Welcome to one of Asia's most compelling cities. Ho Chi Minh City is the energetic commercial hub of modern Vietnam, with wide boulevards, grand colonial buildings, fascinating cultural sights, and a vibrant tangle of narrow laneways – all framed by a kinetic river of traffic.
From noodle breakfasts to temple visits, art tours and cocktails with a view, here’s how to make the most of two days in former Saigon.
Pull up a stool at Ben Thanh market for a hearty breakfast of herb-laden pho (noodle soup) and ca phe sua da (iced coffee with milk). From Ben Thanh's iconic clock tower, it's a short stroll to Ho Chi Minh City's Fine Arts Museum, a building displaying the elegant architecture of French colonial times. Conduct your own exploration of the galleries, which showcase centuries-old statuary and contemporary art inspired by the tragedy of war. Or visit with expat Sophie Hughes, who runs in-depth four-hour tours of the city's art scene. From the heritage of the Fine Arts Museum, continue to the soaring modernity of the 68-storey Bitexco Financial Tower. Ascend to the 48th-floor Saigon Skydeck for views of the impetuous growth of Vietnam's economic capital. From the tower, make your way north along the Saigon River to the 3A Alternative Art Area. Crammed with cafes, galleries and retailers, the hip laneways are also punctuated with colourful street art. Cool down with a Tra Mojito (iced lemon and mint tea) at the Plantrip Cha teahouse.
Continue along bustling Ly Tu Trong to Ho Chi Minh City's commercial hub and have lunch at the Secret Garden – negotiate your way down an alley and up six flights of rickety stairs to this outdoor restaurant atop an art deco apartment building. A few chickens peck away happily in the restaurant's rooftop herb garden, views extend across the city, and the home-style Vietnamese food is rustic and full of flavour. The fresh sodas are excellent – try the zingy ginger and lemongrass. After lunch, walk about 350m to the colonial red-brick elegance of Notre Dame Cathedral. Across from the cathedral, check out the interior of Ho Chi Minh City's glorious Central Post Office, which was built between 1886 and 1891. Highlights of the Gustave Eiffel–designed building include wall-covering historic maps of the city. Then continue across 30/4 Park to the nearby Reunification Palace, which is accessed by walking through iron gates that were cast aside by Communist tanks when the city fell to the North Vietnamese Army on 30 April 1975. Four decades on, the building's 1960s architecture and memory-packed halls make for one of the city's most intriguing attractions. Don't miss the basement, a labyrinth of tunnels filled with maps, situation rooms and 1960s telecommunications gear.
It's now time for someone else to do the work, so jump on the back of a motorbike or scooter on a tour to explore the city after dark – coursing through the neon-lit excitement of Saigon's evening traffic could be the most fun you'll ever have on two wheels. Both Vespa Adventure and XO Tours incorporate lots of street food into their nightly adventures. A highlight is grilled seafood and ice-cold 333 beer in the District 2 neighbourhood; your two-wheeled discovery of the city could also include raucous rock clubs or bohemian music cafes. For a final nightcap, adjourn to one of the city's exciting rooftop bars. Check out the 21st-century innovation of Air 360, or the river views from the M Bar at Hotel Majestic.
In previous centuries, the bustling Chinese quarter of Cholon was a separate settlement, but the district southwest of central HCMC is now an integral part of the city’s modern sprawl. Begin your second day by having another local breakfast, this time with the friendly stallholders at Cholon's Binh Tay market, before negotiating the surrounding urban maze. Streets are fragrant with medicinal herbs, storefronts are festooned with Chinese-language signs, and Taoist and Buddhist temples stand near 19th-century Catholic churches. Explore almost five centuries of Cholon history and architecture on a Heritage Tour with long-term city resident Tim Doling, or create your own walking trail to discover the most interesting of the area's many temples. Slowly burning coils of fragrant incense frame Thien Hau Pagoda, dedicated to the Chinese goddess of seafarers; and nearby at Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda a riot of red, gold, green and yellow creates one of the city's most beautiful and ornate temples.
Lunch back in central Saigon at Propaganda bistro – overlooking 30/4 Park and serving regional dishes from across the country – then continue about 1km west to the War Remnants Museum. The human tragedy of the decades of conflict that racked Vietnam in the 20th century is rendered in poignant and often confronting detail here, but visiting this museum is essential. Be sure to venture upstairs to see the Requiem Exhibition, a striking showcase of images taken by legendary war photographers killed in the conflict, and see if your country is represented in the ground-floor collection of posters and photographs supporting the antiwar movement. After visiting this compelling museum, continue to the city's lush Botanic Gardens for some quiet reflection.
Begin with craft beer at the Pasteur Street Brewing Company – some of their brews use local ingredients such as Dalat coffee or rambutan and lemongrass – before trying the classy southeast Asian flavours at restaurant and bar The Racha Room. For a more raffish experience, crowd in with locals at the quirky and loads-of-fun Quan Ut Ut. With a name roughly translating to 'Oink Oink Cafe', this easygoing riverside eatery serves up slow-cooked American barbecue with a Vietnamese spin. From the energetic good times of Quan Ut Ut, it's just a short hop across the river to District 4 and two of the city's best after-dark venues. Cargo plays host to live music from around the region; while nearby at The Observatory, DJs and other performers raise the roof on a regular basis.