Lake is a bit of a stretch for this landmark – pond would be more appropriate. At night, hundreds of people hang out on the strange cement structure, which is meant to be a fabled sword jabbing into the back of a turtle. This is a great spot for people-watching and street food.
Even if lewd businesses and rowdy backpackers aren’t your scene, Bùi Viện provides some of the weirdest sights you’ll find in this city. The people running this street won’t be happy if you try to sit anywhere for free, but the sidewalk is always available. Be careful with your belongings, though. This area is petty crime central.
This is a must see in the city. It really is an impressive building, and with the colossal trees in the adjoining park, you do feel a sense of old world charm. The inside of the church is not all that impressive, so don’t worry if it’s closed.
Getting into the compound isn’t free, but you can still take some nice pictures through the front gate. For history buffs, this is the exact gate that came crashing down when a tank rumbled through it during the Fall of Saigon.
In the small park on Phạm Ngũ Lão, where all the coach buses drop off tourists, there are usually groups of young people playing đá cầu – also known as foot badminton. The birdie has feathers and a weight, but it doesn’t hurt your foot at all. The point is to keep the birdie in the air with creative kicks. It’s a bit difficult at first, but it sure feels good when you land a solid hit.
We see this all the time: Tourists who are looking to get away from Bùi Viện Street will turn down Đề Thám and try to find the real Ho Chi Minh City. Then they come to the corner with Trần Hưng Đạo and just stop. After a few seconds of weighing their options, they turn around and head back to Bùi Viện. Don’t stop, though. Keep walking. It doesn’t look like much at first, but you will come to neat area that really isn’t touristy at all.
At night, Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street is alive with crowds out enjoying the cool evening air. There’s intriguing architecture, street artists and enough people-watching to keep you happy for hours. Don’t bother in the middle of the day, though. It’s too hot and nobody’s there.
To see what a real Saigon backstreet looks like, we recommend you make your way to Võ Duy Ninh Street in Bình Thạnh District. The street is narrow, crowded and lined with shops selling food and all kinds of weird things. It’s a good walk from the touristy areas in District 1, though, so you might want to consider taking a taxi.
Little Tokyo is loaded with seedy massage places and little backalley haunts. This neighborhood has a distinct vibe, and if you’re a night owl type, then there’s plenty to keep you entertained. You might get a sense of criminality, but it’s actually safe.
Hiding in the shadow of the Bitexco Tower, Tôn Thất Đạm Street is a lively little market that seems like a holdout from a different Saigon, lined with stalls selling every kind of Vietnamese fruit and vegetable. This street is as dingy as it is colorful, and we love it.
We recommend you start at the Trần Hưng Đạo statue near the Bach Dang Pier and make your way south. To be honest, the river and the far bank are nothing special, but the cool breeze and the buildings of downtown Saigon sure are. There’s the Majestic, which was featured in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955), as well as the Colonial City Hall down at the end of Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street. The flagpole is the same one the French used to signal ships on the river well over a hundred years ago.
If you haven’t had your fill of walking, then check out one of the free walking tours offered by university students and non-profits. A quick search online and you’ll find numerous such tours. The guides are usually university students looking to practice their English.