Travel tips and advice for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: The three-minute guide

WHY

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), on the banks of the Saigon River, is Vietnam's most populous and one of south-east Asia's fastest-growing cities. It was a Khmer fishing village before becoming a Vietnamese administrative centre, and later becoming the French colonial capital of Cochinchina, then the capital of the Republic of Vietnam. When Saigon fell to the communist north in the mid-1970s they changed its name to honour their late revolutionary leader and the capital baton was passed to Hanoi. Today, much of this history can be found in the architecture, food and people of an energetic city that much prefers to move forward than look back. And, like the weather, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) locals are generally very warm.

VISIT

Saigon's an early riser with school kicking off at 7am and many places of interest to visitors – Ben Thanh market, Reunification or Independence Palace, the Central Post Office and the War Remnants Museum  – opening at around that time, too. After the museum, which nothing can prepare you for, take a break from the crazy world we live in at the Old Compass Cafe, a few blocks away down the narrowest of alleys off Pasteur Street and up a few flights of steps. See baotangchungtichchientranh.vn   dinhdoclap.gov.vn facebook.com/oldcompasscafe

EAT

HCMC locals don't typically eat noodles for breakfast like people further north do but prefer to fill up for the busy day ahead on more substantial dishes such as banh cuon – steamed rice batter with pork, mushroom and shallot stuffing. They're also very into caffeine and will be openly appreciative if you order Vietnamese coffee, which is served with condensed milk. At lunchtime have a bowl of pho – broth with rice noodles, meat and herbs – or a freshly filled banh mi, meaning bread or baguette. For delicious twists on local dishes in a contemporary street-food-themed restaurant try Di Mai for dinner one night. See nhahangdimai.com

SLEEP 

Asian Ruby Select in District 1 is a great value-for-money three-star hotel with large, comfortable beds, spacious bathrooms and lovely staff. Breakfast might not be worth writing home about but there are alternatives right outside the door. See asianrubyselecthotel.com 

LOOK  

Get out of the city for a day to see the Cu Chi tunnels and tour the Mekong Delta by powered and paddled long boat, on foot, by bicycle or on a scooter. Sleep off lunch, southern Vietnamese style, in a hammock before returning to the big smoke. See diadaocuchi.com.vn

MUST

When Ben Thanh market closes down at around 7pm, a night market pops up right outside. Find the barbecue, wait for things to get cooking then order chilli snapper with morning glory. Or banh xeo, which is crispy pancake with turmeric, for a super tasty vegetarian option. 

TIP

There's no waiting for a break in Saigon traffic, just a gap in the bus and truck and car traffic followed by fortitudinous negotiation of a river of scooters. Always cross at a steady pace. If you're travelling in a small group then form a straight line parallel with the curb and maintain that line all the way to the other side. No stopping. No stragglers. No toots.

Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Webjet Exclusives.

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