My favorite spots in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I’ve always loved Vietnamese food and coffee. So I don’t know why it took this long for me to visit the country. The similarities between Saigon (as Ho Chi Minh City is still called) and Manila are comforting and familiar. The thin buildings (which remind me of Singapore shophouses), the marathon of motorbikes on the roads, and vendors wearing the traditional non la (conical hats) reminded me that I was not in the Philippines anymore.

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Here are my favorite experiences and places in Ho Chi Minh City that I’d like to share with you. I hope these help in planning your trip there:

1. L’Usine Dhong Koi (157 Đồng Khởi, Bến Nghé, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam, they also have a branch on Le Loi but this is the one I went to)

L’Usine is on the 2nd floor and is accessible through this staircase in this alley. Looks sketchy, but you’ll be rewarded.

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Their food is pretty good, and it’s a great break if you’ve been eating Vietnamese all day. This one is their lamb tenderloin on a turnip gratin, king mushroom and beetroot.

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Beef Flank steak with rocket and and baby tomato salad:

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Call it hipster, or whatever you’d like, but you’ll definitely love what L’Usine sells. They have products that support local artisans so these would be great souvenirs to bring back home.

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Like this bar of chocolate called Marou which sources cacao from a family owned farm in the province of Bà Rịa. It only contains two ingredients: Cacao/cacao butter and cane sugar. So it’s definitely intense and not watered down. What you get is a genuine taste of chocolate (let it melt in your mouth to release the natural tannins and this will reduce the bitterness).

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Isn’t this cool? An Monopoly board game that’s set in 1900s Hanoi.

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You can also just sit back and have a cup of coffee and cupcake before you go out again. saigon_vietnam_Lusine_jarconcengco_05

2. Cục Gạch Quán (10 Đặng Tất, Tân Định, Quận 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam)

This restaurant got blown into the stratosphere when celebrity couple Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt ate here back in 2010. Even if you’re not fans of theirs, you’ll realize that this place is a star of its own. The food is absolutely tasty (even the garlic rice was a winner in its simplicity and flavor). Many describe their food as “grandma’s cooking” (and you know you can’t get more authentic than grandma!) The ambience is also a treat (generous amounts of fresh flowers adorn the rooms). The space is rustic with relics of Vietnamese history.

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Their menu is pretty thick (about 3cm thick!). The server speaks great English and feel free to ask them for recommendations. That’s what we did and we were not disappointed at all.

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The watermelon juice with some honey:

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Coffee, coffee, coffee!

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I’ll be honest in that I forgot the names of these dishes, but only remember how good they were! I wish we had a second trip there to taste more of their dishes.

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This is the garlic rice!! So so good. I know it sounds silly for me to go on and on about a fried rice dish, but it definitely deserves it.

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3. The Alcove Library Hotel (133A Nguyễn Đình Chính, 8, Phú Nhuận, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Hey, the suite costs under US$100. It’ll make you think whether there are strings attached, right? But to my surprise, there weren’t strings. The staff were all friendly and efficient. The place and ambience is dreamy. The rooms are spacious enough. The area it’s in is far from the city center but since it’s so easy to get a cab (and cabs don’t cost that much), it doesn’t really matter.

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Their lobby consists of a wall of books. Hence their name: Alcove Library Hotel.

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Books and quotes about books are everywhere. In our room, we had a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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On the 5th floor is their restaurant called Bookmark (this is where breakfast will be as well). Although were never at the hotel at 5pm-6pm, I read that there was free finger food for happy hour. saigon_vietnam_alcove_library_hotel_jarconcengco_30

You get welcome drinks too! And of course, I had their Vietnamese coffee. So strong and so good!saigon_vietnam_alcove_library_hotel_jarconcengco_31

There’s a terrace where you can dine out in. saigon_vietnam_alcove_library_hotel_jarconcengco_32

Here is their breakfast menu. I stuck to the Eastern Breakfast and had their pho bo twice!saigon_vietnam_alcove_library_hotel_jarconcengco_33

4. Phở Bình (7 Lý Chính Thắng, 8, 3, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam)

When I travel, food usually dictates where I should go. So it was a great opportunity to mix a little bit of history in this place that Time Magazine calls a “Secret Noodle Shop“. This is Phở Bình (literally meaning “Peace Noodles”).

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The pho was delicious and the ingredients were so fresh. This is the Pho Ga (chicken noodle):saigon_vietnam_pho_binh_jarconcengco_35

The beef noodles:

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Once you show interest in some of the framed accolades of the owner and the small restaurant like we did, a relative of the owner will approach you and show you a scrapbook. This is the picture of the restaurant’s owner Ngo Toai (who is now deceased. His son runs the place now, and we saw him briefly stirring the broth in the front of the store). Here starts their story.

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Comrade Ngo Toai used to hold secret meetings on the 2nd floor of restaurant with Vietcong Agents during the Vietnam War. This was the catalyst for the Tet Offensive. saigon_vietnam_pho_binh_jarconcengco_38

Owner of Pho Binh. Ngo Toai:

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A relative of Ngo Toai showed us around and was very kind. He had very limited English but was able to explain a few things. This piece of art was actually how Ngo Toai got arrested. It contained a secret area to slip in a note and that’s how he communicated with other agents.

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Ngo Toai was incarcerated for 10 years and tortured. When he was released, he reopened his restaurant and continued serving his great pho.

It was a great experience to be so close to history.

 

5. The Saigon River

We got to experience the Saigon River in two ways.

Saigon Lovers of Triip:

Kim, Ymy, and Tho of Saigon Lovers all spoke English well and had many insights about the city and the landmarks so it was really interesting to visit sites with them such as the Sagion Notre-Dame Basilica and the Central Post Office. After touring us around the city, the delightful group took us on a nice drive towards a more quiet area of the city to enjoy the sunset and have dinner by the river at 5Ku Farm.

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All crops and livestock are organically grown here and is what they serve for their guests.

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We had this grilled chicken about 45 minutes after this photo.saigon_vietnam_5ku_farm_jarconcengco_46

We had dinner on that boat with a hut roof and had an unobstructed view of the Saigon River. saigon_vietnam_5ku_farm_jarconcengco_47

They did not provide us glasses. Instead they handed us bowls and placed large pieces of ice in them. We were to pour our beverages in the bowls and drink from them. Never did that before! Oh, and while in Saigon, definitely try their Bia.

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It really was such a nice evening. The slow sunset and the authentic, rustic food and the conversations about our cultures is definitely what I’ll remember.

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Les Rives Experience

Les Rives is a luxury speedboat tour down the Saigon River. They have several types of tours and since we had kids with us, they suggested we take the Cần Giờ Forest tour. They have an expert on board who speaks great English and knows about the ecosystem of the river and forest. They also figured everything out and have unlimited refreshments on board (water, iced tea, iced coffee, banh mi sandwiches and local fruits) throughout the whole tour.

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Part of the tour takes a stop by a market by the river where you will see vendors selling all types of vegetables and goods. Prices here are way lower than in the city. Don’t worry, Les Rives will buy some of the fruits for you to try later on the boat like the jackfruit, java apple (macopa), or the rambutan.

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Then we took a trip to the mangrove forests to look for bats sleeping among the trees. Les Rives will have binoculars for you to have a closer look.

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After having a Vietnamese lunch, we then learned a little about a tribe of wild monkeys which chased us while we were on a small tram.

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This one even had a little baby hugging her.

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Then we got on a raft, and set out on one the swamps and fed crocodiles. This must be the closest encounter we’ve ever had with crocodiles!

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It was a very educational experience with all of the adrenaline. But our guide was so knowledgable that you felt safe throughout the whole experience. Les Rives was definitely a highlight of our trip.

6. The Refinery (74 Hai Ba Trung Q.1, Saigon, Vietnam)

The Refinery used to be a factory of opium and was called La Manufacture D’Opium. Now the place is carved out as a restaurant with historic photos on the walls and little emblems referencing its history.

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This is their Grilled Salmon with Roasted Eggplant, Crispy Risotto Ball and Pesto Sour Cream:saigon_vietnam_the_refinery_jarconcengco_63

Traditional “Steak Frites” – Prime 250g Rib-eye with French Fries & Pepper Sauce:saigon_vietnam_the_refinery_jarconcengco_64

Opium poppies. In 1914, opium manufacturing became such a huge part of Saigon’s economy (about 37% of it).

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The gate and entrance is still the original as it was about a hundred years ago. Notice the opium poppies carved out on top of the gate:

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This is also their original logo (with an M and an O for La Manufacture d’Opium) on their wrought iron gate at the front:

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7. House Of Saigon (16-18-20 Thu Khoa Huan Street District 1 Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam)

A walking distance away Ben Thanh Market, you can take a quieter and less sticky shopping experience here at House of Saigon. They sold a lot of local craft (I picked up a quilt for the house and my wife picked up a beautiful dress made in Vietnam). I went straight to their 3rd floor where they had a cafe while the rest browsed the rest of the goods downstairs.

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8. Tiger Tours

You can’t leave Vietnam without taking it to the streets on their most popular mode of transportation: the motorbike. It’s just absolutely thrilling. And surprisingly, not that scary. Your guide and driver will be an English speaking female. Why female? Loan Tran, owner of Tiger Tours says:

“First, I think Vietnamese women are very strong. They put 100% in taking care of their family, children and work… Second, their career path is very narrow with little opportunities. They deserved social recognition for all the efforts and contributions they gave to their community.”

We took the twilight tour which brought us to taste some street food and down the flower market at night time.

 

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This roll was so good! All food comes with the tour package. saigon_vietnam_tiger_tours_jarconcengco_76

We visited the Flower Market during the tour. Flowers are extremely cheap here. This bundle of long stem roses (I’m guessing they are about two dozen) cost only about $3! And they’re so fresh and beautiful.

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I asked Jenny (my guide) how many times she’s been into an accident, she said she’s never been in one. It was my first time to ever ride a motorcycle in my adult life so I wasn’t really sure how it would go. This was definitely an authentic experience while in Saigon and I would highly recommend Tiger Tours for being so fun and easy to deal with.

Here’s a video of our trip:

All photographs by jar concengco.

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Comments
3 Responses to “My favorite spots in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam”
  1. Kuya Erdie says:

    Beautiful shots. Thanks for sharing. Do you offer photo workshop? If you do, I would really like to join.

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  1. […] article and photos of our recent Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam trip was published in Metro Home & Entertaining Magazine. So happy to see some of my travel photos […]



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