Its official name is Ho Chi Minh (renamed in 1976) but all locals I spoke to still call it Saigon, so that's what I call it. It's a huge, extremely hectic, polluted city but I loved it! There is so much going on and once you leave District 1, you're surrounded by culture and fantastic food. Saigon has a population of about 13 million, almost twice the population of the capital Hanoi. The streets are filled with a constant stream of scooters.
When I arrived to the airport, I opted for the local bus to District 1 which only cost 5,000d and was probably only a little slower than an expensive taxi. I was the only foreigner on the bus and one local even paid for my fare (until I sorted out my money and repaid him). I've got local buses in Saigon multiple times and I recommend them over taxis. They're much more adventurous (without being stressful) and only a fraction of the price.
The organisers of 'Talking with the Tourist' (see below) have created an amazing 'Surviving Saigon' booklet for tourists. They also have a Facebook group that's very useful if you spend more than a couple of days in Saigon. Saigon International Friends.
At the 'Talking with the Tourist' meet-up I met two Vietnamese girls who asked to take me around the city and took me to some amazing food places (all of which made it into my food guide) because I'd shown interested in the local cuisine. I got on the back of a scooter and we joined the masses of other bikes and headed out of District 1's tourist trap. The other districts are so much better but no tourists seem to visit them ever. I remember driving through District 10 and thinking I had to come back and stay there (which I did). It had such amazing energy. I highly recommended exploring the rest of the city.
Not long before I arrived in Vietnam, I started using the Couchsurfing app to discover meet-up events (usually just in cities). I've been to a few in different countries now and they tend to range from 10 to 50 people, a mixture of travellers, ex-pats and locals. I went to quite a few in Saigon and met some lovely people. I actually took over as the host of the regular meet-up while the main organiser was away.
After spending about a week in Saigon during my first trip, I decided to base myself here for two months when I returned. It was one of the best culinary experiences of my life. I highly recommend renting a scooter (it was one million dong for a month, which works out as about £1 per day), otherwise you will be stuck in one area. The roads are actually safer than you might think when you first arrive. I drove every day for two months and never felt in danger. I made lots of local friends and spent most of my time learning about the food and eating it!
Ly Loan Room For Rent
I stayed here when I first arrived. Right in the centre of District 1, it's more like a homestay but with big rooms (I even had a bathtub). The family were so lovely. You have to walk through their living room (where one of them is usually sleeping during the day) to get to the rooms. They were very helpful too, taking me to some food stalls and booking a bus for me. I paid 14 USD per night, I think.
Vy Da Hostel 2
Very comfortable capsule pods. The screens are pretty see-through for some reason so there's not as much privacy but the beds are great and it's very cheap, especially if you're staying for a while and book direct (I spoke to them via Facebook).
The sister hotel to TYNA 2. I stayed here in November 2016 when TYNA 2 was fully booked. 200k for a large room with fan or 250k for large with A/C. I had 2 double beds. Cheaper smaller rooms were booked out.
TYNA 2 Hotel
Stayed here for ages. Managed to get 200,000d per night as I was staying for over a week. Large bed, private bathroom, wardrobe, old TV, fridge, A/C, fan and amazing location. Absolutely nothing fancy though, it's a simple guesthouse.
Hong Kong Kaiteki Hotel
Stayed for a couple of nights when I arrived back in Saigon. The dorms are capsules/pods which I usually like but you have to choose between privacy or ventilation as the A/C doesn't reach you otherwise and it can get really hot. Also the beds are uncomfortable. $7-8 per night.
Ngoc Mai Hotel
Nothing particularly great. I just got a local bus in to District 10 and found this on one of the main roads in the area.
Clean, comfortable, friendly and affordable guesthouse.
Nightlife, bars & cafés
Winking Seal Beer Co.
A great little craft beer brewery bar. Prices range from 50,000d - 80,000d for 200ml and 90,000d - 140,000d for 400ml but it's buy 1 get 1 free during happy hour (5pm - 7pm & 10pm - 11pm).
They One Eye IPA is their best beer, I think. The others are all tasty and very drinkable but relatively simple. The quality is definitely not up to the standard of Heart of Darkness or Pasteur Street. Aside from happy hour, they're actually more expensive than the others too.
If you're nearby and it's happy hour then go for it, otherwise I'd go for one of the others.
Pasteur Street Brewing Company
Tiny bar but very trendy and delicious craft beers. This brewery seemed to be one of the biggest names early on in the now-thriving craft beer scene in Saigon.
They do tasting planks and American food. The quality of the beer is great with some genuinely interesting options. Here are a few...
Possibly their most famous beer and one you'll find in other bars and restaurants. It's a lovely hoppy IPA infused with jasmine.
Thai Iced Tea IPA
This is my favourite beer they do but sadly it's not always available and I don't think they sell it outside their own bar. It's made using red tea which gives it a unique and wonderful taste. It seems to be a real crowd-pleaser so hopefully they make it one of their regular options.
My second favourite. Hoppy but with added strength and bitterness that makes it stand out as one of the better IPAs in Vietnam.
Heart Of Darkness Craft Brewery
My favourite place for craft beer in Saigon. Great venue and a fantastic beer selection with a lot of varied, interested choices. Here's a few...
Kurtz's Insane IPA
Possibly their most popular beer, certainly one that you see regularly in other bars and restaurants. It's a great hoppy IPA with some nice bitterness and one you can't really go wrong with if you like IPAs.
Turn My Head IPA
It's not one of their flagship beers but it's a seasonal that's returned. If it's available, give it a try as I prefer it to Kurtz's Insane IPA.
Pitiless Folly Pale Ale
Another flagship beer. It's their take on a British ale using Citra hops, it's more of a session beer compared to most of their range.
The Chicken Coop
Handy location near Bui Vien for some craft beers from the Phat Rooster brewery. They're simple but tasty.
Ong Cao Craft Beer
A nice bar offering craft beer from a selection of local breweries including Pasteur Street, Heart of Darkness & Winking Seal. The sizes are determined by the breweries so not all of them have a small option and the prices seemed to be a bit higher than going direct to each brewery bar, but it's nice to have a selection and it makes a difference from all of the other bars on Bui Vien.
They seem to be the only place in town to add a slice of fresh mango to the Lac Mango IPA which makes it much more tasty and gives you the treat of IPA-soaked mango at the end.
Tiny Japanese bar, mostly with Japanese customers, it seems. Smoky, low lighting but a nice friendly feel. Beers from 30k.
East West Brewing Co.
Massive craft beer brewery bar with nice decor and atmosphere. It's quite different from the other brewery bars in Saigon.
There are 8 permanent beers on tap and 4 specials. You can get a tasting flight of 4 (175k) or 10 (425k).
The beers are tasty although not as interesting and complex as Heart of Darkness or Pasteur but I enjoyed it there and will go back.
The Gin House
Lovely little gin bar. Very stylish and friendly. They do a very nice negroni. Most cocktails are 180k.
Fantastic craft beer bar offering 50 taps of mostly Vietnamese breweries including some of their own. Great venue and atmosphere!
Tasting flights are available but you only save 10k for a flight of 4.
Craft beer bar selling various local breweries. They have happy hour (30% off) Monday to Friday, 5pm to 7pm.
Cafe La Vang
Not a bad place to people-watch from the balcony with Bia Saigon for only 12k.
Shri Restaurant & Lounge
Incredibly inventive cocktails on the 23rd floor. They have a happy hour with 25% off but most cocktails are 190k but they're more than just a drink.
A nice little craft beer bar with a broad range of beers from different Saigon breweries. Last orders are usually 1am and there seems to be a crowd of staff from other craft beer bars late at night.
Whiskey & Wares
Open late and serving a variety of drinks including whiskey and craft beer.
The latest branch of the great BiaCraft craft beer bars. This one is quite small and doesn't have the atmosphere or beer selection of the others but it's a handy location and is great for a relaxed beer with A/C.
Trung Nguyên Legend Cafe
Interesting high-quality (and expensive) versions of Vietnamese drip coffee. Nice relaxed place to sit for a while.
The View Rooftop Bar
Great bar to get away from the crowded streets. Local beers are about 22,000d (they were only 18,000d until they put the prices up near the end of my stay in Saigon). It's also a good place to cool down with the nice breeze. Recommended if you're in the area and want a beer.
Good quality Vietnamese coffee and tea. This is a well known mini chain just in Saigon.
Cafe Nguyên Chất
Visited. Really nice coffee shop. Delicious Arabica and the coconut smoothie is fantastic (it comes with coconut water on the side).
Press Corner Coffee & Lounge
Nice cafe with live music at weekends. It's in the grounds of the stadium so not directly on the main street.
On the 50th to 52nd floors of the huge Bitexco tower is a cafe/bar/restaurant. It's very expensive (110,000d for a coffee!) but the views are stunning!
Nice little cocktail place with a balcony.
Grill & Chill
8,000d beers at the quieter end of Bui Vien.
District 1 is where almost every single foreign tourists stays in Saigon. Bùi Viện, probably the main road in the area, is lined with beer drinkers sat on tiny plastic seats all facing the road. There are pub crawls and a fair amount of partying. I'd much rather enjoy Vietnam rather than a tourist bubble though.
Hồ Con Rùa
"Turtle Lake" is a popular spot at night for young locals to meet for snacks and drinks (not alcoholic). They sit around the lake and on the structure. There's a great atmosphere.
Sights & Activities
View of the city
Excellent view of the city across the river. You have to drive through a tunnel under the river. It's a toll road but free for motorbikes. You then have to drive to the first set of lights and do a U-turn to get there. It's a popular spot at night with young people, especially couples. There are people drinking and eating.
War Remnants Museum
Reading the stories from the Vietnam war was extremely moving. You should spend a few hours here.
Highly rated on TripAdvisor, it's a bit weird but I enjoyed it. Don't go if you only have a short amount of time in the city.
Củ Chi Tunnels
A network of underground tunnels from the war. Now a very popular tourist attraction. It takes a while to get there by bus.
Ben Thanh Market
Too touristy for me (especially the prices) but it's a very popular market near to District 1. During the day the market is inside the building and at night, the streets either side are filled with stalls. If you go between 6-6.30pm you can watch the night market being set up.
Saigon Central Post Office
Popular tourist spot opposite the Notre-Dame. It was partly designed by Gustave Eiffel (who designed some tower in Paris).
Talking with the Tourist
Every Thursday to Sunday from 3pm to 6.30pm in 'September 23 Park' in District 1. It's easy to find as there will be rows of people sat on the floor, one side Vietnamese, one side foreign. The idea is that they want to improve their English and learn about our culture, in return for giving us local information. They even have laminated reference sheets with things like a map of the UK (I was asked to comment on loads of British cities and did some mildly offensive accents for each one) and photos of Vietnamese foods to help with the conversations. Visit their closed Facebook group.