Our annual New Year's Eve trip was to Cambodia, but we decided to start in Vietnam and take a slow boat there; literally. More on that later.
I then had an unexpected 7-hour layover due to fog conditions at the Incheon airport. I met up with Forest and Thibault briefly before their flight to HCMC departed. We were supposed to meet our friend James in the airport too but he had not realized the need for a visa to travel to Vietnam and was refused check-in. It's a 3-day process to get a visa so he wouldn't end up meeting us until the 26th. I had used this site to get mine and just printed it off without a problem.
I finally landed in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly referred to as Saigon (and also now what the Vietnamese millennials tend to call it). On the advice of our Airbnb, I prepaid a taxi thru Song Viet into town. They have a desk right as you exit baggage claim and it cost me about $12.
As soon as I was in my taxi I looked at my phone and for the first time in many, many trips saw that I had zero service.
1. Be ready to be unplugged or get a SIM card.
I’ve been to a lot of places on my unlimited data plan and honestly I can’t remember the last time I had no service. And it wasn’t just me. My friends from France and England had no service either. This meant that once we left our wifi enabled Airbnb we had no access to Google, Maps, or even text! ZERO! We learned quickly not to leave home without a paper (!!!) map and a plan, as well as a meeting point if we got separated. But even then, things happen when you are in a foreign country, and sometimes the place you planned to meet at is closed for holiday. Sorry, can’t text your friends and make a new plan. Must instead wait until everyone arrives and then regroup.
Buy a local chip. You will thank me.
2. Download Grab.
It’s HCMC’s version of Uber. Since we don't speak Vietnamese, being able to type in our destination address made it much easier for both the driver and for us. The only challenge was that if we were out and about, we needed to find a spot with wifi to call Grab. Not having to dig around for cash was great too. The one time we caught a taxi on the street we asked if he took Visa as there was a logo on his car and he said yes. But when we went to pay he said no. This led to a pretty heated argument as we didn't have enough money and there weren't any cash machines around.
Be forewarned that if you are solo you may get a motorbike ride share!
3. Get a massage.
Southeast Asia is a spa girl’s dream. And I’m not talking about the happy ending kind, although those are to be found if that is your thing. Forest, Caitlin, and I had a massage pretty much every day.
The first day we went to the backpacker district and checked out a cheap and cheerful option at Hoang Thy Spa. For $7 we had a 60 minute full body massage. Granted, it was in a bare bones communal room, but these girls gave us the full treatment, including walking on our backs! We all ended up having manicures too.
The next day James joined us and we checked out My Spa in District 1. This was much more posh and traditional, with robes, slippers, and heavy draped partitions between clients. And the massage was good and included hot rocks. But at $7 more (LOL) we decided to head back to our backpackers special the next day. This time we added in a hair wash with blow out. We are super fancy like that.
Spa/salons are the only place where tipping is customary and you should plan on leaving 20%.
(Nov 2018 update from a friend who is living there: Just one note on the tipping - everything I’ve heard from the locals is that if there’s a tip, it should be roughly the cost of a coffee or 25,000vnd, which is essentially $1. That goes for massages and manicures, too.)
I know that scares a lot of people but the street food and literal hole in the walls served us much better food than the restaurants we went to. On our first day we had an absolutely fantastic lunch at Banh Xeo 46A (also the address). The women in the open-air kitchen had large woks, smoking hot over coal fueled burners. We ordered the “special” banh xeo (pork and de-shelled shrimp), egg rolls, some noodles, and a couple rounds of beers. All for about $5 per person. The Vietnamese crepes were huge and absolutely delicious. Highly recommend.
One night while in District 8, randomly trying to track down a Christmas light display, we walked past a little entry way that smelled amazing. There was a man with a portable gas stove cooking… well we didn’t know what it was but everyone sitting in the open room was eating it so we ordered. Turned out to be bot chien, a dish of fried rice flour cakes topped with fried egg, some scallions, crushed peanuts, and a bit of crispy pork. Delicious!
Across from our spa in the backpacker’s district, the girls and I enjoyed an awesome breakfast of bo ne, or pan fried steak and eggs, served with a smear of pate and a baguette. We dug in, from our tiny plastic stools just out of the way of the street, twice in four days.
Street food carts are all over the city and I rarely really knew what they were selling. But sometimes it is fun just to buy, taste, and find out for yourself if you like it or not. Worse case scenario is you spend a few baht and toss whatever it is out.
5. Drink cocktails
Saigon is certainly not known for having a big cocktail scene but we found some really good lounges. And a few mediocre ones.
At Eon Heli Bar, on the 51st floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, you will absolutely have the best views of the city. The drinks however are basic at best. So go for sunset and maybe just get a glass of wine.
Quite the opposite is Snuff Box, a speakeasy hidden in an old crumbling building in District 1. Once we found the entrance door we were all surprised at how pretty it was inside.
Not as hard to find was Alley Cocktail Bar, which also had a great Happy Hour! We had more than a few rounds of excellent drinks and also some good snacks. This is absolutely one of my top cocktails picks in HCMC. It's also non-smoking!
Our bartender at Alley had given us a short list of his favorite bars, so the next night we checked out The Gin House. As the name alludes, the menu is full of delicious drinks made primarily with gin and interesting gin infusions. Another spot I would recommend!
The Racha Room is pretty well known around town, and we made a stop one evening. It's actually a restaurant first, which we weren't aware of, and the night we were there the bar was packed. It was good but nothing out of the ordinary, I'd go back and try the food though.
Just next door we found the wooden door signalling the brand new speakeasy Firkin. Once up the stairs we found the small whiskey den, with approx. 500 bottles, to be excellent! Great selection, drinks, and service. A must stop!
The manager at Firkin nicely took us over to Layla for a nightcap. It's another bar where you have to first make your way through the exterior staircase of an old colonial building before entering a modern, cool space.
All HCMC photos here.
Other posts from this trip:
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two
Cruising the Mekong River
Sailing Away; Vietnam to Cambodia
Ringing in 2018 Phnom Penh Style
Wat a First Day
Temples Take Two
Stationed in Siem Reap