Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon) is a hectic and energetic city. Hordes of motorbikes cover the streets, buzzing by like bees, their drivers all fueled by cà phê sữa đá (strong coffee with condensed milk).
The estimated 8.6 million population just doesn’t seem like a big enough number some days. The streets are never empty. Bars and restaurants are always open and there are tiny alleyways you’ve passed every day but never noticed until now.
The city feels alive at any minute of the day, especially in District 1.
HCMC is divided into 24 districts but the ones you’ll hear the most about are probably District 1, 2, 3, 7 and Bin Thanh. This doesn’t mean the others aren’t worthy, it just means those 5 are the ones you’ll most likely live in and find the most job and housing opportunities. The most common job for an foreigner in Vietnam is as an English teacher.
After a year of chaotic fun living in Ho Chi Minh, we moved to Da Nang to enjoy a relatively quieter beach lifestyle.
A Breakdown of Ho Chi Minh City's Best Districts
District 1 is the heart of the city
A lot of businesses and “tourist must-do’s” are here.
There is also a lively night scene in D1 but it’s definitely catered to the wild partier. Score some free drinks at the glamorous rooftop bar SkyXX on Tuesday for Ladies Night or don't go home until sunrise hitting the late night spots Lighthouse, Observatory and Broma.
There's plenty of chill rooftops bars and hidden speakeasy's too. One of my favorites for a good drinks and live music is The Alley Cocktail Bar. Stroll down the alleys at night and you'll be sure to find your new favorite. If you're more of a beer person though like I am, there are plenty of great craft breweries in D1 you won't want to miss.
Lastly, as any HCMC blog will tell you, brace yourself for a loud and crazy night on Bui Vien Walking Street.
Don't miss out on these 10 must-have experiences while in Saigon!
District 3 is D1's quieter neighbor
District 3 shares a “border” with D1 and is very similar, just a little quieter in it’s social scene.
I use to work in D3 and while there is a lot going on, I didn’t spend much time here outside of work hours. Although, C.On Global Food Factory is a cute spot to grab a refreshing coconut coffee or a cheap Asian style lunch (I recommend the pad thai). I enjoy relaxing lunch breaks here with my book.
Binh Thanh District is huge
The apartments and facilities here are on the luxurious side, if that's what you're looking for. This area has an open green space along the river, a brand-new mall (with ice skating rink!) and a big variety of food and drinks. At the bottom floor of the mall is a food court with a variety of Asian delicacies. So you know, the mall has Lamborghini and Bentley dealerships so prices aren’t typical for Vietnam.
District 7 is the new haven for expats
The district itself is on the outskirts of the city center and is newer in construction.
The streets are wider, buildings are gleaming and is typically much quieter than the rest of the city. D7 hosts a small weekend market above Boomerang Bistro that’s worth checking out if you’re a shopper like me and enjoy checking out local products.
District 2 (Thao Dien) is the expat neighborhood
It’s tree lined streets overflowing with cafes, restaurants, co-working spaces and shops are definitely aesthetically pleasing.
Most people who have recently moved to the city chose one of the high-rise apartment complexes in the area, with the Masteri as the most popular. Thao Dien is famed for is “neighborhood” vibes while still being close to the city center. People from all over the world live here, meaning you can easily get international cuisine and groceries.
One of my favorite international restaurants is Benaras Gardenia. Enjoy some delicious Indian food in a lovely space and on the weekends get treated with live shows and music.
A weekend in Thao Dien isn’t complete without brunch. There are a number of restaurants with good ones but Vintage Emporium and The Loop are must tries. For local food, try Bep Vo Kitchen, An Cafe, Hue Corner and Quan Bui Garden.
Since it’s catered to foreigners, it’s typically considered one of the more expensive neighborhoods.
Tips to settling into life in Ho Chi Minh City
1. Let a realtor do the work for you
Finding an apartment in Vietnam is impossibly easy. You can effortlessly find Facebook groups to rent apartments and houses. Check the group I linked to get a good idea of prices and standard of living. If you comment on a post, be ready to have a ton of realtors PM you asking if they can find you your dream home.
We used the agency Honeycomb and they were beyond helpful, even after we moved in. There's no additional cost for you to use a realtor, so why not let them do the heavy lifting? Our agent was more than patient with us as we vetoed most options she sent us. Sorry, Amy!
2.Get ready for endless motorbikes
Once housing is settled, you'll need to get around. The streets (and sidewalks) here can be full of traffic going in whichever direction the driver pleases.
I’d recommend using the apps Grab, GoViet or Bee (Viet versions of Uber/Lyft) and chose the motorbike option. The rides are cheap and it’s a great way to get use to the driving etiquettes- let’s be honest, you just do what you want- before you start driving for yourself.
When you’re ready, it’s easy to rent a bike for a day, week or extended period of time. You can also buy a bike for cheap (mine cost about $300 USD) just make sure it comes with a blue registration card and you test drive it before you hand any cash over. Take some time driving in quiet streets (Thao Dien or D7 are great) before going for it in D1, D3 or the highway.
Keep in mind monsoon season is from May to November, more or less. It usually pours in the afternoon each day so try not to schedule your first time on the bike in heavy rain and flooding. The rest of the year is hot and dry.
Speaking of, rainy season can be a daunting if you're a newcomer to the city. Don't worry though, there's still plenty to keep you entertained and dry! Check out these 11 fun things to do in Ho Chi Minh during rainy season.
3. Don't be scared to get lost
There are high end rooftop bars and clubs all boasting a ladies night on a different day of the week, chill bars and craft beer breweries and endless amounts of cafes serving up local coffee and sweet treats.
Walking down any given street you’ll find a stand serving up Pho on the sidewalk, an international restaurant from any given spot of the world and always someone on the corner selling a variety of fruits with spicy salt.
The best way to see the city is by foot or bike, without a set destination
Explore alleys you've never been down, taste street food from push carts and enjoy a coffee on a tiny little stool on the sidewalk.
Vietnam also boasts cheap, quick flights for you to easily explore the rest of the country, not just Saigon. Enjoy a weekend in Hanoi, a beach getaway to Phu Quoc or explore the endless rivers in the Mekong Delta.
4. Try all the coffee
Get your taste buds ready for Vietnamese coffee! They have more varieties here than I ever thought possible.
Coffee with condensed milk, orange juice, salt or coconut are all the norm and absolutely delicious.
No matter how long you stay here I guarantee you'll continue to find flavors that surprise you. The coffee is also a lot stronger than anything I've had before so drink it slowly, sometimes it hits me like jet fuel!
5. Don't shy away from street food
One can't move to Vietnam and forget about the delicious food! Ho Chi Minh is home to expats from around the world so there's no lack of international cuisine but that doesn't mean you should look past the local dishes.
6. Join the Female only Facebook group
For extra tips and a safe space to meet people and ask questions, join the Facebook page Fexpats Ho Chi Minh. Just by using the search function you can get most, if not all, of your questions answered and if not, ask away!
The females in Saigon are helpful, open-minded and willing to help out a newcomer to the city!
It’s really a city of contradictions that somehow all melds into one truly unique spot.
I'll be honest, I was a bit anxious to see how the locals would treat me. As an American, I know the first thing that pops into our heads, consciously or not, when we hear Vietnam and I assumed it'd be the same for them.
Upon arriving I forgot about those worries. People smile at you in the streets, taxi drivers try to impress you with their best English and the only looks I received were curious ones. The War Remnants Museum is a heavy, emotional place but I'd recommend you go. It gave me extra respect for these people who can live with such a devastating recent past and still welcome me, and other Americans, with open arms.
I thoroughly enjoyed my year in this city and can't believe it's come to an end. Although I loved it dearly, the beach was calling my name in Da Nang, Vietnam. Follow along on my journey and check on older posts to get some more detailed tips for Saigon!