Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly known as Saigon, is one of the most vibrant and largest cities in Vietnam, famous for its complex history, its French colonial landmarks, and delicious healthy cuisine.
Most first-time visitors will want to take the city tours to historic landmarks and museums and visit the Cu Chi Tunnels. If you’ve already done those, here are five other unique and fun activities to do in HCMC that may appeal to backpackers and millennial travelers.
1. Explore by motorbike
Motorcycles reign supreme in Vietnam and are really the best way to get around given the traffic in the city. For tourists who know how to drive one, motorbike rentals are very cheap here (starting at $5 per day) and will give you easy access to exploring the city’s main landmarks like the Reunification Palace, War Remnants Museum, Notre Dame Cathedral and Saigon Post Office.
For those who don’t know how to drive one or may be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of scooters on the road, you can easily hire Uber moto or Grab moto to get around. These can be booked the same way as regular Uber and Grab, with 10-minute rides costing around 10,000 VND. This is an ideal option for solo travelers who’d like to explore on their own instead of availing of packaged tours aboard aircon vans or buses.
2. Go on a street food tour
Vietnamese cuisine is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world, making use mostly of fresh ingredients, herbs and vegetables. Beyond the most poular Vietnamese dishes like phở (a noodle soup), bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette or sandwich), and gỏi cuốn (spring rolls), there’s an amazingly vibrant street food scene in HCMC.
Just walk through Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker’s district or outside popular tourist hub Ben Thanh Market, and you’ll no doubt encounter vendors with bicycle or moto carts selling all sorts of authentic street food. Get your fill of everything from savoury crepes filled with pork and bean sprouts to grilled octopus being hawked by street vendors.
If you’re wary to try street food on your own or want guidance from locals to point out the best eats, tour operator Back of the Bike Tours brings tourists on an organized street food tour around Saigon aboard motorbikes.
3. Cruise along the Mekong River
A classic experience you can’t miss in Vietnam is the Mekong River boat tour. You can take a day trip tour from Ho Chi Minh City and cruise by riverboat through scenic country landscapes to get to learn more about local cottage industries up close.
At Thoi Son Island, you can visit a factory where coconut candy and handicrafts are made from coconut palm. Tourists can also visit a bee-keeping farm to taste natural honey, honey wine and traditional tea paired with local candied delicacies and sample tropical fruits while buying traditional Vietnamese souvenirs.
One of the highlights is getting to ride a sampan or traditional wooden boat which locals use to get around smaller tributaries and canals. All passengers are provided with a non la (traditional conical hats) to wear during the boat ride.
4. Visit the sand dunes
Did you know that there are sand dunes in Vietnam? For those into desert and landscape photography, you can head to the sandy paradise of Mui Ne in Southern Vietnam, roughly four hours away from Ho Chi Minh City.
Mui Ne is a resort town that spans 15 kilometers along Vietnam’s southern coast. There are two sand dunes you can easily access from Mui Ne, namely the Red Sand Dunes and the White Sand Dunes, both of which provide unexpected and surreal desert landscapes.
5. Sample the local brews
With its numerous coffee plantations in the central highlands, Vietnam is known for its rich coffee culture. Budget travelers can head to street stalls where locals drink for their coffee drinking experience. In some rural towns on the outskirts of the city, you can enjoy your coffee in various Ca Phe Vong or Hammock Cafés along the road.
If you’re in the city and looking for a place to cool down from the heat, you can always stop by modern local coffee chains. Trung Nguyen is a pretty cafe with modern interiors that serves Ca Phe Legend Sua No with condensed milk. They also sell specialty coffee beans and ground coffee here.
Aside from coffee, Vietnam is a great destination for those who love a different kind of brew. For beer lovers, Bia Hoi or fresh beer is your introduction to Vietnam’s beer culture. In Pham Ngu Lao Street or the backpacker’s district, the night life is just vibrant, with locals and tourists flocking on the streets along streetside stalls drinking pitchers of the light, watered down beer (suitable for extended drinking sessions).
The craft beer scene is just vibrant, with lots of local breweries to choose from. If you have limited time and want to sample a variety, Ong Cao Craft Beer Saigon in the backpackers district offers local craft beer from different brewers including Pasteur Street Brewing Company, East West Brewing Co., Winking Seal, LAC, Fuzzy Logic, Platinum, Te Te, Phat Rooster and Heart of Darkness Brewery, to name a few.
With almost 40 taps, BiaCraft offers a wide selection for beer fans. Aside from its own brews, this bar carries beers and ciders from craft breweries in Saigon and Hanoi.
Low-cost carrier AirAsia now flies from Manila to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), with flights scheduled three times a week, every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday. For more Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, check out the author’s blog here.