In the last few years, as Ho Chi Minh City has grown and evolved, there is no doubt that some of its culture has been lost along the way. Where generation-old Pho shops once sat, Western fast food joints now loom large. Colorful facades of store fronts and homes have given way to towering skyscrapers. The transition has been both natural and forced—the government has established grand long-term plans for the look and feel of the city. However, unbeknownst to many tourists, there is more to Ho Chi Minh City than the downtown area. If you take a short ride to neighboring Binh Thanh, you’ll get the best of both worlds—the opportunity to witness incredible change, while being able to immerse yourself in the vibrant culture of old Saigon.
Pick an alley, any alley. Bisected by a few large highways, Binh Thanh is a district of narrow zig-zagging alleyways just waiting to be explored. Cross any of the bridges from District 1, and you’ll soon find yourself face to face with a much more real, authentic Vietnam. To understand what brings this city to life, meander deeper and deeper into the intricate nests of Binh Thanh’s neighborhoods. From screaming children to cockfights and home brewed beer, these labyrinths are full of activity.
Just around the corner from a Soviet-era apartment block, Thi Nghe Market gets up early and stays up late. With fish, poultry, and meat in the back, and spices, clothes, and plastic goods in the front, Thi Nghe Market has it all. This one-story shopping center is a refreshing alternative to the tourist-riddled Ben Thanh market in District 1. The smaller size provides a much more intimate feel, and the hands off vibe is a friendly reminder that this is one market geared toward locals.
Phan Văn Hân is a foodies’ delight. With dozens of competing carts—and the aromas to match—it offers some of the best street food in Ho Chi Minh City. From crispy Bột chiên to mouthwatering Mì Quảng, you could easily spend an afternoon sampling the dishes on this half-mile stretch. Head over the bridge from the Saigon Zoo, and turn left on Phan Văn Hân to enjoy incredible local cuisine.
As Ho Cho Minh has blossomed into a global metropolis, there’s been a growing need to fill the void of Western sport. The Him Lam Golf Driving Range, located just outside District 1, has done just this. With three floors to tee off from and spectacular views of the downtown skyline, this is a great way to spend the afternoon and watch the sun melt behind the endless sea of Saigon’s cranes.
Take an afternoon and embrace the tourist in you by visiting Van Thanh Park. This patch of shade and green amidst a sprawling field of concrete offers a much needed reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh. With tennis courts, a restaurant overlooking the water, plenty of green, and a pool to ditch the midday heat, spending a few hours at Van Thanh Park is a great way to kick back and relax.
Yes, nature. Feeling overwhelmed by the madness? If the pool won’t cure you, Binh Thanh’s got one more secret calling your name. An oasis of vegetation, Thanh Da Island (technically a peninsula) juts out from the north side of Binh Thanh into the Saigon River. While it’s only 10 kilometers from the city center, the rice paddies and fishing ponds make this destination seem worlds away.
Connecting Binh Thanh and the undeveloped portion of District 2, Thủ Thiêm Bridge offers unparalleled views of downtown Saigon. Take a right off Nguyen Huu Cahn, just past the driving range, and find a spot along the railing to watch the light show in the sky.