The big question. Ho Chi Minh City is exalted again and again for its food, so this is an important section for both visitors and locals. Regarding Vietnamese cuisine, I highly recommend the following eateries: Cuc Gach (chic, inexpensive and delicious), Quan An Ngon (a bit touristy but the quality remains with a great atmosphere) and An (more rustic and well-made dishes). Seafood is delicious in Vietnam; don’t forget to try the famous dishes such as Pho, Bun Bo Hue, Chao, and so on! To be honest, most places will be pretty decent, so don’t be afraid to explore restaurants spontaneously. Street-side establishments usually are specialists in their dishes from all over the country, but it’s best to ask a knowledgeable friend or local to direct you to the best places. As mentioned before, Cholon remains a hub for delicious food and delicacies so if you make the trip, you’re assured a tasty meal!
If you’re on the hunt for other cuisines, you’re free to indulge in middle eastern with places like Bahdja, Warda and Pasha or Mediterranean with Saffron or Au Parc. French food is popular for upscale places, like the Trois Gourmands, alongside the Italian food being served at the Hyatt’s Opera restaurant. Japanese, Korean and Chinese cuisines are also insanely popular here. Check out La Phong, Choi Go Jip and San Fu Luo (respectively) for your fix. Western food is available through restaurants like the Elbow Room, Al Fresco’s and Soul Burger, and steaks at Square One or El Gaucho. Casual chic cafes are so popular; it’s an epidemic. The original would have to be L’Usine but now you find many chains: Saigon Chic, The Workshop, La Rotonde, Khanh Casa…
An elegant – yet pricey – night out can be had at the previously mentioned bars in the Bitexco Financial Tower, or places like Shrine, Racha Room, or Blanchy’s which makes a mean cocktail in a modern, slick interior. If you’re into more casual joints, Broma or Cargo Bar could suit you with their young demographic, open mic nights, and live performances. Finally, if you’re looking for an even more relaxed experience, go to Pham Ngu Lao (the backpacker street) and look for Bui Vien street where a section is dedicated to beer – meet up with other backpackers there and enjoy a buzzy evening!
Non-alcoholic drinks are aplenty as well – Vietnamese coffee is famed for its strength, which is in no shortage in this city. Phuc Long famously roasts its beans wholesomely so you’re guaranteed the full thing (and boy is it good), so if you’re looking for traditional Vietnamese coffee, that’s the place to be. If you’re really desperate, there’s the occasional Starbucks or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf but the local coffee is tastier and much cheaper of course. Taiwanese bubble tea is also very popular; head to Gong Cha to have your cup of milk tea with tapioca pearls as well!
Walking will probably be your main mode of travel if you’re just casually visiting the inner-city, though it can get hot and possibly dangerous in some areas with the hectic traffic. If you’re more adventurous, you can easily rent a motorbike to zip around on (mandatory helmets, max two persons per) or a bicycle even. You’ll need some knowledge of where you’re headed, of course. Otherwise, some people opt for the public transport system (city buses) which can be hard to decode. But if you have some help, it is an inexpensive and convenient way to get around. Taxis aren’t very expensive there but you’re not always guaranteed quality (so use trusted brands like Mai Linh or Vinasun), and if you see the rare cyclo, you can always explore the city the old-fashioned way.
Safety-wise, it is rare in Ho Chi Minh City to experience a violent crime, but petty crimes can really ruin a trip so watch out for bag-snatchers. If you’re walking alongside a road with your bag on the shoulder facing the road, cross it over your body or move it to the other shoulder. Backpacks should be watched for pick-pockets, and know that they may work in groups to confuse you then steal from you.
The city is busy at all times of day but suburban and far-out areas will be quiet and dark late into the night so avoid those if you can. The traffic can be alarming for people, but if you remain vigilant (that means looking both ways constantly even on a one-way street), you should be fine. Walk across at a steady pace because if you start to panic or pause, the drivers won’t know what to expect of you. Keep on the crossings, and yes, there are red lights where you can cross more safely but know that manoeuvers are legal at red lights so it isn’t completely clear.
As for manners, it is considered rude to stick your chopsticks directly into a bowl of rice since it resembles incense used in prayers for the dead! But on the whole, since globalization is taking over their society, the Saigonese tend to be quite relaxed about most things.