In no particular order, here are five of the unique Ho Chi Minh City experiences that made me fall in love with the city hard and fast. You see, cities to me are like people. They have a personality, a past, a soul. As with people, I am attracted to the ones with a complicated history, plenty of depth, creative energy and a zest for life. Saigon is definitely my kind of city.
1. The Cafe Apartment
An apartment building where each apartment is not a home but a business: a cafe, a restaurant, a tea house, or a fashion boutique- what could be more quirky, innovative and charming? Located on the Nguyen Hue walking street in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City District I, we spent quite sometime scouring the different floors for the coziest cafes and most mouth-watering food. Building codes would forbid this type of refurbishment in many other places but it was so refreshing to see that something this creative, vibrant and hip is allowed to flourish in Saigon.
2. Vietnamese Water Puppet Show
There are strong puppetry traditions in many Asian countries but the Vietnamese water puppets are completely unique even against that backdrop. The water part made no sense to me until I connected it to the cultivation of the major staple food in the country: rice. It makes perfect sense that this folk tradition would have its roots in the rice fields that flooded and provided a natural stage for this type of entertainment in the early days. The lighthearted and entertaining experience put a smile on my face and made me appreciate the performers who keep this charming tradition alive.
3. Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine
Years ago, after having experienced the benefits of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) firsthand, I began to question the current Western technocentric medical paradigm and shift towards a more natural, holistic and wellness-oriented lifestyle. The Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine is a lovely place to visit for anyone on a similar path, or just interested in Vietnamese history and culture in general. The building itself is worth seeing, as it blends traditional architectural influences from different regions in Vietnam. As a regular museum-goer I found this museum particularly well-designed, aesthetically captivating and the experience unique, intimate and inspiring.
4. Street Food Tour on a Scooter
There is no better way to explore the local food scene than with a local, and in Saigon, your local person will in all likelihood drive a scooter. I am obsessed with Vietnamese cuisine, with its fresh herbs and flavors that seem custom-designed to suit my palate, and also looked forward to experiencing the hectic Saigon traffic from a local’s perspective.
We booked a tour with Saigon Extravaganza Tours whom I would rate 5 stars in all categories as the experience was a total blast in every way. We had amazing food in unique places around town that we never would have found on our own. And my vegetarian diet was accommodated without issue everywhere! Our guides were friendly, genuine and knowledgeable to a degree that I would have wanted to include them in my friends circle if I were staying in town for longer. Seeing the city on a scooter is also a quintessential Saigon experience that I would not have wanted to miss.
5. Cyclo Ride
Cyclo, or a three-wheel bicycle taxi, is a uniquely Vietnamese mode of transportation that is quickly disappearing into history. Once ubiquitous in the streets of Saigon, cyclos are now being restricted to certain areas of the city, often scoffed by tourists afraid of being scammed and a government eager to squeeze them out in the face of diminishing demand and a faster moving traffic.
One day having explored the Bình Tây market in Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown, and needing a ride to the Thien Hau Temple, we serendipitously ran into a cyclo driver who was so goofy and heartfelt we couldn’t resist. Having agreed on a reasonable fare, we hopped on to experience both Le Vieux Saigon as well as the new one, with motorbikes passing us by- literally and figuratively.
My unique Ho Chi Minh City experiences didn’t end here- other highlights included a Vietnamese tea tasting, a coffee tour and a trip to the Mekong Delta. And breaking my vegetarian diet for some fried baby frogs to accompany a shot of our neighbor’s Chinese herb infused homemade whiskey… This older gentleman spoke not a word of English but eagerly invited us into his home nonetheless. If a city is the sum of its people, it’s no wonder Saigon feels like an old friend.