massage (including tip).

More Sustainable for Multiple Visits in One Trip: MiuMiu3 at 13/1 Le Thanh Ton Street. There are 4 branches of this spa, and I think MiuMiu3 has one of the better facilities. The only bad thing about it is it’s located in a side street off this main street that is filled with shady massage places. Do not go to those! Resist and keep walking towards MiuMiu3. It is not shady at all. Also at $15 USD for an hour-long aromatherapy or fresh ginger essence massage, it’s a steal.

Merci Nails & Café: Hands-down my favorite salon in Southeast Asia. They greet you with a welcome limeade and vegetable chips as soon as you sit down and they really take their time on making sure your nails are perfect. My gel manicures always last weeks without chipping. They have lots of foreign customers so don’t worry about the language barrier. It’s about $10 USD for a manicure; $17 USD for a gel manicure; $10 USD for a pedicure; $18 USD for a gel pedicure.

Shopping: If you want to check out the local design scene or furnish your apartment with some local pieces, I’ve got a few recommended places.

  • Sadec District: This is one of my favorite places in Saigon. I can’t emphasize how much I love it. Most of the products are made in villages along the Mekong River and the design is clean, sophisticated, and contemporary. They sell tableware, kitchenware, cutlery, vases…I wish I could furnish my entire apartment with items from this store. The prices are super reasonable when you take into account how much you’d pay for this in Brooklyn, London, or Singapore. They have two locations, but I would recommend the 3A Tôn Đức Thắng, District 1 location as it’s situated in this cool artsy area with other local boutiques and designers.
  • L’usine: It is also a great boutique filled with both contemporary Vietnamese design and curated global brands like Rifle Paper Company. See note below for more information on their café.
  • Antique Street: Located on Le Cong Kieu (nicknamed Antique Street), it’s a gem among the shops crammed with items of questionable legitimacy. Check out their second floor for some affordable finds.
  • Notice I never recommended Ben Thanh Market. That was intentional.
Saigon by Tam Le


Vietnamese Food: This is probably the main reason you came to Vietnam. I added a “Level of Difficulty” rating because eating local food in a foreign country can be intimidating and people have different comfort levels, so I thought this could help you gauge what you’re in the mood for.

  • Cuc Gach Quan: Situated in an old French colonial home, this restaurant is a stunner. It emphasizes vegetables and natural ingredients.
    What to Get: Claypot caramelised homemade tofu with a pepper stew, Soya bean porridge cooked with palm sugar for dessert
    Level of Difficulty: Easy. It’s a nice restaurant, very clean and relaxing, and I think they take credit cards.
Food in Saigon by Tam Le
  • Quan Bui: Authentic Vietnamese food in a very nice atmosphere. At one location you’ll have to go upstairs to access it—most of the great places in Saigon are hidden away on the higher floors of a building.
    What to Get: Quan Bui specialty springrolls to start, Grilled white fish with lemon leaves for the main

Level of Difficulty: Easy. Again, clean and relaxing refined atmosphere without being pretentious. Takes credit cards.

What to Get: Charcoal-grilled lemongrass beef skewer served with net rice crepe

Level of Difficulty: Easy. Spacious restaurant. Servers speak English. Takes credit cards.

  • Banh Xeo 46A: Ok, now we start getting to the street food Vietnam is so well known for. This place has been featured on numerous travel shows, including Anthony Bourdain. There’s a sizeable seating area so you won’t exactly be squatting on the side of the road on little plastic stools.
    What to Get: Banh xeo obviously and Sinh to bo aka an avocado smoothie

Level of Difficulty: Medium. It may be a little difficult not knowing any Vietnamese here, but the menu does have an English and Japanese translation and like I mentioned earlier, is very popular. This is the kind of place you need cash.

Saigon by Tam Le

I am far from an expert on Saigon’s street food scene, so I’ll refer you to this excellent guide from Saigoneer on the 5 Best Gems from 2016.

Also check out Foody.vn for the local version of Yelp or OpenRice. Reviews are in Vietnamese, but pictures are universal.

Food for Ex-Pats Who Live in Asia: This is for all my fellow ex-pats. I get it; Vietnamese food is great, but sometimes you just want some hummus or a bagel sandwich. Don’t worry—I gotchu. All of these places are Difficulty Level Easy: service is good; everyone speaks English; the AC is perfect; they all take credit cards and have wifi. It feels more San Francisco than Saigon.

  • Pizza4P’s: Pizza in Vietnam at a restaurant founded by a Japanese chef… you don’t seem convinced. I wasn’t either until I heard every local and every ex-pat raving about it; it somehow transcends all borders. They import very specific brands of parma ham and canned tomatoes from Italy while they source their vegetables from organic farmers and make their burrata locally in Da Lat. I can attest—their burrata is amazing.
  • Mekong Merchant: Don’t be thrown off by the name—this is a Mediterranean restaurant that has good bread, serves up good hummus, and has some bomb mashed potatoes. Seriously, I think it may be the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever had in my life.
  • Tuk Tuk: I know you’re in Vietnam, but how could you resist some good Thai food? I think I end up going here every time I visit Saigon.
  • El Gaucho: Very expensive, but very good Argentinian steakhouse. They make a great prosciutto and cheese plate.
  • Namo: A great, and of course overpriced, Italian restaurant.
  • Sorrae Sushi: Super nice and fancy with great views. Tip: if you get the sushi with local Vietnamese fish, it’s significantly cheaper than the imported Japanese fish, but still very high in quality.
  • La Fiesta: A TEX-MEX restaurant founded by a guy from Maine and his Vietnamese wife. Yeah, this ain’t just a generic Mexican place, it’s specifically TEX-MEX. They got chips and queso, crunchy tacos, huevos rancheros, MIGAS, breakfast burritos, breakfast tacos. Dear god I miss Texas. Despite their amazing breakfast selection, this place doesn’t open until 11am. Que lastima!!! I don’t care if it’s not the real deal, they try and have an understanding and appreciation for our regional interpretation of Mexican food.

Trendy Cafes: More flat white than café sua da. Great if you want to chill (figuratively and literally) and need wifi.

  • Maison Marou: A café, patisserie, and chocolate factory. Who could resist? This place is based off the popular local chocolate brand Marou, which was founded by a couple of French guys and designed by a local agency of Viet Kieu brothers. I love love love the brand’s graphic identity and will come here purely for nerdy branding and design reasons.

Level of Difficulty: Easy. Again, clean and relaxing refined atmosphere without being pretentious. Takes credit cards.

What to Get: Charcoal-grilled lemongrass beef skewer served with net rice crepe

Level of Difficulty: Easy. Spacious restaurant. Servers speak English. Takes credit cards.

  • Banh Xeo 46A: Ok, now we start getting to the street food Vietnam is so well known for. This place has been featured on numerous travel shows, including Anthony Bourdain. There’s a sizeable seating area so you won’t exactly be squatting on the side of the road on little plastic stools.
    What to Get: Banh xeo obviously and Sinh to bo aka an avocado smoothie

Level of Difficulty: Medium. It may be a little difficult not knowing any Vietnamese here, but the menu does have an English and Japanese translation and like I mentioned earlier, is very popular. This is the kind of place you need cash.

Saigon by Tam Le
  • L’usine: This is like the place to go for ex-pats. You can get a smoked salmon eggs benedict, quiche Lorraine, even a rainbow zoodle salad. It’ll be like you never left the hipster hole you crawled from. All snide remarks aside, I love this place and am in fact writing from it now.
  • Le Saigonais: A designer boutique and café. This is just one of those cafes tucked above the streets that make for a happy find. I remember sitting near the balcony, enjoying a tea with my best friend here and being filled with gratitude for being alive.
  • The Old Compass Café: Hidden away on the third floor of an alleyway building, climbing up, you’ll find it hard to believe that there’s a café here during the day and a wine bar at night.
  • Au Parc– Although they serve some of my favorite types of cuisine (Mediterranean and Middle Eastern), I am only a fan of their smoked salmon bagel sandwich. It’s called the Istanbul (even though Istanbul doesn’t have bagels, only simit). Unfortunately the sandwich is only available in the morning.
Saigon by Tam Le


5-Star Hotel: Pullman Saigon Centre. It’s contemporary without being overly gimmicky or tacky. Also you get a discount at their amazing in-house spa.

Airbnbs: The Airbnb selection is quite good in Saigon. Although I haven’t stayed at any of these, so I can’t vouch for them, here is my wishlist when I was researching places to stay here: https://www.airbnb.com/wishlists/180816868


This is for all my fellow banana Vietnamese brothers and sisters raised overseas. This can be a very emotionally rewarding trip for you. I think you’ll see the best and worst parts of yourself reflected in the people here and you’ll remember things you didn’t know you forgot. That mushy stuff being said, here are two practical tips:

  1. Don’t speak Vietnamese at passport control. A fellow Viet Kieu gave me this tip. The border control employees are obviously much smoother and more comfortable expressing themselves in Vietnamese than in English, so if they know you can understand and speak Vietnamese, they’ll be bolder and ask things they wouldn’t ask in English, like for a bribe, or whether you have a husband.
  2. Don’t switch between Vietnamese and English—stick to one. For example, don’t say, “Can I have a nuoc chanh?” It’s not like when you speak to Vietnamese people back home; switching languages completely confuses most people here. Think of it like this, when you start speaking English, their brain flips to English mode, and even when you start saying something in perfect Vietnamese, their brain is still stuck on English mode, so they won’t understand what you just said in their native language. Just ask for a lime juice.
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